IT’s all about having options and using them strategically as Neal Ardley out-manoeuvred his more experienced managerial rival in Wimbledon’s stirring come-from-behind win to reel in Scunthorpe United at ‘Fortress Kingsmeadow’ on Saturday.
Scunny were relegated from League 1 last season, were unbeaten and had conceded just one goal in almost six hours of football leading in as the Dons turned on the after-burners to scorch from two-nil down to score three goals in 25 second-half minutes for a morale-boosting win.
It elevated the Dons to seven points from four games and just outside the playoff positions in eighth place on goal difference. Contrast that with four points and 17th after two floggings (and anchored by a minus 7 GD) this stage last season and it’s apparent this is an improved Wimbledon squad Ardley has assembled over the summer.
Evidence of how effective was on view when Ardley altered the course of the match with three substitutions in the last half-hour — Chris Arthur, Jack Midson and Kevin Sainte-Luce — and all played their roles in propelling the Dons to an exciting victory.
The Iron counterpart Brian Laws, in his 16th season as a manager, was rather less pro-active; the match reporter for Iron-Bru.net wrote scathingly: “Whilst the relatively inexperienced Dons’ boss Neal Ardley switched to three at the back and made a double substitution, Laws stood motionless. Tactically, Ardley’s changes proved to be astute. He brought Midson and the pacy Arthur on as the Iron laboured. The writing was on the wall.”
Ardley, who is still inside his first full year as a manager, was pragmatic about his tactical masterstroke which turned what was looking like a dismal home defeat into a victory that should build the team’s confidence and self-belief.
“Second half we came out, we did really well, got the goal and decided on a tactical substitution and we thought that rather than settle for 2-2 at home, let’s go for 3-2, and that one’s paid off – it doesn’t always happen, but it’s great when it does,” he said.
All hail King Arthur! The come back king! #AFCWimbledon
— Tom Edwards (@tomedwards_) August 24, 2013
Wimbledon’s rousing comeback came after a couple of recurring defensive bungles that temper expectations going forward, but so far it’s five goals conceded compared to 13 this time last season, so it’s an improvement and one we all hope Ardley and Neil Cox can further remedy to make the Dons a tougher outfit to beat than the tremulous team they were last season.
It’s also instructive to gauge the quality of players Ardley had at his disposal on Saturday. Skipper Alan Bennett was out injured, making way for Rhys Weston’s starting debut for the Dons, while Peter Sweeney, George Francomb and Jack Midson were left on the bench.
Ardley is fortunate with injuries this early into what is a demanding nine-month campaign, but he has options on the bench to turn things around as was shown against Scunny. It won’t always be plain sailing, but at the moment the Dons are making it count.
It didn’t look that way at half-time when Scunny held an iron grip two goals up after defensive stuff-ups and a missed penalty by Charlie Sheringham.
Wimbledon were on the receiving end of a sucker punch in the 16th minute as Scunthorpe scored with virtually their first attack. Dons goalkeeper Ross Worner failed to hold an Eddie Nolan cross and Sam Winnall got the final touch to rock the home side.
The Dons had their chance to be level six minutes later after a penalty for hand-ball but Sheringham struck his spot-kick too close to Scunny ‘keeper Sam Slocombe who saved the penalty as Charlie’s father, Teddy, looked on from the stands. The former England international was seen to have words with his son at the start of the second half.
That was compounded when defender Andy Frampton’s clearing header of a routine cross went straight to Andy Welsh who provided towering striker Chris Iwelumo with the ammunition for a powerful header from close range and 2-0 to the visitors.
“I thought we started very well, we conceded a goal or two in the first half and just lost our way, became fragmented,” Ardley said. “Team spirit was tested to the limit there and we went a little bit wayward. At half-time it wasn’t a job to shout, it was a job to try to bring everyone together again.
“We challenged them to show some team spirit in adversity. It is easy to talk about having that, but it is harder to go out there and put it into practice. We did that though and hopefully it will give us a lift for next week and we can go into that on a high. We showed a lot more energy in the second half and with that came more chances.”
It took until the 62nd minute for Wimbledon to pull a goal back through striker Michael Smith’s 20 yard angled drive for his first Dons goal as Ardley introduced Arthur and Midson for Callum Kennedy and Sheringham to add extra impetus with Scunthorpe now forced to defend.
— Jason Euell (@jasoneuell) August 24, 2013
Harry Pell equalised 15 minutes from time with his second strike of the season after a cross from George Porter with Midson also involved and Porter came close with a fierce drive that Slocombe needed two attempts to grasp before the Scunny ‘keeper had to tip another Pell effort over the bar.
Wimbledon were rewarded with three minutes of normal time remaining following the entry of Sainte-Luce into the game. His dazzling run and pull-back fell nicely for Arthur, who powered home an excellent winner and his first Football League goal from just outside the area. The Dons fans were ecstatic.
— Nick Draper (@ngdraper) August 24, 2013
WDSA columnist Iain Sandford, among the 3,865 fans at the game, enthused: “Smith is an absolute monster and I’m delighted he’s our monster. Almost unplayable today and an awesome combination of desire, strength and natural ability. For the last 25 minutes, the Scunners’ defence just couldn’t cope with Smith’s rampaging, Sainte Luce’s raw pace and Jack’s guile. Superb stuff.”
While Ardley paid tribute to Smith’s work ethic, he had a few words for Sheringham, who was the target of some fans vitriol.
“Charlie Sheringham was a threat in the first half and he had a lot of good chances for us. Unfortunately, he missed a penalty, but he linked up well and had a hand in the first goal. Kevin and Chris came on alongside Jack and they increased the tempo of our play,” Ardley said.
Another fan implored his fellow supporters to show some faith: “Sheringham’s a good player and decent finisher but he will need games. Fans need to support him not moan. Disappointing to see and hear people slagging off Sheringham today. Yes he should have scored at least two but we are into the 4th game of the season, he’s playing in a totally new team, is coming back from a long time out – give the kid a chance.”
Frenchman Sainte-Luce continues to confound fans with mercurial, if inconsistent, brilliance. Even Ardley does not know what’s going to come next.
“Kevin’s a fast-twitch fibre player whose game understanding isn’t as good as it should be, and he runs more than he should,” he said.
“He hasn’t got good endurance, and he needs to learn how to play his game better, and when he gets that right he’ll last 90 minutes.”
Ardley says Arthur’s best is still to come.
“Chris Arthur is a work in progress. It’s not about the next two or three weeks – it’s about the next two or three years but I can see him making it to the top,” he said.
— Alex Mitchell (@MitchellAT) August 24, 2013
It may have been AFC Wimbledon’s first league meeting against Scunthorpe, but they have an unbeaten record in three meetings against Scunny after their FA Cup replay win two seasons ago.
Brian Laws, who played right-back for six seasons under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest team from 1988-94, said Scunny had fallen apart under Wimbledon’s second-half assault.
“We didn’t defend well as a team today – we were too stretched. We had a 2-0 lead and were in control but what happened after their first goal was that we were dismantled as a team defensively,” Laws lamented.
“I’ve haven’t seen us defend so poorly as a team all season. We’ve been solid, we haven’t looked like conceding and I didn’t think we’d concede as many as we did today. There was a lot of negative play because we were in control and yet we sat too deep and allowed them to get at us.”
Massively disappointed today. To throw away 3 points like that is unacceptable and we know it. All about bouncing back now….
— Sam Winnall (@Winnall19) August 24, 2013
So it’s onward and upward and the return next weekend of cashed-up Fleetwood Town to the scene where the Dons saved their season last April when Jack Midson’s nerveless penalty kept the Dons in the Football League.
So a good time to crank up a new WDSA poll… you’re invited to have your say.
And there’s plenty of views in the WDSA match thread