Ah 2022/23, you still won’t disappear from our collective minds.
Like a dental appointment, or a meeting you’d rather go to drunk, looking back at the previous nine months feels like a chore again.
So you can imagine what it was like for your editor to cast his mind back and write all these words about it.
Granted, it’s not quite as bad as last season’s entry was, but it’s still something we’ve got to face up to.
So, sit down, bite very hard on that odd bit of plastic and pretend it doesn’t hurt…
The season turned into a massive failure.
And to think one decision maker predicted a top three finish beforehand.
I won’t go so far as to say it was a catastrophe. Indeed, it wasn’t even a failure throughout the nine months.
We didn’t get relegated, which is always the first priority from a recently demoted team on a slump.
And while it certainly didn’t feel like it, on objective reflection never really looked like going down.
As the club likes to remind people every twenty seconds, we also had just one league defeat between mid October and the beginning of February.
But 2022/23 eventually became a horror show, and shockingly quickly too.
It was almost as though we hadn’t remembered 2021/22 enough, and decided to repeat it again just as an aide-memoire.
What was the stat? Two wins since January 1st, wasn’t it? And one of those was against Walsall, which sort-of doesn’t count.
Indeed, this campaign was effectively one in three different sections.
The strange post-relegation reboot ended with the first signs of discord, when we lost to Sutton at PL.
A change of ethos let us to be almost unbeaten in three months, and in that time we looked a legitimately solid-if-unspectacular outfit.
There were reasons why we not only slumped big time after then, which we’ll look at below, but it’s what you remember most from the past nine months.
As the whole thing freefell in front of us, it was as if the whole thing was – once again – built on sand.
It all collapsed on the 60th minute against Hartlepool at Plough Lane.
Picture the scene : it’s mid-February, and you’re 2-0 up at home against a team that would eventually get relegated.
You’re playing well enough, with confidence, but down the other end you see one of our players go down.
That player is Alex Pearce, and on the hour mark he was to be subbed by a newbie in Aaron Pierre.
He looked unfit and a bit unsure, the whole thing changes and we looked nervy all of a sudden. Hartlepool sense this, and they get a goal back with twenty minutes left.
The tension rises. Surely they don’t nick an equaliser with seconds to go? Surely it doesn’t become like the season before it all over again?
If I was to pinpoint the one moment when our season collapsed like a termite-infested building, it would be that very moment.
One game doesn’t put us into freefall, of course, and Pierre himself became one of the better players of the last few months.
The January transfer window was another awful one, where we lost Towler and Assal, and never properly replaced any of them.
Yet the Hartlepool game was four games after it shut, and the arse just doesn’t fall out of a squad without an underlying cause.
In our case, that was a chronic mental weakness that was a hangover from our last season in League One.
That game knocked the stuffing out of us, the PTSD returned from under the surface, and our confidence of winning a game again just drained in seconds.
It didn’t help by losing the next four, and by the time we got a point at Newport, we just didn’t believe we could win a game again.
The less said about the Easter fixtures the better, but I don’t think anyone could do much with a bunch of serial losers like our squad was.
Which leads us onto…
Johnnie Jackson is as popular as a fart in a lift – but he survives.
For now, at least.
Whenever I’ve written TWTSTW in the past, I’ve usually found myself saying that “[CURRENT MANAGER] is the right man in charge”.
This inevitably leads to said manager shitting the bed the following campaign and me wishing people hadn’t noticed what I put down.
I therefore guess that Johnnie “JJ” Jackson must be relieved I haven’t praised him.
In the eyes of many though, he’s exceptionally lucky to be here right now.
His tactics were openly questioned, especially his subs, his touchline demeanour was often criticised for not “showing enough passion”, whatever that means.
His motivation skills were often mocked, and as for actually winning games…
His departure would genuinely please a lot, perhaps the majority, yet he’s still in charge in SW17.
The question is, why?
In many ways, the continued ineptitude of AFCW saved him. The aftermath of the January window would have tested more experienced managers.
Because of that, we had to over-use the likes of Pell and Davison, and it was no surprise they ended up missing most of the latter stages.
His transfer bod disappeared in January, and his new one has, like JJ, had to deal with some massive turds left him.
And even with all this in mind, he must have something about him to be in charge of a team that only lost one league game between late October and early February.
Unless you’re one of those who thinks that run wasn’t down to him but the post-January collapse was.
We have plenty in that category.
Jackson wasn’t (and isn’t) the duffer he remains portrayed as, your editor saw him manage Charlton a few times and I did think there’s potentially a decent manager in there.
Potentially is a big word though. Make no mistake, if Cope and Thorn had been in place earlier, Jackson would have been out well before now.
He used up eight lives, and he’s not many games away from his ninth…
The club lost the benefit of the doubt.
Your editor remains a subscriber to the idea that a club’s on-field performance is usually determined by how it operates off it.
With that in mind, perhaps it’s no wonder 2021/22 saw us go down and 22/23 saw us finish fourth bottom.
Despite some attempt to turn it around by some newly installed people, there was still too much of the old mentality.
Unresponsive comms, tone-deaf attitudes for legitimate complaints, and all compounded with a strange January window.
Issues since dismissed, but as they say in Yes Minister – never believe anything until it’s been officially denied.
Things appeared to come to a head with just a game of the campaign to go, though.
The club went for a PR win by organising a Fans Forum, but instead ended up unleashing a watershed moment.
Implying the full video was going to be released, then not, then giving out a transcript and thinking it was the end of the matter was one antagonism too far.
Especially against a fanbase that was fed up and finally lost its patience.
It took a couple of media savvy people with some clout and enough pissed-offness to give AFCW something it’s not had enough of.
The result has been plenty of mea culpas, together with “this must never happen again” type comments from some senior people and – seemingly – a new found desire to question those in charge.
It might just be a once-off, but some decision makers were reportedly genuinely shocked and rattled at the reaction against them.
Something definitely changed in the relationship between the self-proclaimed Fans Club and the actual fans.
This season saw individual decision makers getting singled out in ways I don’t ever recall since 2002.
This about Mick Buckley would have been beyond unthinkable even three months ago, but it was applauded by many supporters.
He will probably be wishing he could step down from his position sooner, but when you come across very badly in a public forum – and then double down – it’s going to happen.
Buckley is definitely past his sell-by date, and there’s at least one who should follow him out of the door immediately.
Many did head for the exit doors this past nine months though, more than you realise. Some quite well known, others not so.
It wasn’t just day-to-day running either. I care little for the Dons Trust, but a large percentage of the previous regime stepped down – which was telling.
Especially as at least one was responsible for putting the club on the backfoot over the Fans Forum.
That too is being scrutinised in a way I can’t ever remember during the AFCW era, and it’s no longer taboo to question its usefulness.
For those who departed, hanging around after the post-return home no doubt appealed to them.
But as Erik Samuelson showed, sometimes it’s best to leave before you outstay your welcome.
There are positives at AFCW.
It doesn’t feel like it, but perhaps because of the above there were the first proper attempts to turn around a club stuck in a rut.
On the field, Craig Cope might have been the most important appointment for a long while.
While being at Solihull Moors might raise some eyebrows, him and Andy Thorn did make us feel there’s a plan now.
To be fair to the club, it’s tried to do it before – most notably under Mark Robinson, with less than hilarious outcomes – but 22/23 was the first grounded in football reality.
Is it true Al-Hamadi was one of Cope’s first recommendations? If so, it’s a good start.
Indeed, the Iraqi Scouser was one of the few players who genuinely came away from this season with credit.
Being the Player of the Year despite arriving in January tells its own story, of course, but it shows who we could get in.
At the risk of clinging onto this like a safety blanket, the run of form between late October and early February was a glimpse into what we could do.
Don’t forget that we had an outside chance of the playoffs before it went so horribly wrong.
Off the pitch, and somebody else who should have come in five years earlier, Danny Macklin had the unenviable job of clearing up the mess.
He tried the more open approach, especially on Twatter, although sometimes he doesn’t entirely hit the mark.
But news that the conference facilities are being upgraded, and other similar ventures, are welcome.
It also highlighted just how badly AFCW handled returning home that we’re still having to do that with a two-year old build.
Even despite Covid, which I think was a bit of a smokescreen. I’m more convinced the return home was simply beyond the organisational abilities of many involved.
There’s still much to do, and you can’t let the latest collapse go without continued major surgery.
But if – if – this season proved to be the nadir it might be worth it after all.
Our crowds held up.
Which was something that surprised a lot of people. Although perhaps it shouldn’t.
When you look at other clubs who are in a world of hurt, who still command very good attendances, should we be much different?
The likes of Portsmouth and Coventry have been in League Two and their supporters still turned up.
We’re not their size, admittedly, but nor are we Franchise.
Of course, it’s not guaranteed it will always be the case, especially if we continue to shit the bed.
But some forget that relatively speaking, we’re actually well-supported. And getting 7000+ averages at home isn’t a fluke.
Hell, imagine what we could get if we were actually any good…