By Tom Simmonds.
Wimbledon sit 12th in League Two after drawing 2-2 with Tranmere on Saturday. The upward trajectory of their rise has plateaued in recent seasons. Is Neal Ardley on the right track to progress them further?
Wimbledon’s reinvention as the Phoenix club who took just nine years to return to the Football League transcends football. A side effect of their traumatic death, hastened by the relocation to Milton Keynes, was their rehabilitation in the eyes of the public. The FA’s scandalous decision to allow the relocation galvanized public sympathy for Wimbledon, and made the new incarnation a cause-celebre among football fans nationwide. The ogre is now a cuddly, homely community club.
Younger readers may not know the extent to which Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ was despised in their 80s and 90s heyday. A bunch of upstarts who came from non-league to encroach on football’s higher echelons and win the FA Cup in 1988 playing a style of football under Dave Bassett, Bobby Gould and Joe Kinnear whose physicality some felt was beyond the bounds of acceptability. The iconic photograph of Vinnie Jones squeezing Paul Gascoigne’s nether regions came to be seen as a shortcut for that style.
Yet there is still something of the punk ethos about Wimbledon While not by design that their rebirth was kick-started in 2002 by a goal from Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who gained notoriety in the News of the World’s phone hacking scandal, it is a tale that raises a dark laugh from Wimbledon fans who remember their golden days.
That historic attitude of not respecting reputation can be seen in some of Wimbledon’s results so far. High-flying Bury, Burton and Morecambe have been seen off at Kingsmeadow, and they also earned a famous win in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy against the team who took their league place. This is tempered by by a failure to win away in the league since August.
My second look at Wimbledon in 2014/15 came last Tuesday, when Plymouth Argyle made the long trip to Kingsmeadow. The tepid 0-0 draw lacked the vigorous tempo Wimbledon imposed during their 3-0 win over Burton in late September, though clear indications of Ardley’s strategy were stamped through both games.
This is a team being built from the back. Ardley’s summer capture of the outstanding goalkeeper James Shea from Harrow Borough has given them a big boost. Shea, an Arsenal youth product and man-of-the-match against Plymouth, exudes security and presence and is already too good for League Two.
Shea is augmented by a veteran defence used to winning promotion. Centre back Andy Frampton and utility man Jack Smith were valuable squad members in Millwall’s 2009-10 successful League One campaign. Frampton’s partner, Adam Barrett, was a stalwart of the Southend side who won successive promotions in 2004-05 and 2005-06. The defence is completed by right back Barry Fuller, who captained Gillingham 2008-09 League Two play-off winners. While this defence, like Wimbledon’s team generally, lacks pace, it does not lack experience or the muscle memory of winning. In midfield, Sean Rigg and Dannie Bulman bring further industry and experience. The front two of Adebayo Akinfenwa and Matt Tubbs have scored 15 of Wimbledon’s 22 goals between them. While a healthy indicator in one way, it also demonstrates an over-reliance on their prowess, and a need for goals from other areas of the team.
Ardley’s Wimbledon are a work in progress, but it is apparent that he is a clear-thinking, sensible manager who knows how to build and set a team up. While Wimbledon attempt to move back to SW19, at the site of Wimbledon greyhound stadium, yards from their old Plough Lane home, their fans can enjoy the ride Ardley is taking them on, safe in the knowledge he is both a safe guardian of the club’s soul and footballing status.
Wimbledon fans: What do you think of the job Neal Ardley has done so far? Can you hang onto James Shea? Do you think Matt Tubbs will sign permanently?
Read more from Tom Simmonds here.