The club insists the appointment is pragmatic, not romantic, so does the manager they appointed, but there is no denying that short of handing the task of Football League survival to Dave Beasant or Dickie Guy, AFC Wimbledon could not have made a more romantic appointment than Neal Ardley.
Ardley spent 18 years with Wimbledon going from youth scheme to senior pro. He played at Plough Lane, he watched the re-formed AFC’s first home match when they started again in the Combined Counties League, he even met his wife at their Kingsmeadow stadium. He would have been at the 1988 FA Cup final victory over Liverpool, but gave his ticket to his dad.
After he had quit playing, and was working as Cardiff City’s academy manager, the bond remained tight. “When we were winding each other up at Cardiff my staff knew just how to rile me, they would call me 'an ex-MK Dons player',” he said. “That really annoyed me and they knew it. It bugs me that if you look me up on a website like Soccerbase it refers to the club as MK Dons. For a while I used to think, 'I spent 11 years at a club and it doesn't exist!' But it does now. What they have done here in the last ten years is phenomenal. It is the fans that have driven everything. I'm sure Hollywood will produce a film about this.
“Some might say we are AFC Wimbledon, I've always considered this club to be Wimbledon. The history goes back to the Crazy Gang days. Chairman, managers, players, directors, they come and go, the fans are the constant. The base of every club.”
He is not just saying this now. In an interview on the web at watfordlegends.com conducted three years ago Ardley expresses similar sentiments. Ardley is also one of two ex-Wimbledon players who have contributed to ‘This Is Our Time’, Niall Couper’s evocative collection of eyewitness stories detailing Wimbledon’s extinction and AFC’s rise. In it he describes his final year at the club, played to the backdrop of the owners’ application to move to Milton Keynes, as ‘very difficult’ with ‘the players stuck in the middle’ and the atmosphere getting ‘horrible by the end’.
As we sit in the sun at AFC’s New Malden training ground those grim afternoons in south London 11 years ago seem an age away. He recalls “it was really, really tough. We had a very good team playing good football under Terry Burton, but it was hard because home games were the fans’ chance to protest. I totally understood, but our home form was not great.”
At the end of the season, said Ardley, “they found a clause in my three-year contract to get me out.” He went to Watford, then Cardiff and Millwall before returning to Wales to coach. “Being academy manager was my apprenticeship - you deal with budgets, the chairman, you oversee staff, you deal with people.” As Ardley notes, “Fabio Capello, Rafael Benitez and Andre Villas-Boas all cut their teeth at academies.”
He was looking to go into management, but yet to apply for a job, when the opportunity at Wimbledon came up. It seemed serendipitous not least because Ardley met his wife Sarah while she was working as a receptionist at the sports centre adjacent to Kingsmeadow and he was doing extra training with Jenny Archer, better known as coach to Paralympic wheelchair athlete David Weir.
He said: “When I knew I was coming back I said to her, ‘I met the love of my life at Kingsmeadow… I wonder if she’s still there!’ Thwack!”
His best season at Wimbledon was in 1996-97. “We lost our first three games – including the one where David Beckham scored from the halfway line, then won seven on the trot and 14 unbeaten. We reached two semi-finals and were in the top four until the last few weeks, when fatigue kicked in. "90 minutes" magazine did an assist table which had Bergkamp top with 21, then Ardley 20, Cantona 19, Juninho 17. I wish I had kept it because no one believes me.”
Three years later Wimbledon’s improbable 14-year stay in the top flight was ended. Ardley, having been frozen out by Egil Olsen, returned when Burton was brought in to try and rescue the club with three games left. Come the last day they had to match Bradford City’s result, but Bradford beat Liverpool while Wimbledon lost to Southampton at The Dell.
“I was in the tunnel at half time, people were saying ‘don't ask the score’, but I wanted to know. They told me Bradford were one-up. We were nil-nil. I knew we had to do something but maybe because of Egil's training regime there wasn't much in the legs of the boys. Mentally, physically we were on the brink and when Wayne Bridge put them ahead, you thought, ‘this is us gone’. I was running on fumes with about 25 minutes to go. When the whistle went I didn't want to go round shaking hands, go into the dressing room. I just sat there. That night I couldn't sleep. I remember going up to the golf course on Epsom Downs where we were living at the time with the dog about one in the morning and I laid up by one of the greens. I just laid down there, mind going, shattered. Just lying there.”
Now he is back, seeking to avoid an even more calamitous relegation, back to non-League. Wimbledon, away at high-flying Fleetwood today, are one place off the drop.“I know we are in the proverbial but hopefully we can turn that around,” he said. “It is a club I hold dear in my heart and I don't want to let anyone down.”
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