AFC WIMBLEDON 1
Woodrow 19 Moore 51 Thiam 65 McGeehan 90
BY MAX HALL AT THE CHERRY RED RECORDS STADIUM
It is impossible to predict whether AFC Wimbledon have enough in their locker to secure League One survival.
On the evidence of Saturday’s performance against one of League One’s heavyweights – for 66 minutes at least – the Dons do not belong at the foot of the table, seven points adrift of safety.
With manager Wally Downes having the rare luxury of being able to deploy ball-playing defenders Deji Oshilaja and Will Nightingale in central midfield as part of a four-man block to thwart the visitors’ crafty runs, the two centre-backs behind them illustrated what a wealth of resources the club boasts in defence.
Dulwich lad Paul Kalambayi is a muscular, aggressive presence of rich promise – even if Downes’ post-match compliment that the 19-year-old has not made any “critical mistakes” so far shows the youngster is not yet the finished article.
Former Arsenal and Charlton youngster Terell Thomas also showed his pedigree, by sashaying out of the back line and dribbling between two red shirts as early as the 14th minute on Saturday.
But having talented individuals has not been enough to prevent numerous teams being relegated in the past, and both man-of-the-match Kalambayi and Thomas were part of a back line that started to creak dangerously as Barnsley found their rhythm after going two goals clear.
Once the South Yorkshire side scored their third it was game over for Downes’ side, even with almost half an hour left to play, and the Wimbledon manager acknowledged as much afterwards.
If the Dons are in a false position, neither is it true that they appear to be a unit that is too good to be involved in a relegation struggle.
Results have clearly improved under Downes and assistant Glyn Hodges but the ever shifting sands at the bottom of the league this season – and the Dons’ FA Cup success – have ensured it always feels like one step forward, two steps back. Saturday was no different. There is no shame in losing to this Barnsley side, even if they never really hit top gear, but defeat nevertheless saw the chasm on League One safety open even wider.
There has been much talk on the messageboards of the need to bring in a leader to rouse the troops. It is an oversimplification to believe that dropping a ‘Vinnie Jones 2.0’ into the heart of midfield would transform the club’s fortunes – more than a motivator is required for a team to be successful in 2019.
But with Downes hinting he has more January window shopping to do, the ragtag nature of the squad he is assembling – from the cast-offs of bigger clubs to recruits from the League of Ireland – has the potential to form a band of brothers that, if galvanised, could benefit from the sort of esprit de corps that would translate into crucial points during the run-in.
Rather than looking outside the club for a midfield scrapper, the question is whether one or two of the current players have it in their personality to start banging on dressing room walls, grabbing team-mates by the shirt and amplifying goal celebrations to really get that packed-in Wimbledon crowd going. And yes, to shake their fist, roar and put in the crunching tackles needed to inspire every ounce of effort from team-mates when the tide is going against them.
For all the talk of Downes, past glories and the Crazy Gang, it is the sort of leadership that can only come from the players themselves.
With assets like Oshilaja, Nightingale, Mitch Pinnock, Joe Pigott and Andy Barcham – even if the latter was strangely subdued at the weekend – Wimbledon have the quality to at least give themselves a shout. But something extra is needed.
Wimbledon (4-4-2): Ramsdale 7, Watson 6, Kalambayi 7, Thomas 6, Seddon 6, M Pinnock 6, Nightingale 6, Oshilaja 6, Barcham 5 (Connolly, 60, 5), Jervis 5, Pigott 6 (Wordsworth 69, 5). Not used: McDonnell, Wagstaff, Hartigan, Garratt, Wood.
Pics by Keith Gillard