As the season draws to a close, Chris Lines attempts to measure the success of this, Wimbledon’s first year back in the League.
“It only took nine years,” was the chant as AFC Wimbledon edged Luton Town on penalties at Eastlands last May. Nine years after their club had been shamefully ripped away from them by the authorities, Wimbledon were back in the Football League.
Confidence was high as the club toasted promotion. League 2 is not generally considered to be of a greatly higher standard to the Conference. One only has to look at how often Conference clubs thrive when they come up – Stevenage, Exeter and Yeovil are all examples of how well-run clubs with everyone pulling in the same direction can rapidly make the step up to League 1. A section of fans could have been forgiven for daydreaming whether Wimbledon might kick on and win successive promotions.
Of course, every football crowd has its realists. For every exuberant youth proclaiming: “Well, Crawley might be too strong for everyone, but I reckon Wimbledon could still get an automatic promotion place,” there would also be a dissenting: “Let’s not get carried away, all we need to do is make sure we stay in the league; that the past nine years were not in vain.” And as so often seems to happen, it turned out that the pessimists had a point.
The warning signs were there. Talismanic striker Danny Kedwell – and by talismanic, I mean scored all the goals – was prised away to his hometown club Gillingham, while steady-but-classy midfield anchor Steven Gregory departed for Bournemouth. And with Wimbledon also deciding to release very-capable-but-dodgy-kneed centre-back Ismail Yakubu, there were immediate question marks as to who would replace them.
And what of the coaching team? Manager Terry Brown and his assistants Stuart Cash and Simon Bassey were all dyed-in-the-wool non-league stalwarts. How were they going to find the transition to the rigours of the Football League?
In terms of player recruitment, Kedwell was replaced with Oxford United’s Jack Midson – something of a journeyman striker, but with a reasonable goal record and a good reputation. Former Crewe captain Mat Mitchel-King [apologies to any OCD sufferers, but that’s the correct spelling] came in to bolster the defence, while Max Porter joined from Rushden & Diamonds, billed as a box-to-box midfielder rather than a direct Gregory replacement.
Early signs were promising, despite being convincingly beaten by Bristol Rovers on the opening day live on Sky. Midson looked keen, while midfielder Sammy Moore and winger-cum-striker Christian Jolley seemed like they’d improved significantly from the previous season. Some crucial early away victories gave the Dons a platform to build from, and they were comfortably wedged into the top half a couple of months into the season.
But gradually, particularly at home, a rot set in. Mitchel-King took months to even make his debut after picking up increasingly unfortunate injuries and illnesses, including glandular fever and a shin injury caused by colliding with a goalpost. Porter wasn’t adjusting to the pace of League football, and for some weeks Moore seemed the only midfielder at the club in any sort of form.
Poor results seemed to be compounded by Brown’s perseverance with a diamond formation that rarely seemed to click and left both full-backs badly exposed to onrushing wingers. Occasionally it would work and the Dons would enjoy exciting, swashbuckling spells of football. But normally by that point they’d be a goal or two down, usually caused by slack marking or defensive errors.
From mid-October to early January the team went 12 games without a win and were plummeting down the table. The pessimists were growing in number. Wimbledon was not too good to go down. Suddenly everybody realised things had gotten serious. Changes were essential and had to happen without delay.
Four loan signings were made, with the most eye-catching being Charlton utility man and former Dons legend Jason Euell. His arrival perked everybody up (even if his form and fitness didn’t) but it was two fresh-faced scamps from even bigger teams that made the most telling contributions.
Billy Knott (Sunderland) and George Moncur (West Ham; spitting image of his dad, John) immediately added vitality, optimism and verve to the Dons’ ailing midfield. Back-to-back away wins put a little breathing space between Wimbledon and the drop zone. Knott was looking a real talent and earned instant cult status. Moncur took longer to find his feet, but once he adjusted to League football looked both assured and energetic.
The diamond formation continued though, perhaps given a stay of execution by those away wins. But it still wasn’t working. Terry Brown, exasperated as to why his full-backs were making so many errors, moved to take right-back Sam Hatton out of the firing line and bring in Arsenal’s Gavin Hoyte temporarily. This remedied little though as Hoyte endured a debut that is doubtless still giving him nightmares, as wave after wave of Aldershot attacks came down his wing with little midfield protection in front of him. This seemed to finally make the coaching team see the light and switch to a more standard 4-4-2.
Since then the team has looked better, certainly less bereft of confidence, though still falling short of what the fans and management know they are capable of when everything gels.
It can’t all be the players’ fault though and therein lies the quandary. Terry Brown and his team have worked wonders with the Dons in non-league over recent seasons. The swaggering style of play that Brown swears by can be considered one of the biggest reasons for their recent successes. But the fitness levels in League 2 are such that you can only play with that swagger if your charges both are extremely athletic (they aren’t) and thoroughly well-drilled (very much not the case).
The two key problems seem to be a chronic number of defensive errors and, all too often, a poor midfield shape. Brown is well aware of both problems but rarely recognises a link between them. If the midfield had a consistently better shape, perhaps an exposed back four wouldn’t make as many errors?
And yet it’s hard to be scathingly critical of Brown. Wimbledon apparently operate on the third-smallest budget in League 2. Any readers of this article familiar with Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s excellent book Why England Lose: And Other Curious Phenomena Explained will be aware of the huge correlation between wages and performance. So if they have the third-smallest budget, we should reasonably expect Wimbledon to finish third last. Anything less would be slight underachievement, anything more a minor overachievement. Wimbledon look safe now in League 2, so in very stark terms we can say Brown has gone very slightly beyond what ought to be expected. But fans are understandably cautious of what will happen if the first half of next season resembles the final two thirds of this one. Wimbledon had momentum this year, yet still flirted with relegation. Next season the novelty will have worn off and they’ll be just another club fighting to survive in the Football League.
The fact that Brown has already gone on record to say he hopes he can persuade Knott and Moncur’s parent clubs to let them return in 2012-13 suggests he’s been told by the board that he’ll be in charge come August. But there needs to be a clearout over the summer. The club have an option of another year on most players’ contracts, so the enforced exodus will not be expensive. But the players that replace those shown the door must be up to the job. Wimbledon needs to recruit Football League-hardened, powerful, reliable players – and they don’t come cheap.
The club’s budget has taken a huge blow following news that not only do they have to replace one terrace with seating this summer, but another stand needs to be brought in line with new regulations within a couple of years too. This could easily amount to over a million pounds of expenditure for the club – and all on a ground that they have no long-term desire to stay in.
So any outlay will likely be modest. Most pressingly Wimbledon needs a big, calm, capable centre-back and a central midfielder that will chip in with plenty of goals. If these two key problems are not addressed, Wimbledon could end up in a fight at the bottom next season.
Loans will once again be important but the services of Midson and Moore must be retained, though fans are bracing themselves for bids in the £50-150k bracket for both over the summer. If either goes and is not adequately replaced – and it should be recognised that without their contributions Wimbledon would be relegated already – it’ll be ‘squeaky bum time’ almost from the get-go next season.
But while this season has brought fans down to earth, and most would now accept that another lower mid-table finish next season wouldn’t be too bad, what they will certainly want to see is better displays at home. At time of writing Wimbledon had only picked up three more points at home then they had on the road. A majority of fans only see Wimbledon at Kingsmeadow, so while six away victories have undoubtedly kept the club in the league, if you’re a season ticket holder being served poor-quality fare every fortnight, sooner or later you’re going to get a little ratty.
Fans have been extremely patient with the team this season, and Brown has gratefully recognised and paid tribute to this. But now the honeymoon is over, Brown faces his most crucial summer in management. Wimbledon must start looking like a proper Football League club in 2012-13 or nine years’ hard graft may all have been for a mere two-year nostalgia jolly back where they feel they belong.
And take it from a season ticket holder; it hasn’t been too jolly at times this season.