BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Deji Oshilaja won a hat-trick of awards at the end of last season – but that won’t stop the AFC Wimbledon defender from seeking more improvements to his game.
The Bermondsey-raised centre-back won Player of the Year not only from his fellow pros but also the supporters’ one as well. Radio WDON brought up the treble.
Oshilaja’s decision to sign for Wimbledon following his Cardiff release last summer certainly paid off.
He played 48 matches in all competitions – comfortably the highest total of his career.
“I can’t lie, I was over the moon with all the awards,” said the 24-year-old. “Especially the players’ player one because that is where your team-mates voted for you – they acknowledge the performances you put in for the side.
“A lot of players had good seasons – Lyle Taylor scoring the goals he did, George Long did very well and the captain Barry Fuller was very solid.
“For the fans to vote for me was testament to how I actually did.
“I got my head down and knew what I wanted to do. I set myself targets – just to stay fit. I knew if I stayed fit the whole season then my quality would shine.
“This was my first one without injuries and touch wood I can have another one next season.
“I’ve stretched a lot more and I’ve looked after myself a lot more. I don’t know why I didn’t get more knocks but I’m not complaining.
“There is always room for improvement. You have to look at yourself in a positive way but also a critical way. There are a lot of things I need to work on.”
Oshilaja had a loan with the Dons in 2015 and his return saw them competing a division higher – it turned out to be a grind to reach safety in League One.
“If you look at our season as a whole, we made it hard for ourselves in terms of results. There were games where we did very well but drew 0-0 when we should have won. There were others we lost 1-0 and should have won or drawn at the very least.
“Our defensive record was quite decent, we defended quite well from the front to the back. But the goalscoring was a problem for us a team collectively – we didn’t chip in with enough goals to stay where we wanted to be. That was a bit of a shock because we’ve got top players who can score goals. It was a setback to have Kwei [Appiah] out for the season, we had to rely so much on Lyle. Joe [Pigott] came in and did well.”
“It was disappointing that we were in a relegation fight but we knew it was going to be a tough season considering the teams who were going to be in the league that year.”
That battle – and size of the challenge – is unlikely to get easier in 2018-19 with the Dons still one of the lowest spenders in the division and the likes of Sunderland, Barnsley and Burton coming down.
Luton Town will look to do more than just stay up following their promotion while Wycombe Wanderers – who bagged another of the automatic slots – have already signed Darius Charles.
Dean Parrett also rejected new terms, like Charles, and has penned a pre-contract with Gillingham. Taylor is also highly unlikely to sign back on.
“I’m sure the staff will have been looking at it once our status in the league was secured,” said Oshilaja. “They would have been looking at potential signings who would improve our squad.
“That’s always the route they have gone down. We haven’t got a big budget but you can still find quality within the league.
“Someone like me for example, it was the manager, staff and fans who attracted me to the club. Players realise how good the manager is after speaking to him and other people in the game. You know it is a good club and one that will welcome you very well. Sometimes you can’t buy that.
“The manager tries to know the person and how they work. He gets into their mind and makes them feel wanted – every player wants that.
“He’ll work on your strengths. And his other staff – Neil Cox, Simon Bassey, Ashley Bayes and Alan Reeves – they all complement each other really well. They’ve got the best out of a lot of players.”
In terms of outgoings, Taylor’s move away would carry the greatest significance.
The Dons struggled to replace Tom Elliott a year ago when he opted to join Millwall on a free transfer, and his former strike partner walked away with a highly respectable 18 goals last season.
“Everyone knows Lyle’s quality,” said Oshilaja. “He is a big character in the dressing room as well. But no-one is irreplaceable. I’m sure the staff will have looked at the possibility of him leaving.
“I’m sure we’ll be able to dip into the market and find someone of the standard to replace Lyle. We’ll have to wait and see who comes in and how the team gels together.
“Kwesi is a full international [for Ghana], and we didn’t really have him because of injuries. In the last game of last season he took his goal well. He was looking sharp in training in those last couple of weeks too.”
Another significant change was Ardley opting to release club captain Barry Fuller. The full-back had made 233 appearances for the Dons.
Oshilaja said: “Everyone around the club respects what he has done here and how he has conducted himself – young player coming through can look at him as a professional. He is someone you should idolise and work towards being like.
“At his age he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, that is testament to his character.”
Oshilaja has 12 months to run on his current terms, but is in no rush to resolve his long-term future.
He said: “Right now I’m just concentrating on having a break. I’ll speak to the manager as and when he wants to discuss those topics.
“At this moment I’m going back to pre-season on June 25, I look forward to that. Whatever happens, you never know. In terms of football you can’t really guarantee anything.”