Ardley 'comes home' to lead Wimbledon resurrection

 

Before Arsenal home games the video screens broadcast Arsène Wenger reading out the team he has chosen. It is a neat bit of supporter-manager interaction, but inevitably somewhat impersonal.

In League Two, at the fans' club AFC Wimbledon, the exchange is more intimate. Before occupying the dugout for the first time as a manager today, Neal Ardley will appear in front of a room full of fans who have paid £25 for the pre-match carvery, tell them the team and provide a pre-match briefing.

Ardley can be assured of a warm welcome, for the 40-year-old has come home. Ardley joined the Dons as an 11-year-old, made his debut in the last few weeks of the club's time at its traditional Plough Lane ground, went on to play more than 250 matches and was part of the team which finished sixth in the old First Division under Joe Kinnear. It was only when Wimbledon were Milton Keynes-bound that he was forced out, moving to Watford while his old club transmuted into MK Dons and the deserted fans formed a new one.

That his personal history is intertwined with the club's is not, however, the reason he beat 45 other applicants to the post, insisted Erik Samuelson, the club's chief executive.

"People have said it is the romantic choice, but ask my wife, I don't do romantic. That Neal played for Wimbledon is a bonus, but he was chosen because he was the best candidate."

Ardley knows how far the phoenix club have travelled having attended their first competitive game at Kingsmeadow, against Chipstead in the Combined Counties League in 2002. His job now is to make sure their fairytale return to the Football League is protected. Having finished 16th in their first season back in the Football League Wimbledon are currently 21st in the table.

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