SUDDENLY things are getting very serious at AFC Wimbledon; that is to say seriously professional. I have been very impressed with the contribution of Neal Ardley during the off-season, writes The Wizard of Oz.
I think he is becoming the Managing Director to Erik Samuelson’s CEO. Quietly, efficiently but at rapid pace substantial changes are being introduced to AFC Wimbledon. Every change is calculated and measured; each change is about today and tomorrow. There is much to look forward to. There is reason for genuine optimism this season.
One look at the pre-season tells the tale. So organised, so planned, so efficient; so seriously professional. All the recruits were scouted last season or were known to Neal Ardley. Every player for each position was identified months ago. There has been just one trialist, Rhys Weston, and he was known to Ardley from his Cardiff City days.
This is such a contrast to the chaos and uncertainty of last pre-season when it seemed Wimbledon had more people on trial than you would see at the Old Bailey.
There has been no repeat of the embarrassing chorus line of dancing and kicking hopefuls reminiscent of the famous trials on Wimbledon Common 11 years ago.
The bricks of the reconstruction were being cemented into place well before the start of the season. By the time Wimbledon eased into the first games of the pre-season almost every player wanted had been signed. It is a welcome improvement on this time last year and a tribute to the organisation that Ardley is bringing to the club and it is not just the playing staff where the changes are being made.
Ardley has been equally measured about his coaching and support staff. Having brought Neil Cox with him as his No.2 he retained Simon Bassey but gave him greater responsibility to scout players and opposition.
Despite worries about the level of fitness he has trusted and encouraged Jason Moriarty to change the fitness routines. The highly vocal Ashley Bayes has been appointed full-time goalkeeping coach and the respected Shaun North is the coach of the development squad. Every appointment has been to modernise and drive the team forward and none may be more significant than new physiotherapist Stuart Douglas.
In his own quiet understated way Ardley is sweeping away the weaknesses of the past and replacing with people of the strengths and skills to take this club to the next professional level. He has done this with the minimum of fuss and little rancour in the same calm way in which he successfully plied his trade as a player.
Terry Brown heralded in the era of professionalism at Wimbledon but now Neal Ardley is bringing a level of professionalism that makes Terry and the Dons Trust Board seem like amateurs in comparison. And I am sure Erik and the Board welcome that.
Ardley has understood the restriction imposed by Wimbledon’s limited finances and has cleverly managed the situation. Wimbledon’s squad size is to be around 20 or so, supplemented by development players, with the loan market available if needed. Exploiting the ability of Jim Fenlon to play on either flank Ardley will rely on only three full backs. Goalkeeping coach Ashley Bayes will also act as No.2 keeper. Players such as George Francomb, Chris Arthur and Luke Moore have the versatility to play in different positions. Ardley is showing a very smart use of resources.
A small squad requires careful fitness and injury management. The appointment of Stuart Douglas to replace long-serving physio Mike Rayner has been specifically for this purpose. Douglas is a modern thinker who believes “prevention of injuries is vital and it is far better to work with players on their weaknesses before they get injured”.
This philosophy of preventing injuries, of pre-empting injury problems, means that more players will be consistently available for selection thus reducing the necessity to go to the loan market. Douglas has spoken to fitness coach Jason Moriarty about how the medical team can work together to ensure that Ardley has as many fit players to choose from on match day. Wimbledon can only benefit from this introduction of new progressive ideas.
Neal Ardley’s inclusive nature is shown in the way he involved Academy Manager Mark Robinson in the interview process for the appointment of Shaun North as Under-21 Development Coach and North was invited to take the first team for a training session.
This ability to have an eye on the rebuilding of the team for this season while still fighting relegation last season, the increase in emphasis on the development of young players, the inclusion of everybody in the process, the willingness to manage resources with invention and intelligence marks Neal Ardley as a manager of outstanding potential.
His actions show why Erik Samuelson was so bowled over by him in the interview process. A manager, in every sense of the word, that the Chief Executive can trust to lead this club to even more success in the coming years.
I am really looking forward to this season. I am looking forward to seeing Wimbledon play in the manner that Neal Ardley wants rather than playing in a manner to survive a relegation battle. I am looking forward to seeing all the new players in a new team that will be trying to play a passing game (and can’t wait for the collective intake of anxious breath as the team plays out from the back!).
What I would love to see is a team where prolific forwards know they can score in a brothel; where the midfield dictates terms and imposes itself on the opposition; all built on the bedrock of a back four as tight and impenetrable as a seam of unhewn granite.
What I expect to see is a team that genuinely belongs at this level; a team that is hard to beat, full of characters and character, and winning more than it loses. What I am hoping is to be on the edge of my seat in excitement, not looking to hide under it in disappointment.
I am very confident that under the very serious professional management of Neal Ardley the horrible memories of last season will very soon be forgotten. I am looking forward to looking forward to going to Kingsmeadow this season. C’mon you Dons!
**** Watch for Wiz’s views throughout the season on WDSA