Rob Aitkenhead (Womble Underground Press fanzine) and Ray Armfield (@kentwomble) discuss where the Dons must improve to have a decent season and how former Mayor of London Boris Johnson temporarily stalled AFC Wimbledon’s proposed return to Merton and Plough Lane.
The Dons seem to have suffered a bit of a slow start to the season with three defeats in a week. Why do you think the side have not been able to hit the ground running this year?
RA: We haven’t (yet) been clinical enough at both ends of the pitch after stepping up a division and we’ve seen mistakes punished quicker. But sloppiness aside, we’ve played much better than results suggest. There seem to be real have’s and have not’s in the division too – in a week where Peterborough have reportedly offered £1.2m for a player and Walsall have doubled their 1979 transfer record to sign an international striker. We simply cannot do this. Nor would I want us to even try.
WUP: Technically two defeats, as the league cup is hardly our primary concern. We’ve known poor starts before and as such are not overly disheartened. Perhaps pre-season wasnt sufficiently long for our new recruits to bed in nor achieve optimum fitness. Maybe we have been dealt a tougher set of opening fixtures than we first imagined. Maybe it won’t actually get any easier along the way! It’s a big ask for the existing players to maintain their form of the later part of last season. There is clearly an adjustment to make between divisions and we need to wise up quickly. If we do that, we’ll be O.K.
Neal Ardley made quite a few signings during the close season including Tyrone Barnett and former Spurs youngster Dean Parrett. How well do you feel you have strengthened over the summer and do you envisage any more movement before the end of the window?
RA: We’ve recruited solidly rather than spectacularly. I was particularly pleased to land Chris Whelpdale, a player who has always played well against us going right back to our Ryman League days. He’s not been fully match sharp yet though and we haven’t seen the best of him in a Dons shirt. I think we may do a bit more business before the window shuts, with Neal mentioning he’d like more defensive cover.
WUP: I can appreciate Neal’s intentions with several of the signings in terms of quality and positional cover, and I would agree on paper that we have strengthened in midfield at least. The jury remains out on the quality of a couple of the cheaper acquisitions. We urgently need to replace the departed Sweeney adequately, as the main centre backs are not exactly in the first flush of youth and have seemingly not started this season as they finished the last. So, a further newcomer or two wouldn’t surprise me.
Realistically, what are your expectations for the season ahead?
RA: I’m sure the club would not want to settle for simply staying up, but that would do me in a competitive, close division where four clubs go down. I’d like a cup run too. Obviously that won’t be in the EFL Cup after our 93rd minute defeat at Peterborough, but we had a little taste of the big time a couple of years ago when we met Liverpool in the FA Cup and that’s whetted my appetite for more of the same. But of much, much more importance, is securing a new home at Plough Lane.
WUP: Realistic expectation for our obvious budget limitations and the way we operate would be to stay up, hopefully with a bit of breathing space between us and the bottom feeders. A cup run would be most agreeable, but I’m not holding my breath. Everything centres around getting the new ground approved. Approval could potentially carry us along on a wave of euphoria.
If we could maintain our current level until a new stadium is realised, avoiding repetition of the original WFC yo-yo years, then not a lot else could be asked for. Except for annihilating the Franchise vermin. Twice. Although I’d really rather we didn’t have to play them at all, or even acknowledge their existence. I hope they go bust very soon and disappear into oblivion, along with their strange looking chairman and any bandwagon jumpers who abandoned their existing club allegiances to follow them. I’m aware this is more wishful thinking than expectation.
Lyle Taylor scored one of the goals that got you promotion via the play offs and scored plenty during the season. He never quite hit it off for the Iron despite looking to have the ability. How important is he to you this season and what clicked for him last year?
RA: Lyle’s a bit of a maverick (and I mean that as a compliment). He’s a real character who never hides his emotions on the field – good and bad – and I like to think after a few years of moving around, he feels at home here and the atmosphere around the club helped him settle. With 23 goals last season and two already so far, he’s very important to us, but in Tom Elliott, Dom Poleon and now Tyrone Barnett, we have other able strikers to share his load.
WUP: LTB is of critical importance to our fortunes and we would certainly have to splash the cash if he opted to leave, which you can’t discount. A half way prolific goalscorer is priceless at any level, and he is certainly right at the forefront of the quality stakes in terms of Ardley’s signings to date. Maybe its the age or stage he is at now, maybe he is more settled/focused. Maybe its a testimony to Ardley’s man management skills. The psychological coach may also have been a factor! Your loss was definitely our gain there.
The Dons decided to release Adebayo Akinfenwa in the summer. Did you agree with the decision and have you replaced him?
RA: I think we have been a very good fit for each other the past two years. At times, his persona and ‘brand’ seemed to come before anything else, but there’s no denying he was immensely popular and always had time for the fans. At 34, it was probably time for a parting of the ways though, as he wouldn’t have been a regular starter this season and was towards the top of the wage bill. He’s such a one-off, you cannot replace like-for-like, but if Tyrone Barnett hits his straps, he can fill the void in a different way.
WUP: I do (with regret) agree with letting The Beast go, due to his advancing years and limitations on how we could set up to play when we accommodated him in the team selection. He was the right solution at the time/level (as we were for him) and had we remained in League 2 could have been worth retaining in the short term for nuisance value alone. He played a significant role in our success, and is assured of legendary status! Time will tell if Barnett is his replacement or not. As an individual, I don’t think there’s anyone else out there remotely similar!
Who are the players we should look out for on Tuesday?
RA: You’ve mentioned a few already in Taylor and Parrett, but Jake Reeves pulls the strings in midfield for us and has already attracted interest from other clubs.
WUP: You’ll already be looking out for Lyle no doubt, and the standard answer would probably be a flair player, but there is no player more up for the full blooded challenge than Barry Fuller, and although crowds tend to favour flair players, fans usually also like their players to be committed to the cause, and that guy has enough commitment for the whole team and then some!
Any weak links we could exploit?
RA: Our new goalkeeper Ryan Clarke is still bedding in and we can sometimes be a bit formulaic with our substitutions. We are certainly due a bit of luck after previous games as well.
WUP: The early season stats will suggest defensive weakness/arguable goalkeeping deficiency, but the best form of defence is always attack, where we are currently not ruthless enough.
Where will the game be won or lost?
RA: Probably by a mistake being punished, rather than a moment of brilliance. It’s League 1 after all, though I did note Kevin van Veen’s spectacular effort on Saturday. I write for our programme and have also identified David Mirfin and Duane Holmes as ones to watch for the Iron. We shall see.
WUP: Our match at Walsall was arguably won or lost on the respective quality of dead ball deliveries. (Although their ability to play the referee may also have been a factor!) They were more clinical and that’s what is required of course. We have to tighten up defensively to get anything out of the remaining 44 games in league 1 – and quick.
Finally, Plans to move back to Plough Lane have seemingly hit the buffers, but the club have launched a ‘Bring the Dons home’ campaign. How important is it that the club move back to their Wimbledon home and do you think the new Mayor of London will reverse the decision in the near future?
RA: I wouldn’t say they have hit the buffers. The stadium plans are sound, have already received overwhelming local support, unanimous cross-party local council backing and satisfied the London expert planners who recommended to then-Mayor Boris Johnson that “there were no sound reasons to intervene”.
Annoyingly, he ignored everyone’s advice, intervened -supposedly to deal with it, didn’t deal with it, left office and then later admitted he might have made a mistake calling it in! The planners have once against stated the only ‘change’ to the plan is the change of Mayor, so I fully expect the call-in to be reversed and the matter handed back to Merton Council and the green light finally given.
When that happens, which may be as early as the end of the month, only an unlikely Judicial Review to the Secretary of State can stop us finally coming home after 25 years.
WUP: It’s beyond essential that we return to Merton and restore full identity, which coupled with the momentum of the AFCW era so far, should ensure growth. The potential is boundless, whereas our current location is now restricting our development. As a fanbase we’ve grown accustomed to stumbling blocks over the years, and have learned to be patient, but the collective will is unbreakable. Koppel, Winkelpicker, the Nogs, Sham and the football authorities couldn’t break us, and political point scorer Bumbling Boris won’t either.
Weeks, months, years – we’ve got the stomach for the battle, and will keep on fighting to achieve our return to Merton in the right way. There is no credible alternative proposal on the table for the proposed site (plenty of hot air from a main chancer backed up by some local NIMBY’s and Irish/American dog fanciers though!) I believe Mr Khan is aware of that, and the fact that any inspection of the greyhound stadium will reveal that it is falling apart, and that racing activity is unsustainable there in the long term.
The local NIMBY’s seem to conveniently forget that the site was once a football stadium, and that they had football fans passing their doorsteps in large numbers previously. The public transport infrastructure seemed to cope then, and the planned capacity now is broadly similar, with a variety of access options. If the concerns of neighbouring councils are properly addressed, it would be a travesty if ultimate permission to come home is not given, and soon. Putting aside obvious bias, the scheme has many benefits for the general public and could reinvigorate the entire area.