2016-17

It’s a bumper edition of the podcast this week, because it’s the final edition of the podcast … for this season, at least. Yes, after months of highs, lows, drama, tension, and joy, the curtain has been drawn on the 2016-17 campaign, and it’s time to sit back and reflect on everything that we’ve had the pleasure, albeit sometimes dubious, to witness.

Nick and Stu are looking back at the main talking points of the season, picking out our best and worst moments, from kits to keepers and signings to, erm, Sutton. We also have a glance around League One, looking at the best managers and travelling fans, as well as looking at which teams have over and under-achieved. With the help of Mark Hendrikx, we remember the best goals we have seen this campaign, be it for or against us, whilst George Jones helps pick the bones out of our away days. We also look back at the podcast team’s pre-season predictions, to determine how wrong a group of football fans can possibly be. Herbie Knott also joins us to talk more about his charity bike ride.

But of course, alongside all our treasured memories, life goes on, and Top 7 lists and Poleon Go continue – for one more show, at least – to feature. There’s also a Two Word Tango to bring the season to a fitting close. So, as we ride off into the sunset, we hope you enjoy our final offering of the season – although we totally understand if you want to, you know, break this into a few listens … because you want to savour listening to Nick and Stu, of course, and not because an hour-and-a-half of us might be considered a worse fate than having a season ticket at Vicarage Road. Viva Alexa Bliss!

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Don’t worry listeners! The title of this week’s show is not Nick and Stu riding off into the sunset – we’ve still got another week yet – but is in fact a reference to the members of the AFC Wimbledon squad that are departing Kingsmeadow. We have seven definites, two probables, and five possibles, so we’ve decided to look at each and every one of them, discussing whether the time is right for them to move on, and how well they’ve done for us in their time at the club.

We also look back at the Oldham game, and look forward to the final throes of the season. Who will win the League One play-offs, and who is coming down from the Championship? There’s also our somewhat-less serious topics of conversation, including Game Boys, meat-based football teams, Poleon Go, Two Word Tango, and a lot of the goddess of professional wrestling, Alexa Bliss. Who is awesome. There’s also bonus microphone issues for you this week, because we love you so much.

We also take time to speak to Herbie Knott, a Wimbledon fan of over 30 years, who is undertaking a London to Amsterdam cycle ride this summer, in aid of Prostate Cancer. Herbie is taking six other Dons fans with him, so we implore you to listen to his story, and perhaps throw a few quid his way.

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At the start of every season, the FA introduces new rules – and this season was no different. However this year, a change to loan market regulations could have massive implications for many lower league clubs.

In previous seasons, a club facing an injury crisis – or looking to add some fresh faces for a late promotion push – simply had to ring up one of their manager’s many contacts from the Championship or, if they were lucky, the Premier League, and borrow an under-21 player who would otherwise be developing their skills in glorified friendlies on the training ground every week.

Similarly, a club in Leagues One or Two would benefit from loaning out youngsters to non-league teams, in order for them to gain some first-team match experience of which there is no real substitute for. David Fitzpatrick and Toyosi Olusanya, at Torquay and Kingstonian respectively, are examples of how we have looked to use that system ourselves this campaign.

However, that option is no more and in fact, Fitzpatrick’s loan had to be cut short because of the new laws. Now, clubs in the lower leagues have to do all their business inside the dedicated August and January transfer windows.

This is actually great news for us, and has strengthened our position in the league, as we can reap the rewards of our long-term strategy that prioritised funding the Academy at the expense of an increased first-team wage budget. Players such as Fitzpatrick, instead of being farmed out or forgotten about on the sidelines, can now fight for a place in our matchday squad.

Funding

The benefits of having young, homegrown, and hungry players, ready to push for a first-team place, can not be underestimated – and neither can the importance of Academy funding.

For example, Jack Midson’s winner against Fleetwood Town, back in April 2013, is remembered as possibly one of the most important AFC Wimbledon goals since our rebirth in 2002. But not only did the goal save us from a return to the National League, which year-on-year is the hardest division from which to gain promotion, but it meant we saved our Central Funding from the Premier League, which provides £340,000 towards our Academy – just over half of our budgeted running costs.

The rewards of maintaining that funding have already been felt: Ryan Sweeney’s appearances in the first-team, and subsequent sale to Stoke; and now fresh-faced youngsters, such as Alfie Egan, are finding themselves named in Football League squad lists.

National Success

This year, for the second consecutive season, the Under 18s reached the last 16 of the FA Youth Cup, losing out narrowly to Preston North End: 3-2 in extra time. Last season, over 3,000 fans packed out Kingsmeadow to see us lose 4-1 to Chelsea, but the majority of that crowd, like myself, would have been bursting with pride that we had players, that we had produced, competing with a team featuring Swedish and Italian youth internationals.

Of course, we don’t just stumble on this talent, and anyone who visits our training ground on a Saturday or Sunday morning can see our Academy out in force. In the boys squads alone, we now have 164 players, ranging from the Under 7s to the Under 18s. We also now employ 61 staff – nine of which are full-time – that perform roles that range from coaching, operations, scouting, and, most importantly when working with youngsters, education.

I was fortunate this season to interview both Jeremy Sauer, Academy Manager, and Mark Robinson, Academy Head of Coaching. It was a great to be in the presence of people who are responsible for producing our future stars. The passion and determination they showed left me feeling that no matter how bad the odd first-team result can be on a Saturday afternoon, the future we have is bright – and beautiful. Over the past two years, we have seen 12 players sign professional contracts, with the most recent – Anthony Hartigan – potentially the best of the lot.

First-Team progression

Reaching Wembley last season, and gaining promotion to League One, was magical. We scored some great goals to help us get there – Jake Reeves’s 25-yarder against York; Tom Elliott’s shot into the top corner at Notts County – but my favourite was Tom Beere’s against Accrington Stanley, in the first leg of the play-off semi-final.

In such an important game and tense atmosphere, Neal Ardley had the confidence to bring Beere on – with just five minutes to go. I had seen Tom playing in front of no more than 100 fans, made up mostly of family members and scouts, at Merstham in the Under 21 Development League. He had just returned from a loan spell at Hampton & Richmond, and yet just months later, he is scoring a vital goal in front of a sell-out crowd, live on Sky Sports. Incredible.

Hopes and dreams

My vision for the future is a Wimbledon squad of which 40 per cent is made-up of homegrown players. This will mean we have players who know our identity and values, along with the benefit of providing us with additional funds to our budget, helping us produce a strong squad capable of holding its own and, potentially, reaching the Championship – once we are back at Plough Lane.

So next time you are feeling down about the first team losing a game, pick yourself up by heading down to our training ground in New Malden, and watch our Academy players learning the trade. Trust me, you can get as much pleasure seeing a young Anthony Hartigan scoring a goal as you can from Lyle Taylor netting a beauty at Kingsmeadow … and in a few years time, you could be seeing that player at Plough Lane, singing, “He’s one of our own” …

A version of this article first appeared in the WUP fanzine in February 2017 – http://www.wupgb.co.uk

// Stuart Deacons – @stuartddeacons

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We’re rapidly winding down the season, and is to prove the point, Stu couldn’t be bothered to turn up this week. Well, that’s not strictly true … he was injured and failed a late fitness test. In his absence, Chris Draper and Paul Raymond pick up the baton – and there’s a few different things to talk about, most notably our choices for Player and Young Player of the Year. Who are the candidates, and who is most likely to win? We discuss our thoughts.

Chris also joins Nick to have a quick chat about Kingstonian, and the future of the club as it heads to a ground-share at Leatherhead. We discuss the history of the stadium, and where things have gone wrong for our neighbours. We also think about what’s happening at Leyton Orient, and how that situation has been allowed to reach such a sad low.

There’s the defeat at Bradford to talk about, a look at what’s left to be decided in League One on Sunday, Top 7 lists, Two Word Tango, and the BEST EVER EDITION OF POLEON GO. It’s a must listen. This week’s show was also a first, as Nick recorded a good chunk of the show underwater … or at least it sounds that way. Enjoy!

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The away game at Swindon on Good Friday was this season’s designated ‘Volunteers Away Day’, in which those that selflessly give up their time to carry out vital jobs at the club are given a proper thank you, with free tickets, travel, and food provided. Chris Draper spoke to some of those volunteers about what they do and why, and we broadcast their thoughts this week, from Rob Cornell of WDON fame, to Traci ‘Turnstile’ Sleet, and the man behind the whole event, Iain McNay.

Either side of that, Nick and Stu discuss all the usual. With our current goalless run, we investigate where our goals have come from, why they have dried up, why we haven’t scored enough from midfield, and what we might have to do next season to fix it. We also discuss why we continue to demonstrate reticence in giving some players significant match time – but on the flip side, we do highlight the performances of youngsters Joe McDonnell and Toby Sibbick.

There’s also a few issues to be decided in League One, and we look ahead to what might happen at the top and bottom of the division. We also glance at next season, thinking about who’s coming down from the Championship, and the strength of the teams coming up from League Two. We also have – as always – top 7 lists, Two Word Tango, and Poleon Go … including which part of Manchester Stu believes Sheffield United come from.