With many clubs we’ve faced this season you can apply the cliche of “if you’d had told me five years ago we would be playing them in a league game, I’d have assumed they had risen dramatically up the leagues!” In the case of AFC Wimbledon though, that is still true.
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about how their club was quite literally snatched from them, forcing the supporters to set up a phoenix club in its place. Their rise back up the ladder has been well documented too, but that isn’t to diminish their achievement.
To basically start all over again and get into the third tier is pretty remarkable, even if they were backed more strongly than most of the other non-league clubs that stood in their way.
The Dons may be struggling at present but as we saw earlier in the season, they’re a side full of fight. A shock win over West Ham in the FA Cup last weekend only further emphasised that. It should mean they arrive at the Stadium of Light in good spirits as they fight for survival, while we battle for promotion.
To gauge the mood of the Wimbledon support, we spoke to Rob Aitkenhead of The Womble Underground Press - and it would appear that their recent win over West Ham in the cup has given supporters confidence ahead of this, a crucial fixture at both ends of the table.
RR: We have to start with a great win in the FA Cup last weekend! Did you do anything differently to overcome West Ham and do you think it will give you a big confidence boost going in to Saturday’s game?
RA: What was done differently? The players turned up and did what they were paid to do, which obviously wasn't the case versus Fleetwood a few days earlier!
Wally Downes is totally correct when he refers to the fear factor. Many of our players should be looking at such televised games as their shop window, an opportunity to impress others, or justify a contract extension.
The result was a massive confidence booster and whilst there was a sense that we had “got our Wimbledon back”, most of our sane fans would probably trade the cup run for league safety in a heartbeat.
It’s mathematically possible at this stage to avoid relegation, and if we could guarantee performances such as we witnessed versus West Ham, I would bet on us doing so.
However, we will certainly need a run of several consecutive wins and for those who scored against West Ham to continue finding the net, regularly.
Some late transfer window activity might help our chances. Especially since there are no obvious basket case clubs down in the drop zone this time.
RR: Away from the FA Cup, the league season has been a disappointing one for Wimbledon, as you alluded to. Is there anything in particular you would put that down to and do you think you can survive relegation?
RA: Poor transfer activity in the summer is the main reason. We didn’t replace our big name players adequately.
Supposed “Marquee” signings spending most of their time on the treatment table hasn’t helped either and there’s a lack of leadership being shown on the pitch. Not to mention negative tactics.
The board have taking too long to take decisive action/make changes, despite the warning signs having been evident to most observers for some considerable time.
Can we survive relegation? Definitely, and come back at the first opportunity, with the much needed fresh approach now in evidence and the likelihood that youth will be given more of a chance.
RR: We struggled with the physicality of your side in the game between us earlier in the season, mainly in defensive areas, something which is been a bit of an ongoing issue for Jack Ross. Can you see that being exploited again on Saturday and which Wimbledon player in particular should Sunderland fans be keeping an eye on?
RA: I believe we should be concentrating on what we ourselves can do, as opposed to opposition perceived weakness. Theoretically at least, we can give you a stern test without needing to be overly physical.
The new boy Connolly clearly has some pace, and I would like to see him demonstrate that further at Sunderland, while giving your defence a different type of challenge.
RR: On that note, who in the Sunderland side will you be concerned about on Saturday?
RA: Nobody especially, irrespective of reputation or transfer market value. This is League One, not the Premier League. We ought to be able to deal with whoever you, Luton, Portsmouth etc send out against us.
Historically we’ve done better against the top sides than against fellow bottom feeders, and it doesn't happen that way through fear of facing individual players.
RR: How do you expect Wally Downes to approach this game and what do you think his starting line up will be? Much change from the victory over West Ham?
RA: It’s hard to tell who will start, (or whether newcomers will be eligible) but if he thinks anything remotely like me, there will be serious question marks about the build up to both of West Ham’s goals, and I want to see that addressed in the team selection.
I want him to put aside the cup run, and go full tilt for league survival.
RR: Finally, can we have a score prediction please?
RA: In front of your fans, I’d expect you to win by at least two clear goals. Their level of support is worth a two goal start in any event.
However, purely on the basis that you are well placed for promotion, automatic or otherwise, and that if we don’t get points on the board very soon we are sunk, I’m backing the Dons to somehow scrape a 1-1 draw to spark a concerted Great Escape bid.
This is also taking into consideration the pressure generated from the general expectancy that a club of your stature should be romping this division!