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Neal down and pray

And still people got his first name wrong…

As the days of Neal Ardley as AFC Wimbledon manager draw to a close, it’s fair to say there’s a lot of sorrow about. The picture above (thanks Ray Armfield) will make a few emotional types have a little tear in their eye right now.

That he’s gone is no surprise. Losing seven league games on the spin, at the very least, becoming progressively worse during that run, and having come off a season that wasn’t much better did it for him.

The reaction since his departure has been what one would expect, and while I would guess the majority wanted him gone – it’s still the end of an era.

So, what of Neal Christopher Ardley? an Epsom-born man who turned up to the first AFCW home game along with Marcus Gayle and Jason Euell. An individual who has been there since old PL days, and who your editor almost ran over in his car in the mid-1990s outside Sainsburys North Cheam.

I’ll be honest from the off here : NA was never my favourite as a player. While I always admired the fact he worked hard, that he was “one of us”, and that he was the only one who cried when WFC was relegated at Southampton, I could never 100% warm to him.

And no, that’s not why he almost caused a dent in my white Nissan Micra…

But he’s been the manager of the club I support for the past six years, and yet it’s been a tenure that’s quite hard to put the collective finger on.

There’s been some massive ups, of course. Staying up, promotion at Wombley, beating the Frannies are the three that will spring to mind immediately. Yet like the man himself, it’s difficult to fully define his time with us.

That time started on October 10th, 2012. AFCW back then was in a state, probably far worse than it is today. TB had gone, and the whole place had a shambolic feel to it. No youth policy worthy of its name, a first team squad that was, to be blunt, shite and all the hard work of getting into the Football League was quickly evaporating.

So when NA and sidekick Neil Cox were announced, it was a bit of a surprise. Sure, he had the Wimbledon connections (something that often seemed to be used as a stick against him, fairly or not), but his background was with youth teamers, not grown adults.

Maybe he was the only one dumb enough to take the job on? He wanted to be a manager, we gave him that chance, and he practically had to rebuild the club’s structure as well as on the field.

Your editor got into the press conference he held at KM, and I had a massive burst of optimism. His lack of experience didn’t matter after all, sitting listening to him.

He got to work straight away, apparently almost over-working himself, and one of the first things he did was to get in Neil Sullivan.

Which is just as well, really, because when you’re taking your first senior management job with a complete rabble to deal with, your first big task is to face Franchise for the first time.

Yep, the game that is now almost de rigeur first happened just a month or two into NA’s reign. A nice baptism of fire, there.

Actually, considering the emotion of that game, we handled it very well. He certainly did. A last minute goal still hurts, but we would have our revenge later. For NA, it was his first major test and he passed it.

The January transfer window came, something that would later prove to become his Achilles heel, although there was still too much dross. Strangely, although we were still nearly going out of the EFL, our record since the beginning of that year was something like us finishing eighth.

But seasons aren’t played January to May, and we were paying for everything before then. We were still struggling, and NA himself must have wondered what he got himself into.

It was also the time when the first of something that always seemed to happen at least once a season under him started – namely letting things come to a head and only getting out of it after a massive hoo-har.

I promise not to make you shudder, but Barnet at Kingsmeadow.

After that game, I thought we were down. I bet Ardley did as well, and things got to a head. We’d got him in, but did he really do anything better than TB would have? Actually, the answer was yes, needless to say, but it didn’t feel like that at the time.

It’s easy to forget that after that game, we also lost to Brizzle Rovers and drew with Exeter, and us coming from behind at Gillingham added another string to the bow.

But it was Fleetwood which saved us, and him. Who knows if he would have stayed if we had gone down, and what went through his mind in the quiet stages before the game started.

Midson scored the penalty and the rest is history, and NA could rebuild the club in his image.

It’s somewhat telling that I can’t remember a great deal about our seasons from August 2013 to the 2015/16 season. But we started to see how Neal Ardley, the manager, did things. He seemed genuinely frustrated at times that players didn’t follow his instructions – a first glimpse of micro-management, perhaps.

His eventual parting of company with Midson suggested that he wasn’t one for mavericks, or anyone who wasn’t a total devotee to Ardleyball. Something which seemed more to do with UEFA coaching manuals rather than actually managing what you have.

Not that there weren’t moments during that period. Beating Pompey 4-0, the 4-3 game against Cheltenham that turned out to be Darlogate 2. Facing Liverpool in the FAC and proving that the only difference between the two sides was Steven Gerrard.

Oh, and there was this as well:

I don’t care if it was only the ex-JPT. We beat them at their place. And I bet there’s many on Facebook who have made the above their profile picture today.

While there wasn’t much else to write home about (except that we seemed to draw a lot of games in that time), he was doing what he was brought in to achieve. Namely start building up our youth system, and stabilising us in L2.

We always seemed destined to finish around 16th or so in the bottom tier. Which would have been fine in itself, but it would have eventually gone stale like it has done today.

I don’t think anyone could have predicted what the outcome of 2015/16 was, although very few would have guessed the beginning of it either. Back then, nothing seemed to have significantly improved, and NA was starting to look a bit like an academic in charge of a football team.

There was something of the school swot about him, and he decided for reasons best known to himself to change the style of play. Not to something more pragmatic, but less so instead. His Meet The Manager was less a discussion and more a sales pitch to this brand new style of play.

Except it didn’t work.

I still remember the chants of “4-4-2” against Crawley at half time, the second game in. He was able to change it, because he still had some of the old guard, but it was something that gave a taste of what was to come a couple of years later.

There was growing discontent about the way we were doing things then, although not to the extent it has been the past year or so. But it felt that nothing was going to happen for the rest of that campaign as well.

Plough Lane got approved, and then there was St Evenage two days later…

I mentioned before that one of the features of an NA season is that there’s a point where things fester then come to a head. There may have been instances before that, but this was one of the worst.

This was our moment, the post-NPL glow, and the players fucked it up for us.

We’ll never know how close Ardley was to going back then, although the image of him trudging to the half-way line after being 2-0 down at Newport the next week still lives with me. He was locked out by the players, and it seemed that was it for him.

The point was proven though – the squad pulled together, and we brought it back to 2-2. NA was probably safe anyway, but he was definitely so after that.

We know what happened after that, and suddenly everything clicked in a way it didn’t before. Or since.

It was no coincidence that we started employing a sports psychologist around that time, one Steven Sylvester. I do not find it incidental that our massive uptick in form then came about when he arrived.

The sports shrink was a godsend to NA himself, but I think he/we became a bit too reliant on him in the end. There were always question marks about how well Ardley could do the mental side of management, and that should have been a warning sign.

But then, it doesn’t matter when you’re winning. Look at the results from January 2016 onwards – 4-1 against Cambridge and Luton, 2-0 at Notts County, and even the slip-ups didn’t matter.

NA was starting to come into his own as a manager – I’ll always remember the vibe in the evening game at Daggers, where it felt that we really could get to Wembley – and it was a great time to be a Womble.

And yes, we got through to the semis, and you had that sense of achievement to come.

Like Terry Brown with Eastlands, Wombley became the high point of his AFCW career. He got just about everything right that day – the mental preparation, the tactics, the ability to take advantage of an underperforming Plymouth.

For that day in May 2016, he had made it as a manager. Neal Ardley has won promotion at the world’s most famous stadium.

League One offered so much more, especially for him. Sure, the teams were slightly better, but it was the ideal way to prove himself. If L2 was full of cloggers, L1 was more sophisticated and surely a level he could eventually adapt to.

Which for the first few months, he did. Granted, it was a lousy three opening games (which we lost all of them), but we found our rhythm again, and only lost twice from the middle of August until a horrible December day in Frenzyville.

Looking back at the results then, we weren’t too bad that season after all. Like a lot of L2, there were too many draws, but of course the biggest win then happened on the 14th March 2017. Ardley became the Franchise slayer, and the rest of the season could have ended there as far as we were concerned.

It was still largely the side that got us promoted to L1 in the first place, with Elliott and Taylor playing a pivotal role (and we never really replaced Bulman after he left). But we were relying a lot on momentum, and that season was when the cracks first appeared.

Many will point to how we shit the bed against Sutton, and the game at GGL was the first time I remember the “Nil Ardley” tag. While his approach was never gung-ho in the first place, his attitude was less trying to win the game and more trying not to lose them.

Personally, I think the first sign of that was Curzon, where only them tiring and our strike force waking up with ten minutes to go hid the first major problems of NA’s management.

We were still playing OK though, but that season was also the start of something that ultimately cost him his job today – our transfer dealings.

Tyrone Barnett started it. He was brought in as a foil/replacement for Tom Elliott, and, well, he wasn’t very good. Every manager makes a bad signing or two, but apparently NA lost a bit of confidence in his ability to identify players.

Which was strange, because his record wasn’t too bad in L2.

The approach he had in L1 wasn’t that much different to L2 – keep it tight, bring subs on when the opposition tire, and get late goals. Except that the opposition in L1 were better at nullifying that, and our players weren’t good enough to counteract it.

And the quality of players was an issue that didn’t get sorted. Basically, NA never properly got to grips with transfer windows in L1. Some of that was the money aspect, where as we’re now finding out it’s very easy to spend a lot of dosh on crap, if you’re not careful.

To overcome that, you need a contact book as big as your arse, with the ability to call in favours, and NA never appeared to have that gravitas. Football is as much who you know as what you know, and the kind of signings we were making reflected that.

He knew Appiah, and he was signed despite being a known crock. And that particular transfer seemed to sum up the latter day Ardley era.

The killer may have been the changes to the transfer window itself. We had to sign players by a certain deadline, and couldn’t dip into the loan market afterwards, and NA never really adapted to that new reality.

That lack of planning became evident in our second L1 season. The idealism returned, we were trying to play a certain way on the cheap, and it didn’t work.

Indeed, 2017/18 was the slow beginning of the end for the guy who had been here since October 2012. His stubborness only got more entrenched at times, persisting with a style of play that was not only boring and negative to watch, but didn’t get the results either.

Playing against a lowly Plymouth and not going out to win changed many an opinion on him. It was a setup that was slow and lacked a lot of things – we lost Elliott and failed to replace him until Piggot in January.

We had a purple patch around December/January, but that was as much as we got out of that. At least until – not for the first time – the shit hit the fan over Easter.

That things often had to fester until something got done about it wasn’t always NA’s fault (the club’s modus operandi doesn’t help over that). But it became a feature of the latter part of his time here.

Yes, we dug ourselves of yet another hole, although there was a rumour at the time that NA had asked his agent to start looking around for other jobs. How true that was I don’t know, but I can well believe it.

He wouldn’t have been here at any other club come the summer, so he couldn’t have complained that he got a bigger transfer kitty this close season. It was effectively his last chance with us, and he knew it.

Which is why it was a radical culling, albeit one that ultimately cost him his job. Releasing the likes of Fuller, Darius and Parrett is one thing, but when you get rid of mentally strong players you need to replace like for like.

Yet not only did NA fail to adapt to the changing transfer limitations, he never quite managed to deal fully with those players with a strong personality (Midson and Akinfenwa are two that immediately spring to mind here).

But the intention was there, at least on paper. Younger, hungrier and quicker players. And for the first month of this season, it worked. Sort of, anyway.

Fleetwood was good, we were unlucky against Coventry and Sunderland, and Barnsley was a credible point.

But the old flaws came back against Walsall, then Burton,  True, we appeared to get back on track against Gillingham, but it quickly fell apart again after Scunthorpe and Accrington.

Why was it starting to go wrong, for the final time? You could blame the scouting and recruitment, that is simply no longer fit for purpose, but it was simply a case of a regime that had run out of time.

And luck.

When a manager is on the way out, things happen that otherwise wouldn’t occur. The real decline started after West Ham, where we were mentally spent and never properly recovered since. That should have been a springboard, yet was anything but.

We played well earlier on in the season, yet did not get the breaks. So when we played poorly, we had no points in reserve to mitigate that.

But that’s referring to earlier on in the season. Why did Oxford on the 29th September end up being the last time an AFCW team under Neal Ardley got points?

It might have been this revelation after we stumbled across the line that day:

“The lack of flowing football was down to me and I’ve been at them all week,” said Neal. “I’ve been like a bear with a sore head. I’ve been miserable and I got into them.

That we didn’t win a game since suggested it broke the lines of communication between manager and squad. That Oxford game was a nervy, horrible contest, and it ended up digging a hole that NA finally couldn’t get out of.

While there was occasional lapses of discipline (remember the post-Stevenage Xmas party?), it was always kept in check. But the last month saw certain players giving the Jagerbomb treatment on Instagram. And not letting off steam after a game, either.

There were still attempts to steady the ship, although the second half reaction against Pompey may have ironically finished Ardley off with this group of players. It’s never a good sign for a manager when they get locked out at half time and the squad then put in the best performance in a good while.

Attempts in the first half-hour against Brizzle Rovers, and the one final heave against Shrewsbury wasn’t enough. When Haringey Borough came in the cup, and the end saw manager and players subject to some fierce vitriol, that was the final sign things needed changing.

Which for Ardley himself is a shame. There was no romantic leading the team out at NPL, which seemingly was the long-held dream. No manager properly survives 11 losses in 14 games, even at this club, and NA’s authority got weaker and more ineffective.

Because of that, his departure seems very anti-climatic. He never got the big send-off, although expecting one in modern professional football is being too naive.

It leaves a couple of questions unanswered right now, like why did somebody so “Wimbledon through and through” end up being one of the most un-Wimbledon like managers we ever had? Trying to change us into something we’re not never sat well with a lot of people.

Did he ever properly shake off the academic/UEFA coaching manual tag? He was here six years, and I’m not 100% sure he did.

Was he eventually let down by having Cox and Bassey beside him? When NA first came through the door, I read a suggestion that he needed to be a #2 to somebody like Harry Bassett for at least that one season, to learn what being a manager really was about.

Who knows if he had changed one or both of them this summer or last?

But like TB before him, history will ultimately be kind to NA. He did keep us from going back down to the Conference. He helped us stabilise the club in L2, eventually got us into L1 and we did stay there at least for two seasons.

And we did move that further step into professionalism under him. We need the same upgrade now, of course, but he did take on a club that was practically non-league throughout. Better training regimes, an appreciation of modern methods and technology all came about under him.

Plus of course, we now have a yoof policy to speak of. Why he seemed to have an issue up until this season of using the youngsters will forever remain a mystery, but that was never even an option when he joined us.

As for what happens now with him, he’s still young. He will get another job at some point, though whether that would be as a manager remains to be seen. He may be better off as an assistant, or even going back to Academy football.

Should he want to remain a first team boss, he may be better off at another club that isn’t so enchanted that he used to play for us. He did say at a MTM a couple of years ago that he preferred a club where he’s not interfered with.

If he wants to continue his career down that path, he may not have a choice in that. But it was always one of the hallmarks of his tenure that when he really needed to buckle down and be pragmatic, he could do so.

At least, until October-November 2018.

A club where they’re less hands-off may be good for him, as his legendary stubborness won’t be tolerated nearly so much. He’s got a good grounding now, and he has managed a team to promotion.

Still, it’s the end of an era, and it’s going to be odd not seeing him in charge any more. I expect he’ll be at NPL at some point. And he’ll be welcomed like TB and Dave Anderson will.

I just hope if he does come back as a visitor, he doesn’t mention the word “budget” once…