In the latest of a brand new series in The Non-League Paper this summer, we take a look back to the 2010-11 season when Terry Brown famously led Phoenix club AFC?Wimbledon back into the Football League…
Seb Brown should have been in bed, resting up for the biggest game of his life. Instead, the AFC Wimbledon keeper was glued to YouTube.
One by one, he typed the names of Luton’s players, followed by the word penalty. For two hours he studied shaky camera footage, jotting down notes on a ratty pad. Who went left. Who went right. Who waited for the goalie to move.
“Nowadays, you can go on Wyscout or Scout7 and there’s all this data at your fingertips,” laughs the 28-year-old, now a player-coach at Sutton. “Back then, all I had was shaky footage on YouTube. It took forever.”
In the end, Brown wrote only four names. “Most of their players had never taken a penalty,” he recalls. “But there were two I had a decent amount of information on.
“One was Alex Lawless, who’d always gone to the keeper’s right – I think I’d seen about four or five penalties from him.
“The other was Jason Walker. One had gone to the keeper’s left, two to the right and two had gone central. I thought ‘Right, if he steps up, I’m just going to hold my position that little bit longer’.”
Thirty-six hours later, the fruits of his late-night labours were revealed. As the final whistle blew on a goalless and attritional Conference play-off final, the nervous players of Wimbledon and Luton gathered in the centre circle.
Brown, meanwhile, dug into his glovebag. Out came that now legendary scrap of paper, brandished like a standard.
“I was doing my sports science degree at the time and we’d done a psychology module,” adds Brown. “Part of it was about transferring pressure to your opponent. That was my aim.
“That long walk, all the doubts – as a goalie you have to try and amplify that. Ultimately, that’s the only reason I took the paper with me. I knew perfectly well what was written on it.
“It was purely about sowing a few seeds of doubt. ‘Am I on the list? Does he know where I’m going? Should I change?’ That was my thinking.”
Straight off the bat, Brown leapt right to deny Lawless. Then, with two to go, he read Walker’s miscued panenka.
That just left Danny Kedwell, Wimbledon’s skipper, leading scorer and final taker, to lash emphatically into the top corner.
Dons were back in the Football League, both men were heroes – and that piece of paper had gained legendary status.
“To this day, I still get Wimbledon fans asking about it,” laughs Brown. “They often ask if it was blank, which would have been pretty clever! But no. My research paid off.”
Like many of those inside Eastlands, Brown was in tears when the trophy was lifted on that May day in 2011.
A Wimbledon native, he’d sat in the Selhurst Park stands during the Premier League days, then joined his dad on protests when the club was ripped away and uprooted to Milton Keynes in 2002.
Watched, too, as Ivor Heller, Kris Stewart and a legion of volunteers rebuilt the Dons from scratch, making a mockery of the cretinous FA panel that said a phoenix side was “not in the wider interests of football”.
He’d attended games in the Combined Counties, the Ryman League and Conference South. No player understood so fundamentally what that moment meant.
“I had all my family there,” he says. “My aunts, my uncles. They’d always followed the club. Back in 2002, people just wanted to keep the club alive. Nobody dreamed we’d be back in the League within nine years.”
Indeed, Wimbledon had started the season as outsiders for promotion, their squad in flux amid a transition to full-time football. Old favourites departed. Youngsters arrived. It was, says Brown, a “mishmash” of a side but the chemistry was instant.
Ismail Yakubu and Brett Johnson formed a barrier at the back. Right-back Sam Hatton, a player not always trusted by supporters, was rock solid. Stephen Gregory anchored midfield, Kedwell scored for fun. In the dugout, Terry Brown leaned on all his 18 years of experience.
“The gaffer had only kept a handful of players from the year before,” recalls midfielder Christian Jolley, a summer arrival from Kingstonian.
“They were the spine, but the rest of us were just youngsters looking to make a name for ourselves. The first day of pre-season was like a meet-and-greet session!
“It was my first experience of full-time football and it never got better. We were winning every week, playing good football. None of us had any fear and there was this sense of ‘We’re all in it together’. It’s my fondest memory in football.”
Initially, Wimbledon set a fearsome pace. Southport were vanquished on the opening day, then Histon and Tamworth. By mid-September, the Dons were top.
Any title aspirations, however, were trampled by the financial tyrannosaur that was Crawley Town.
For much of the previous ten years, the Sussex side had scraped by on the breadline. Now, backed by anonymous investors, they were debt-free and flush. Gaffer Steve Evans set off on a frenzied supermarket sweep, hoovering up talent like a Dyson on full blast. Sergio Torres cost £50,000 from Peterborough. Matt Tubbs £70,000 from Salisbury. The Scot even lodged a cheeky £60,000 bid for Kedwell, the Dons’ reigning player of the year. He was sent packing.
“To be clear, we are not a selling club,” said chairman Erik Samuelson, another of Wimbledon’s founding fathers. “And certainly not to other clubs in this league. Danny is not for sale.”
Evans didn’t take the snub lying down. Kedwell, he claimed, was “desperate” to join the Broadfield revolution. Wimbledon, meanwhile, had reneged on a verbal agreement to sell if the 60k figure was reached.
Dons boss Brown was furious, yet Kedwell was far from unsettled. The striker scored nine goals in his first ten games, including a late winner against Crawley at a packed out Kingsmeadow that briefly sent Wimbledon top of the table.
“It was script perfect,” said Brown, shortly after an angry Evans had stormed out of his post-match press conference. “For Danny to get the winning goal is quite brilliant. If we would have sold him to Crawley where would we be? Not top of this league, let me tell you.”
For namesake Seb, keeping hold of Kedwell was the single most important moment of the season – and not just for that big moment at Eastlands.
“He was the talisman of the team really,” said the goalkeeper. “He was our captain. The guy that led the line, scored all the goals.
“You looked at Keds, and you thought ‘He can’t get about the pitch’. But when you watched him in a game, he was like a man possessed. He’d run channels, harry defenders, chase people down.
“He set the tempo for the whole team. If he wasn’t at it and occupying defenders, our more creative players struggled.
“Everyone remembers that penalty, and it was fitting that Keds scored it. But it shouldn’t overshadow what he did for us the whole season. Those performances were bigger than anything he did in the play-off games.”
Brown believes victory over Crawley stirred hope into genuine belief. Yet it was defeat to Evans’ side in March that would prove more pivotal.
For much of an icy winter, Dons had gamely clung to Crawley’s coattails, stabilised by the signing of veteran defender Jamie Stuart and aided by the Reds’ run to the FA Cup fifth round.
But when a dispiriting run of defeats culminated in a 3-1 beating at the Broadfield, the pursuit was abandoned.
Brown recalls: “We had a meeting on the Monday morning and basically said ‘We’re done for the title now – let’s focus on the play-offs.
“When you’re safely in that second position, it’s difficult. The mentality is like ‘Well, we’re definitely in the play-offs, let’s just keep ticking over’. You can drop right off.
“So we thought ‘No, let’s treat it like a mini-season and build up some momentum’. That really was the mentality for the last seven games.
“We went at every team and finished the season unbeaten. And six weeks out, we were already practising penalties.”
The ploy worked. Wimbledon barrelled into the play-offs, annihilating Fleetwood 8-1 in the semi-finals.
Well backed and much fancied (they would romp the title the following season), the Cod Army lost 2-0 at home and then shipped six on a memorable night at Kingsmeadow.
“Kaid Mohamed was fantastic that night,” says Jolley. “He was straight out the blocks, scored after a few seconds.
“He hit form at the perfect time and probably did more than anyone else to get us to the final.”
Then to Eastlands, where Luton lurked in wait. Dons had taken just one point off Gary Brabin’s side in the regular season and failed to score in either game.
“I think the bookies actually had them favourites,” said Ricky Wellard, the midfielder who’d bounced back from a loan spell at Basingstoke to reclaim a starting berth for the final.
“But on that day in Manchester, I just had a feeling really – that it was never in doubt. I don’t know whether other players felt like that, but all the way through the play-offs, in the build-up, and even in the penalties, I knew we were going to win.”
And they did, courtesy of Brown’s diligence, Kedwell’s ruthlessness and all those hours of practice from the spot.
“I feel a little bit bad sometimes because me and Keds get all the plaudits,” says Brown. “But when you watch it back, the standard of our penalties was phenomenal. Mark Tyler went the right way on four out of five and he literally couldn’t get near them.
“The best one was Ismail Yakubu. Whenever we practised, he’d do a little two-step run up. We’d be going ‘Yaks, come on mate, take it seriously. You’re a centre-half, you can’t take a penalty like that’. He’d go ‘Just watch’, and stroke it in.
“On the day, we saw him take that little run-up and thought ‘Oh no, not now’. But it was the coolest penalty you’ve ever seen.”
On the pitch, Kedwell and Brown took the acclaim. Up in the stands, Heller – the local printer who’d co-founded the club in 2002 – and Samuelson both shed tears.
“All these years, I’ve been driven by righting a wrong,” said Samuelson. “Now we’ve done it, I might just collapse.”
Samuelson had promised the players a trip to Vegas and duly delivered. First, though, came a trip to Manchester city centre.
“It was a great night,” said Brown. “I’ll never forget the sight of an entire dancefloor singing ‘We are going up’. It was pretty surreal – but so was the whole day.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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