Neal Ardley knows exactly who the spotlight will be on when AFC Wimbledon kick off their League One campaign at Fleetwood Town tomorrow.
The Dons boss is the third longest-serving manager in the top four divisions of the English game and will rack up six years in charge on October 10.
In the opposite dugout at Highbury Stadium will be former Manchester City and QPR firebrand Joey Barton, who was named as the Cod Army’s new boss in mid-April but had to wait for his ban – due to betting on football – to be served.
“I’m sure it will be the Joey Barton show and people will forget who they are playing,” said Ardley, pictured above at an open training session this week. “They have had an unbeaten pre-season and his start to management has gone very well.
“He is a good personality and it will be interesting to see how he gets on in management. They are worlds apart, managing and playing. Every game is tough.
“But they have recruited very well and have got some good players in there.”
Ardley has been busy in the transfer market himself after last season’s struggles to achieve League One safety.
Wimbledon have stepped away from free transfers to sign Mitch Pinnock (Dover Athletic), James Hanson (Bradford City) and Terrell Thomas (Wigan). Scott Wagstaff and Anthony Wordsworth – experienced at this level – have arrived on frees.
Millwall goalkeeper Tom King has signed on loan.
“By the time the season starts or soon after we could have 10 players signed,” said Ardley. “That is a big turnover.
We need to aim high but there also has to be a realism.
“We’re trying to build something which fits the mould of the club a bit more and excites the fans a bit more.
“We’ve looked to reduce the average age of our squad a little so we are younger and hungrier. We’ve tried to stick to our recruitment policy.”
Chief executive Erik Samuelson told our paper recently the aim was for the Dons to be an established League One club when they move into their new Plough Lane home, which is likely to be completed by the end of 2019.
“The club have worked hard to try and give me a bit more budget,” said Ardley.
“They absolutely expect me to try and deliver League One football over the course of the next couple of seasons.
“We want to go into the stadium at least as a League One club, hopefully a top-half of the table one.
“That is a lot easier said than done. The club has been on an upward curve for 16 or 18 years. It is not always easy to keep it going.”
Wimbledon have lost star strikers in the past two summers. Tom Elliott left for Millwall in 2017 while Lyle Taylor penned a deal with Charlton in July.
“We did entertain in League Two,” said Ardley. “Lyle Taylor, Tom Elliott and Bayo Akinfenwa – managers used to say: ‘Cor, you have got the best three strikers in the division’.
“We got promotion and then last season things went against us.
We got certain things wrong, missed out on players and had injuries to our centre-forwards.
Putting that all together we ended up with a big struggle.
“We didn’t have the firepower in the forwards or competition for places.
Goals were hard to come by and it affected our confidence – the team knew it.
“Everyone goes into this season thinking they have got it right but no-one knows they definitely have.
“Getting James Hanson in was a big deal for us because there are not many of him [a target man type] around.
He’s hungry, you can see that in pre-season.
Joe Pigott will get goals and we have got a fitter and stronger Joe then we saw last season. Kwesi Appiah is like a new signing.
“We wanted four strikers to share the load and the wingers to chip in and come up with the assists.
“If I get the deals done we are close to then we’ll end up with a squad of 22, including two keepers, and there will be people who are big names who might not get in the 18.”
Ardley finds it hard to pick out the promotion contenders.
“I felt really confident saying Blackburn and Wigan last year,” he said.
“Peterborough have done some good business. Scunthorpe and Charlton normally do well.
“You look at who might struggle.
A lot of people had Shrewsbury to go down last August but they almost had huge success in the play-offs.”