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That Was The Season That Was

That’s 2020/21, in case you’ve forgotten. Don’t worry, it’s understandable if you’ve lost track of time.

Yep, it’s that time of the close season again. A chance to relive a campaign that you’ve already forgotten about.

It was a strange season, 2020/21, for so many obvious reasons. The main one being that very few people reading this actually got inside a ground.

For much of it though, that wasn’t a bad thing. But we’re safe, we’re in L1, and we even get to welcome fans back for next season.

While there’s plenty of stuff to look forward to, it never hurts to reflect back when you finally get a breather.

So sit yourself down, take your mask off, and relive SW19’s thoughts on what we’ve endured for the past nine months…

We deserved to stay up.

I have to admit, at various stages last season I genuinely expected to be in L2 by now.

I think I glanced at the L2 table too often, seeing potential away days like Carlisle and St Evenage, and kept wondering how we would cope with going down.

In the back of my mind, I was already preparing the SW19 update that I never wanted to write, the one that started off with “And we’re down…”.

I’ll let you into a little secret – I had already planned at least a couple of post-demotion articles for a good while.

One of those would have been a serious piece, entitled “Ten (Genuine) Good Things About Relegation”.

You’ll have to wait to see what I would have said. And with luck, you’ll always be kept waiting.

We’re a League One club again because we earned the right to be one. Our record from February(ish) onwards shows that.

Under MR, we found an approach that not only worked, but gave everyone genuine confidence that we can go on from there.

True, it was tough to play Brizzle Rovers, Charlton and Wigan in March, but beating Accrington, Ipswich, Swindon and Oxford weren’t flukes.

Even the 0-0 at Lincoln would have been a credible result no matter how good you are, or what stage of the season you’re at.

It wasn’t quite the Great Escape (TM) season, because points wise we were always within two or three of survival.

It’s true that we had a bit of luck though. Ollie Palmer sticking his boot out at Blackpool in the very last minute springs to mind here.

There were other dramatic moments, like beating Northampton at PL. Some have just come out of hospital after suffering heart attacks from that game.

Getting fortunate with injuries at the right time also helped – would we have stayed up if Palmer was still on the treatment table in April?

And yes – who knows what would have still happened if Piggy hadn’t equalised in the 96th minute against Rochdale.

A game that looking back now was even more important than first believed.

As a team, we grew in confidence from February, and by the end relegation would have been cruel considering our form.

Going down would have been a lot more due to being shite between November and late January, rather than anything we did after that.

We were more a playoff chasing side towards the end of the season, rather than one fighting for survival.

Teams who play like that don’t deserve to go down. And we didn’t…

The club gambled on Mark Robinson. It paid off.

While our survival was a team effort, if we were to single out one individual it would be the unoriginally nicknamed Robbo.

When the trigger was finally pulled on the Glyn Hodges era, it was a genuinely tricky time for the club.

To get in somebody “experienced” (ie who knew how to manage first team footballers) was always going to cost a bit.

Not only that, but the timing was awful for anyone who wanted to bring in new players.

As an interim appointment, Robbo was a good one – he knew the club, knew the squad, and wasn’t somebody who seemed concerned with bad results.

But his first team experience was, ahem, limited. For some (many?) putting him in permanent charge would have seen like the cheap option, and us waving the white flag on our L1 tenure.

Not to mention us going down would see yet another person associated with Wimbledon tossed on the scrapheap.

We needn’t have worried.

I won’t go so far as to say he’s the right man for the job, but that’s only because when I do say that we end up sacking them six months later.

Sometimes though, you just luck out, and that’s what we did with our former Academy manager.

Successful actors often talk about their lucky break, the moment that something comes along that propels them.

The scene was set under him with his now-notorious post-match comments against Oxford.

He proved that he has not only a plan, but an almost frightening desire to constantly improve things.

But he also got lucky himself, because he still had enough time to implement what he wanted.

We still had 21 or so games – and with some favourable fixtures when it really mattered – to mentally turn around a squad effectively doomed.

At a stroke, he’s now the second most powerful individual at AFCW, behind Joe Palmer.

Time will tell if he suffers the same fate as both GH and Walter, namely he becomes a half-season wonder.

Next season may yet prove to be a disaster under MR after all, but one senses our Head Coach isn’t planning on that…

Glyn Hodges lost the plot.

To give an idea of how things can change so quickly, it’s worth remembering our former midfielder was in charge for most of the season.

Whether it was Covid playing silly buggers, whether it was simply his time in charge hitting the brick wall, we’ll never know.

But something happened, and happened very quickly.

That time from early December through to late January continues not to make any sense.

To play badly is one thing, but to have an inability not to change anything in close to two months beggars belief even now.

Keeping five at the back when you’re losing game after game (and not looking like you’re improving with it) isn’t even just being stubborn.

Did GH run out of ideas? Yes he did. Was he astute managerial wise to do something else? Clearly not.

Perhaps the strangest (and probably saddest) part of the whole thing was that another WFC favourite departed the scene, and yet few mourned his departure.

I don’t think anyone was pleading with us to keep him, and by the time MR started getting to work, Hodger almost seemed like a footnote.

One other thing that is telling – normally, when a manager departs they leave a message with the LMA. Since he went, I don’t think we’ve heard anything since then…

The Crazy Gang era is finally over.

It’s ironic that the last link to the class of the 80s ended a few hours after we lost to Franchise at new Plough Lane.

You couldn’t have picked a more poignant bit of symbolism.

In truth, it had been on life support since the 1990s, and GH, Walter and NA always seemed as much trying to relive the WFC past as anything.

As SW19 wrote at the time of Hodges departing, the Football Gods were telling us to move on, and we’d better listen this time.

That we now look more “Wimbledon” under a manager who had no Wimbledon links before he joined us isn’t coincidence.

But we don’t need to relive the Crazy Gang era any more.

Why? Well, not only is MR looking more like he’s doing what we should be doing anyway, as a club we’ve almost gone full circle.

Our “identity” is secure. We’re back home after 30 years, and we don’t need to keep linking to the past any longer.

To be blunt, some of harking back to bygone eras was as much trying to bridge the gap between WFC and AFCW.

There’s long been an unwritten identity crisis in supporting us, because what we had before 28/5/02 was taken away from us in broad daylight.

Even now, a few still can’t fully transplant what they had with WFC into AFCW today.

Most have moved on with that now, and we can start feeling fully comfortable in our own skin again.

And because of that, we don’t need to drag out a Lawrie Sanchez type figure to try and convince ourselves we’re still WFC.

I don’t think this has gone un-noticed in the current setup. As an interesting little aside from MR after the 3-0 Ipswich game suggested:

“When we first came together as a group, the one thing that the players made clear was that they felt the club talked about the past a lot,”

I think the current crop must be a little bit pissed off that they get compared to something that ran its course three decades ago.

Granted, in recent seasons we’ve looked anything but “Wimbledon”, yet the run in was as close to that as it’s been for many years.

The Crazy Gang era had its final moments under Walter and GH, and it’s fitting they were the centre points of those last chapters.

But there’s a club museum that needs some artifacts, and that’s where it should now reside…

We are becoming a League One club. Slowly.

Change isn’t easy, especially at AFCW, and if we’re being honest – we’ve never look like we’ve fitted into the third tier.

Which considering it is the division we’ve spent longest in this era isn’t a good endorsement.

We can wax lyrical about our transfer policy, our make-do-and-mend, and even the way we seem to approach financial issues.

We may have left Kingsmeadow, but the KM mentality hasn’t yet left us.

That might be a tad unfair on AFCW, considering we’ve had to move into our new home under some very unusual circumstances.

No doubt best laid plans were tempered, put on the back burner or just torn up altogether.

And the most important thing about this season is that we came through it relatively unscathed.

Even so, and I seem to write this every close season, the need to up our game as a club becomes ever more apparent.

There are plenty of (justified) arguments that the club took on too much with the stadium and running a third-tier football side at the same time, with such limited manpower.

This is not to mention that now we have bond repayments due at some point, along with at least one loan that can’t be put back.

We can try and ignore everything else, but you can’t ignore an external lender demanding their money.

The club itself is starting to flog 25-year season tickets, clearly suggesting there’s some cashflow issues.

We won’t be the only club in that predicament, and 21/22 will be as much of an adjustment as the previous season was.

But Plough Lane is built, the Rona is thankfully starting to (mostly) subside, and now we need to finally walk the walk.

We are at least doing that on the field, even if a “committee” may be the wrong choice of words.

Already we have a beefed up backroom staff that I don’t recall us having before. It now looks like something that you see in L1.

Football at this level is a lot more sophisticated than it used to be, and we’ve never properly reflected that.

Granted, we won’t be able to pay the sums that Ipswich and Sunderland do, but perhaps we don’t need to?

Off the field, and all caveats notwithstanding, there remains the sense we talk a lot about becoming more professional, and act too little in actually doing so.

If I get to write a review of the 2021/22 season, I’ll no doubt say the same thing a year from today.

That said, I don’t find it a coincidence that Nick “Asos” Robertson got voted onto the AFCW PLC board with such a stonking majority.

Granted, if you’re somebody with PLC voting rights, you’re likely more tuned in with the financial side of things than a vanilla DT member.

We’ve long needed a proper outsider involved, and his appointment may be as important off the field as MR’s appointment on it.

Now the pause button has been unpressed, by this time next year we can hopefully say the club is catching up to the environment it’s in.

Though as the original comms for the 25 year season tickets show, it still has its moments…

We’re back at Plough Lane – in body, anyway.

The return back to Merton, and the SW19/SW17 border, was supposed to be the big climax after thirty years in the wilderness.

Instead, life back home started practically under the radar, on a cold evening against Doncaster.

And we didn’t bloody win either.

Given the nature of the whole project, it seemed fitting that game took place home behind closed doors, in a half-finished stadium.

To see it slowly rise from the rubble of the greyhound track, then to find that you still can’t go in it even as I type this, is a bit of a headfuck.

These past few months have been the ultimate look-but-don’t-touch scenario,

We’ve returned, and you see the blue seats in the stand, but they’re currently just images on a computer or TV screen.

It’s there, it’s ours. But it continues to be a little bit out of reach.

That feeling will subside when the first test event takes place, then when the following ones occur later in the summer.

Assuming the scientists and politicians allow us our lives back by August, the return home will be complete.

The biggest irony is that thanks to the Rona, we actually managed to get back home quicker.

We’ll never know if we would have played this season just gone at Loftus Road, or even back at KM.

That first game against Doncaster was literally in a building site, so it was obvious the venue just about could handle competitive fixtures.

And by “just about”, I mean the barest of bare minimums.

Yet despite its short life as a football ground, Plough Lane has already had some iconic moments take place.

Tzanev’s penalty save against Northampton is one. Piggy’s last minute equaliser against Rochdale is another.

Oh, and GH getting axed after Franchise.

All this without crowds in, so you can well imagine what it will be like when the next heart-stopping moments take place in SW17.

It does feel like we’re back home though, even though we’ve yet to make that final (literal) step.

Your editor was lucky (?) enough to see the Sunderland game in the flesh, and the following words still ring true today:

That will finally happen with the first full crowd in the venue, but the best thing I can say about yesterday is that I thought nothing of it.

It wasn’t a chore like Selhurst or KM, and in the case of the latter it never felt like going to a home game in the way yesterday did.

The insinuation being that once you finally go inside, you’ll never accept anywhere else as being home again.

When the future history books of AFCW get written, there might be a few paragraphs on how the return home was dampened by the great Corona Crisis of 2020-21.

Other than that, it will become a footnote of the past, just like our time at KM, or Selhurst will be.

This past season will always remain the strangest one we’ll ever likely experience, not least because of the sort-of return home.

But maybe even soon after you stop reading these final few words, it’s one that you might very quickly forget ever happened…

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