A WDSA panel — Luke Mackenzie, Ian Hidden, Paul Jeater, Mark Davis and Marc Jones — assess Neal Ardley’s performance this season as AFC Wimbledon manager, where he differs from his predecessor Terry Brown and what does the future hold for the Club under his management?
(i) How do assess Neal Ardley’s performance as Dons’ manager this season? Are you encouraged by what you have seen for him to continue in the job?
Luke Mackenzie: Neal did the job that he needed to do by keeping us up. I actually am looking forward to next season and the squad he builds. He speaks very well to both fans and the media and seems on board with what the club are trying to do. He’s not perfect and I think he’d admit that. It was always a gamble getting a person with no managerial league experience but I think it paid off.
Ian Hidden: I’d give NA a B for his performance this season. I think it has been made quite clear the issues that he faced when he took over and despite the last day survival, I didn’t doubt that he would have set the team up to win the game mentally before they went on the pitch. I am certainly glad that it was Neal in charge in the final game, rather than TB (sad to say). It appears to me that NA has been making do and mending with what he inherited both on the pitch and off it. In the time he has had, I am more than encouraged that some small, but important changes have been made. His dealings with loan signings were astute (Darko excepted) and made a difference. He also made a point of taking the blame when he got things wrong (Chesterfield and Port Vale for example) and didn’t blame the players. The presence of a Plan B also made a difference in a few games.
Paul Jeater: Since taking over Neal has prepared the team in a thorough professional way. He deduced quickly that lack of fitness was an issue. He spotted weaknesses that were fairly obvious, but he addressed them.
Mark Davis: Neal’s key task was to keep us up, and he accomplished that – with 20 minutes to spare. On the whole I’ve been encouraged by the first few months of Neal’s tenure – but he’s a new manager, not the finished article, and I’ve no doubt there are decisions he’s made that he’ll want to reflect on and learn from.
Marc Jones: I think Neal has made considered and careful changes at the right pace. He felt there needed to be changes but was smart enough to drip those changes in slowly – as in fact he said he would when he took over. I am massively encouraged and I expect deeper changes rolled out now we are safe – I’m extremely pleased he is managing us.
(ii) Given that some other clubs in our position eg. Bristol Rovers, York City, Accrington finished above the Dons on the final table, do you feel Ardley got enough out of his players, should the Dons have finished higher than they did?
Luke: I think the difference certainly with the likes of Wycombe and Bristol Rovers was that it was a good squad badly under performing. I think Terry Brown had an awful summer recruitment-wise and that laid the worrying foundations. Instead of getting first and second picks we ended up with fourth and fifth picks. Ardley’s points tally in the second half of the season showed what a good job he did.
Ian: The fact that we finished below Bristol Rovers, York and Accrington is not important, nice as it would have been to finish above them! Bristol would have been promoted if the season had started in January, York were in the top ten for most of the first half of the season and Accrington seemed to have the ability to sign big name players with plenty of experience to help them out (Jeffers and Beattie don’t come cheap either). I’ll be disappointed if we finish below York and Accrington next season though as I expect NA to keep only a few of the old guard and get in some players that he knows and can afford, even if on season-long loan. Getting the best out of the players he had is tough to tell. We got more out of MMK at right back than TB or NA did with him at centre back. Luke Moore was given a different role and seemed to do exactly what was asked of him – this really showed through in the last four games of the season. I guess that the release list will tell us all we need to know about Neal’s views on this very question!
Paul: Some players possibly underachieved. He was rarely able to field a settled back four, arguably essential for success. He managed to work the loan system and brought in players of a higher standard.
Mark: Neal was recruited early enough in the season to turn the ship around. He managed to avert us from the rocks of relegation – just. But it was a much slower job than, say, his former team-mate Gareth Ainsworth accomplished at Wycombe. We hear mutterings from Neal, in various interviews, that things weren’t right off the field, as well as on the field, but he’s never really elaborated what he meant by that. So, on balance, he did fine, especially over the period since the transfer window. But it was quite a slow process – and one or two of the performances (Oxford at home springs to mind) were every bit as bad as we saw under his predecessor.
Marc: I don’t think any more could have been achieved. We had one simple aim when he took over – to survive. Neal has changed when we train, how we train and got the best out of a limited squad. His loan players were well managed and made a big difference to our performances. I don’t think any manager could have got better results with the squad we had.
(iii) What do you regard as Neal Ardley’s best attributes as manager, conversely where do you feel he needs to work on?
Luke: The best attribute is that he gets the players to play with passion and pride. They clearly try and look hungry to do well (even if they don’t all have the ability). In terms of things to work on, I worry he’s a bit of a tinkerer – whether it be formation, player selection or substitutions. He sometimes seems to have too many ideas. This has lead to some poor results – Accrington and Port Vale away spring to mind.
Ian: I got a sense of it at the Meet The Manager evening when NA was appointed. He is a good talker. He says what he wants and explains himself clearly. He knows what he needs to do and is aware that some things will take longer to achieve than others. A priority list has, I believe, been discussed with the board and time lines agreed on delivering this. It is clear that a lot needs to be changed off the pitch in order to improve things on the pitch. This is an area where NA and NC will make (and have made) changes for the better. NA said on his first day that things won’t improve overnight and that we have to show patience for the results to show through. Small things like starting training a little later to allow some of the players who live further away the chance to leave later and spend less time sitting in traffic is a positive move according to a couple of players I have spoken to. Both NA and NC have good contacts in the pro game and seem to be well respected (and even liked). This is a bonus for us and needs to be optimised over the next couple of months if we are to push on next season. Sure NA has made mistakes and has admitted as much. All managers make mistakes, it’s how you learn from them that’s important and something that TB struggled with in the FL especially.
Paul: From what I’ve seen he brings professionalism, and he obviously is prepared to coach the team to meet individual game challenges. This is a major step forward for AFC Wimbledon.
Mark: I get the impression that he spends more time than TB getting the psychological side of the game right – he hasn’t recruited players who don’t have the bottle required, and he seems to be good at nurturing team spirit too. There have been times when I’ve thought he’s over-complicated things a bit, or been a bit cautious – playing Midson out of position, and not putting Strutton on early enough with an instruction to charge at the opposition and scare the hell out of them until we bang a goal in. But, then again, it’s probably a very good thing that I’m not manager, or such instructions would have had us relegated by Christmas!!
Marc: I genuinely don’t think Neal has any negatives. It is argued he doesn’t know players but Alexander and Bennett were great signings who made big differences to us.His best attributes? From what I know he is dedicated and hard working – Jack Midson has commented on how hands-on he is and on the training pitch for all sessions. Extended sessions, early starts, the team eating breakfast together (that change was made because players that travelled in were often caught in traffic) – all pointers that he is overseeing the way the team works on all levels.
(iv) In what areas of management at the club did Ardley perform better than Terry Brown? Anything TB was better at?
Luke: Terry Brown latterly became set in his ways and very stubborn with the way he played but for what he did with us he will always be a legend in my eyes. Ardley seems a lot clearer on his ideas and a lot more adaptable. This can be a good thing and also a bad thing.
Ian: NA is a different character to TB and this has been shown in the consistent way he has dealt with the Press and his interviews on Dons Player. The negative emotions are not shown by NA, whereas you could see how TB was feeling by his facial expressions and tone of voice as much as by the words he uttered. TB was also a little too “matey” with the players and found it difficult to distance himself in times of trouble. This is possibly why the feeling existed that towards the end of his reign, TB had lost the confidence of his players. NA by contrast (and NC) appear to be distancing themselves to a professional distance off the training pitch and field of play. TB was more approachable by us and I think part of that was the way that TB was and part of it was the position he was in when he took over and his understanding of what the Club was about. In other words, his tenure was on a different step to the one that NA took over on. His strengths at the start, contributed to his weaknesses at the end due to the position we were in.
Paul: I’d start with player recruitment. You can make a strong argument that the Dons struggled because of lazy recruitment for last two years. No player released at end of last season was recruited by a league club, some dropped two divisions. This season the signings were poor — Cummings, Harris, even Long — players offered substantial contracts and if rumours are true never properly scouted. Here Neal Ardley is light years ahead, we have tried to recruit a mix of experienced league players (Neil Sullivan, Alexander) and young players from higher clubs (Meades, Sainte-Luce, Dickinson). The signing of Bennett is perhaps the best example, I can’t see that Brown/Cash could have persuaded him to come on board.
Mark: TB was a great manager and proved himself at a variety of different levels, but maybe his first shot at League football came a bit too late in his career for him to adapt quickly. But one area where I thought TB was better, and for which I miss him, was as a raconteur. Put TB in front of a room-full of supporters at a meet-the-manager session, and he could entertain us all evening.
Marc: I think comparisons throw up what looks on the face of it an unfair criticism of Terry. Every appointment we have made has improved what we do as a club and as a team. That said I think Terry made bad signings at a crucial time and we almost paid the biggest price.
(v) How would you best describe Ardley as a football club manager?
Luke: Foremost professional. He has the respect of his players and the fans. He carried a relegation burden on his shoulders so well and never looked like cracking up.
Ian: I’d describe NA as a rookie manager with a plan, ideas for improvement of the team, squad and structure of the playing side of the Club. He is pragmatic and in no way a dreamer. The fact that he is a WFC hero has helped him with the fan base – there have been games where I think the team would have been booed off under TB. However, I feel that NA is learning quickly (he needs to!) and I’m very happy he is here and not somewhere else.
Paul: Young, hungry, ambitious — and he understand where the Club has been, how it got to where it is, and hopefully where it has the potential to go.
Marc: Thoughtful, passionate, committed and smart. I have spoken to him enough to know how deeply he cares about the good of the club and fully expect to see changes off the pitch translate to better fortunes on it.
(vi) Has Ardley got his backroom staff right, any changes, and overall how would you rate Ardley as manager out of 10?
Luke: I’d expect to see a couple of backroom changes (obviously we know Mike Rayner is leaving as physio and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Paul Priddy leave with Neil Sullivan coming in as No. 2/GK coach). NA was very critical of the fitness of the squad when he arrived so there might be some changes there too. Ardley and Coxy seem to work well and Bassey has fitted in to that. I honestly think it’s too early to rate Ardley as a manager. The majority of his signings were decent which suggests he has an eye for a player but the summer will be the real test. Can he recruit the people he wants in a budget that isn’t going to be the biggest?
Ian: NC is Ardley’s choice as his shotgun. No issues there for me. NA seems to allow NC to have his say and communicate with the players as necessary (away game at Gills at halftime, for example). Bassey keeps on getting kept on so I assume he has got that something that is needed so I’ve no issue with him either. I would think that Paul Priddy will be replaced (possibly with Neil Sullivan if his contract isn’t renewed with Doncaster, and he could be our back-up stopper too). The big challenge is going to be replacing Mike Rayner. This guy has done so much for players at all levels at the Club and the money he helped raise through the Velo and Blue team will be just as hard to cover. I don’t know whether the fitness of the players is perceived as an issue so Jason Moriarty would be a shock to be replaced. Overall, I’d rate Neal as a 7/10 from what I have seen so far. If his plans come to fruition, I’d expect, rather than hope, that we would finish upper mid-table next season. An improvement of 12-15 points should be achievable.
Paul: Not sure he had total freedom here. Think a professional goalkeeping coach is necessary and obviously he needs with the Club to recruit Mike Rayner’s replacement. I’ll be honest I doubted Simon Bassey’s ability as a coach, there’s no doubt he epitomises where AFC Wimbledon have come from, but I was unsure whether he had the experience to adjust to the Football League. I assume that Neal will review his staff like the players in the week ahead. I believe that without NA’s recruitment we would be playing Conference Football next season. For that alone he deserves no less than 7. I think we will only be able to really judge his potential once he’s able to recruit his own squad, have them for a proper pre season etc. Ask me next April !
Mark: Really hard to tell. Neil Cox comes across very well on interviews – a no-nonsense approach. And I’m pleased that (thus far) Simon Bassey has been retained (Simon did a great job during the inter-regnum). I half-wonder whether we might see Warren Cummings have some kind of back-room role – the management seem to have seen him as having an important role in the dressing room (if not on the pitch). 7.5 /10, but with the prospect of getting a higher score with more experience.
Marc: Mike Rayner has now left the club so we have an important appointment to make in that department. It is an exciting period at the Club and I hope Neal gets backed by the Board as far as possible to make the changes he feels are necessary. Neil Cox seems a perfect right hand man – a double act if you will and it feels like there is a very different distinction between the roles. Simon Bassey and Neil are often visible after matches when Neal isn’t – he does seem to have grown into the role of manager rather than being one of three coaches as it felt when he first took over.
Luke: The one criticism I’ve heard of Ardley was that the appointment was sentimental. I think he’s proving that whilst that may be the case, he actually got the job on merit and has delivered the first part of his promise. He said at the first meet the manager that he always thought he would be a better manager that footballer. If that comes true we will have an amazing manager on our hands because he wasn’t a bad footballer at all!
Ian: Next season will be a big challenge for NA as it will be his players, his squad, his tactics and, ultimately, his accountability. I think he’ll rise to the challenge and improve us all around, setting the Club up for the next stage of its development. Exciting times lay ahead I feel!
Mark: January was the first time Neal would have experienced the transfer window as a manager, and I was very pleasantly surprised how well he did. Let’s hope he’s as effective at doing a summer re-build, and not tempted to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Marc: I am hugely excited by the next chapter and watching his plans unfold. I hope he is still with us when we get to run out at Plough Lane and hasn’t been pinched by the offer of a bigger club with a better budget!
WDSA welcomes readers’ views on Neal Ardley in the comments section (below)….