PLAYOFFS? NAH…MID-TABLE? HMM

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afc wimbledon team inside Inter Milan dressingroom
AFC Wimbledon squad savour Inter Milan’s dressingroom. Photo courtesy: George Francomb

THE recession appears over. Optimism is on the upsurge and there is a widespread warm and fuzzy feeling of admiration and respect for our Dear Leader.

Now before you fire off your emails in high dudgeon and take this antipodean blow-in to task, allow me to clarify in case of any gross misrepresentation.

If WDSA’s mega pundits season poll is anything to go on, Dons fans have high hopes of a much better season in League Two this time round after flirting with the relegation trapdoor on that ‘hearts-in your-mouth’ final day last season.

Now there are some amongst you who believe that not only will Wimbledon do better this campaign, they may actually reach the promotion playoffs. Maybe that’s a bit premature and the next 46 games will be the true arbiter of the team’s fortunes, but you get the drift…. we expect do some business and climb the table this season.

Taking a mean of the WDSA pundits a finish somewhere between 11th and 12th is what’s expected, a safe, comfy slot mid-table away from the stress and anxiety of a relegation shoot ’em up.

That’s all well and good, but didn’t we think the same way under Terry Brown this time last season? Here is that WDSA poll of 162 respondents 12 months ago..

Dons poll on where to finish 12-13 Adding to that the WDSA pundits poll averaged out to predict a 12th place finish and we all know how far out most of us were back then with Terry Brown sacked just seven games into the season.

But it’s different this time, right? Surely, I hear you enjoin. The gaffer has spent all the off-season firmly putting his imprint on his team, now unrecognisable from the one he inherited from Terry Brown.

It’s taken 10 months but Ardley now has his players and staff. He has buttressed his back four with a total of  767 Football League games experience, with three of them — Alan Bennett, Barry Fuller and Andy Frampton who have been captains at their previous clubs. Budding author Benno has subsequently been named this season’s skipper.

Ardley has a new goalkeeper Ross Worner with an experienced (and vocal) standby Ashley Bayes, who doubles as the Club’s first full-time goalkeeping coach. The ‘Invisible Man’ Seb Brown is still on the payroll as well.

The gaffer has stacked his wide positions with young hungry pacy athletes — Chris Arthur, George Porter and the important acquisition of George Francomb to go with Kevin Sainte-Luce — to complement his midfield grunt of Peter Sweeney, Harry Pell and Luke and Sammy Moore.

The Club has this week added young giant No.9 Michael Smith on loan from Charlton Athletic to the forward line to be spearheaded by Jack Midson, 31 goals in two seasons, along with new acquisition Charlie Sheringham and super-sub Charlie Strutton.

Ardley has also revamped his back-room staff with the addition of goalkeeping coach Bayes, a progressive new team physio and former player Stuart Douglas and a newly-created position for experienced Shaun North as development youth coach.

This time we haven’t had a confidence-shredding pre-season like the one under Brown last year (the 7-0 Reading rout among them) and there was just one wincing result this time round 0-3 at AC Monza Brianza.

callum Kennedy Harry Pell George Francomb posing in Zara gear Milan
What you do in a team bonding camp … (L-R) Callum Kennedy, Harry Pell and George Francomb try on some gear in Italy. Photo courtesy: George Francomb.

But that has to be put into the context of a beneficial week of squad training and bonding in camp in Italy ahead of Saturday’s league opener at Torquay United.

Ardley has been working on his squad’s fitness and flogged them with double training sessions in Italy in the leadup to the new season, so hopefully a lack of fitness will not be an issue this time round.

What has become increasingly apparent is that there is a new professionalism at Wimbledon under the assiduous Ardley. The old Dons’ favourite is growing into an all-inclusive manager, he’s bringing everyone along with him.

neal ardley white board at monza
Neal Ardley keeps Dons’ fans in the loop at Monza. Photo Courtesy: Mike Lines.

Ardley is conscious of being available to sponsors and supporters alike. He took some time out in Monza to tell the travelling Dons’ fans the things he was doing. They appreciated that.

Club benefactor Mike Richardson told WDSA recently what he particularly liked about the gaffer: “It’s his professionalism/attitude/loving of the club/appreciation that the whole football side that needs a shake so that all are professional in training, coaching, medical etc. and he’s achieving all this with a limited budget.

“I have a drink with him about once a month and he’s honest/candid/professional/knows what he is doing and is politically astute in his dealings with the Football Club Board.”

Ardley wants a harmonious playing squad as he does with his relationship with the supporters. It’s early days, but you get the distinct impression that barring any unforseen catastrophes we should start seeing the fruits of Ardley’s meticulous ground work this season.

Neal Ardley grinning
Assiduous Ardley … He wants to do it his way.

He wants to do it his way. He is embedding a passing style into his squad, with an emphasis on playing pleasing to the eye football.

Whether that holds up in the hurly-burly of League Two remains to be seen, but he has that aspiration. He’s shown he can bring in experienced players, who perhaps would not have given Wimbledon a second thought in the past and he has a vision for developing youth players with the appointment of the journeyman North.

So is 11th or 12th a good shout? On the balance of probabilites, maybe we won’t all be nervously looking over our shoulders this season. But as we know it’s not talking the talk, that gets the requisite results, its actions on the pitch and the time has come to see for ourselves. In Ardley we trust.

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