Great Uncle Bulgaria would have been very disappointed. Not so much by the result – which seemed about right – as by an incident a few minutes into the game in which a Womble's head was ripped off and thrown on to the pitch. To those looking for omens, the image couldn't have been much more troubling.
Wimbledon's mascot, Haydon the Womble, reacted to some baiting from the Luton fans packed behind one of the goals by lifting a droopy ear as though he couldn't quite make out their perfectly audible obscenities. It all seemed perfectly good natured, but then a passing Luton nugget in an orange polo shirt, after shaping to hug him, suddenly wrenched the head up and off, pushing it over the advertising hoardings. The Womble reacted, and for a few moments the two grappled in a frenzy of fur and flabby forearm.
As the Luton fan made for the safety of the terrace, pursued in desultory fashion by a couple of stewards, the Womble retracted his (human) head beneath his (Womble) torso like a shame-faced tortoise.
Maybe he hasn't told the wife how he spends his Saturday afternoons.
For a moment, as a steward was manhandled as he chased the decapitator, things threatened to turn ugly, which would have been absurd on what was, for the most part, a relaxed and cheery afternoon.
Remarkably, the last time these sides met in a league game it was – if, as most seem to, you consider AFC Wimbledon rather than MK Dons as the true successors of Wimbledon – a top-flight fixture. That was in 1991-92, when the crowd was only around two-thirds of yesterday's 4,488. Even allowing for the 90s boom in attendances that says much for the way hardship seems to strengthen the bonds of loyalty.
For both, this is a season of promise. Luton, at last, are free of the points deductions and financial precariousness that have characterised the past few seasons, while Wimbledon, seven years after they were founded, are just one step from attaining the league status their predecessors first claimed 32 years ago. On the evidence of yesterday though, impressive as their fightback was, a fifth promotion may have to wait a year or two. "Luton were a yard or so faster than the teams we were playing last season," said their manager, Terry Brown. "But I was very pleased with the character we showed. We're under no illusions – if we can finish in the top 10 that would be a great achievement."
As their chief executive Erik Samuelson pointed out, a struggle is only to be expected: "This," he said, "is literally a different league". Heroic rebels against the corporate machine of modern football they may be, but in practical terms AFC Wimbledon have been giants at their level, making the most of superior resources.
The appointment of Brown as their first full-time manager two seasons ago has been followed by successive promotions, so the momentum is with them, but this season will be far tougher than anything they have faced before. This is their first time in a national league and, for the first time, they will not be the biggest spenders or the best-supported side in their division, nor, as Samuelson put it, "the team that everyone wants to beat".
Instead that title probably belongs to their opponents yesterday. They were, after all, a Championship side as recently as 2006-07, and this is the first time in 90 years that they began a season as a non-league club. They also looked much the classier side yesterday, featuring in the centre-forward Tom Craddock and the right-sided midfielder Adam Newton – both former winners of the FA Youth Cup, with Middlesbrough and West Ham respectively – the game's two outstanding players.
It was Craddock who gave them a 14th-minute lead, firing his penalty into the corner after Paul Lorraine had wrestled Shane Blackett to the ground. Craddock was then twice denied by fine saves from James Pullen, and curled another effort a fraction wide. "The way we played, especially in the first half, the game should have been out of sight," said the Luton manager, Mick Harford. "But we were guilty of not finishing them off."
Gradually, the home side clawed their way back, the arrival off the bench of Jon Main, last season's top scorer, and the consequent switch to 4-4-2 giving them an attacking fluidity they had lacked.
With 10 minutes remaining, Main tripped over a challenge from Blackett as he burst into the box. A penalty said the referee, but Harford was adamant it was a clean challenge. Main sent Mark Tyler the wrong way with his penalty. It was Wimbledon then who posed the greater threat, but they could not find a winner that would, frankly, have been harsh on Luton.
- More about:
- AFC Wimbledon
- Conference National (football Conference)
- Luton Town (football)
- Milton Keynes