On Sunday, everything was looking good for the Dons, with three wins on the trot lifting us to the unprecedented heights of 18th place. The bottom of League Two was getting even closer, with five teams on 40 points, and one on 41. But with our run of good form, and vast tally of 45 points, some Wimbledon fans were foolish enough to suggest that we may have done enough. Which was probably a mistake.
Any complacency was quickly eradicated by one of the less glamorous aspects of league football – losing 4-0 away to Accrington Stanley (who are they?) on a Tuesday night. Not something that was top of my list of things to do this season, and, fingers crossed, not something I’ll have to experience again any time soon. To be fair, Accrington looked a strong side, and the fact that they were bottom of the table proves just how even League Two is. Before the horror show of Tuesday night, we were top of the League Two form table and flying, but that loss has pulled us right back into the mire, as astonishingly, the four teams of the five on 40 points that played last night (including Accrington) all won, meaning that, while AFC are in a healthy position, it is by no means a secure one.
But back to the positives. While it took a while for Neal Ardley to get this side going, as he struggled with the below-par squad he inherited, he has been steadily building it up with loan signings, and really made some changes in January. The signings of Jon Meades and Toby Ajala on loan, and Harry Pell on a permanent basis, both added some quality to our side, and the spell Neil Sullivan spent on loan, and our the signing of Alan Bennett have brought experience that is absolutely vital when you’re in a relegation battle, with your backs against the wall. We had been steadily improving throughout 2013, when suddenly we really hit form, with three wins on the bounce, including one away to high-flying Southend. The last time we won three in a row was over a year ago, in January 2012. We scored seven goals in those three games, and even kept a clean sheet in one (number six of the campaign). But while the Dons form has improved massively, everyone else down the bottom have been getting better as well. Due to this, my money for the teams to go down is, at the moment, on Torquay and York, as they are the two teams really sliding down the division.
And despite my never-ceasing confidence that Wimbledon will manage to stay up, it hasn’t escaped my attention that we have a very tricky run-in, with only seven games to go. We have three games, two of them away, to teams in the play-off places or above (Gillingham, Exeter, Rotherham), and two tough fixtures against two of the on-form sides near the bottom half, in Barnet and Bristol Rovers. The ‘magic points total’ in League Two, with only two sides going down, is usually quoted as 50 points, but the unusually high level of competition this year means that this may not be enough. There is normally one team that is way off the pace, and spend most of the season simply preparing for life in the Conference Premier, leaving only one other relegation spot, fought for between two or three unconvincing teams. This year, there are no abysmal sides, and, at least from the perspective of a Wimbledon fan, no teams, (with the exception of us in the first half of the season) who have looked like they deserved to go down. This means that Wimbledon need to get to 50 points as soon as possible, and push on to get more than that!
I’d say that the important thing, in the aftermath of a surprising and substandard thrashing at the hands of Accrington, who simply had to exploit the lack of pace in our injury-ravaged defence, is that we don’t let our heads drop. I said a couple of weeks ago that 3 wins in our next 4 would put us in a strong position, and that is exactly what we got. Admittedly, I expected the defeat to be to Southend rather than Accrington, but we need to focus on the positives of our recent form instead of the negatives. Two key defenders are due to return soon, with Jon Meades with Wales U21 on Tuesday, and Pim Balkestein recovering from an injury, and this should allow us to remove nightmares of Accrington from our heads, and continue with not only the results we have been seeing, but also the high quality of performances. The defence has cut out (mostly) the horrifically comical goals gifted to the opposition, the midfield is showing a bit of fight, and Neal Ardley has finally found a couple of players, most notably Kevin Sainte-Luce, given a second chance after being sacked by Cardiff due to a dubious incident in a nightclub, who seem to have a bit of cutting-edge going forwards, and we are (at last) posing a threat to opposition defences.
It is crucial that Neal gives the players a bit of a kick up the backside, and then gets them motivated and hungry for a win on Saturday at Morecambe. The players and coaching staff went over and apologised to the 247 Wimbledon fans who had travelled up to Accrington after the match was finished. The coaching staff seemed genuinely apologetic, and the players, even those on loan, were absolutely gutted. We need to utilise this feeling of anguish, and turn it into the hunger for success that we have shown in glimpses when at our best. By the time we welcome Fleetwood to Kingsmeadow on April 27th for the final game of the season, I want us to be safe for next year, and to feel like we deserve another season in the football league – but, unfortunately, I suspect that there may be as many as 7 or 8 teams in danger of going down on that final day.
Written by Charlie Worthington, We Are Going Up’s AFC Wimbledon Blogger
Charlie tweets at @AFCW_Blog