Not every fairytale has a happy ending. The gingerbread man ended up as a fox's lunch and Hamelin's kids were lured away by the Pied Piper. For a long time yesterday afternoon it looked as if the Wimbledon story would also have a sting in the tale.
The Wombles needed to win to maintain the Football League status they regained so famously in 2011, less than a decade after the club was stolen away to Milton Keynes, but an hour of frantic pressure, during which Jack Midson twice hit the woodwork and Harry Pell had a shot cleared off the line, had gone unrewarded. Finally Gary Alexander headed in Sammy Moore's free-kick – only for Fleetwood to level within two minutes. But salvation came in the form of a penalty, tucked away 18 minutes from time by Midson. The closing minutes were tense and desperate before the final whistle sparked a joyous pitch invasion. Even the giant fluffy mascot, Haydon the Womble, was chaired off.
But on the other side of London, and at Sixfields, the news of Wimbledon's survival prompted only despair, for it relegated Barnet. For the fifth season in succession they had gone into the final day of the season facing the drop. This time their luck ran out. A 2-0 defeat at play-off contenders Northampton condemned them to go down with Aldershot, who lost at promoted Rotherham. For Barnet's player-manager, Edgar Davids, a veteran of World Cups and Champions' League finals, it looks like being a bitter ending to a distinguished career.
Barnet have come back before but it is getting tougher. Over half the clubs in the Conference are ex-League, most are part-time, no club has bounced straight back since Carlisle in 2005. But Barnet have a new ground, The Hive, and a business plan that includes a gym and event-hosting, but relegation will be a setback. Estimates vary as to how big the financial blow is but close to £500,000 is lost in funds from Football League sponsorship and TV deals and the Premier League's solidarity payments. There is also the drop in gates and local sponsors.
Wimbledon, a club run on a small budget with no rich investors, feared relegation, but had the prospect in perspective. Erik Samuelson, the chairman, said beforehand: "It will not be a disaster. A disaster would be losing our club again. It would be horrible, awful and devastating, but we would still own our club."
No team would welcome needing to win to stay up on the final day but, given that was Wimbledon's fate, the circumstances could hardly have been more propitious. They were at home against a team with nothing to play for. Fleetwood, having enjoyed a successful debut season in the Football League, were settled in mid-table and, the home support hoped, were thinking of post-season adventures on a sunny beach. It did not look that way at the start as Andy Mangan fizzed a first-minute shot into John Sullivan's grateful hands but thereafter Wimbledon took control. Yet with Scott Davies and the woodwork denying them, the home crowd, bolstered by legends of the Dons' illustrious past such as Dickie Guy, Dave Bassett and Lawrie Sanchez, grew ever more nervous.
On the touchline rookie manager Neal Ardley, who counts Wimbledon's relegation from the Premier League 13 years ago as the worst experience of his playing days, tried to stay calm as he directed his men. Then one of many clumsy challenges produced one of many free-kicks. The delivery, from Sammy Moore, a veteran of the non-League days, was perfect. Alexander rose to head in.
Cue, jubilation. But a defence which had already conceded 75 goals this season – a likely consequence of using 44 players – always looked like surrendering a 76th. A daft corner was conceded and Mangan's near-post flicked header cannoned in off a defender's thigh. Cue, silence, bar the 157 Cod Army travellers.
Ardley, having consulted a sports psychologist, has drilled a mantra into his players recently: "It is written in the script." The premise being, whatever obstacle is encountered the Dons will prevail. Full-back Curtis Osano duly made something happen. Bursting forward he was felled in the box by Rob Atkinson. "Their keeper was trying to make it look as if I was bricking it but I stayed pretty calm," said Midson of his penalty. He added: "When I hit the woodwork, in the back of your mind you do think 'is it going to happen', but we stuck together."
The final minutes were incredibly tense, but the Dons survived late pressure to hold on. Afterwards Ardley, daughter Isabella in one arm, a beer in the other hand, took the applause with his players. He knows he faces a lot of work this summer in the transfer market and on the training ground if another struggle is to be averted, but that is for tomorrow, last night was for celebrating.
AFC Wimbledon (4-4-2): J Sullivan; Osano, Bennett, Balkenstein, Hussey; L Moore (Antwii, 84), S Moore (Strutton, 68), Pell Meades; Midson, Alexander (Prior, 90).
Fleetwood (4-4-2): Davies; Beeley (Evans, 86), Pond, Atkinson, Goodall; Brown, McGuire, McKenna, Crowther (Fontaine, 65); Mangan, Matt (Ball, 86).
Referee James Linington.Reuse content