Neal Ardley’s great escape

At first glance, AFC Wimbledon’s time in league football has not been a merry one. For a side who had previously (albeit in only a 10 year existence) never finished lower than 8th, a first season that started well but faded into a 16th place finish was quite a shock in our first season of league football. 2012/13 has been even worse, as we flirt with bottom place in the football league.

One point that the optimist inside me would like to make is that our current position of 23rd isn’t as bad as it may seem. Remember only two sides go down from League Two, and we are finally starting to win some games. As I write this we are unbeaten in 2013, (although a match against table-toppers Port Vale on Thursday may change that happy statistic.) with some new signings, and extensions of highly successful loan deals. Last season, I reckon the loan signings of Billy Knott and George Moncur saved our season, and this year’s impressive crop of Neil Sullivan, Toby Ajala, Jon Meades and free-scoring Paul McCallum could do the same. On an equally positive note, the league table isn’t quite as it seems. I appreciate that at the bottom of the table, games in hand count for little, but given our form, I feel a rise to 18th or 19th place is well within our grasp – we would be there already if the rest of the bottom 8 hadn’t all had an equally successful 2013, or so it seems to me! We got a draw against Wycombe on Saturday 12th, but still moved down as, unbelievably, the teams around us in 24th, 22nd, 21st and 20th all won! This can’t last forever, surely, and hopefully when they slip up we can quickly capitalise, as the Dons are starting to pick up some momentum.

Despite the low points tally, the Dons haven’t necessarily being playing badly. Sure, there’s been the occasional shocker, (losing 3-0 at home to Oxford, who should have beaten us by more, comes to mind) but there have been a huge number of games where we’ve played very well, often much better than the opposition, but our dreadful form in front of goal has cost us dear. Hopefully West Ham loan superstar Paul McCallum, with four in his last three, can put a stop to this, and turn our fortunes around. I still feel more work is needed in the transfer window – namely another centre back and striker, at the very least – but the return of fans favourite Chris Hussey from Coventry has gone some way to appeasing the Kingsmeadow crowd. It hasn’t been an easy season for Ardley – he came in partway into the season after the sacking of Terry Brown, and has had to work with another manager’s squad, so the transfer window gives him a chance to bring in the players he wants. My opinion on the sacking of Brown is that we should’ve either got rid of him at the end of last season (fantastic servant though he was to the club, he couldn’t appear to grasp the physical side of league football), or given him until Christmas – as I said, there is little a manager can do when arriving after the transfer window.

And as for the rest of the season, I’m quietly confident that the boys will pull it out of the bag. The fact that only two go down gives us a great chance, and there won’t be many teams in the bottom half who play better football than us – Neal just needs to run some extra shooting training sessions! There are plenty of experienced players in our squad, who will know how to deal with this situation, and can bring the best out of the talented youngsters that we have plenty of, we just need to give them the confidence to go out and show everyone what they’re made of. The squad is certainly good enough for League Two. Injuries in defence have cost us dearly, with Pim Balkestein and club captain Mat Mitchel-King only now returning from fairly major injuries, and keeper Seb Brown’s loss of confidence means that we had to find a replacement – but veteran Neil Sullivan, who played for Wimbledon in the Premier League (and once conceded a rather impressive goal from a young David Beckham) has looked solid. The return of Sammy Moore and arrival of Peter Sweeney forms a good ball-playing midfield, and the McCallum-Midson front pairing completes a strong spine to the side.

Having a look at the new signings we have brought in, they are clearly positive ones. Both Peter Sweeney and Chris Hussey have been tempted down from League One. Sweeney terminated his own contract at Bury so as to move back to London, and Hussey was released by Coventry, where he was unpopular amongst the fans, to say the least. However, we did sell him to Coventry 3 years ago, aged 21 for a reported £100k, so to sign him back for free is quite a coup. We’ve seen little of either of them since coming in, due to lack of fixtures. Sweeney had a great game in centre mid against Wycombe, and I don’t think I’ve seen him smile once – a quality I admire in a centre midfielder! We’ve got plenty of smilers in the side, and hopefully now that Sammy Moore is back from injury, they can forge a partnership in the middle, as both are superb passers, and Sweeney appears to be able to match Sammy’s bite-yer-legs attitude to defensive play. Chris has only played for half a match, having not played before then since October, but instantly looked as sharp on the attack as ever, and even showed a great improvement in his defensive duties since he left.

To be slightly more negative, I do worry that relegation may cause a downwards slide for this football club. Wimbledon is not an area renowned for its football supporters, and while the draw of a promotion-winning side for the last decade has brought in good attendances, some may stop if we were to be relegated, and for a fan-owned club, no fans means trouble. At the moment, however, I don’t believe that needs to happen. A bit of grit and Crazy Gang spirit can see us past the other relegation candidates, and with sides like Wycombe and Accrington sliding into the relegation mix, the side we have, with a good young manager and superb fan ownership will see us overcome this first major hurdle in the renaissance of Wimbledon football club, and carry on stronger than ever. We need a season of consolidation next year, to build up the squad, and let Ardley (who I feel is the right man for the job, and we need to stick with, relegated or not) build up his own squad before we can mount any kind of push for the glamorous heights of League One.

Written by Charlie Worthington, We Are Going Up’s AFC Wimbledon Blogger

Charlie tweets at @AFCW_Blog

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