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This summer’s arrivals of George Long and Jimmy Abdou marked a change in Neal Ardley’s philosophy regarding our use of the loan system.

Having had our fingers burned by the likes of Michael Smith and Matt Tubbs, and following the unsuccessful term of Ben Wilson, we ensured our first season in League One was built on a stable squad of permanent signings.

But needs must. At our level, it is proving increasingly difficult to find players that improve on who came before, especially within budget constraints, and we were forced to find a temporary solution in the centre of midfield and in goal this year.

This is not an undue concern: neither player will be recalled before the end of the campaign, and we can always repeat the trick next season.

However, Football League rules limit the number of such players we can bring in, so any more bad luck with injuries may still cost us. Yet it is the absence of a limit on the numbers that can be loaned from a club that is causing us, and our lower league rivals, greater headaches.

We are all aware of how some leading Premier League clubs abuse the loan system: stockpiling young players with no intention of using them in their own domestic or European squads, but happy to see them enhance other teams and their abilities to take points from championship rivals. For an example of how severe the tactic has become, look at Chelsea, who on July 5 this year announced simultaneously that youngster Tammy Abraham had signed a five-year contract extension at Stamford Bridge, and been lent to Swansea for the forthcoming season.

Indeed, Chelsea have 26 contracted players out on loan this year: 12 of which will be competing in the top two divisions of the pyramid this season.

Which begs the question: why do Chelsea, or any other Premier League side for that matter, need to be part of the Football League Trophy?

We are told that it is to help the development of young English players, but if they can be so readily farmed-out to top-flight competitors, what benefit do they gain from a few games against League One or Two opposition – many of whom will be playing at a much lower intensity as they would in a League or FA Cup tie, or be making many changes to also give playing time to the lesser experienced members of the squad?

If the aim is to give these players the opportunity to play men’s football, then why not send more players on permanent loans to clubs in our league? Stoke City’s Ryan Sweeney has just begun a second-spell with Bristol Rovers, and Huddersfield striker Jordy Hiwula will be spending another year in the third tier: this time with Fleetwood Town after his successful time at Bradford last season.

But that is not the aim of the loan system, at least not for the country’s bigger clubs, nor is it the aim of inviting so-called ‘B’ Teams into the FL Trophy, and with apologies for sounding like every article in When Saturday Comes that you’ve ever read, everything is done in the self-serving interests of the clubs. And the danger it poses to clubs like ourselves is ever-increasing.

Take, for example, Neal Ardley’s comments following the Brentford game, in which he said he, “didn’t think players should be asked to play a 90-minute league game on the Saturday, followed by 120 minutes in a midweek cup tie and then a further league game the next Saturday. It’s too early in the season to submit players to that sort of challenge.”

His early, indirect call for the abandonment of extra-time in the competition is surely done with the knowledge of the inflated fixture list caused by the expanded Trophy, and its group format.

So whilst our small, currently injury-plagued squad deals with the demands of those games, many Premier League youngsters are left kicking their heels, failing to progress, waiting for a handful of fixtures against Crewe and Forest Green Rovers.

The re-introduction of the banning of loans between clubs in the same division would encourage more clubs to send their developing talent – or ‘assets’, as the boardrooms in the Premier League refer to them – for a season in proper, competitive football.

It worked for Harry Kane, Jermain Defoe, and David Beckham: there is no reason it wouldn’t work for Harvey St Clair, Josh Grant, or Joe Bursik’s England team-mate, Jonathan Panzo.

And it would eliminate any pretence for young teams competing in a Football League competition. A win for all of us.

But these ‘elite’ teams like to work for the few, not the many, and the powers that be are more concerned with how clubs mow their pitches than they do the welfare of the lifeblood of the game – be it the small clubs and their supporters, or the career progression of the next generation of players.

// Nick Draper – @ngdraper

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Risk. It’s a fantastic board game. I love the tactics, and with a little bit of luck, you can make some serious strides to achieving your goal. But the title says it all: you have to sometimes take some strange risks in order to achieve your goal. And I saw how the calculated risk Neal has taken this season – introducing a new style of play – paid-off against Burton in pre-season. In abundance.

So, looking at that Burton game, I would like to start from the back, and Joe McDonnell. He didn’t have to make many saves that made the Kingsmeadow faithful gasp and coo in awe, but all the other elements to his game were, simply put, brilliant. He commanded crosses and his distribution was excellent (he even made an assist to Cody McDonald’s goal), but what struck me the most was how assured he was with the ball at his feet. We played a very interesting possession game against the Brewers and it negated the tactics that Nigel Clough likes his teams to play. We drew their team out, created massive spaces on the tiny Kingsmeadow pitch, and played the ball around the opposition. And young Joe played more than his part in achieving that tactic.

Our back four (and a half, if you include Anthony Hartigan as a defensive midfielder) were incredibly assured, stemming from the confidence they had in McDonnell’s skills on the ball. Young Toby Sibbick, playing at right-back, put in a great performance and has certainly shown the management team that he isn’t here to prop up the squad numbers; Paul Robinson and Will Nightingale were so assured, so versatile, and so incredibly well organised that I can only echo Kevin Borras’s sentiment that they appeared to be a modern day Franz Beckenbauer and Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck; and with Deji Oshilaja, we had a left back who was so at ease with moving forward with the ball at his feet, it made me wonder how Jon Meades and Callum Kennedy will ever make the team, should Neal want to stick with this formation.

Young Anthony Hartigan was, to compare to another German great, a young Stefan Effenberg. He bossed the defensive midfield like he was in his late twenties, not like he is only 17 years old. My friend’s father-in-law, who was visiting from Germany and attended the match, echoed my sentiments. When I informed him of Hartigan’s tender age, the gentleman spat half his mouthful of beer out, exasperated with that revelation. So assured in position and on the ball, he played the perfect unassuming game. Egli Kaja, on the right wing, was as good going forward as Hartigan was defending: brilliant at causing the Burton defence headaches. Dean Parrett was back to his energetic self, spilling the ball out to the wings and looking for that pass to split their defence open, whilst Andy Barcham was Andy Barcham, one we can always depend on and who is ready to run himself into the ground. Jimmy Abdou, who I have massive hopes for, had a very quiet game, but I am certain he will adapt to the Neal Ardley school of high pressure soon enough, and Cody McDonald was also impressive. He isn’t your target man or striker who will take the ball from 30 yards, run and shoot; he is a poacher – a six-yard-box striker. And he brings a whole new dimension to the AFC Wimbledon story that is being written.

I will not criticise any player on the pitch against Burton, for I cannot criticise any player. This is because they wore their heart on their sleeve, defeated a Championship team with absolute ease, kept a clean sheet, and didn’t once worry me that the “better team” was actually going to cause Wimbledon any problems. So I’m very hopeful that this new style of football will stand us in good stead this season. Sometimes it will fail, of course, but I really feel that for the most part, it will succeed, for Neal is creating a band of players who play for each other, not hoof and hope.

I never thought I would ever quote Jim Carrey, but he was right when he said, “It is better to risk starving to death then surrender. If you give up on your dreams, what’s left?” This summer’s transfer recruitment is a risk because it takes us away from any long ball football we have been accustomed to for so long. It might need a little tweaking, as is evident from the draw at Scunthorpe, but the early signs are good, and I have faith that we are heading in the right direction. After watching the game at Glanford Park on iFollow, I maintain the above sentiments ring true.

// Mark Hendrikx – @MarkatCIFF

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We’ve all just about had enough of pre-season by now, so luckily the start of the season is on the horizon – and let’s just hope it goes a little better than our recent opening game lull.

It wasn’t just last season, when we failed to win in our opening five league games, where the first game has been a bit of a nothing-ness. Over the last few years we’ve not really many opening day results to shout home about, and the first game of the season has never been all it’s cracked up to be.

Of course, we’re excited to fill the void in our Saturdays again – but I can’t wait to just get the first game over and done with. There is so much expectation that never really gets lived up to.

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Perhaps it’s an age thing, but I was brought up with goalkeepers being the stalwarts of their team. Undoubtedly I was spoilt rotten by the stats of Dickie Guy – nearly 600 appearances, including 275 consecutive games and a spell between January 1970 and August 1977 when ‘El Presidente’ missed just one game (a relatively low-key London Senior Cup tie) – and thereafter came Dave Beasant, 340-plus games, Hans Segers with 317, and Neil Sullivan circa 200, which would undoubtedly have been more but for two broken legs.

Such longevity went out of the window in the early AFCW years of course. Hands up who will remember the likes of Lee Carroll, Clark Masters and Tony Smith in a few years’ time? Corrin Brooks-Meade anyone? Andy Little would have been ideal if we could have snared him earlier in his career and Seb Brown threatened to write his name large with his Eastlands heroics, but these days, even in the more rarefied air of the third tier, it all boils down to two choices . . .

LOANEE OR PERMANENT SIGNING?

You can make a case for either of course. The loanee is arguably a bigger gamble. For every yin of Kelle Roos there is the yang (or in his case the clang) of Ben Wilson. Their parent club can, in many cases, recall them at a moment’s notice should they either need them for their own requirements or to loan-on for more advantageous terms – or to sell if a suitable offer is received. And there’s the rub: if they are not good enough, there is the inevitable clamour for them to be shipped back; too good, and envious eyes are quickly cast towards them.

Permanent signings are also not without risk, on the basis that homework will be done on them for their technical abilities as well as the necessary cojones and personality to fit into often complex and occasionally abrasive dressing room cultures. That said, I’m still perplexed how a 35-year-old Ryan Clarke, with an apparently dodgy shoulder and a career spent almost exclusively in the Conference or League Two, was recruited so quickly for our League One campaign last season. That he lasted nine games before a parting of the waves occurred tells me we got that one horribly, horribly wrong.

This summer the approach seems to have been somewhat different. James Shea can consider himself unlucky to have been dispensed with, as the management indicated they wanted a different type of goalkeeper: taller, more commanding and with the ability to pull off spectacular saves seemed to be the wish-list – a list that stretched to fifteen candidates, we are informed. I wondered if Chelsea’s Jamal Blackman featured on that register for, having been toughened up by a good season in League Two with Wycombe, a natural step-up in levels seemed to be the next, logical, career progression for him. Quite how much the Chairboys contributed towards his alleged £13,000 weekly wage at Stamford Bridge is open to conjecture, but with Neal hinting that, “we wanted a Chelsea player on loan, but you have to give presentations, promise to play or improve them, and then you get told we are ‘too lowly’”, perhaps it was for the best.

BY GEORGE

So George Long it is then. He ended last season third choice at Sheffield United behind Simon Moore and, later, teenager Aaron Ramsdale – who has since joined Bournemouth for a million pound fee – but his pedigree is pretty impressive for a 23-year-old: one hundred first-team games for the Blades, SPL experience with Motherwell, an England U20 cap, and courted by the likes of Scunthorpe and Portsmouth. The word on the street was that he’s vocal, with a kick on him, and just needs to play. He’s also out of contract at the end of 2017-18, so perhaps this loan could turn into something more permanent.

First impressions against a strong Watford side were very positive. Several good blocks, including some good positional anticipation and a couple of clean catches, seemed to get the crowd onside almost immediately, which ‘Longy’ (groan) visibly responded to. Early doors of course, when he hasn’t played competitively as yet, but I’ve seen enough to think he’ll turn out to be a good ‘un.

I certainly hope so anyway . . .

// Ray Armfield – @KentWomble

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When I read that Tom Elliott had left the Dons, the first words that came out of my mouth took my friend by surprise. In all honesty I was quite taken aback too, as it wasn’t the observation I had intended to make.

It was rather obvious that we would miss his aerial presence up front, and he was also in possession of a deft touch that belied his height and build – and Notts County and Yeovil’s goalkeepers would certainly attest to the powerful shot he had in his armoury, although as both of those wonder strikes came within a couple of weeks of each other in January 2016, that previously unforeseen power might have been explained by a particularly carnivorous Christmas or a hefty dental bill that made him take his frustration out on a football. His record of 15 league goals in 78 games is hardly anything to write home about, but his overall contribution was far greater than that return might have suggested.

Tom Elliott was also one of those players who “got” our club. I know there are people out there who detest that phrase but on this occasion I make no apology and seek no alternative as it’s entirely appropriate. Maybe there is nothing to “get” about Barnet or Morecambe, but there is something deeper to understand about AFC Wimbledon and he seemed to pick up on it very early on.

He was one of those players that came to us with something to prove – not just to us but to himself. A friend of mine who supports Cambridge United was quite ambivalent about him leaving, saying at the time that he had ability but seemed to lack the mental application required. “Let’s just say he’s not the kind of player who’d run through the proverbial brick wall for you – you wouldn’t find him playing with a cast on a broken wrist, he’d be more likely to miss a couple of games with a slight knock. If he ends up playing 20 games for you this season, I’ll be surprised but quietly very pleased.”

He was also a player that really appreciated the support of the fans and at times appeared genuinely touched by the rapturous reception he would inevitably receive as he was substituted, even after he’d had a rare ineffective game. We won’t be hearing that song any more as we quite clearly haven’t got Tom Elliott, but another thing that has to be said is that no-one seems to begrudge him his move to the Championship – he wants to better himself, earn as much from football as he can and play at the highest level possible – and judging by his comments when he first signed for Millwall, he appreciated everything our club did for him as much as we appreciated what he did for our club.

So what was it that I’d said that had caused my fellow Don to react with puzzlement?

“We’re going to miss him defensively.”

I still stand by that. I genuinely believe that that is where we find our side slightly weaker than the last couple of seasons. How many times in his two years with us did he get his head to a corner and clear the danger for us? I’d argue that it was probably as many times as Robbo and Darius did. I dread to think how many more goals we would have conceded without Tom’s shiny pate deflecting a well-struck free-kick or corner out for a throw or another corner – particularly last season when our opponents’ dead ball delivery was markedly better. His defensive headers would travel 20 or 30 yards to safety as he managed to get as much accuracy into them as he did when he was attacking crosses at the other end.

At the recent Meet the Manager event, Neal Ardley revealed that his teams this season will be playing with a new style that eschews the traditional big centre forward in favour of smaller, pacier strikers. One of the reasons we’ve played with a target man since Neal arrived is the state of the pitch – meaning no disrespect to the ground staff whatsoever as you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear – that dictated for most of the season the most potent form of attack was get it up to (for the previous two seasons) Tom and he’ll bring others into the game. With the newly-laid surface in place, Neal is convinced that we now have the basic tools to do the job he wants and I for one am looking forward to seeing Cody, Kwesi and Lyle execute those plans. However, with the tallest of those three players at 5ft 11ins, I can’t help but wonder who is going to be tasked with replacing the aerial ability of Tom Elliott in our penalty area.

// Kevin Borras

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Neal Ardley will be a Premier League manager. Hopefully he’ll perform the role whilst sitting in the home dugout of Plough Lane, but if not, there is no doubt he will one day ply his trade with one of the top 20 clubs in the country.

Neal has the focus, desire, confidence, and humility to succeed. He seeks to improve himself every year, and incorporates every aspect of the game into his style, from tactics to fitness to psychology. His willingness to learn and research new concepts and ideas means he has an understanding of how to make things work at any level of the sport, and therefore not allow himself to be ‘pigeon-holed’ as a lower league expert, like many of his contemporaries.

And by maintaining high expectations and standards of himself, he not only motivates those around him, but he upholds his ability not to sell himself short, meaning he knows what he can offer, and should he move on, it will be on his terms, with a club he is confident is the right fit for him.

At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that that club won’t continue to be ours for many years to come.

He said as much himself on Friday, at the Meet The Manager event. When asked if other clubs had approached him, his reply could be surmised to, “I’m allowed to run the place here; where else would I go, and why would I want to go?”

By that, of course, he means that he is allowed to get on with his job with very little, if any, interference from those above him. As Neal explained, in this age of instant gratification, opportunities to have the time needed to fully do the job you wish to do are extremely limited – and he already considers himself lucky to occupy one of just 92 roles on offer. We are even luckier that he is filling that role with us.

For it is an event like Friday’s, when the gaffer is allowed to be a bit more candid with his comments, that you really get a feel for the person behind the full-time round of applause and carefully-worded post-match comments. As I say, Neal’s passion shines through, but more importantly, the ability to explain the logic behind his decisions, which are scrutinised at length by us all, allows us to realise how complex and considered each judgement is, and how no decision is ever made without thorough thought, consultation, and examination.

A lesson for us all, perhaps, when frustrations begin to boil under the surface on a damp, cold, Saturday afternoon.

As for more of the specifics of Friday’s Q&A, there were some key takeaways. Be they fascinating, reassuring, or concerning, they are all things we should be considering throughout the early part of the season, if not beyond . . .

RECRUITMENT

Neal admitted he got this wrong last season, and was determined not to make the same mistake this year. The theme that connected his ‘mistakes’ was team spirit: he said that whilst he was aware of problems, it was during individual player meetings in which he finally connected all the dots. We assume, fairly safely, that is why Tyrone Barnett has departed, and why Neal was not too upset to see Poleon go.

Of course, we were a month behind in our recruitment process last season, which is a fair mitigating factor – not that Neal seeks to use that as an excuse. But this summer, key business was completed quickly, with targets that the management team knew would embolden team spirit, rather than upset it. Yes, some might turn their noses up at the return of players we’ve had previously, but as Neal said, their quality is not in question – as we have seen with our own eyes – and we are certain they will effortlessly settle into the squad.

JAKE REEVES

Jake’s departure has upset preparations a little. Whilst Neal was aware this could happen, I think he was banking on it not, and we do now have a little concern in the midfield area.

As I discussed last week, Tom Soares and Dean Parrett will be expected to cover for the time being – but Parrett is one that has to gain the trust of Ardley, and quickly. Neal explained that he felt Dean had not contributed enough last year, despite statistics that have been used to the contrary by people like myself, as for a midfielder that doesn’t do the defensive side of the role, his attacking influence should have been greater.

In the meantime, Ardley is searching for another two players in that position. Spending money to help fulfil the role wasn’t hinted at as being an option, and we have trialists in the squad currently. Again, for those that might turn their nose up at that, Neal points out that Reeves was signed as a player who couldn’t get a game at Swindon, was brought in on a free, and has left for a large fee. Why can’t we repeat that process now?

YOUTH

The other option is to bring through our Academy players, such as Alfie Egan, as fans, and the Football Club Board, clamour for. But Neal is more reticent, as we have seen, feeling that our younger players are either not physically ready for consistent first-team football, or, simply, are not good enough.

In his time as manager, around a dozen Academy players have been given their debut. Neal believes around a half to three-quarters were not good enough. This is an honest but very difficult message to deliver, yet it shouldn’t be. As Neal explained, whilst we might see the fantastic progress of our young teams, especially in the FA Youth Cup, we need to remember that they are playing in their own age group – if not against younger ages, on occasion – and that the gap to first-team, men’s football is a big one to bridge. The oft-cited Manchester United Class of ’92 are the outstanding exception to the general rule.

So whilst Toby Sibbick, Alfie Egan, and Antony Hartigan appear to be the most likely to get experience this season, we must still remain patient with them. For some in the past, such as Ben Harrison, it was too much, too soon, and we don’t want others to suffer the same fate.

MARGINAL GAINS

A small but most notable discussion centred on the use of statistics, and how best we can use them next season. As we know, Neal is very keen on monitoring all the quantifiable aspects of a game, but sometimes it is tough to translate into setting targets – there are many variables to consider when asking Andy Barcham to provide x number of assists a season, for example.

Neal identified two that he thinks we can control, monitor directly, and that should benefit our performance: he wants us to be in the top six clubs for metres run, and recovering the ball in the opposition’s half. So keep an eye out for a lot of high pressing from us once the season gets underway.

FORECASTS

Finally, predictions for the coming season. Once again, we’re in the lower reaches of the budget table, but once again, Neal doesn’t set expectations in line with that – nor do the players do that of themselves.

However, it does mean we have to maintain a sense of realism. Not only is our budget and squad small, but the league is much stronger this year, with the clubs coming down in good shape, and four well-resourced clubs coming up from the opposite direction.

Last season, Neal was able to predict four teams that would be battling in the lower reaches of the table, and was correct on all of them. This year, he would only venture one – Gillingham – and that tells its own story. So whilst he believes we have strengthened, he will know that maintaining our position in League One is the main aim.

That said, he wants to improve on last year, and motivate his squad, and be realistic. He thinks we’re capable of a top 10 finish: I would, cautiously, agree.

// Nick Draper – @ngdraper

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Neal Ardley’s biggest challenge this season will be managing the broad range of characters and varying levels of confidence within the first team.

He did this to great effect in our League Two promotion season, building around a strong, demanding spine that ran from Darius Charles to Lyle Taylor via Dannie Bulman and Jake Reeves.

But we enter pre-season this week less three of those – and with a couple of brash personalities thrown into the mix.

So whilst Neal will have to encourage and embolden the centre of his midfield, he will also likely need to placate the ardour of his forward line.

His track record with Lyle tells us he can manage individuals, and get them to manage their frustrations. However Kwesi Appiah and Cody McDonald are different animals, and although the latter found it “easy to integrate” on the first day of training, things can easily change when competitive action begins.

Of course, Kwesi played under Ardley previously, in 2014 – scoring three times in seven appearances for us whilst on loan from Crystal Palace. He was very popular with the fans, but his style would have been less appreciated had he been playing against us, instead of for. His game had niggle, be it a sly nudge off-the-ball or a cross word with an official, and an edge that can lose you a man as much as it can win you three points.

The latter of those traits were seen in Lyle when he first joined, and Neal assuaged them well – with a little assistance from a sports psychologist, perhaps. Now he has to ensure he coexists with Appiah and McDonald, be it in a front three, or as competitors for a starting place. And as we discovered this time last year, Lyle’s not the best at disguising his unhappiness …

On the other side of the coin is the apparent dearth of leaders in the middle of the park. Dannie Bulman and Jake Reeves were not only popular in the dressing room, they led by example on the pitch with their energy and drive. They were not players to hide if things weren’t going our way.

Filling the gap they leave behind is not a job Neal would have had on his to-do list at the end of April, and as it stands, Dean Parrett and Tom Soares will be the ones to expected to cover. The pair will need some positive reinforcement if they are to succeed.

Parrett, despite being credited with more assists than any other Dons player last season, is believed to be one player that Ardley was happy to listen to offers for in the summer. Used sparingly throughout the campaign, his final appearance came as an 88th minute substitute on the final day: a decision from the manager that looked to have a serious message underlying its otherwise baffling nature.

Soares, meanwhile – a regular starter after joining in February – came from a struggling Bury side, who had endured an 18-match winless streak between October and January, into one that could not find any semblance of form. His confidence had clearly taken a knock, and now he must hit the ground running at the start of the season, or find himself an outlet for the frustrations of sections of an already nervous Kingsmeadow crowd.

And that is Neal’s job: creating an environment in which Parrett and Soares are motivated, confident, and secure. It’s also the job of our forward line not to put any further pressure on any less assured players. And it’s also the job of others in the squad to bring the team together.

Barry Fuller and Paul Robinson are natural leaders: they must be Neal’s voice on the field, keeping egos in check whilst, at the same time, boosting others. And if they do that, we’ll be on to a winner, because this squad bears the hallmarks of the stereotypical ‘Wimbledon’ team, much like the one of 2016.

It was the spirit in that camp that took us from a rock-bottom defeat to Stevenage, and an ill-informed Christmas party, to winning at Wembley six months later. That was no fluke: it was a promotion built on togetherness, with egos left at the door, driven by men who did not allow standards to drop, but knew how to motivate others.

Fuller, Robinson, Taylor, Meades, Charles … these are the players that remain from that squad that Neal needs to trust to take responsibility for maintaining that confidence and unity in the team. And Neal himself must know how to take care of those that might upset the balance.

Having come through the Wimbledon youth system to handle himself alongside Jones, Fashanu, Sanchez, and Segers, it’s probably fair to say that our gaffer might just have an idea on how to make it work.

// Nick Draper – @ngdraper

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My son starts school in September, which means that henceforth, my wife and I will have to pay those inflated school holiday prices whenever we go abroad. So, this being our final year of getting “that cheaper deal”, we decided on going to the Hard Rock Hotel in Tenerife.

It has it all: the fabulous pools, a few footballer celebrities that I recognise, Danny Boyle, and probably the best background music scene any music lover would die for. And to boot, we have some very similar minded guests, amongst a few of whom it was not long until football became the hot topic of conversation.

One gent I spoke to grew up in Southampton, and went to the Dell for a decade before moving away and becoming a fully-fledged Newcastle United supporter. We spoke a bit about AFC Wimbledon and our history (he knew a lot about the rebirth, the prospective move to Plough Lane, and that we play at “Kingstonian’s old ground”), and we discussed, as is often the case when you meet a supporter of a Premier League team, a lot about their relegation, Rafa Benitez staying, and their subsequent promotion.

It is slightly irksome, yet amusing, that supporters of Premier League and (top eight) Championship teams seem to take the discussion away from lower league sides: Conference and non-league sides can garner some talk, but Leagues One and Two receive the bare minimum of debate. It is very much an ‘us and them’ chat that always starts to raise my eyebrows as high as the sky, especially as said Saints supporter looked at our league and said, “You see, I look at the teams in your league, and they’re all small clubs. Don’t get me wrong, I can see from the perspective of AFC Wimbledon that they are big clubs to go visit: Blackburn are a falling giant, Southend’s attendances are up and down like crazy … and Bury?”

So with that, I decided to look at the differences in attendances between Championship and League One clubs – using my German eyes, not those blighted by bias for my beloved AFC Wimbledon – because, as we all know and must believe, matchday attendances bear the true nature of a club’s support.

With Newcastle averaging around 51,000 through the turnstiles last season, and Burton attracting around 5,200 for a home game – mainly due to their tiny ground – the average attendance in the Championship came to 20,119. In League One, Sheffield United led the way on 21,800, whilst Fleetwood’s 3,300 average propped up the table, culminating in an average of 7,900 attendees across the division. That’s an average difference of almost 300 per cent between the divisions, adding more weight to the claim that there is a gulf in size between clubs in League One and the Championship, at least in terms of paying spectators. The revenues from the FA and ‘trickle down monies’ from the Premier League & live TV bonuses – discussed here by Nick Draper – are other factors, but I shall not and want not to discuss that side of the coin just now.

Now, there is an argument that ‘Blackburn is too big a club to be in League One’ being touted on occasion, and if history and size of the stadium is taken into account, I can fully support that point of view. However, due to recent history and bad off-field management, they fully deserve to be in the third tier. Ergo, they must forfeit the right for higher attendances and find their funding through a sugar daddy – and we all know how attendances can have a major influence on financing players or wages or transfer fees. Especially in the lower leagues.

So let us talk about ‘Little ol’ Wimbledon’ in this context. We averaged a crowd of 4,450 last season. Our capacity is 4,850. That is a great percentage of maximum capacity to have. The new stadium in Plough Lane will have an initial 9,000 or 11,000 capacity, depending on which reports you like to believe, with scope to increase to 20,000, but all we can do is base our projections of attendance at the new stadium with the current figures from Kingsmeadow. And therein lies the rub, as the bard would tell us: they are projected. Some are saying we will probably average around 7,000 fans if we are in League One, 5,000 if we are in League Two, and we would probably sell out if we are in the Championship when we move back home. I tend to agree with those numbers, give or take a thousand, and that still puts is in good stead for whatever division we are in.

However, to go back to the initial argument, put forward by that South Coast Gentleman put: the teams in League One ARE small clubs, compared to the likes of his team and their 51,000 average attendance. But for us 4,500 punters, the League One attendance table looks quite daunting.

Quite daunting, that is, until we look at what Neal and his team achieve every season, and realise that the adage of “punching above your weight” is actually quite apt. Until we get that new freaking stadium, of course.

Can someone point me towards that wrecking ball?

// Mark Hendrikx – @MarkatCIFF

comment_170619

It is typical that the biggest clubs in the country, long detached from the lives of the people who support them, are edging ever closer to their European rivals at the same time the nation awaits its independence from its continental counterparts.

The desire of last season’s top six teams to take a greater share of the Premier League’s television revenue continues to be subdued by their fellow top flight clubs, who are vaunted for their stance. But with English clubs’ performances continuing to decline in the Champions League, the owners of those six clubs will not tolerate the status quo for much longer.

And as competition within Europe’s other top leagues continues to deteriorate, and as TV companies scramble to find ways to boost flagging viewing figures, the outcome, which many have expected for decades, seems inevitable.

But whilst common opinion has always been opposed to the idea of a European ‘Super League’, clubs in the Football League should perhaps start to consider how beneficial the disappearance of the nation’s largest sides could be – and the evidence is already starting to mount.

Over the last two seasons, stadium attendance in all three divisions of the Football League has risen. League Two may have noticed a modest 1.5 per cent increase, but with rises of 12.7 per cent each, League One and The Championship have experienced somewhat of a boom period.

Of course, the relegations of Aston Villa and Newcastle have impacted these figures, but these increases are not to be ignored. Television has made elite-level football more accessible than ever before, but the desire to attend games on a Saturday afternoon remains as fierce as it always has been.

And for Premier League clubs, those three o’clock kick-offs will soon be rarer than a full stadium in Milton Keynes.

The current broadcast contract allows for 168 live games a season – at a cost of £5.136bn to Sky and BT Sports. However, viewership as a whole dropped: 14 per cent for Sky; 2 per cent for BT.

So in an effort to ensure the two broadcasters continue to invest such huge sums, clubs are proposing allowing over 200 games to be screened live when the new contract begins in 2019. That leaves less than half of all games to be scheduled for Saturday 3pm – and that figure will be further diminished by midweek games and Europa League rescheduling.

With viewing numbers falling so sharply, the broadcasters have, naturally, looked for ways to ensure they can afford the product, with the loss of the contract not an option, particularly for Sky, who will not want to suffer the embarrassment of letting slip their hold of the competition they have helped build since 1992.

The only way to keep those figures up is to offer more and more games to international viewers, at times more convenient to them. Saturday evenings and early Sunday mornings are another inevitability, to exploit the Asian and Australian markets, with the former also attempting to steal a share of the UK peak-time audience.

It’s a tactic that the biggest clubs in Spain have already started to take advantage of, with Real Madrid and Barcelona experimenting with 12.30 or 10pm starts. And it is this that forms the crux of the issue for the ‘Big Six’.

It is currently estimated that international rights rake in £3bn of revenue for the Premier League. The argument, pushed chiefly by Liverpool and Manchester City – but supported by Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Chelsea – is that their popularity is the key generator behind that revenue, and that they should have a greater share.

For those clubs, it is the only way to compete with their Spanish rivals, who have won six of the last 10 Champions League finals between them.

But the Premier League’s collective bargaining deal will restrict them from doing so, and with Sky wanting to ensure they can continue to profit from subscribers, a breakaway European League seems the only solution for the biggest players in the market to get exactly what they want.

Why should the Football League celebrate this? There are many problems that would have to be resolved which have the potential to have a negative impact – the fate of the FA Cup, for one.

However, with attendances already on the rise, EFL clubs could be taking advantage of a surge through the turnstiles from 2019, when for many top flight fans, Sunday morning away games become unattainable. On top of that, the increased cost of pay TV channels could also convince fans to head to their local club for their weekend football fix – especially with many freezing and even reducing ticket prices, with a notable increase in matchday turnouts because of that, most famously at Bradford City.

Any departure for the top clubs to a breakaway league would likely need a lot of negotiation, akin to – but hopefully nowhere near as laborious as – our beloved Brexit. For example, whilst a rise in ticket sales would be beneficial, it would be negated if the cash that trickles down from the top division, however negligible many believe it to be, was not protected.

Yet in the age of globalisation, numbers wanting to connect with people at a local, community level is burgeoning. A more competitive top division, free from the stranglehold of half a dozen clubs, would do wonders for clubs seeking greater engagement from their local population.

For ourselves, with a new stadium on the horizon, the potential is huge. For so long we have resisted reform, but perhaps a change at the top will ensure life for us remains how we would like it to be. It’s just a question of whether the rest of Europe’s elite clubs elect not to remain with the status quo, and instead leave their nations behind.

I can’t speak for those countries, but I’m not sure English football would be too sorry to see our top clubs go. We’d remain strong and stable without them, and I’m sure the benefits would be felt by the many – not just the few.

// Nick Draper – @ngdraper

comment_170612

Tom Elliott typified what Wimbledon fans look for in a player. Strong, honest, hard-working and affable, we should be proud and humble to have had him at our club – not downhearted that he has decided to move on.

Indeed, despite Tom being voted Player of the Year by supporters – who also urged him to sign a new contract as he collected said award – his exit will not weaken the first-team whatsoever. In fact, it is likely to strengthen us as we enter our difficult second season in League One.

This is not to detract from or diminish his achievements during the last campaign, or his importance to us in maintaining our position in the third tier.

But aside from a purple-patch of form between October last year and January this, the quality of Tom’s performances over the course of his two seasons with the club was inconsistent, and our desire to build around him rendered us predictable, inflexible, and ineffectual for most of the second-half of our League One campaign.

Having left Leeds in 2011, and struggled at a number of clubs, including Hamilton Academical during a short spell with the Scottish Premier League side, Tom found his feet – and enjoyed his most prolific spell – with Cambridge United, in the Conference. He finished the 2012-13 season as the club’s top goal-scorer, netting once every two games, before fitness problems disrupted his form over the next couple of years.

Eight goals during United’s first season back in the Football League encouraged Neal Ardley to bring him to Kingsmeadow as one of four strikers in the squad – most likely with a view to rotating him with Adebayo Akinfenwa in the role of target man. As the season unfolded, Elliott was often Ardley’s pick in the starting line-up, but his contributions were limited – the last of his six League Two goals coming in a 3-2 defeat to Yeovil in January.

Akinfenwa, meanwhile, began to exert his influence on the squad as the season wore on, and played a vital role in not only earning us a place in the play-offs, but winning them as well. His performances over the entirety of the campaign had been much-maligned, but Akinfenwa’s season total of six goals was equal to that of Elliott’s – even though both registered on the score-sheet fewer times than another much-maligned forward, Adebayo Azeez.

The anaemic nature of Tom’s performances led many to believe that he would struggle in League One, and that fear seemed to be being realised over the first 10 games of the season, with Elliott and new signing Tyrone Barnett interchangeable alongside Lyle Taylor in a staid 442 line-up.

But a switch to 433 in late September changed Tom’s, and the team’s, fortunes.

Away wins at Oxford, Bury, and Peterborough saw the Dons playing their best football of the season, with Taylor and Andy Barcham flourishing alongside the big man upfront. Whilst Elliott dominated both centre-halves in the air, his two partners exploited space out wide and in-behind the opposition, which allowed the Dons midfield to push high up the pitch also. Teams were unable to counter the fluid nature of the team in that period, and another play-off push was not out of the question, especially with Dom Poleon slotting comfortably into the system when required.

However, the key to the success of that system was dependent on Elliott winning his battles. And just before Christmas, once teams figured out how to nullify his threat, Tom’s impact became marginalised – and the team suffered. Unable to win his aerial duels, his lack of pace, and surprisingly poor ability with his back to goal, were accentuated. Worryingly, we did not seem confident to change plans from what had been working so well for us before, and so became almost obsessed with directing our attacking play through Tom, to the visible frustration of some of his teammates.

Occasionally, it paid dividends – Bolton away, for example – but for the most part, it hampered us. Tom’s late equaliser at home to Charlton was born more out of persistence than quality, and the subsequent draw with Coventry – for which Elliott was suspended – exhibited the tactical rigidity we had succumbed to: if Tom was not there, we did not change style, only personnel. We had become so one-dimensional that the team lacked ideas, imagination, or invention. After the turn of the new year, we managed just five wins – and Tom failed to score in any of them.

So instead of being fearful of the impact Elliott’s departure will have on the team, we must take advantage of his leaving, and re-evaluate how we will tackle League One next year. We have to reassess how to get the best out of our most productive attacking players – namely Poleon and Taylor, who were as and more prolific than Elliott respectively last year – and instil a flexibility in our players that avoids prescribing them with a complacent, routine game-plan.

This does not mean we forget the contribution Tom made for us, nor that he is an upstanding individual, as the podcast team discovered whilst working with him in the latter part of the season, during which time he proved himself a true gentleman and perfect ambassador for the club.

But had he not decided to chance his arm with Millwall – and the club offered him a new contract, remember – we’d have likely slept-walked into keeping calm and carrying on as before, almost certainly into a scrap to avoid relegation.

We can feel sad that such a character is no longer a part of our family, but we must welcome the opportunity to make ourselves stronger, and more stable, without him. The signing of Kwesi Appiah is the first step: his touch and movement, allied with the pace of Barcham and goals that Lyle guarantees, should make us forget what has been, and get us excited by what is to come.

// Nick Draper – @ngdraper