2020/21 Preview – AFC Wimbledon

Host of Express FM’s Football Hour and pundit on Pompey Live, Jake Smith continues his look at each League One club ahead of the new season.

Intro: After the original Wimbledon were relocated out of London and into Milton Keynes in 2003, the heart and soul of the club disappeared into thin air, along with the history, assets and honours the club so proudly held.

MK Dons were formed in 2004 when Pete Winkelman, who is still chairman of the controversial franchise club, stripped Wimbledon apart and started the business afresh under a new name, in a new town and a brand-spanking new stadium. Without going too far into the history of the situation (we could be here all day and I’m pretty sure we all know what happened by now), it’s safe to say that neutral football fans regard AFC Wimbledon as THE Wimbledon, despite the fact that technically they are not, having been founded in 2002 as a phoenix club.

The Dons have enjoyed an historic rise up from the deep pits of non-league, starting way down in the Combined Counties League Premier Division, Step 9 of the English game. 6 promotions in 13 seasons helped the club reach League One 4 years ago and they have not looked back since.

The only way is up for the Wombles, who will be boosted soon by the return of their beloved Plough Lane stadium, which is scheduled to break ground in October of this year. Progression has slowed right down since entering the Football League, however they do seem to be back where they belong and, in recent history, have been fortunate enough to brag finishing higher in the footballing pyramid than their new rivals MK Dons, who took their place in the league structure in 2004.

A new badge awaits the club on a fresh new kit, in a brand-new historic stadium this season, leading many fans to believe that the real Dons are fully back in business.

Home Ground: Kingsmeadow Stadium, Kingston upon Thames (London) – Capacity: 4,850 (Until October-time) Plough Lane Stadium, Earlsfield (London) – Capacity: 9,300 (Expected to be completed in October)

2019/20 Table Position: 20th (League One) – 35 points after 35 games with an average of 1.00 point per-game.

Overall Head-To-Head Record: AFC Wimbledon Wins: 5 – Draws: 1 – Portsmouth Wins: 7

Previous Meeting With Pompey: Portsmouth 2-1 AFC Wimbledon, 11th January 2020, League One

2020/21 Fixture Dates:

Saturday 9th January, 2021 – Fratton Park Saturday 1st May, 2021 – Plough Lane

Manager: A man who knows what it means and how it feels to play for Wimbledon, former player Glyn Hodges is now the boss of the club risen from the ashes.

The now 57-year-old linked up with the Dons in December 2018, taking up the position of assistant manager under Wally Downes. 9 months later, in the September of last season, Hodges took control of the full management of the first-team after his predecessor was suspended on betting misconduct charges.

Glyn Hodges has taken charge of 29 AFC Wimbledon games to date, tallying up 9 wins, 9 draws and 11 defeats and leading the Dons to survival in League One, though it could be argued that the points-per-game system used to determine the conclusion of that campaign could have been a major influencer in that, with Tranmere Rovers bang on form ready to trouble clubs above them pre-lockdown.

As a player, Hodges ran out in midfield for the Crazy Gang between 1980 and 1987, featuring for clubs including Watford, Sheffield United and Hong Kong based side Sing Tao, who are now defunct. He retired from playing whilst at Scarborough in 1999, at the age of 36.

In ’91, Glyn Hodges signed for Sheffield United in the most bizarre circumstance. His £410,000 transfer fee was partly paid for by a group of Blades fans who won on the club’s Grand National Sweepstake. He spent 5 years at Bramall Lane, racking up 147 games.

The throne of the Dons acts as Hodges’s first permanent managerial job in the Football League, having previously taken caretaker charge of Barnsley on two occasions in the early noughties and leading the Stoke City Under-23s from the touchline between 2013 and 2018.

One To Watch: Promising midfielder Ethan Chislett will be one to keep an eye out for when the two teams meet this season. The 21-year-old was described by his new manager as a “non-league gem” when he was announced as the club’s fifth summer signing last Wednesday.

Chislett scored 9 goals from the centre of midfield for Aldershot Town in the National League last season, making 38 appearances in total having only joined from Metropolitan Police at the start of the campaign.

The gifted playmaker is one for the future and is sure to thrive with the appropriate game time and in an attacking system, something which isn’t too dissimilar at the Dons. In fact, his arrival has already pleased one particular teammate – full-back Nesta Guinness-Walker knows Chislett very well, the pair lined up in the same team for the Met Police, notably so in the minnows’ famous FA Cup run of 2018.

The Southern League Premier Division South side were eventually beaten by Newport County in the First Round Proper after a heroic qualifying campaign involving the two youngsters, who now ply their trade for Wimbledon.

Signing of the Summer (So Far): Ollie Palmer (Crawley and former Hawks) The Dons have started strongly in their recruitment this summer, having secured the signatures of 6 players already at the time of writing (August 21st). Right-back Cheye Alexander kicked things off when he put pen to paper on July 23rd, with the club unveiling all of Connal Trueman, Alex Woodyard, Ethan Chislett and Jaakko Oksanen in August. But it was Hodges’s fourth summer signing which has caught the eye of their division rivals.

Powerful forward Ollie Palmer was announced as the new Wimbledon No. 9 on August 7th, having not had his contract renewed by League Two side Crawley Town at the tail end of the 2019/20 campaign. The 28-year-old, 6’ 4” target man spent two prolific seasons in West Sussex, racking up 27 goals in 68 appearances for the Red Devils.

Palmer has already enjoyed a frantic playing career despite only being about halfway through it, Wimbledon will be the 11th club he has represented since turning pro in 2010. Over the last 10 years, Palmer has pulled on the shirt of clubs such as Woking, where he came through the academy, Mansfield Town, Leyton Orient and Lincoln City. He even had an excellent spell over at Westleigh Park between 2011 and 2013 – he netted 37 times in 69 appearances for the Hawks.

Season Expectation: The Wombles have enjoyed life in the third division consistently since they were promoted via the League Two Play-Offs in 2016 and since then, they have flirted with relegation year in, year out but have never really come close to being favourites for the drop. This season, I expect much of the same, although with the move back to Plough Lane looking increasingly likely to happen before the turn of the calendar year, alongside a strong summer transfer window, it would not be too far fetched to expect Glyn Hodges’s team to go one better and make a climb for the top-half.

It could go one way or the other for a club like the Dons, who aren’t particularly blessed with the funds to be challenging any higher than mid-table in League One, however the aim for the majority of supporters is to one day climb into the Championship and perhaps even the Premier League further down the line.

The Dons will be looking to avoid being sucked into a relegation dogfight and will hope for a solid season, with no worry whatsoever of going down. A respectable mid-table finish with a cup run would be considered a successful season.

My Predicted Finish: 18th

A Womble’s Ambition – Home Comforts the Key?

Matt Rickard is a keen supporter of AFC Wimbledon, with previous journalistic experience writing for both South London Press and the Surrey Comet as the club reporter.

Nowadays, Matt is a proud season ticker holder who is excited about what the future holds for his club, but equally as wary about the challenges that lie ahead.

“Last season’s flirtation with relegation was not unexpected. The budget had been significantly cut since the Neal Ardley days as the club built towards going home for the first time in 30 years.

“Transfer business was therefore negligible. In the end though, we did just enough with Wimbledon legend Glyn Hodges applying a solid 3-5-2 formation, accompanied with an 18-game cameo from Brentford striker Marcus Forss, who scored 11 times.”

Matt went on to say how much the on-loan striker will be missed: “2020 will see us continuing with that formation, but without the prolific Finn.”

I was keen to hear a Womble’s opinion on the salary cap. Would it hinder the way the club operate in any way?

“The reduced budget we have been working under means the salary cap will make little difference to the way we operate, though might make the Fleetwoods of this world think a little more before their latest splurge of transfer activity.”

“I’m predicting a 14th-place finish. I believe a mid-table finish isn’t out of reach if the new signings hit the ground running. Ollie Palmer is a 6’ 4” target man who SHOULD bring out the best in Joe Piggott. Palmer has already delivered the added benefit of annoying Crawley fans by daring to further his career.

“I’m looking forward to seeing Ethan Chislett play his part too, he has stepped up from Aldershot just a year after stepping up from Met Police. Fans are hopeful of the goalscoring midfielder continuing his impressive progress.” – he added.

The big story of Wimbledon’s season will undoubtedly be the club’s famous return to their home Plough Lane, but their eventual return is unfortunately likely to be tainted by the ongoing pandemic, with fans not expected to return at full capacity until the New Year at the earliest.

Matt, like most Dons fans, is frustrated that such a big moment in the club’s history will be enjoyed without the presence of the supporters who helped make it happen.

“After 30 years, the idea of playing the first game back behind closed doors is a bit of a sickener, but before that, there is going to be a groundshare as Plough Lane is not going to be ready for September. Hopefully, we will be home around October/November time and then crowds will be allowed back.

“The new stadium is the culmination of so much hard work and the righting of so many wrongs, from the unfit owners to the incompetent governance of the Football Association and the EFL. On a financial level, as well as an emotional level, it will be transformative for the club.”

But how will the return to Plough Lane change the way AFC Wimbledon are viewed from the outside? Could the new ground act as an added incentive for bigger players to join the club and be part of something special?

“Of course, League One is an uneven playing surface right now with Portsmouth, Ipswich and Sunderland dwarfing the likes of Accrington, Rochdale and Crewe. Plough Lane will at least take us into the middle of the division and from there, who knows… for sure though, it will eventually lead to great resources and the chance to compete in this division.”

You can follow Matt on Twitter – @mat_rickard    

Photo: AFC Wimbledon

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