That could well be the hardest-fought three points of the season, as the Lads recovered from a one goal deficit and a physical battering from Uncle Bulgaria and company on our first visit to Kingston on Thames. Two second-half strikes from Catts (yup, not a misprint) did the business and sent the visiting fans home happy. Very happy. Very, very happy.
The usual early start saw us make good progress - until we got to Luton, where the Bank Holiday traffic ground to a virtual standstill, eventually clearing sufficiently to allow us to make our way to Kingston, arriving an hour later than planned. We arrived at the Bricklayers Arms just after Stewart had left, but in time for a chat with Charlie, complete with lucky socks, and soon to depart to the ground with his family, to do the things chairmen, owners, and chief executives do at away games. Still keeping the promise to engage with the fans.
We tried a pint of the local Zoe's Zigzag beer, which appears to be named after the landlady's movements behind the bar, then headed for the ground when it became impossible to get served. As the clubhouse was more like a sauna, I joined the usual group of folks waiting by the turnstiles to exchange tickets. Having got mine handed over with five minutes to spare, we positioned ourselves on the first bit of available terracing, which proved very handy for the skip full of grass cuttings and malodorous animal products. It was as if there was a very large rabbit hutch just behind the fence, and It also meant that the corner to our left was completely out of view.
Packed very close to the touchline, we watched as we lined up:
Love Loovens Baldwin James
Gooch Power Honeyman Maguire
In bright sunshine, Wimbledon kicked off, attacking McLaughlin's goal to our right, and it took approximately thirty seconds to work out that there was more than a little bit of the "original" Wimbledon about them. In rugby terms, their pack outweighed ours by several hundredweight and was several feet taller. The short and narrow pitch meant that they could fling crosses at the head of whichever giant they chose from anywhere less than forty yards from goal. Playing to their strengths, I believe it's called, and we struggled to deal with it
Most of their early threat came down their left, on the far side of the field, but it was us who had the first chance when Maja's effort (cross or clever shot? Probably the former) went just wide. We dealt with a few crosses, not always comfortably as their big lads flung themselves at the ball and our defenders, but when they cut another one further back than previously, we left Piggot with enough space to shape up and volley past a helpless McLaughlin. Not even ten minutes gone, and what followed had the crowd thinking that the next goal would almost certainly be a home one.
The Wombles pushed their midfield up and began coming down both sides before putting in the crosses. Loovens, Baldwin, and McLaughlin had to take a proper battering as they just about kept the home side at bay, but at that stage we looked about as likely to get even a point as Mike Ashley is to get a Christmas card from Shearer.
Our sweep on how many balls would be kicked out of the ground looked to be underway, but somehow our clearance hit a post at the back of the terraces, Wimbledon got a throw, and we had to defend again.
Despite all of the pressure, and the game being the football equivalent of Billy Hardy against Frank Bruno, there weren't actually that many efforts on target, and it was more punching and catching than diving saves by McLaughlin. Catts was doing his utmost to prevent then getting the ball from the middle to the wings, and after he'd won the ball we built a decent move that ended when Power shot wide from distance. Despite clawing our way back into the game a bit, their defenders were no smaller than their forwards, and Maja wasn't winning anything in the air, or being allowed to turn. They'd obviously done their homework on him - or, more likely, they don't give anybody any room to turn.
Although we'd defended most of the balls into our box sufficiently well to prevent the second goal that had for a while looked inevitable, the hosts still carried that threat.
There was a single added minute, and we went into the break glad it was just the one, wondering if we could afford to go three at the back and use the wingbacks to prevent Wimbledon getting down the sides, and if we could afford to go two up top.
As it was, we maintained the four-man defence, but with Ozturk on for Loovens, who'd twanged something during the first-hand onslaught. That worried us more than a bit, as his previous displays had been a bit shaky to say the least. Thankfully, Wimbledon's game isn't about pace through the middle, and our sub carried on where Loovens had left off - in an aerial duel.
Five minutes in, Dinky Dylan McGeouch replaced Power, and quickly showed his worth by helping build some attacks. This meant that I saw Love for the first time since the first half as he pushed forward from the invisible zone. The next time he came into view was on our goal-line, as he prevented the second by heading off the line. We broke down the right, and it took a desperate block to stop Honeyman's shot getting through. Because we'd lifted the pace, the game was flying from end to end, and when Oviedo replaced James, his pace and ability made it faster still.
Maja got into a similar position to Honeyman, in the right of the box, and, rather than shoot, he whipped in a low cut-back, but nobody in the correct shirt could quite get the vital tap-in. At least we were threatening a bit, and where's there's life there's hope. We hoped.
Ten minutes into the half, we win a corner, and weren't daft enough to waste it with a high cross in to the land of the giants, playing it short and getting it into the goal area where Catts, lurking at the far post, somehow nudged, scrambled, or poked the ball into the net despite the presence of loads of big gadgies in blue shirts. We went ballistic, the ref gave the goal - then spent a couple of minutes in conversation with the linesman by the corner flag. As they had Sunderland fans very close on both sides, and we'd taken a dislike to the linesman in the first half, they'd have been extremely brave to have disallowed it, but they didn't, and we had 25 minutes to get another two points.
Mind, in the next few minutes, we'd have happily taken the one, as Wimbledon got into box and caused us all sorts of bother. They shouted for a penalty that, from the view I had between two heads, wasn't, but they kept pressing.
McLaughlin produced a good save, Baldwin and Ozturk won vital headers, and we had to fling ourselves in front of a few shots, and a loose ball after one such block had goal written all over it - but was poked around the angle of post and bar. We took a deep breath and set Oviedo away, and he and Maja worked it into the box, with McGeouch getting onto the clearance in a flash, but a body was flung in the way of his shot with the keeper already taking off to save. A free, right in front of our fans, for a rather crude hand-off in Honeyman's face let us keep the pressure on, but Gooch couldn't get space to cross, so close was his marker.
Wimbledon attached again, and again missed the target when they should have scored. Again, we took a deep breath and came forward, again winning a corner. Again, we were clever with it, and again Catts was lurking near the back post, but this time there was no nudge, no poke, no bundle, as he produced a right-foot volley that would grace any game, and the ball fizzed across the goal and into the far side of the net. Bloody magic, and no need for consultation between the officials.
Seven minutes to go, and we held on until four added minutes were announced, and right at the end of that, we conceded a free in the D. Fortunately, Wimbledon put it way over the top, and the whistle went.
Hell's bells, that was hard work, and while you could say we rode our luck, it's bad shooting and not bad luck when the opposition miss the target.
Man of the Match? Well, for midfield tenacity and both goals, it can only be Catts.
Onwards and upwards. Winning games is canny, isn't it?