ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

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Craig Tanner
Craig Tanner … extolling the positives of a non-scoring striker

ON the day Matt Tubbs returned to Kingsmeadow his replacement is still without a goal after 11 appearances but instigated the winner over Portsmouth on Saturday as Wimbledon broke through beyond the safety of 50 points.

It was always going to be a tall order to track down a goalscorer in the mould of Tubbs after he decided he wanted to “progress his career and gain promotion” with Pompey. After all, 15 goals by New Year is some return for a striker. As Neal Ardley muses “If we’d kept him, for sure we have been near the play-offs.”

The gaffer tried his all to keep Tubbs — who disclosed to the Portsmouth-based newspaper The News: “Wimbledon offered a deal that, as a financial package, was better than the Portsmouth deal” — and Ardley opted for a twin solution, Reading youngster Craig Tanner on loan and 37-year-old former Dons favourite David Connolly.

Twenty-year-old Tanner has yet to score, while Connolly pulled the pin on his storied playing career a week after he scored the winner over Luton Town.

On the face of it, hardly an adequate outcome. So there was going to be a sense of dread as Tubbs came back to Kingsmeadow with Portsmouth, riding on a wave of just one loss in their previous 11 games, and Wimbledon looking for goals.

Just when you thought Sod’s law would play its inevitable hand, a curious thing happened. Tubbs was blanked out and it was Tanner’s goal-bound shot that was turned in by former Franchise defender Ben Chorley amid much chortling from the cognoscenti. As they say, football: it’s a funny old game.

Tanner/Chorley’s goal in just the sixth minute was enough for the Dons to snatch all the points. It completed the season double over Portsmouth, moved Wimbledon up to 52 points and 12th (definitely mid-table).

Just one more win in the eight games remaining and Ardley’s team will statistically be the best-performed AFC Wimbledon team in the four seasons in the Football League, surpassing the previous high-water mark of 54 in Terry Brown’s first season in League Two in 2011-12.

For a season where the Dons have beaten league leaders Burton Albion, along with playoff contenders Luton Town, Southend United, Bury, Newport County, knocked Wycombe Wanderers and Milton Keynes out of Cups and had their moments against Liverpool in the FA Cup it would be deemed so.

Of course, no Wimbledon package is complete without the points they’ve thrown away: the double losses to Mansfield Town, Hartlepool and Stevenage come readily to mind.

Ardley, about to undergo hip surgery as a residue of his football playing days, talks up the value of young Tanner, even if some others may point to the elephant in the room: what he was brought into do as a striker — score goals.

“It might be classed as an own goal, but with his run and movement I will give him an assist! I thought he was phenomenal today,” the gaffer said.

“It has been hard in a way because when you get an Under-21 player you have to coach him a little bit about what is required in League 2. But he has got better and better with each game. He was excellent against Mansfield and he was at the heart of a lot of good stuff that we did.

“Craig is so talented, but it was his work ethic that stood out today. He never stopped running in the first half and he was the same in the second half. I told him afterwards that if he keeps playing like that then he can play at any level.”

Fans can see what Tanner brings to the Dons set-up. It’s just that there are no goals tied up in it as Ade ‘The Project’ Azeez keeps bombing away.

“Dear oh dear, Azeez: another couple of golden chances wasted. His misses are costing us dear – but thankfully not today,” Singapore Don sighed wistfully.

After losses on the road to Hartlepool, Exeter City and Mansfield Town in recent weeks fans were fearing a late-season blow out, which Ardley has been keen to remedy.

“I said to the players beforehand that I wanted the fans to see a team that are not just seeing the season out,” the gaffer said.

“I wanted them to really go for it. I have been hard on them this week and I will be hard on them for the next four or five weeks. I will push them hard to try and finish as strong as we can.

“Fans want you to attack and dominate the game a bit more and we all want that, but sometimes you have to do what needs to be done to win the game.  A few times I raised my voice because I wanted to make sure they knew their roles and responsibilities.”

And it also looks like that ‘iron in the fire’ Ardley spoke of recently about a new striker is on hold as he looks for the answer within.

“No, there is no one out there who is better than we have,” he said. “We have a great fan base here who put a lot of money into this club, so why would I waste everybody’s money on a player who will be sitting on the bench who is not as good as the players we have at the moment.

“If George Oakley was fit he’d be back in and if not we’d be using our own academy players instead, because I have a lot of faith in them.

“I mean at the moment I don’t want to take Craig Tanner out of the team after the game he played today.”

The 15-point buffer to the relegation zone with only 24 points left available is no doubt a consideration as well to that line of thinking, as noble as it is.

Read more views on the WDSA forum match thread