BY TOBY PORTER
There’s something appropriately Moses-like in the fact Neal Ardley helped AFC Wimbledon get so far – and yet will not get to lead the team out when they move to Plough Lane.
The 46-year-old might not have been discovered in a basket on the Nile, but he has grown up with the club, read the dreams of thousands of fans, and delivered them within touching distance of the promised land – the spiritual home they were forced out of 16 years ago.
He also led them to victory over the Philistines – aka Milton Keynes – even if that was emulating another biblical hero, David. But it is likely to be his successor who leads the players out on to the pitch at the new stadium, if he can turn around their current form.
Ardley, born in Epsom, went to Carshalton Boys Sport College, and he was spotted aged 11 by Wimbledon’s youth set-up. He was on the club’s books when the Plough Lane-based Dons won the FA Cup final against Liverpool in 1988.
He made almost 250 appearances for the Dons as a player from 1992-2002, during which time he helped the Dons to a sixth-placed Premier League finish in 1994. He went on to join Watford, then Cardiff, and he hung up his boots after his last stint as a player at Millwall.
He left The Den in 2007 to become Cardiff City’s academy manager, where he developed many top flight players. It was from there, following the sacking of Terry Brown, that he was offered the chance to manage the struggling League Two Dons in October 2012.
Former Watford and England U21 teammate Neil Cox also joined as his assistant, with former AFC Wimbledon centre-back Simon Bassey staying on as first team coach.
Welsh youngster Jon Meades soon arrived on loan from Cardiff and former Millwall teammate Gary Alexander scored goals up front. And it was at the end of that season that the Dons stayed up by the skin of their teeth.
On the final day, they needed to beat Fleetwood Town – and did so by a 2-1 scoreline, thanks to an Alexander goal and a Jack Midson penalty, 18 minutes from time. They jumped three places, despite having the worst goal difference in the division.
Barry Fuller, who would be crucial in the coming years, and local boy Andy Frampton – another former Millwall teammate – were signed, as was George Francomb. There was more anxiety at the end of 2013-14 when Jake Nicholson, signed from Morton, made his debut and scored in a 4-3 win over Cheltenham in March.
But he was ineligible and the mix-up was not revealed until virtually the date of the hearing, by which time Ardley – who had known for weeks but not told the players – and the team were virtually assured of safety.
Another addition in June 2014 was the mighty Bayo Akinfenwa – still banging goals in for Wycombe Wanderers in League Two this season.
It was ‘the beast’ who scored on the night the Dons lost 2-1 to Liverpool in front of a global TV audience in the FA Cup third round – Steven Gerard scored the Premier League side’s winner.
The Dons also reached the area quarter-finals of the Football League Trophy, going out to eventual winners Bristol City.
Former Millwall captain Paul Robinson joined in the summer of 2015 and the unassuming Andy Barcham was a surprise capture. Former Millwall goal machine Lyle Taylor and future Lions front man Tom Elliott, as well as ex-Charlton hitman Ade Azeez, were all members of what Akinfewa called ‘the strikers’ union’.
An eight-game unbeaten run took them into the play-offs, where they beat Accrington Stanley, 3-2 over two legs, in the semi-final, to book a date at Wembley against Plymouth. It was the high point of his reign, leading the club out at Wembley in May 2016.
AFC Wimbledon went on to achieve promotion after a 2-0 play-off final victory over Plymouth, thanks to goals from Taylor and Akinfenwa.
Ardley said: “The memory of standing in front of 20,000 fans celebrating will stay with me forever.”
Three further seasons in League One have since followed under Neal’s stewardship, including another trip to Wembley last season where The Dons restricted Spurs to hardly any sight of goal for over an hour, before bowing out in the third round of the FA Cup.
The departure of Elliott 18 months ago to Championship Millwall and Taylor, who scored 55 times in three years, to League One rivals Charlton, have left the squad cripplingly short of firepower, and that may be the first issue to address for his successor.
But there are other stats which he quoted himself, only last week – he had given an emotional pep talk to his charges in the week leading up to Friday’s 1-0 last-minute FA Cup first round victory at Haringey Borough.
He told them they had recorded 93 shots at goal compared to their opposition’s six – and 22 clear-cut chances to 16. But their opponents had scored six times from their good chances, while the Dons had hit the net once.
“We lose Friday, I don’t deserve to be in the job,” he told them.
In the end, Mitch Pinnock’s added-time winner was not enough to save him, and those words were to be his last in the job.
But in an unprecedented tribute, the club’s website said: “Neal Ardley leaves the club with our thanks for establishing AFC Wimbledon in the Football League and then taking us to new levels both on and off the pitch.
“Behind the scenes, he was transforming the pitches and the staff accommodation at our training ground. “Adding to his legacy, Neal’s work as manager has also been to develop the club’s academy talent into first-team players.
“Most recently, Neal has overseen the development of Will Nightingale, Toby Sibbick and last season’s League One Apprentice of the Year, Anthony Hartigan. “Neal and his assistant have helped build foundations at AFC Wimbledon that will benefit.”
Ardley told fans: “It has been an honour and a privilege to represent Wimbledon. I have put my heart and soul into everything and I wish you all the success your support deserves.”