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Monday, 21 December 2015 10:07

Game of Two Halves

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SATURDAY 19th DECEMBER. Rodney Parade, dark and wet.
NEWPORT COUNTY 2 AFC WIMBLEDON 2 (English Football League Two)
It's the darkest midwinter Saturday of the football season, and it's still raining. Most local games will be postponed again but this is one of the fixtures that went into my diary back in the summer - a chance to see Wimbledon, the team I grew up supporting, almost on my doorstep.

Of course, there's a whole different set of emotions that go with watching one's own club, rather than my usual Saturday experience: one of those can be, paradoxically, not really looking forward to it. I approach today's game in pessimistic frame of mind, as Newport's form has been much improved under new manager John Sheridan, while Wimbledon are on a lengthy winless run; and I remember only too well the 4-1 thumping in last year's fixture at Rodney Parade. I'm expecting a Newport win, even though their winning run came to an end in a 4-3 defeat at Notts County last week.

Newport's season has suddenly become everything it wasn't in Butcher's time: not only a few much needed wins in the league to lift them out of the relegation zone, but also an FA Cup run to excite the fans and to bring vital income. Appearing in the FA Cup Third Round is every small club's aim as featured in football news at bethut, and County have that coming up against Blackburn in the new year.   But first there's a bread and butter game against the Dons...

3pm approaches with floodlights on, the sub-3,000 crowd sheltering in the stands from the continuing downpour. The pitch is heavy, but not quite waterlogged, and there is a gusty southerly wind blowing end to end, in County's favour in the first half. The first few minutes confirm that weather conditions will play their part today, with players slipping and mis-cueing, and long kicks drifting into touch on the win. When County keeper Day kicks out, it comfortably carries through to his opposite number Shea.

After the usual tentative opening period, County start to get on top. They seem to have the upper hand generally in midfield and particularly on their right wing. Wimbledon are temporarily reduced to ten men when Paul Robinson goes off for treatment to a head injury, and while he's away they concede, a strike high into the right hand corner from Rodman, who has been given plenty of space. It's been coming, and it looks as though more goals will follow. In the end, County add just one more before the break, the unfortunate Robinson poking the ball past his own keeper under pressure from McBurnie. Wimbledon are fortunate - County could and should have scored more by the break, with chances missed, a few saved, and one seemingly good penalty appeal refused. But at half-time, it does seem to be just a question of how many County will ultimately win by.

The first minute of the second half changes the game: Wimbledon force a corner on the right, it comes to Lyle Taylor who volleys it into the roof of the net. A glimmer of hope for the visitors - but as one fan near me remarks, it's always the hope that kills us. I recall, with a shudder, last season, with the third and fourth goals conceded whilst chasing an equaliser. Despite the way the Dons have been re-energised since the interval, I expect the same to happen now.

But the game now develops into a very different one. The goal, and Wimbledon's fight, seem to have exposed Newport's fragility, and they seem haunted by last week's surrender of a two goal lead. They look nervy and hesitant, and Wimbledon take full advantage, dominating the half - although there are chances at both ends. The visitors' pressure is rewarded in the 70th minute when Taylor chases a clever ball down the left, beats his full-back, cuts inside and slots the ball past Day.

In the final twenty minutes, the momentum is with Wimbledon. County begin to waste time at every opportunity, notably one double substitution, carried out serially, in both cases withdrawing the player furthest from the home bench. In the closing stages, Wimbledon come close to nicking a winner, but while it's possible to say they should have won, that would be to forget, conveniently, that they should have been three or four goals down at half-time.

A 2-2 draw, epitomising the 'game of two halves' cliché, and really we've seen the strengths and weaknesses of both sides today. Both are probably too good to be in relegation trouble this season, but it's evident both have their problems. As I return to town over the Millennium Bridge, I'm just relieved that the expected defeat has been somehow averted.

Read 6840 times Last modified on Tuesday, 19 January 2016 08:21

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