BY SAM SMITH
Scott Wagstaff has experienced so much at AFC Wimbledon that it is easy to forget he has been a Dons player for fewer than 18 months.
The former Charlton Athletic midfielder was signed by Neal Ardley who was sacked last December. Under his replacement, Wally Downes, the South London club miraculously survived relegation from League One, despite being 10 points from safety in March.
The Dons failed to win any of their first 11 league matches this season and Downes was dismissed after being charged with a breach of the Football Association’s betting regulations. The form has since improved under new boss Glyn Hodges, but the latest setback is that the club’s return to Plough Lane is in doubt as circumstances have left them needing a further £11 million to complete the new stadium.
The club’s supporters are being given the opportunity to vote on the outcome. Wagstaff says the best way for players to cope with off-field issues is to let those higher up in the club deal with them.
“As players we don’t really take too much notice of that. We leave all the behind-the-scenes stuff to the people who know what they’re doing,” said the 29-year-old.
“It will affect us in the long run but all the lads are just trying to focus on the football on the pitch. We leave [off-field issues] to the people who know what they’re doing.
“The fans have been brilliant to me since I’ve come in, so I think they know what they’re doing. They know what they want, it’s a great family club. They’ve done brilliantly since coming through the football leagues, through non-league.
“It’s a club that has absolutely escalated into such a good position now. For us as players we need to make sure that we’re at League One level next year and we’ll be doing everything we can to do that.
“If we can get into the new stadium, it would be brilliant. If not, we will just have to see what happens after that. That’s what I’ve done throughout my career – you just have to leave everything to the people who know what they’re doing.”
There have also been plenty of happy on-field memories. A 4-2 FA Cup victory over West Ham, in which Wagstaff scored twice, is a “career highlight” for the former Bristol City man. Last season’s survival also brought back memories of a loan spell at AFC Bournemouth when the Cherries began on minus 17 points in 2008-09.
“At the end of last season, a lot of people thought we were dead and buried. I did too,” Wagstaff claimed.
“It was one of them where we were losing most weeks and couldn’t see where the next win was coming from. Wally came in and just got us back to the basics and that was probably what got us over the line. The boys just bought into it and it was a great run to the end of the season. it’s one that I will always remember.
“Staying up at the end of the season was massive. I went on loan to Bournemouth when they were on minus 17 points so I’ve had that before and we managed to stay up.
“The West Ham game was probably a career highlight, the first time I had scored two goals and it was live on the telly against a Premier League team. Beating them 4-2 was a memory that I will probably never forget.”
Those highlights are perhaps what kept Downes in his job despite the poor start to the season. The sacking of the former Dons midfielder came as a shock, especially to the players who Wagstaff claims found out on Sky Sports News.
Hodges, Downes’ former assistant, has since been appointed and has made several changes. Wagstaff is playing as a wing-back instead of in midfield and has been given the captaincy in place of the injured Will Nightingale.
“He [Hodges] has come in and changed a fair old bit. We’ve been a lot more positive with our play, especially in the final third. We’ve got a little bit more of a license to let loose and do our own things.
“The boys have taken that into account, especially the first few games under the gaffer when I thought we were excellent, scoring a lot of goals. I’ve really enjoyed it and I think the boys have as well.
“You don’t want to make too many big changes straightaway, especially with such a young squad. They’re a young group of boys and they are learning on the job.
“It [playing as a wing-back] has been alright. I’ve played there a few times, I played there when I was at Bristol City. Mostly, since I’ve been here, I’ve been in centre midfield which is obviously a different position to what I’ve been used to as well.
“It’s always good to have that versatility. I say it to all the young lads, ‘if you get put in a certain position, try and learn it,’ because I’ve had to do that my whole career.
“I’ve played in quite a few positions – left-back, right-back, central midfield, left-wing, right-wing, as a striker and in the hole sometimes. It’s been a good experience for me and I’ve really enjoyed it.”