New manager but same old story for Dons
AFC Wimbledon 1 Cheltenham Town 2: Neil Ardley's return to Wimbledon fails to stop his team losing a fourth successive home game
When AFC Wimbledon appointed Dave Anderson, the man who took the club out of the Ryman League Division One South, the interview took place in a Little Chef off the M25. Eight years on, the board interviewed this week for a new manager in the Grosvenor House Hotel.
This is a club which has come a long way in a few short years and having worked so hard to get back into the league – after the original outfit moved to Milton Keynes – the Dons are desperate to stay there.
Thus Anderson's successor, Terry Brown, was axed despite three promotions in five years, and Neal Ardley, a one-time Crazy Gang member, appointed.
Yesterday, Ardley, who played for a decade in the top flight with Wimbledon, made his managerial bow with them in League Two. His arrival, plus a well-timed discount ticket offer, put 1,000 on the gate but most went home disappointed after a solid Cheltenham team withstood a late rally to inflict a fourth-successive home defeat.
"It was emotional, it was enjoyable, but it was horrible to lose," said Ardley. "The supporters were great, but we have got to look like we are progressing and get results because it will soon stop being romantic."
Ardley, who has been honing his coaching and administrative skills as academy manager at Cardiff City for the last five years, made a low-key appearance, walking out of the tunnel a few minutes before kick-off and striding towards the dug-out to a brief PA announcement. Warm applause followed which he acknowledged with a wave. For the opening 20 minutes the 40-year-old sat alongside Simon Bassey, the caretaker manager for the last four fixtures who selected this starting XI, but as both sides struggled to impose themselves he was drawn to his feet.
His nervousness was understandable. Crippled by injuries, the Dons defence consisted of two players aged 18 and 20 without a League appearance between them before this season, a 29-year-old who was playing for Staines Town last season, and a 21-year-old loanee with barely 30 senior matches behind him.
In the circumstance they did well to restrict Cheltenham to one shot on target in the opening half. Unfortunately for the Dons that shot, from 25 yards by Marlon Pack after Will Antwi's clearing header fell to him, flew in for the only goal of the half.
Wimbledon, perhaps feeling they had little to lose after that, relaxed and began to play. George Francomb drove over, Luke Moore, one of the few survivors of the climb from non-League, headed wide when he should have scored, and Jack Midson looped a header against the bar following Moore's clever flick.
Soon after the break, Antwi's short back pass ought to have gifted the Robins a second, but Chris Zebroski shot wide. It mattered not as Kaid Mohamed, a former Don, headed in after 55 minutes. Midson then missed several chances to cut the deficit before Byron Harrison scored in injury time to set up a grandstand finish in which he put another header against the bar.
Ardley was greeted at the final whistle by Jason Euell, one of many former Wimbledon players to have made contact in the last few days to wish him well. "When I heard [about Brown's exit] on the radio. I didn't think much about it at first, then I realised I had 20 texts from people suggesting I might be interested," said Ardley. "I was looking to get into management but I had not applied anywhere. I thought, 'What better place?' But I knew they would not appoint me because they thought it was romantic, I had to convince them I was the best man."
Now Ardley needs to prove that fast. While Cheltenham climbed into the promotion places, Wimbledon dropped to 22nd, two points off the relegation zone. They need to retain their League status if they are to successfully pursue a return to Merton. Earlier this month, GRA, which own Wimbledon's Plough Lane greyhound stadium, unveiled a plan to redevelop the dog-track for housing and a football stadium.
However, Erik Samuelson, the Dons' chief executive, stressed "there is a long way to go." The GRA proposal is for a 12,000-capacity ground. "We need to start at 12,000 and be capable of going to 20,000," he said. Referring to the old Plough Lane ground which was too small for the top flight, he added: "We need to make sure the stadium is not one that chokes us to death, we've done that once."
AFC Wimbledon (4-2-3-1): Seb Brown; Francomb, Mambo, Antwi, Fenlon; Gregory, Harris (Long, 57); Midson, Moore, Yussuff (Jolley, 57); Harrison.
Cheltenham (4-1-4-1): Scott Brown; Jombati, Lowe, Elliott, Jones; Pack; McGlashan, Penn, Carter, Mohamed (Duffy, 74); Zebroski.
Referee T Robinson
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