On Saturday 9th February, I went to the Proact Stadium to watch Chesterfield play bottom placed AFC Wimbledon in League 2.
Of all the clubs in the football league, AFC Wimbledon have the most remarkable story. They formed in 2002 after the original Wimbledon FC was relocated to Milton Keynes. Amazingly, five promotions in just nine seasons saw AFC Wimbledon move from the Combined Counties League to League 2, where they successfully stayed up in their first season.
However, the 2012-13 campaign has been a struggle for the Wombles so far and they found themselves rooted to the foot of the league table ahead of their first ever visit to the Proact Stadium. No wins in their last four games, culminating in a 3-0 defeat to high flying Port Vale in mid-week, meant that Wimbledon were in desperate need of a victory in this game if they wanted to start climbing away from the drop zone.
This was also a very important game for the hosts, Chesterfield, who sat in 11th position coming in to the game and were still in with a shout of the play offs if they could hit a good run of form. The Spireites had picked up just a single victory in 2013 so far and Paul Cook’s side knew that they couldn’t afford to drop points to the team placed 92nd in the football league.
We arrived at the ground just as the visitors team coach pulled up and I met manager Neal Ardley, who made 245 appearances for the original Wimbledon and took charge of the new club in October 2012. Ardley made a bit of history earlier in the season by taking charge of the Wombles in their first ever meeting with MK Dons, a game which they lost 2-1 to a stoppage time goal. Prior to kick off, I also had pictures with Wimbledon’s Neil Sullivan, Jack Midson, Pim Balkestein and Rashid Yussuff.
Both managers made a few changes to their line ups from the previous game. After a 1-1 draw at Rochdale last week, Paul Cook made two alterations to the Chesterfield team with Mark Randall and Drew Talbot replacing Craig Clay and the injured Tendayi Darikwa. For Wimbledon, Ardley made four changes after a 3-0 loss to Port Vale on Tuesday night. Jonathon Meades, Stacy Long, Jack Midson and Luke Moore took the places of Pim Balkestein, Sammy Moore, Rashid Yussuff and Toby Ajala.
The opening 45 minutes were far from enthralling and there was very little for either set of supporters to get excited about.
The home side had the ball in the net early on when Sam Togwell’s header crashed off the crossbar before the rebound was tapped home by Danny Whitaker, but the linesman’s flag was already up and so the game remained goalless.
Just over 20 minutes in to the game, lone striker Marc Richards picked up a knock and was replaced by Jack Lester. The veteran forward has become a legend at Chesterfield FC and rumours of his unrest due to lack of playing time in recent weeks has caused anger amongst some supporters, a feeling that hasn’t been helped by the rumoured interest from rivals Rotherham United. This was the perfect opportunity for Lester to prove to the manager that he can still be a vital part of the side even at 37 years old.
The best chance of a dismal first half came for Wimbledon when the ball fell to Gary Alexander in front of goal, but pressure from Liam Cooper meant the new signing could only send his effort harmlessly over the crossbar.
Something had to change and both managers clearly recognised this as they each made changes at the break. AFC Wimbledon saw a simple change of personnel as Jack Midson was replaced by Toby Ajala, while Cook decided to change from a 4-5-1 to a 4-4-2 formation for the Spireites, bringing on striker Armand Gnanduillet to replace Mark Randall.
This proved to be an excellent decision by the manager as just before the hour mark the Spireites broke the deadlock, courtesy of a goal from the half time substitute. A neat one-two between Whitaker and Nathan Smith left the midfielder with plenty of space and his low cross met Gnanduillet, whose first time strike left Sullivan with no chance. It was the Ivorian’s first goal in English football and he enjoyed the moment with a very enthusiastic celebration. As one fan said after the game, it looked like he had scored the winning goal in a cup final!
Fellow sub Jack Lester went in search of a goal and he came close when he twisted and turned on the edge of the area before firing a deflected strike which clipped off the top of the crossbar.
By this point it was all Chesterfield as they looked to put the game beyond doubt. Drew Talbot came close to doing just that when he sent a powerful first time strike goal wards, only to be denied by a fantastic diving save from Neil Sullivan.
With 7 minutes to play, the Spireites finally sealed the victory as the Ivorian turned from scorer to provider. The 6ft4 striker charged into the area before playing a simple ball to the unmarked Lester, who fired the ball in to the bottom corner to make it 2-0.
Wimbledon came close to pulling a goal back in the dying moments but a weak effort was comfortably held by the goalkeeper and the game ended 2-0 to the hosts.
It was a deserved victory for Chesterfield, with the introduction of Gnanduillet and change of formation at half time proving the difference between the two sides on the day.
The result saw Chesterfield move up a place to 10th in the League 2 table while AFC Wimbledon remain in 24th position. Next up for the Spireites is their first ever trip to the New York Stadium for the derby game against Rotherham United. Chesterfield are now just four points from the play offs and so victory in the game against the Millers would put them in with a real chance of breaking in to the top seven before the end of the season.
Chesterfield 2–0 AFC Wimbledon
Gnanduillet ’59, Lester ’83Lee, Smith, Trotman, Hird, Cooper, Togwell, Whitaker (Brindley ’90), Randall (Gnanduillet ’46), Talbot, O’Shea, Richards (Lester ’21) Sullivan, Mitchel-King, Fenlon, Meades, Bennett, Hussey, Long (McCallum ’69), Sweeney (S Moore ’79), Midson (Ajala ’46), L Moore, Alexander Attendance: 5,235