IF you want evidence as to how much Wimbledon’s season has evolved, go back six months to the opening game against Shrewsbury Town: six first-choice players from that match, around half the team, started in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Newport County at Kingsmeadow.
The winds of change have been fairly gusting these past weeks as Neal Ardley has remade his team. Admittedly, some of it was forced upon him. He would have wanted to keep Matt Tubbs and Adam Barrett, but as any good competent manager he would have had options in his little black book to call upon if the situation arose.
Ardley moved adroitly during the January transfer window to swoop on long-time targets. Old favourites David Connolly, Jake Reeves and Alfie Potter, Deji Oshilaja from his Cardiff City Academy days, along with Craig Tanner. He let go others who were out of favour for a variety of reasons. Ardley reshaped his squad.
A lot can change in six months in a long football campaign. Only James Shea, Barry Fuller, George Francomb, Dannie Bulman, Adebayo Akinfenwa and Sean Rigg who started against Shrewsbury Town were in the starting lineup against Newport County this weekend. We can take it they are the crux of Ardley’s team plans.
As things stand with 18 games left, Wimbledon are closer to the play-offs than the relegation spots. Consistency is not a by-word with Wimbledon, they find it difficult to string too many good results together and there will be those slightly nervous about the longevity of an unbeaten three-game run.
But you can’t blame the gaffer for being a bit bullish about the state of things as he looks for a winning combination.
“We are really pleased with the squad and we have lots of options. It was important to win this home game with a tough schedule ahead, but confidence is high and the boys are in good spirits,” Ardley said.
“The experienced boys are always talking to the young boys, but the youngsters are showing that arrogance and confidence. Between them they are looking like they want to do something creative and it might be best to let them get on with it!”
Now before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s inject some hard-headed pragmatism here. The next batch of games: Leaders Burton Albion (away), third-placed Shrewsbury Town (away), fourth-placed Luton Town (home), 14th-placed Cambridge United (away) and a long trek to last-placed Hartlepool United, scavenging for life-saving points, and all of them crammed into a hectic 19 days.
If the Dons can come out of that minefield with six-seven or more points, maybe we might be on to something. These coming fixtures truly are the make-or-break part of the season for the Dons.
So it was most welcome for the three points against the Exiles on Saturday. There are those who compare Newport and their batch of ex-Dons under (outgoing) manager Justin Edinburgh with Ardley’s Wimbledon. Implicit is the notion that those discarded by Ardley since he came into the job, would make Wimbledon somehow a stronger team: Yakubu, Jackson, Porter, Minshull and Jones (who was wanted but chose to return to his home town club).
Newport County have performed exceptionally well under EuroMillions lottery winning chairman Les Scadding, but it remains to be seen how well now that Edinburgh has become the boss of League One Gillingham, whose earlier approaches to Ardley were spurned.
Wimbledon have had their problems with Newport County in the past. But this time the Dons even put aside a woeful penalty miss by Akinfenwa to lock up all the points and a clean sheet to boot.
The Dons started the better and the much-improved Callum Kennedy picked out Sean Rigg whose pinpoint cross was headed home by the Beast on 11 minutes.
Bayo could have put the Dons comfortably ahead 10 minutes after the break when George Francomb powered through on goal, before he was brought down in the box by former Dons loanee Kevin Feely. The referee pointed to the penalty spot and showed a straight red card to Feely.
“The Beast delivered the most lamb-like, pathetically soft daisy-cutter of a dribbled ball that gave the keeper the easiest penalty save he will ever make. It was quite honestly the worst penalty I’ve ever seen!” Singapore Don spluttered.
El Presidente and goalkeeping folk hero Dickie Guy said he has only seen one penalty worse than Bayo’s …… Peter Lorimer’s in 1975 !!
But the Beast earned the cushion of a second goal 18 minutes from time after more great work from Francomb, who sent over another teasing cross that Akinfenwa fired home emphatically.
That’s 11 goals in the league this season as The Beast continues to prove his worth. “Out of the 40 goals we’ve scored in the league this season, Bayo has scored, assisted or played a major part in 22 of those,” Ardley said. “That’s a ridiculous amount. Sean Rigg and George Francomb are both also chipping in with assists.
“I thought that the whole team defended brilliantly today. Newport do not make it easy for you. They get bodies in the box and put crosses in.
“We had a sticky spell for 20 minutes after we scored the first goal, but that was not because we went on the defensive. They are good at what they do and sometimes in League 2 you have to stand up to that. I thought our back four were excellent during the first half and when Mark Phillips came on for the second half. Deji Oshilaja was immense all game.”
Young defender Will Nightingale came off with a knee knock at half-time to be replaced by Phillips. Nightingale’s injury is not considered serious, while the little-used Phillips showed his worth in only his fifth appearance for the club this season.
“We have a really good squad. In my opinion it is about points, not our league position. The target is 54 points and if we get past that then we’ll look ahead. There are a lot of qualities in the squad and we saw a lot of them today,” Ardley said.
“But we have to remember we have a tough week ahead of us, but the boys are ready and we’ll see how we come out of it.”
Read more views on the WDSA forum match thread