AFC WIMBLEDON 0
BY SAM SMITH AT THE CHERRY RED RECORDS STADIUM
Positive results breed confidence. For AFC Wimbledon, they will take pride in a successful Christmas period which has put them back within touching distance of League One safety when, not long ago, it appeared they might be plummeting towards the drop.
Seven points from a possible nine is an excellent return for a side that had earned just four in the previous 12 matches. The Dons’ fortunes appear to be gradually changing under new boss Wally Downes, who has simplified the approach both on and off the pitch.
Goalkeeper Tom King admitted after this game that players had too many decisions to make and more responsibilities under the previous regime of Neal Ardley. Those have now been lifted and, as a result, Wimbledon’s players seem freer to express themselves.
It’s almost like the weight has been lifted from their shoulders. Fewer mistakes are being made. It is a complete contrast to the latter months of the Ardley era when key individuals, particularly in defence, seemed under intense pressure.
It was almost inevitable in early November when Shrewsbury turned around a 1-0 deficit late on to win at the Cherry Red Records Stadium, with both goals coming from set-pieces. Later that month, it took a stoppage-time winner from Mitch Pinnock to beat seventh-tier Haringey Borough in Ardley’s final game.
Those are just two examples of the many occasions when Wimbledon have suffered under pressure this season. But here, against a Blackpool side pushing for a spot in the play-offs, none of the same individual errors were made, nor did they crumble at a late set-piece.
It underlines the changes already being implemented by Downes, assistant Glyn Hodges and first-team coach Simon Bassey. This was a game which would have been lost had it been played earlier in the season. It was just the second time the Dons had earned points against the teams who began Saturday in the top nine places of the division.
Downes has not made radical switches, instead he has merely simplified things that had previously been over-complicated and has made slight tweaks in places where things had failed to work.
The formation remained relatively similar, a traditional 4-4-2 with a centre-forward in the shape of the rejuvenated Jake Jervis, and the smaller, nimbler Kwesi Appiah. The counter-attacking style of play remains the same.
Instead, personnel changes have made a difference. The midfield partnership of Anthony Hartigan and Anthony Wordsworth was better balanced than the veteran, more defensively-minded duo of Liam Trotter and Tom Soares – which was regularly deployed by Ardley.
Hartigan epitomised the potential this Dons side has if it is managed correctly. The 18-year-old impressed again in a youthful team, captained by fellow academy product Will Nightingale. The latter’s centre-back partner Terell Thomas, twice had excellent opportunities to win the game – the first an unmarked header that he diverted wide from six yards prior to half-time, before his second-half effort cannoned off a defender who scarcely knew anything about it.
Winger Tyler Burey, another teenage academy product, was introduced in the second half and impressed significantly. At just 17 years old, Burey has now made five senior appearances, including a South London derby, and possesses the kind of fearless attitude that might help Wimbledon out of the mess in which they currently preside. He had the better of Tangerines left-back Marc Bola almost every time he ran at the former Arsenal man.
Burey barely featured under Ardley, perhaps there were doubts over his age and readiness. But he is another player introduced by Downes who has already made a difference.
Goalkeeper King also falls into this category. The on-loan Millwall man lost his place to Joe McDonnell in September, but has started all three fixtures over the Christmas period and kept the Dons in this game with two excellent saves – the best stretching low to his right to keep out Chris Taylor’s deflected strike which was heading into the bottom corner.
These last three games are only baby steps towards brighter times for Wimbledon. It would be extremely premature to claim the South Londoners have turned a corner and are destined to stay in the division, with the woeful form of the first half of the season long in the past. The reality is that they remain second from bottom, four points from safety.
However, the Christmas period has provided Downes and his side with a crucial platform on which to build a survival bid.
Wimbledon (4-4-2): King 7, Watson 6 (Sibbick, 84), Thomas 7, Nightingale 7, Purrington 6, Pinnock 6, Hartigan 7 (Soares, 76), Wordsworth 6, Barcham 7, Appiah 6, Jervis 6 (Burey 7, 57). Not used: McDonnell, Garratt, Kalambayi, Wood.
PICTURES BY PAUL EDWARDS