Skip to content

That was the season that was

It’s a bit later this year. But boy, what a tradeoff…

— Wombles going up…

Those who read SW19 up until about, ooh, early May would have been forgiven for thinking that we’d be lucky to finish in the top half this campaign.

Even when we hit the form of our lives in January and February, it always felt like a nice bonus but we would blow ourselves out at some point.

The fact is, we didn’t. We clicked into place, we got our heads right thanks at least in part to a sports shrink, and 2015/16 ended with a glorious trip to Wembley.

I haven’t watched last Monday back yet, that will be a summer treat, but we didn’t do much different to what we had done for much of the turn of the year.

On that day, our defence held firm. But it was also a side that knew it had its best chance to go up, and by fuck it took it.

So was it fate? Some will claim kudos for saying they always knew we’d go up at Wembley. They’re bullshitting, because the bulk of us knew that while it was possible, it was still a long shot 😉

In many ways, we shouldn’t have even been in the playoffs. So many sides were going for seventh place, that for us to claim that spot with a game to go said something about us.

And everyone else, come to think of it.

Teams that go up need that bit of luck, and we got ours partly through the rest of the teams bottling it. Not just the chasing pack, who decided they wanted to go on holiday in May, but t’Stanley and Plymouth too.

There’s more to that, of course, but if you’re asking whether it really was destiny then I guess it was.

Certainly, there was something in the air at Dagenham in late April, especially the “Wombles up/Franchise down” song in their bar at half time.

It carried through to last Monday, and it will probably take until about October for it to finally die off. But when you consider the three years before that, embrace it fully…

— … and the Franchise going down

It’s not about them, of course. They’re not fit even to wipe the shit of our collective shoes. But us going up becomes the biggest vindication of the lot.

I have to admit, the thought of us playing them soured my desire for promotion – at least until after we beat Plymouth. That was down to the reaction of the wider footballing world upon doing so, and the realisation we are literally at the same level as them.

And while playing them (especially at KM) is going to be a circus, it will be worth it once they move back to the Midlands.

Think of what that actually signifies : up until next season, they always had the upper hand on us because they were in a higher division. That no longer applies.

All that stuff about being the real Dons and having the moral high ground only gets you so far, especially with people outside the AFCW bubble.

This takes it a whole step further, and it’s now actual competitive football on an equal level. For many, that is all that matters.

For them, they’re shitting it, because they no longer have any answers. Wankie’s “we run with the big boys in MK” was bullshit to begin with, but now it’s looks even more dumb as the pub team they dismissed play them twice.

Perhaps the biggest aspect of this is this : it’s not nearly as relevant as it would have been previously.

Maybe playing them at the Frenzydome has killed a lot of that off – it’s no longer the dread of facing them but the irritation of doing so.

I notice this when our fans/top brass get interviewed, get asked that question and it surprises the interviewer that it’s not the big deal they think it is.

It will never be meaningless, but who are you most looking forward to facing next season? It’s Millwall, isn’t it? Or Charlton. Or Bolton, or Sheffield United.

Playing those sides will be fun. Franchise will be a chore on so many levels. One thing though, I hope we don’t need to beat them to guarantee survival…

— It took a week of mayhem to get to this stage.

Picture the scene : it’s the first game after Merton approved NPL (more on that later). Everyone is buzzing in a way they’ve never, er, buzzed for a long time.

It’s two days later, so everyone was still on the crest of a wave. It was against a team struggling, and surely it would be the perfect end to the perfect few days?

Erm, not quite.

It’s amazing reading that back now, but at the time things really did look like they would fall apart**. It seethed through that next week, and as we all know, it didn’t get much better until half time in South Wales.

** – and this is a note to certain people on certain forums who have gloated a bit too much this week – you are not the arrogant know-it-alls you think you are. Your editor has a very long memory…

It was mentioned at the time, but this wasn’t just a reaction to a season that had underachieved, It was the culmination of three campaigns that had ultimately flopped.

That we got back on an even keel is one thing. That we then put in a run of form beyond anything expected is another. The same players who were heroes against Plymouth were villains even before that fateful December day.

We’ll never know what changed things in the way they did. We can speculate, but there was much more to it than just simply finding the right formula at the right time.

Which leads us onto…

— Neal Ardley went from loser to Wembley winner

Coming back from Newport away before Christmas, a conversation in the transport carriage of choice came up with this suggestion : we’ll be able to pinpoint what happens to NA at the end of the season through various incidents like half time at Rodney Parade.

When he trudged out of the changing rooms and meandered on his tod back to the dugout, it was in reference to his inevitable departure come May 2016.

And at that stage, things had gone wrong for him – his beloved 4-3-3 had been chucked away after half time in his second game of the season.

Lest we forget that at half time, many were chanting for 4-4-2, which ultimately proved everyone else right and our manager wrong.

His authority seemed to have been damaged by then, almost fatally. Even a run of three straight wins in about October seemed more of a blip…

If the side was the same back then as it was last Monday, so was the guy in charge. The squad’s resurrection may pale into a slight insignificance compared to NA’s coming of age.

What changed for him? Perhaps the realisation that he wasn’t unsackable after all – the biggest irony is that he didn’t actually change into anything, more like he changed back into the Neal Ardley of his first season.

Back then, it really was in the script. NA moulded a group rather than a collection of individuals in 2013, and did exactly the same three years later – albeit with the biggest of all big jolts up their arses.

It’s an often forgotten fact, but the 12/13 campaign – if it had just been based on form in 2013 – would have seen us finish about eighth. And that was his handiwork with some pretty awful players.

There are some things that helped him change – we mentioned the sports psychologist earlier (and he was involved with us at Wembley – QED?), but putting Alan Reeves in the first team seems to have helped matters in a good way too.

But he (re?)discovered his mojo by being Neal Ardley the pragmatist rather than NA the UEFA Coaching Manual clone. He may have simply learned to manage this campaign.

And because of that, he’s taken his team to Wembley, and won in an impressively professional display. He’s a L1 manager next season because he’s earned the right to do it.

I just wish he would stop listening to Neil Cox and start to leave somebody up front at opposition corners…

— NPL still moves slowly, but the end is in sight.

If the Stevenage/Newport week was a debacle, the news that NPL had been called in was a hammerblow almost too far for some.

The reaction of some was almost embarrassingly OTT, though since then far cooler heads have prevailed. And while it means we have to go through the GLA rather than LBM, all the important issues still stand.

Primarily, all the planners are on side. It’s a viable project, and one that has simply been delayed due to politics and politicians before an election.

Whether Mayor Khan hears it next month, or in September, we are still taking months rather than years. This is much more of a step forward than you may think.

It’s important to remember with Khan that he’s a lawyer, and would be very aware of letting this go further if he has no grounds to reject it.

Which let’s face it, there isn’t much to reject.

That’s for the public enquiry which is TBC. What matters in this context is that NPL became real last season. Actual decisions got made, more tangible judgements are still to come.

It went some way to defining AFCW in 2015/16, and that will become even more so in the next however many years. Funds will be ever more important anyway, and the need for a definite answer has become even greater still.

If you’re a believer that everything AFCW related right now is fate, that’s definitely true. We will be going into a public enquiry with the blow of March still in our minds, which is a motivation in itself.

But there’s the backdrop of about 20-25k going to Wembley and winning a L1 place – in front of masses of legitimate coverage across the world. No exaggeration either.

Never underestimate the power of PR, especially when it comes to “what will NPL really do to the local area?”.

The pop-up shop in Centre Court did roaring trade, and it brought football into a shopping centre where other stores may well benefit.

We can now turn around and prove that if we were back in SW19, the people who queued up to buy merchandise and tickets may get involved more if they don’t have to go to Norbiton.

Good for SW19 itself, good for AFCW, good for the local community – you give people an opportunity to get involved and they often take it up.

Something like that alone may well make it very difficult for NPL to get rejected, simply because of how bad it would look. Brighton’s move to Falmer was even more fraught than our project, yet they got a big boost when they reached the L1 playoff final at Cardiff.

They used that to their advantage, and we’re doing the same ourselves. Hell, when Wimbledon tennis tweets their congratulations…

— Wombles going up and the Franchise going down.

Forget that Will Grigg/Gala song, you’ll be humming this in Magaluf this summer instead…