At the end of an action-packed season, it is fantastic to see that the Dons will still be where we belong next season – in the Football League. There have been a couple of high points, contrasted against many, many lows. But players, fans and coaching staff alike showed great belief, mental strength and determination to pull us through, in a dramatic fashion!
The season started with the Dons under the management of Terry Brown, and a victory on the opening day over Chesterfield led to early hopes that we could improve on the 16th place finish of 2011/12. However, it quickly went downhill from there. We lost the next two games 5-1 and 6-2, and that opening day win proved to be our last with Terry as manager – he was sacked, possibly prematurely, in September, having picked up one point of the previous 21, with most of his summer signings not looking particularly effective. Simon Bassey, first team coach, stepped up to fill in during the hunt for a replacement, and was a contender for the role himself, having won two of his four games in charge. But those in charge of selecting a manager took a gamble – they went with the inexperienced Neal Ardley – the 40-year old, who played over 200 times for Wimbledon in the 90s and early 2000s, had spent 5 years in charge of the Cardiff City youth academy, but had never managed a first team before. But what Neal lacked in experience, he made up for with a great eye for a transfer and unrelenting enthusiasm for AFC Wimbledon.
It was by no means an easy start for Neal – he had to try and do the best he could with another manager’s squad, and made a series of loan signings, to degrees of effect. A minor injury crisis didn’t help matters, and Neal only won one league game in 2012. Another spanner was thrown in the works in late November, when we were drawn in the FA Cup against Milton Keynes. While I don’t intend to talk in length about that game, I think it should be said that Neal and the team dealt with the media focus admirably, and did us all proud in a game that we desperately didn’t want to happen.
But the dawn of a new calendar year seemed to bring a change of fortunes for Wimbledon. We won the first two games of 2013, and went unbeaten throughout January, with some fantastic signings being made – this aspect of Neal’s managerial qualities is clearly a strong one, as proved by the quality of signings, both on loan and permanently, that were made. Invaluable experience arrived through Alan Bennett, Gary Alexander and Neil Sullivan, while dynamic youngsters such as Jon Meades, Toby Ajala and Harry Pell also made their mark in spectacular fashion. There was a point, however, in mid-February, when confidence at Kingsmeadow was at a real low. We hadn’t won in 5 games, having lost the last two (and at this point, Neal had still only won 3 games all season), and we felt that if we fell apart again, that would be it. The next game, against League Cup finalists Bradford City was crucial, and when we were one goal down with 10 minutes to play, I genuinely believed, for the first and only time all season, that we would be relegated. But a Jack Midson inspired comeback, including a goal for loan signing Gary Alexander in injury time, meant a 2-1 win, and the Dons were back on track.
This brought back confidence, and form with it. Between January 1st and March 28th, we picked up more points than any other team in the league, but still somehow managed to be lingering in 20th, not far from the relegation zone. It did, however, appear, with 6 games left to play, that 4 points would probably be enough to secure safety. Easy, right? Wrong. A four game losing streak, including a 1-0 defeat to Barnet from the most dominant performance we have given in our two years in the Football League, meant the fears of relegation were back. We had three high-flyers, in Exeter, Gillingham and Fleetwood, left to play, and we still needed 4 points minimum. A 2-2 draw at Exeter was followed by an away game to champions Gillingham, who needed a point to secure the title. 2-0 down within 20 minutes, it seemed like Wimbledon’s season was slipping away. Yet another comeback secured another 2-2 draw, and while the point didn’t seem to have made a huge difference to the table, the strength shown by the players led to a renewed confidence heading into the final day, a home tie against Fleetwood.
The situation was blissfully simple – a win, and we were safe. Anything less, and we were definitely down. Fleetwood’s form had been poor, and they had nothing but pride to play for – but this didn’t stop them trying! It was a game that Wimbledon dominated, but the footballing gods seemed desperate for us to lose. An inspired performance from the Fleetwood goalkeeper, as well as the woodwork coming to their rescue three times, meant that it was still 0-0 with 60 minutes played. But, showing the massive value of experience in this situation, Gary Alexander headed us into the lead. He is a player that I was rather disappointed with during his loan spell – his record indicates he could’ve done much better than 3 goals in 18 games. But the goals he did score were vitally important, this one most of all. Not that the lead lasted long – Fleetwood equalised through a scrappy goal a minute later. But, when right-back Curtis Osano was fouled in the Fleetwood penalty area, talismanic striker Jack Midson had a chance to score a massive goal. In the play-off final of 2011, Dons’ legend Danny Kedwell scored a penalty to put us into the Football League. Two years later, his replacement Jack Midson scored one to keep us there. Once the last 15 minutes had been nervily navigated – including Alexander showing all of his experience by sneakily untying his shoelace, and spending two minutes re-tying – there were scenes of jubilation. Fans rushed onto the pitch to congratulate the players, and it was heart-warming to see how much it meant to them, even those on loan. Needless to say, the party went on well into the night, and Wimbledon are still a Football League club for next season.
I’m hopeful that the vastly improved showing of 2013 will prove a good platform for us to build on, and we can have a more successful 2013/14. Our budget is still well below average, so targets must be realistic – I would be more than happy if we are in a position for a late play-off push with 10 games to go. Neal Ardley has shown that he was worth the risk, and looks a top quality manager, that we should be desperate to hold on to. He now has some time to build up his own squad – roll on next season!
Written by Charlie Worthington, We Are Going Up’s AFC Wimbledon Blogger
Charlie tweets at @AFCW_Blog