Wimbledon continue to defy odds under Murdoch

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The Independent Football

At least the gallows humour is thriving at Wimbledon Football Club. "When we went to Northern Ireland at the weekend [for a pre-season friendly], I thought I was going to get arrested," says manager Stuart Murdoch. "We had that many kids with us we must have been breaking the adult to child ratio for school parties."

It isn't much of an exaggeration - the average age of Murdoch's squad, he claims, is now just 20 after five more youth team players were drafted in. In the squad, he can count on only five with more than one season's experience of first-team football. His captain, Nigel Reo-Coker, is 19. Other regulars are aged 19, 20, 20, 20, 21 and 22.

It is desperate stuff - but not as desperate as the day earlier this summer when Murdoch, along with every other employee, was summoned after the administrators had arrived. "The men in black walked in with their suitcases and everyone felt that the bottom had fallen out of their world," Murdoch explains as he sits at the training ground at Roehampton. Eleven people were made redundant that day, out of 40 non-playing staff, and the rest, including players, were told in no uncertain terms that they were in a fight for survival.

"From that point on it has got better - at least we are still here. Wages have now been paid, apart from some money owed from May. It did not look as if we would survive this far," says the man who, astonishingly, steered Wimbledon to 10th place in the First Division last season and even, at one stage, appeared capable of a tilt at the play-offs. It was his first full term in charge. Wimbledon will kick-off today back at Selhurst Park, an uncomfortable tenant for, hopefully, not an unlucky 13th season. At least it should last just six games (including, incidentally, a 'home' match against Crystal Palace). By then, the end of October, Wimbledon hope to finally make the controversial 'franchise' move to Milton Keynes. The first match should be against West Ham United on 11 October.

Murdoch is reluctant to discuss the issue - but only because he does not want to tempt fate. "Will we go to Milton Keynes? We have been here before and now no one believes it will happen so we won't know until it actually does go ahead. For what it's worth, it feels more definite than it did before."

The plan is still to occupy the National Hockey Stadium - a grass pitch is being laid and renovations taking place - for two years at a cost of £2m until a 28,000-seater stadium at Denbigh North is complete. The stadium, in truth, is more a retail complex with a football ground attached. Much depends on the success of a consortium - Stadium MK - led by the music entrepreneur Pete Winkelman to take control. Talks are continuing. "They are pushing forward with the new stadium and, if anything, that is ahead of schedule," says Murdoch who is disappointed to still be at Selhurst - not least because he had to exchange his captain Neil Shipperley to cover the rent arrears. "We know there will be no fans there, no fans at all," says Murdoch who expects far fewer than last season's paltry average of just 2,786.

"As long as we can get through the first months of the season, we should be all right," he says as if trying to convince himself as much as anyone else. As well as Shipperley he lost David Connolly to West Ham for £285,000 - the strikers scored 48 goals last season - goalkeeper Kelvin Davis and Damien Francis. "They purely went because they were among the highest earners and we had to reduce the wage bill [which stood at £4m]," says Murdoch. "It was solely because of financial reasons. It has been difficult to see them go, especially for the fees we have had to accept."

Even more troubling has been the fight to keep the younger players such as Reo-Coker, Jobi McAnuff, Lionel Morgan and Mickele Leigertwood. "I know there is not much money around but we have had some ridiculous offers," says Murdoch. "The whole transfer market is depressed and that is part of our problems. I think a lot of the young players should stay and get first-team experience here rather than go and be a reserve at a bigger club. They will be Premier League players, no doubt about it, but because they would not now go straight into their first team, clubs are making ridiculously low offers. If we can hold on to them for another season everyone will benefit. But I know they will move on eventually."

Murdoch admits he does not know if he will still be at Wimbledon when they finally - if ever - make that move to their new stadium. "I could be 18 months into redundancy by then," jokes the former goalkeeping coach. "At this point we have done everything that the administrators have required. Who's to say they will not ask for more cuts but that also depends on the success of the consortium."

Two players have arrived - the old Wimbledon striker Dean Holdsworth and goalkeeper Steve Banks - both on free transfers. "It is now one out, one in," says Murdoch. "We are desperately lacking experience but once the young boys have bedded down, strangely, the long-term future looks good." The problem is, however, can they hold on long enough for the new stadium in the land of the concrete cow not to become just a white elephant.