Courtesy: Paul Edwards

There was a touch of Championship-level class about Wimbledon’s first win of the season – and their first in League One since March.

Kwesi Appiah’s return to Kingsmeadow in the summer was much heralded by Dons boss Neal Ardley, who believed the Ghana striker should be plying his trade in the second tier of English football.

And the goal with which Appiah opened the scoring with in this victory would certainly grace a higher division.

With his back to goal, the 27-year-old forward flicked the ball past Doncaster’s Andy Butler, span the other side of the centre-half, and calmly slotted the ball past goalkeeper Ian Lawlor from 12 yards.

The finish was of a quality so far removed from the hour of football that had come before it, as neither side could find any energy or inject any impetus in the late-summer heat.

A particularly insipid first-half, in which neither side managed an attempt on target, offered no indication of the ability Appiah – or any of his team-mates, for that matter – could provide.

Indeed, it would have been a most optimistic Wimbledon fan to predict, at the half-time break, that the Dons were going to end their 437-minute wait for a home league goal.

But once Appiah injected his moment of class, a previously morose Kingsmeadow stirred, and Ardley’s men found their zeal.

Just three minutes after the opener, Andy Barcham doubled the lead, dribbling from deep at the heart of the visitors’ defence to fire home a low shot, off Lawlor’s right-hand post, from 25 yards.

It was a deserved goal for the forward, who was Wimbledon’s liveliest player throughout, and ended his own search for a goal, having not scored since February – and not at Kingsmeadow since August 2016.

But despite the Dons’ lack of goals of late, with just one scored in their last 900 minutes of League One football, Ardley was never worried about a lack of firepower in this squad.

“I have every confidence in the forwards we have scoring goals,” he commented after the game. “My job is to get the team enough of the ball and in good positions to create chances for them.”

In the second-half of this encounter, he certainly did his job, although Barcham, who Ardley described as “a real menace”, was key to this.

The 30-year-old’s display, linking nicely with Taylor in and around the 18-yard box, was just lacking with the final pass, in keeping with much of the Dons’ season so far.

It has been poor decision-making in the final third that cost Wimbledon in their first three games, as decent performances at Scunthorpe and Fleetwood were not reflected in points gained.

The lack of service to the industrious yet frustrated Cody McDonald meant the summer signing from Gillingham was unlucky to find himself on the bench for this game, and until his goal, Appiah’s return to the side did not appear merited.

His, and the team’s, improved second-half came likely as a result of a slight tactical change, in which he and Taylor played much closer together as a front-pairing.

Ardley’s preferred 4-3-3 system was still very much in evidence, but with Barcham hugging the touchline and George Francomb offering width on the right from his usual midfield berth, spectators can be forgiven for thinking a more traditional 4-4-2 was in effect.

The fluidity allowed Wimbledon to take charge of affairs, and Lawlor did well to block Barcham from scoring again with 20 minutes to go.

Not that it ever looked like the home side would need another goal to secure their victory. Doncaster, who had won their previous two away games at Blackburn and Bradford in league and cup respectively, could not find any intensity in their play, with George Long only once called into action in the Wimbledon goal.

That said, Callum Kennedy did manage to beat Lawlor, but his shot from a free-kick on the edge of the box hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced clear.

And while a third wouldn’t have flattered the Dons on the evidence of the second period, the home faithful were more than grateful for the two goals they were able to celebrate.

“It was very nice for the team morale to get a clean sheet, a couple of goals, and three points,” said Appiah. “It was nice for me to get a goal and we can push on now.”

They will do so away at Blackpool this weekend. Having ended their search for a win, and a home goal, Wimbledon will now look to secure their first three points on the road since February.

The free-scoring Tangerines will be a test, but under the marshalling of the outstanding Deji Oshilaja at centre-half, the Dons might just need a single goal to really get their season motoring.

  • Report originally written for the South London Press newspaper. Photo: Paul Edwards.

    // Nick Draper – @ngdraper

  • comment_170828

    “Neil Cox also confirmed that the signing of Harry Forrester concludes AFC Wimbledon’s business in terms of new signings for the summer transfer window.”

    So there it was for all to see. A perfunctory sentence almost hidden away in the confirmation of what seemed like the worst-kept transfer secret since Terry Brown ‘unveiled’ Marcus Gayle as his first signing after taking the Dons job. Once you’ve got your head around us doing business with a club the size of Rangers (putting aside the jibes about the League One being a step up in standards from the SPL), on paper, at least, Forrester certainly looks like we’ve traded up from the injury-plagued Chris Whelpdale. But if I’m being honest, he didn’t seem to be the type of player seen by many as being the final piece of the 2017/18 jigsaw.

    With the current strike force of Lyle Taylor, Cody McDonald and Kwesi Appiah, plus the youthful promise of Jayden Antwi, there’s no obvious replacement for Tom Elliott and what he brought to the table. By that I mean goals, plus – and just as importantly – an outlet to hold/win the ball and create opportunities for others. McDonald and Appiah in particular are the poacher type of forwards who need a ‘lump’ to play off to get the best out of their obvious abilities. But now we don’t have one and it appears we won’t – at least until the transfer window swings open again in January.

    I’ll put my cards on the table here and state I wanted (and half-expected) to see Michael Smith back in a Wimbledon jersey again: as I write, he’s still very much surplus to requirements at Portsmouth, with even Pompey manager Kenny Jackett saying he was available, but with seemingly little interest. As with Appiah, Deji Oshilaja and Callum Kennedy before him, there would be no need to try and ‘sell’ the club to Smith either, given that Smudger has had a previous spell with us, and although he hasn’t pulled up any trees recently, Neal seems to like a ‘project’ – and re-igniting Smith’s career could have been just that.

    Perhaps budgets or wages were factors, but Smith appeared a more realistic target than the ludicrously over-priced John Akinde, currently being pawed over by one or two clubs who, if recent finances are anything to go by, really should know better, or a risky punt on a free agent like Carlton Cole, being courted by Southend to line-up alongside Nile Ranger – now back with the Shrimpers after spending ten weeks at Her Majesty’s pleasure . . .

    But it’s the tactical side that concerns me the most. We’ve seen in the opening few games how opposition teams, who have done some relatively simple homework to press us in possession, can invariably force Paul Robinson into punting the ball long – towards the target man we now haven’t got and a forward line in general who haven’t hit the net since March.

    The inevitability of then watching the likes Andy Barcham being outmuscled in the air by a gnarled 6’4” central defender, before the ball is regained by them and pressure builds on our creaking defence, once again is already testing my patience. Perhaps Neal has visions of us out-footballing sides, especially on the much-improved Kingsmeadow playing surface, and I sometimes wonder if he has now replaced the Belinda Carlisle poster on the bedroom wall of his youth with one of Roberto Martinez (metaphorically, I hasten to add!).

    So surprise me Neal. Until the yellow-tied Jim White slams shut (© Sky Sports News) the transfer window and then self-combusts in a frenzy, there’s still time. Show me that Plan B, baby!

    // Ray Armfield – @KentWomble


    It’s hardly a secret that football has its own language. It more than likely always has done but it wasn’t until ITV thought that employing Ron Atkinson as a co-commentator was a good idea that football’s language started to become one that was barely comprehensible and at times laudibly laughable.

    “He’s lollipopped one up to the back stick and the big unit’s risen like a salmon and stuck it in the onion bag.”

    I am not sure if Atkinson ever uttered this as a complete sentence, this is more of an amalgam of the worst of his banalities, but what was a collection of ridiculous similes and metaphors in 1996 is now pretty much par for the course in football punditry. Now I’ve done it – par for the course. Not that that’s unusual either – casually dropping in an expression or cliché from another sport entirely into your football commentary. Sky Sports’ Daniel Mann, when he isn’t laughing at his own comments, can’t resist a pun predicated on the rules or sayings from another sport. It’s got to the point now that I don’t watch a Sky game if he’s commentating. Turning the sound down is another option but nobody actually needs to see Burton Albion against Birmingham on a Friday night.

    It’s bad enough that commentators and co-commentators and pundits have invented their own lexicon but it’s now starting to seep into the language of everyday folk. While queuing for a coffee at Glanford Park, I couldn’t help but overhear two Dons fans discussing the first half display when one, and I kid you not, said to his friend: “Our box-to-boxers need to rethink their exit strategy as the Scunthorpe midfield are constantly in and around Jimmy Abdou.”

    You can be in and around the top six but in and around Jimmy Abdou? I watched Football on 5 that evening and the “expert summariser”, basically Colin Murray’s unwitting stooge-cum-straight man, used that phrase, “in and around”, three times. In and around Jimmy Abdou. No offence to our Comoros international but what an unpleasant image that conjures up.

    In and around a person. Early doors. The back stick. The transfer window slams shut. Seasons going to the wire. Could the wire get caught in the transfer window, like a lawn-mower cable? A foot race. A foot race? Two people are running after the same thing, on foot, of course it’s a foot race. Football clubs constantly being referred to as “football clubs” when we know they are bloody football clubs. We’ve just watched them play a game of football (although I blame Owen Coyle for starting that). Nobody in “real life” speaks like that.

    “How did your meeting with the directors go?”

    “Not bad, we sat down around a table . . . ”

    “Did you thrash it out?”

    “Well, I demanded showdown talks . . . ”

    “It’s a big game for the football club, it’s important for the football club to progress, both on and off the pitch…and in and around Jimmy Abdou.”

    Like a horrible image you can’t un-see, I can’t un-hear that. I realise punditry is not easy and passing comment about a football match on live TV is a skill (and anyone who has seen me on the 9yrs Live Facebook stream will attest to the idea that I certainly don’t make it look easy) but at least they have an excuse. Under pressure, millions watching, and if you’re Jermaine Jenas you have the added pressure of trying to think of something intelligent and insightful when you are naturally neither of those two things, but there’s really no need for it with common or garden supporters. That’s just not how normal people speak.

    Alan Smith, the ex-Leicester and Arsenal Alan Smith, not the ex-Leeds and Man United Alan Smith or the former Palace manager Alan Smith, has developed a very odd way of describing action where all the … well, action is at the beginning of the sentence and all the adjectives are at the end: “He’s had a shot but it’s hit the bar and come down on the line there, the big Belgian.”

    There’s a coherent sentence in there somewhere Alan but just not in the order that you said it in.

    But what really grinds my gears is a phrase that has crept into football in the past couple of seasons. Davie Provan, again an employee of Sky, started using it and now everyone’s doing it. A player has made a great effort to get into the box and on the end of a cross after a flowing counter attack but he doesn’t quite make it.

    “Look at the number 8 there, literally breaking his neck to get on the end of that ball.”

    Literally breaking his neck. No – sorry Davie, I’m going to have to stop you there. Write that down, read it out loud and then tell me that that is an appropriate thing to say when there’s probably quite a few people watching who literally have broken their necks. Players say it, managers say it, pundits . . . I think it was during the Scotland v England game earlier in the “summer” when the summariser put a huge emphasis on literally – “he’s LITERALLY broken his neck to get on the end of that move.” LITERALLY?

    Sorry, this is meant to be an article about AFC Wimbledon, I realise that. It kind of is because I’ve mentioned Jimmy Abdou and Scunthorpe. It’s LITERALLY an article about AFC Wimbledon Football Club. It’s not, but it’s in and around an AFC Wimbledon article . . .

    // Kevin Borras


    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


    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


    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 . . .


    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.


    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


    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


    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 . . .


    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’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?


    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.


    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.


    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


    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