Farewell 2018/19. You will not be missed…
Writing these sort of things after season ends is a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand, it’s always good to reflect on things just gone – it’s the only way you learn, after all.
On the flip side, when it’s been close to nine months of many a ruined weekend, you tend to want to look forward rather than backwards. Especially when it’s been over a week since it all ended and you’re just recovering.
Still, after the day job getting in the way, the amount of stuff I ended up writing, then rewriting for clarity/accuracy/libel/threats of genocide, and just being mentally shot since August, it’s here.
I didn’t do a review this time last year, but I think it might have read quite similar to a lot of what’s been said below. Which may explain a lot.
Anyway, there’s a fair bit of it, and I don’t doubt some of it may be uncomfortable to read. But you can now come out from behind the sofa and reflect…
– We are staying up
And even with over a week of downtime, and the coolest of cool reflection – I still don’t believe we did it.
That soreness you’ve felt since the game at Valley Parade is simply you pinching yourself so many times. You can stop doing it now, it actually happened.
When you look back on it with less passion than at the time, it was even more unlikely than first thought, especially when you looked at the league table on the 9th February, 2019.
Grim, wasn’t it?
That was after the Burton game at KM, a contest I headlined “Roll on May 5th” and described in some apocalyptic tones. Never have I been so glad getting something that wrong.
To be fair to everyone at the time, you couldn’t blame anyone for counting down the days when – not if – we would be in League Two.
The football was dire, the results were even worse, Walter and Glyn were just wading through the treacle of shit they had been left, and the game against the Brewers just seemed to confirm our fate.
So if you then said after that game we would lose just twice more – once in injury time to Charlton – and we’d stay up, people wouldn’t laugh at you. They’d just arrange the ambulance to Broadmoor.
But having that seven days when we beat Donny, then Posh and then Southend made us (slightly) believe. True, losing to Gills was a reality check, but I wonder if beating Scunny the following week might have been the catalyst?
It could have gone badly wrong after losing on the 23rd March. That we went up to Glanford Park the next week and got back on track kept the momentum up at a time when we could have easily lost it.
Even after that game, we were still two points off safety – a gap that we slowly, gradually (and painfully) closed after Wycombe and barely held onto after that.
Couple that with so many demoralising occasions where we did get a good point or three, and we ended up going nowhere because everyone else had better results, and our survival was even more remarkable.
Not that we didn’t deserve it in the end. Our turnaround after Burton alone justified the reward, although having Scunny and Plymouth collapse like they did helped massively.
But it was also realising that points meant prizes. Drawing against t’Stanley and Oxford yielded (literally) the same result, but were two different reasons why we stayed up.
The former was losing our nerve, making mistakes on the field yet still coming away with a draw. The latter was us clinging on against an in-form team away and running away from the Kassam with something.
Then, there was Luton…
I’m not sure if that result (as great as it was) ultimately kept us up, because had we lost we would have been more gung-ho against Wycombe and Bradford. That we convinced ourselves we needed a draw at Valley Parade paid off in the end.
Sure, there remains issues that need to be sorted this close season and beyond. Our home form remains shit – six wins at KM all season, and only two before Boxing Day.
We continued to struggle up front, although not being able to rely on Jervis and Mr Championship-Quality didn’t help.
But that can be sorted out this close season, however. And best of all, we will be doing it as a League One side…
– West Ham defined our season. Twice.
We all still bask in the WHU FAC game, wherever you were in the world that evening. It was the contest that made us realise we weren’t totally hopeless after all.
Did it give us the impetus to go on the run we did? Yes it did, although we had yet to play Sunderland and Burton (two games we were defeated in).
But it’s very easy to forget the League Cup game against the Hammers, where we put in a good performance and still came up very short.
After that, everything collapsed for us, as though we put so much into that tie that we had no more to give.
Why, I don’t know. A final hurrah for the Neal Ardley regime? Maybe, it seemed to knock the stuffing out of us, that wasn’t regained until the end of 2018.
As for the FAC contest – we all feared the worst after that god-awful Fleetwood game a few days before.
You can talk about moments that ended up being season-defining, and perhaps the game against the Coddies was a fuckup too far after all?
There were very few highlights in 18/19, but beating the Ammers was one of them. In quiet moments this summer you’ll likely be tempted to watch it again (and if anyone has it on DVD – your editor still hasn’t seen it).
And you won’t get that feeling of “what if we kept that up” afterwards.
One thing is certain though – when the PSFs get announced, I bet WHU won’t be too keen to be going back to KM.
– Wally Downes is the right man for the job – for one very good reason
And it’s a simple one. Under him, we are “us” again.
AFCW is often accused of going down the nostalgia path a bit too readily, with some justification.
At times though, we need to turn the clock back to what we were. Especially when we’ve gone too far down the wrong path and need to backtrack.
One could argue that’s what we’ve done over NPL, and as it’s now proven – the same has happened with Walter John Downes.
No, he’s not the perfect manager, but you have to have something special to not only pick up a side that’s on the floor, but to drag them up through the demoralising times and keep them in the division.
Mission impossible? Meh, there was a WFC related book called that in the 1980s…
Hard work, self-belief and just the right bits of luck at the right time contributed to why we’re in the third tier again next season.
But some managers have that “X” factor, and that’s what Walter – and Glyn Hodges – had.
Anyone who supported Wimbledon through the early-to-mid-1980s will know what I mean when I say this feels like that era again. Before the egos of the likes of Fash and Hammam hijacked it.
That whole-is-bigger-than-the-sum-of-its-parts thing. A work ethic that is already developing, a focus on youth and the gradual development of a never-say-die spirit.
Easier said than done, of course, and that’s what W&G’s biggest achievement might have been – taking what was so good from 35+ years ago and making it relevant in 2018/19.
Working out how to communicate to players who have grown up in the social media era could have been beyond both of them, and they would have looked like the dinosaurs some feared.
Yet they managed to do it better than a lot of “modern” managers would have done.
There were some pretty bold decisions in ostracising certain players, but that paid off too. To leave some of our highest wage earners out at the very time we needed results was steel bollocks time.
Sure, there were some who didn’t want him in charge – not because of him being ex-WFC or having a managerial career that involved India and Brentford – but because of some ill-advised tweets.
That turned out to be a 24 hour outrage, and one does wonder what the real motive behind that was.
“Wrong sort” of chap in charge? Possibly. Too much Shepherd’s Bush Market and not enough Stock Market for some? Maybe.
Then again, we got the first glimpse of how he dealt with things like that at the first Meet The Manager, having a one-line quip about his Twitter account and putting money on Kevin Nolan taking over.
Those sort of things releases pressure valves, especially at a club that can be uptight and po-faced at times.
Which is why we can go to games again without dreading them. True, the nerves went up twenty-fold before t’Stanley/Brizzle Rovers/Wycombe, but that’s because so much was at stake.
The vibe of a football club often reflects the personality of a manager, and while it won’t always be a bed of roses next season, already 19/20 is one to look forward to.
Which leads onto…
– The Neal Ardley era ended on a toxic note.
When our ex-manager was finally axed after that horrible night in Haringey, somebody I know said the following – no matter what happens this season, the main thing is we got rid of him.
I agreed with him then, and six months later on – I agree with him even more now.
I wrote plenty about NA’s contribution after his departure, so I won’t try and go over so much retrodden ground. Though I’ll probably fail.
It was undeniably a sad end for some, if not many. He was there for the first AFCW game, and had a long standing WFC connection.
But I’ll happily state my biases straight away – I was never entirely comfortable with him being in charge, and I don’t think he would have got the job to begin with without his previous connections.
Or to put it another way – I’ve felt WD has belonged here more in six months than Neal Ardley did in six years.
Back to his record, which got trashed in a horrible way in 18/19. Some of it wasn’t his fault, needless to say – all managers have a shelf-life, and that’s the fault of the powers-that-be for not recognising that sooner.
Plus, at AFCW you always have to deal with limitations, in more ways than one.
But NA’s judgement went fully into the toilet this season, and some of the decisions he made we’ll still (literally) be paying for beyond this close season. Unless we get lucky.
The transfer dealings were, by and large, crap. You don’t need me to go through them for the umpteenth time, and this after getting a bigger budget and (supposedly) a more attack minded philosophy.
To be fair, it was pretty OK for the first month. Look at the optimism after the first game of the season. And we got through to the second round of the League Cup too.
But that just covered up some very major faultlines, which finally got exposed after the brief run of form ended.
The more you hear about he did his scouting and recruitment, the worse it was. Panicky, haphazard, and no real plan attached to it.
You can get away with sourcing players locally, or buy ones that you already know about without doing much game-watching beforehand, in the lower reaches of L2. In L1, you get cruelly exposed.
Not that when he signed players, he entirely knew what to do with them.
The Ardleyball style of play wasn’t suited to anyone, yet it was practically rammed into the squad with a crippling degree of micromanagement.
An SW19 reader commented last week that when they did the mascot thing earlier this season, the team seemed flat and edgy beforehand, and Ardley himself acted distracted.
We lost that game, by the way.
But NA never quite helped himself though, especially towards the final months. The club seemingly bent over backwards to keep him in charge, but he never took that chance.
And there’s many things I’ll never understand about the last months of his tenure. His legendary stubbornness – or more accurately obstinance – is all very well when you’re successful, but just makes things worse when you’re not.
Considering he was so “Wimbledon through and through”, I don’t get why he never appreciated that at Wimbledon, you have to be more practical and flexible in tactics and the transfer market.
It’s been said on here before, for somebody ex-WFC he was one of the most unWimbledon-like managers we could have ever had.
I’ll never understand his apparent reluctance, or borderline hostility, towards the youngsters. His reasoning was that they were never ready enough, or good enough…
I guess he resented being known as an Academy manager, that he was more than that. But then, he always did seem to think he was cleverer than he actually was.
And I’ll never understand why he jumped into the Notts County job, a position that only ever ends badly and has left him with relegation on his CV. He didn’t need the money that much, surely?
It’s interesting to read their forum, by the way. Especially if you like deja vu.
18/19 was the season that NA’s time here ended on a sour note, and that’s because it was so painfully awful by the end.
Life under Drillo’s collapse was never quite as bad – and the very fact I wanted us to lose games to finally get rid of him tells you everything.
His downbeat negativity spread throughout the club like a fatal disease. Joyless, soulless, spineless, anti-fun and anti-enjoyment.
It wasn’t Wimbledon, and Walter’s success after his arrival just proved that.
I can’t imagine the players liked it, especially towards the end (tellingly, none of them supported him when Tom King spoke out). Well, a few must have – probably the ones who then found themselves in Wally’s woodshed.
One final thing about the Ardley era I’ll never get my head around. He was a product of the whole UEFA coaching badges culture, with a highly scientific approach to stats and tactics.
Yet he managed to end up looking so old-fashioned by the end of it, as though the world of football management moved on beyond him.
A young fogey, if you prefer.
It’s not the legacy he would have wanted, but you don’t always get what you deserve on that score.
It’s somewhat fitting that one of his last acts at the club was this desperate sounding piece of psychobabble, that managed to be as patronising and condescending as it was ineffective.
To be fair, he did put a smile on my face. It happened the Monday after the Harringey game…
– The club lost its ability to think astutely
Though a few will claim it never had it…
Originally, I wrote that things came to a head in 18/19, although I don’t think that happened as such.
What did occur last season was that the club lost a lot of its reputation for competence. Too many decisions were either poor, slow, begrudging, or more often than not a mixture of all three.
As we all know, AFCW has more or less done pretty well for itself since 2002. Sure, there’s been blips, but you don’t get from the CCL to League One without getting something right.
At some point though, it catches up with you. Especially when you don’t think you need to change much.
Just as managers have a shelf-life, so do those making the decisions, and as said on occasions here – sixteen years is an eternity.
A lot of things went wrong, both on the pitch and off it, but in truth it wasn’t exactly new or sudden.
Issues with volunteers, a growing sense that the club’s top brass weren’t really interested in what its own supporters felt, and the “disconnect” were around even before 80%Gate reared its ugly head.
I could have written the above sentence at the end of last season.
But as often happens with a team failing on the pitch, it brings stuff out into the open off it.
Fans don’t pay that much attention to the internal politics of the club, but they certainly notice it when it’s directly affecting their enjoyment on a Saturday afternoon.
As a result, the club’s decision makers didn’t come out of 18/19 that well. They were bailed out by W&G on the field, and things like the DTB election results and the ex-CEO retiring when he did aren’t coincidental.
When we were running up losing streaks of 5/6 games, just about everyone expected the club to act. But they didn’t – constantly – and that was genuinely bewildering to many ordinary fans.
We’ll never know why they kept holding off. Maybe they thought NA really was a good manager, who we were extremely lucky to have, and who would turn it around eventually?
Or whether it wasn’t just Ardley who was stubborn and refusing to compromise despite all evidence. After all, there was a lot of emotional investment in him, especially when it came to who they wanted to lead us out at NPL.
Or whether it really was because there were no contingency plans in case things went pearshaped, and they genuinely didn’t expect our ex-manager to fuck things up as much as he did.
It’s probably all three, the percentages are up for discussion.
The whole replacing the manager thing felt like nothing was learned from six years ago, either.
Offering the job to Kevin Nolan then him publicly turning it down made us look a bit foolish. Not that there were many reasons for hiring him, only that he was a clone of our former manager.
As for the push towards Russell Slade after Nolan spurned us – how badly do you not want Wally Downes in charge to even consider that washed-up has-been of a manager?
It was one of the worst kept secrets that many of the powers-that-be did not want our current boss, but when it was leaked that apparently the club had offered him the role then tried to take it away from him again – well, on whose behalf were they making the decisions?
After that, things felt different. I’ve never seen so many people speak out against the club’s decision makers before, and naming names as well.
You’ll see the comments Erik Samuelson made about our former manager didn’t age well. Neither did his pro-Ardley cheerleading piece that has been posted a couple of times since Bradford.
Come to think of it, he might have come out of this season worse of all, having to “clarify” publicly an ill-judged Times article after West Ham in the FA Cup, amongst other things that probably made him go for premature retirement.
But it wasn’t just that. The club’s transfer policy, both ins and outs, was failing. We know about certain signings, who took advantage of the gullibility within the club.
With last week’s cull of players, it reminded everyone of the whole thing with Deji and Ipswich. An astute club with astute thinking would have known that a player on their last year should be cashed in upon.
If it’s cheaper than the valuation you want, then you just hide behind the whole “undisclosed” thing. It’s playing the PR game, which is something most clubs do – except, seemingly AFCW.
This season exposed the club, because L1 is a harsh and cynical environment. One questions how naive we were, and perhaps still remain.
It was as though we were still clinging to a noble culture of football that never properly existed.
Unless we want to go back to the horrors of non-league, or even scrabble around at the foot of L2, this season taught us some very valuable lessons in how we have to do things.
They won’t always get learned, and there’ll still be some metaphoric beatings still to come. But the club went through more of the learning process this season just gone, and will continue to do so.
The “old” AFCW isn’t dead, but more and more of it is getting chipped away…
– Change is happening. Change is good.
Nothing is forever. Which is probably the biggest lesson in 2018/19 of all.
Around this time twelve months ago, Neal Ardley was truly entrenched in his position, and the only individual at the club even less likely to depart was Erik Samuelson.
A year later, both are gone.
Only this weekend just gone, Simon Bassey has ended his sixteen year association with the club, and within the upcoming weeks and months, there will be more well-known faces moving on.
When it’s time to alter things, to ruffle more than a few feathers, people don’t resist things any more. And indeed, then start to embrace change.
And that’s what happened this campaign, especially with a backdrop of us looking incompetent to the point where we couldn’t even arrange a pregnancy on a council estate.
All four incumbents of the DTB not only getting voted off, but taking four of the five bottom positions tells its own story about the mood change that took place.
That might have been exacerbated because it happened right in the middle of the managerial changeover, but it would have likely happened anyway.
The CEO changing when it did is also very unlikely to be co-incidence. And while Palmer is much more likely to influence the machinations of AFCW, the ordinary fan wanted a different direction.
Why? We realised we’re in L1, liked being in the division, but we were too badly equipped to handle it.
We’ll wait and see what happens with the new broom sweeping clean, but things already feel fresher and positive.
On the field, Walter’s approach to recruitment is genuinely exciting people. That what he’s planning is actually standard stuff for L1 sides should tell you how haphazard and amateurish things have been.
Off it, we have a new CEO and a DTB that is much more higher profile and pro-active than I can remember for a while.
It also put to bed a phrase that a couple of you might have heard bandied about at the beginning of the season – “Evolution, not revolution”.
The premise of that was simply doing things gradually, slowly, assuredly. We had a big leap from KM to NPL, but that was to be done without scaring the horses.
Likewise, on-field matters needed improving, so it was NA to do that slowly, gradually, assuredly.
What “Evolution, not revolution” became was a byword to do nothing. We weren’t really making progress, we just liked to give the impression we were.
And the homespun approach finally stopped appealing.
It wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that for something formed in 2002, we’ve looked old fashioned at times. In the era of social media and cloud computing, we’re still expecting people to subscribe to Reader’s Digest.
If the club was a financial institution, we’d be less like Monzo and more a traditional building society that still has passbooks and seven-day withdrawal notices.
Playing clubs like Sunderland made many realise just how far behind we looked.
When you see us losing out on transfer funds for the likes of Tom Elliott, Taylor and Deji as well, because we didn’t know how to cash in, it hardens your attitude towards that too.
At some point, the club had to grow up, and we finally started doing that this season. Besides, when you’ve got a new stadium to organise, it does focus minds.
– NPL is still coming on slowly
But the end is now in sight. Almost literally.
With all the kerfuffle over what happened on the pitch in 18/19, it’s easy to forget about the phoenix rising from the (literal) ashes off it.
Such are planning laws and the sheer logistics of the project, it may have been just as well, because this too is – fittingly – taking an age.
Well, it may seem like that, but actually a fair bit has gone on with it this season.
The original carbuncle had to be carefully taken down within the last year, with all the asbestos in it. That took a lot longer than we first thought. The groundworks are taking place, which isn’t a five minute job.
There’s still the usual hurdles away from the site. We put in a revision to LBM, and we are/were/just about to change contractors, which continues to eat up the time.
But we’re now talking months rather than years. Hell, we’ve only had about 28 of the latter, so you can spare a couple extra of the former.
And it’s kind-of symbolic, in more ways than one, that it will start penetrating the Plough Lane skyline next season.
In 18/19. the NPL site looked barren and as though nothing was ever going to happen. A bit like AFCW felt at times too.
But just as we hope and expect the club to start rebuilding in front of our eyes, literally seeing our new home getting built is going to be cathartic for so many reasons.
While the powers-that-be have got a (deserved) kicking this season, this is a good legacy to leave on. Time will ultimately be kind to them, and the negative stuff will largely be forgotten once it’s built.
This season has also reminded us – in case you’ve forgotten – just how inadequate KM continues to be.
Not just for the sheer logistics of hosting the likes of Sunderland and WHU there, but the whole zeitgeist of the place. Though hardly winning games there helps.
I can’t think the players like playing there, especially when they go to some L1 venues then return to something very non-league.
It’s just one more full year, though, and it gets to host third-tier football one last time before the Chelski girlies finally take it over.
I doubt it will be missed though, especially as we’ll have the new place to look forward to.
And best of all, we won’t be walking out at NPL in the Conference.
– We are staying up
And that’s all that matters.
It’s been a hard season, one which has taught us more than we would have liked. But we came through it, with a renewed sense of purpose and feeling we’re in the right direction again.
Now let us put it in a coffin, seal it, bury it and never speak of it again…