Today, we are delighted to welcome back Chris Lines, curator of the long established Narrow The Angle, one of the best football websites in business. Chris is a season ticket holder at AFC Wimbledon and in between mops of his brow with a handkerchief following fellow Two Unfortunates’ contributor Jack Midson’s nerveless spot kick against Fleetwood, he took time to reflect on Neal Ardley’s impact at Kingsmeadow.
When the full-time whistle sounded at Kingsmeadow on April 27 and brought Wimbledon’s 2012-13 campaign to a close, the wave of elation that saw thousands spill onto the pitch to mob their heroes quickly turned to exhausted relief.
They’d survived. Phew. That was incredibly close. A 72nd-minute penalty from Jack Midson had ensured that the Football League place Wimbledon spent nine years sweating to reclaim had been preserved for at least one more.
“I’m sure you’ll all be having a big party tonight,” said commercial director Ivor Heller in the clubhouse once fans had retreated from the pitch in search of a well-earned pint. You can see why he would say that. The club’s final day escapology act had seen Wimbledon stare into the void for long periods before narrowly managing to cling on. But after the team had put fans through the mill one final time – the culmination of a hellish season that saw the Dons pick up just six home wins – most of the fans seemed understandably happy but pretty much spent. Most supporters had a couple of beers and went home to forget all about the season they’d just endured. You can only party so hard when your overriding emotion is relief.
Relief is a very different beast to unbridled joy. If your team wins a championship or a cup, it’s natural to celebrate into the early hours of the morning – “get the tequilas in, John”. But when you stay up by the skin of your teeth – knowing that you could very easily have gone down instead of Barnet – the release of pressure leaves most of us too drained to contemplate a euphoric all-night session on the booze.
When former Wimbledon FC player Neal Ardley made the decision to leave Cardiff City’s academy and take the managerial hot-seat vacated by Terry Brown, it’s fair to say that he inherited an absolute mess. Wimbledon were only going one way – back to the Conference.
Brown, quite rightly, is a club legend for the style and verve with which he catapulted Wimbledon up the non-league tiers, but he wasn’t cut out for management in the Football League and it quickly began to show. After narrowly avoiding relegation in 2011-12, he cleared out most of the squad last summer and wasted most of the freed-up funds on players that didn’t remotely deliver – ageing Bournemouth full-back Warren Cummings and ex-Wolves youngster Louis Harris being two of the more notable flops.
Ardley quickly realised that his new charges had little concept of defensive solidity and was shocked to see how unfit most of the squad were. Despite stating that he prefers an attractive brand of football when he took the job, it became apparent that he was going to have to abandon his principles if he wanted to avoid having a relegation on his fledgling managerial CV. “When I realised how bad fitness levels were, the injuries, the general environment and work ethic of the training ground, along with the players we had at that time, I thought ‘wow’,” Ardley told the Wimbledon Guardian recently. He (correctly, in my view) deduced that Wimbledon would not be able to play their way out of trouble with some misty-eyed plan for a festival of Total Football – but if they battened down the hatches and got fit enough for the fight, they might just have a chance.
Thankfully Ardley and his assistant Neil Cox gradually hauled the Wimbledon squad up to the level of fitness and mental toughness required to compete in the league. It took a long time – most of the season in fact. The relief was etched all over Ardley’s face after their last day ordeal. Finally he could look ahead to a new season with the club not mired in relegation trouble. He could begin to sculpt the club the way he thinks it should be – and the club have to trust him completely on that front.
Since the season ended Cox has given an interview in which he made some encouraging noises about how he and Ardley see the club as a long-term project, and how they are working beyond the first team to improve the academy, the training facilities, the players’ diet. A greater professionalism running right the way through the club cannot come quickly enough – too many aspects of the way Wimbledon conducts itself off the pitch are still guided by a non-league ethos. Perhaps that’s inevitable given the club’s rapid ascent, but now there is a management team in place that are working tirelessly to do something about it.
It used to be that League Two was loaded with basket-case teams trundling along like it was still the 1960s and assuming that nothing bad would ever happen. Gradually these sides have either dropped out of the Football League or have seen sense and modernised. Consequently League Two is suddenly thoroughly professional, even compared to just five years ago. Teams are invariably fit and strong – there’s still a gaping ability difference between them and Premier League sides, but in all other areas the gap would seem to be closing fast.
Now Ardley has a whole summer in which to get his players fitter, sharper and playing the style of football he’d like to have played last season but knew it would be too risky with the club scrapping for its Football League future. Hopefully he’ll make some shrewd acquisitions too. Solid, reliable centre-back Alan Bennett has signed a contract for next season already, which is a good start. He offers genuine leadership and a cool head at the back – the club would not have stayed up without him. There’s talk of Bournemouth utility man Jonathan Meades making his loan move permanent too. This would also be very sensible – Meades was rightly voted Young Player Of The Year in 2012-13 and can play in five different positions.
Elsewhere, the Dons desperately need better players in wide positions and a striker that can offer genuine pace as well as all-round ability and goals. Ardley needs to try and rediscover the player that central midfielder Sammy Moore used to be about 18 months ago, while also working out how to get the best from talented-but-sometimes-frustrating fellow midfielder Harry Pell, who often seems to need at least 45 minutes before starting to impose himself on a game.
Time will tell if Ardley and Cox can further the progress they’ve already made in hauling the club towards a proper Football League approach and mindset. Fitness coach Jason Moriarty offered an insight into the standards Ardley expects when he said: “We monitor heart rates a lot and look at the amount of time that they train and training load, which is a combination of intensity and duration. We look at the time they spend above 80% and the time that they spend above 90% purely because during a game the majority of the time will be spent in those two heart rate zones. There is a significantly higher proportion of players performing above 80 per cent of their maximum heart rates. Certainly, the way that Neal does training, there are more players above 90 per cent of their maximum heart rates than before and that is a great thing to be able to say.”
Neal Ardley’s biggest impact so far has been making Wimbledon’s underachieving players realise that everything in football has to be earned through hard graft – and for that he deserves all the plaudits he has received for keeping Wimbledon up. Next season fans will hope to see the style of play that Ardley really favours, and a few more home wins would be just reward for the fans that stayed incredibly patient with their team throughout the most gruelling season any can remember.
Despite Wimbledon being an ambitious club, a couple of seasons of safe (maybe even boring) mid-table mediocrity would probably be a very healthy thing for the club. In 11 years of the AFC Wimbledon era, the club has never had what you would describe as a ‘normal’ season. There’s always been drama, excitement, nerves, thrills. If you offered fans a 12th-place finish and safety secured with five games to go next season, most Wimbledon fans would take it. Mainly because their hearts can’t take another season like the last two.