TWO significant things happened in Wimbledon’s season at Kingsmeadow on Saturday. The Dons .. finally .. got one over Accrington Stanley, but more importantly, a debut was savoured that could have far-reaching ramifications for the future of the Club.
Doughty Accy have had the wood over the Dons, so a breakthrough 2-1 win at the eighth attempt, would you mind, was one to be celebrated with a Plough Lane Ale, but maybe we should crack open the Moet & Chandon when we toast the debut of a potential Dons captain, Will Nightingale.
There’s no more gladdening the heart of a football supporter, especially one in the lower leagues, when a home-grown youngster comes through to the first team. It’s the culmination of a lot of work, a lot of belief and faith, yet the rewards are so much more substantial and sweeter.
Nineteen year old Nightingale not only made his first-team debut, but he was the man-of-the-match, alongside 21-year-old loanee defender Deji Oshilaja, answering an SOS when Jake Goodman was injured at training. So in effect, Wimbledon’s rookie centre-back pair had a total of 12 Football League games experience between them going into Saturday’s game.
Neal Ardley’s faith in Nightingale was justified, becoming the fourth youth player along with Tom Beere, Ben Harrison and George Oakley to make first-team debuts this season. In the long-term scheme of things, that’s progress.
It’s been coming and it took 26 games into the season for Nightingale to get there and show what he can do. Ardley now has another option and maybe that might mean a lesser reliance on older defensive (and more expensive) mainstays. Only time will tell.
But for now let’s rejoice the emergence of another home-grown product. Wimbledon’s very future is predicated on producing and nurturing its own.
“I thought it was as good a debut as I’ve ever seen,” Ardley beamed. “When we found out about Jake Goodman’s injury I was asked by a couple of board members what I was going to do and I replied that I was going to play Will.
“They were delighted with that because it shows what we’re about as a club. If anyone understands the fans here and this club, it’s me. We want our home-grown players to be given an opportunity.
“Will has been outstanding for the Under-21s and he’s got better and better while training with the first-team. I had to trust that Will would be ready and that he would come in and produce a good performance. I thought he was brilliant.”
No doubt a couple more backroom staff were mighty proud taking in Nightingale’s debut. It takes years to fashion a first-team footballer from the youth ranks and it’s wonderful reward for the hard work and dedication of Mark Robinson, in charge of the youth set-up and latterly Under-21 coach and former Dons defender Alan Reeves.
Robinson told WDSA: “Although still only 19, in terms of attitude Will is everything we want from a young Wimbledon player. He has had a string of injuries but now he has had a run of games everyone is starting to see what he is capable of.
“If he continues the work to fulfil his potential I genuinely think we could see a Dons captain of the future.”
Reeves, who played in the Premier League days with Wimbledon, has been putting the finishing touches on Nightingale and rates him highly.
“Will has that attitude and determination to win that you cannot coach. I’m very pleased with the way things are going. You can see steady improvement, especially with Will,” he said recently.
Of more short-term benefit for the club was the debut of new loan signing Craig Tanner from Reading. He had only just signed a new two and a half-year deal with the Royals before he was shipped off to Wimbledon for the rest of the season. We can count our blessings on first viewing.
The 20-year-old started alongside Bayo Akinfenwa and proved a handful for Accy. Tanner may not have scored on his Dons debut but he had a major effect.
Tanner created the opening goal in the 37th minute when he got behind the Accrington defence and struck a fierce volley that goalkeeper Mat Macey could only parry into the path of Sean Rigg, who picked up the rebound and fired into the far corner from an acute angle for his sixth goal of the season.
Tanner was in rampant form and again beat the Accrington defence with pace, before firing in a shot that Macey did well to beat out.
It was good to see Tanner later tweet: Great to get off to winning ways on my debut for @AFCWimbledon, fans where great, there’s more to come from me!”
Ardley brought off The Beast and Tanner in the 74th minute and introduced David Connolly and Ade Azeez in the search for the second goal to lock up the points and Azeez obliged four minutes after coming on.
George Francomb won the ball in the final third before releasing Azeez who finished emphatically. Yet moments later Azeez had another great chance to put the result beyond doubt, but he muffed it.
Accy made the Dons sweat it out near the end when Adam Buxton bundled the ball home, but the Nightingale/Oshilaja rearguard held firm.
“Today was massive for us,” Ardley said. “All victories are important, but after Stevenage and Carlisle I looked at this match and felt that we desperately needed a win. We worked hard as a team during the last week and had to train on a 3G pitch at times due to the weather.
“I thought that we were solid defensively throughout the game. The midfield did a great job to protect the back four. Though we want to play well, the victory had to come first today.”
Following the long overdue win over Accrington, the Dons moved to 12th spot on 36 points — four more than this stage last season — and only five off the playoff places.
We started with youth, so we’ll finish with seniority. Dannie Bulman celebrated his 36th birthday on Saturday. Super-fit Bully has been tremendous for the Dons this season, so much so that the club has extended his contract.
You definitely need to regenerate your team, but there is equally a place for experience. The trick for Ardley is to get the balance, and importantly, the consistency mix right.
Read more views on the WDSA form match thread