It’s hard to remember given the 42 days since our last home league game, but Fans Day felt a little like every other day to me. It was ironic that it was played against a team whose fans have the shallowest roots in the country. Perhaps it was a sly dig rather than a club promotion.
Irony is somewhat lost on MK Dons fans given their sledging of Rob Hall for turning down a contract in favour of us during the summer. The club practically re-wrote the book when it comes to betrayal in football. Not only is there the well documented looting of Wimbledon, surely most of their fans have betrayed other clubs to follow the Dons at some point.
Hall is one of the remarkable stories of the season. I wasn’t hopeful when he signed; he’d had a pressure-free cameo at the club a few years ago on loan from West Ham but had never become the ‘new Jermaine Defoe’ that was promised at the time. Coupled with a long term injury, it seemed likely that he’d end up wallowing on the fringes like Danny Rose did in his second stint at the club.
But, his recovery from injury and instant return to form has been stunning. A few years ago, he would have been out for far longer and would have had to remodel his game to accommodate any residual effects of his injury. But, he’s come back as if nothing had happened, his pace and guile being a key reasons we’ve hit the form we have.
Dons are a functional if uninspiring unit, fitting given that’s how you might describe the retail parks and shopping centres that characterise their city. They compressed the game into a third of the field and left little space down the flanks creating a gravitational force that the players, let alone the ball, struggled to escape from.
At the start of the season we were being caught out by competent physical teams, but it’s a different story now. Ryan Ledson relishes the muck and bullets of a midfield battle, even John Lundstram seems more comfortable in a dog-fight than he used to. Curtis Nelson became a deep-lying ball-carrying midfielder – it takes some guts to dribble into such a melee knowing the gap you’re leaving behind, but he’s looking more comfortable with every game. Even Toni Martinez, who on paper – a Spanish loanee from the Premier League – should not, by rights, want to get involved in anything so quintessentially English - battled away.
Marvin Johnson was re-deployed to left-back presumably to manage the threat of George Baldock. In the end they spent most of their time revving their engines like two high performance sports cars, neither quite having the guts to truly challenge the other just in case they were caught out.
With Martinez proving a handful dragging defenders to the floor and leaning into them, Kane Hemmings was the perfect replacement for half-an-hour of renewed harrying. When fired up he has the ability to cause weary centre-backs all sorts of problems and he came on and made a proper nuisance of himself.
Ultimately someone needed to break out of the compact mass of bodies. Johnson occasionally patrolled his flank like Frank Poncherello in CHiPs, Chris Maguire beavered away as he does, but it was Hall who finally found the angle that allowed him to cross for Hemmings to glance home. A fittingly ironic way to settle the game.