Wally Downes on how AFC Wimbledon tempted him back to UK and who was the force behind the Crazy Gang

BY RICHARD CAWLEY
richard@slpmedia.co.ukWally Downes has spoken of his affection for AFC Wimbledon – and how they were the only League One club who could have tempted him back into management.The 57-year-old, who played over 200 games for the original incarnation of the Dons, was appointed earlier this week as Neal Ardley’s successor at the Cherry Red Records Stadium.

It is Downes’ first managerial job since leaving Brentford in 2004. But he has coached at a number of top clubs in English football and had been working with Steve Coppell at ATK in the Indian Super League.

Downes has been a trusted lieutenant of the Crystal Palace legend – not only being part of his backroom team there but also at Reading, the Bees, Kerala Blasters and Jamshedpur.

The new Dons chief took over the managerial reins at Brentford after Ron Noades and Coppell had both had a crack at promotion before the latter left in 2002 due to budget cuts.

“Ron said it had to fund itself the following year – that I had got to do the job,” said Downes. “It was a difficult one to do. I did two years, then they decided they wanted to make a change and my career went differently.

“Perhaps I could have been applying for  clubs in League One or League Two. Instead I went to Reading and had five great years where we were successful. Then after that to Southampton, West Ham and QPR [as a coach]. My career path didn’t stay at manager.

“I haven’t ever applied for a manager’s job. I’d carved out this new career in India and there were other options abroad, which was a terrific challenge. It was a whole new perspective – trying to improve the Indian players plus integrating them in with Brazilians and Spanish, all races and religions.

“That was a great thing and I haven’t looked to come back – at all. But when I knew there was a possibility of this, it didn’t take me a second.

“I’ve had a great working relationship with Steve Coppell for 20 years and I prize loyalty very highly. I’ve never left a club, when I’ve worked with him, to go elsewhere to improve my own career because we’ve had good times together.

But as soon as it got mentioned this job was available and I could be part of the process of picking somebody, I went straight to Steve and said ‘I’ve got to do this’.
“I was at the previous Wimbledon. There is no old club for me to go back to, but this is as close as I get.

This is where my affinity is. I wouldn’t have left for any other sort of League One club.

“Steve was marvellous. He knew how close the club is to my heart and he allowed me to leave, no problems at all. ATK Kolkata were terrific too, they didn’t stand in my way at all. I left with their best wishes.”

Downes’ appointment has been met with approval from the Dons fanbase. He was a part of Dave Bassett’s side which went from Division Four to Division One – now the Premier League.

There have been suggestions that the midfielder was the instigator or catalyst of the Crazy Gang.

“That came about because I was the first one in – the first apprentice,” said Downes. “But that mob there – you couldn’t have a leader. That was an autonomous collective that came together as a perfect storm.

“If anybody put themselves down to be the leader of that, they soon got shot down.
“I know a bit later Fash [John Fashunu] tried to appoint himself as the leader of it after I and a lot of the older ones had moved on.

No-one had the pomposity to believe they could be the leader of our little gang. It was bad enough when Bassett thought he was in charge of it, he wasn’t really!”
Will there ever be another rise like it?

“Bournemouth have done it but with a lot of cash backing – it’s still an amazing feat,” responds Downes. “And there are similarities when you look at what is happening at AFC now.

“What they have done from absolutely nothing, that stands up to scrutiny to what Bournemouth have done and certainly what we did. It’s an amazing feat and I’m privileged to be a part of trying to move it on again.”

Wimbledon’s new stadium back at Plough Lane is a chance to kick the club on again. But before the move happens, the emphasis has always been on going there as a League One club.

The Dons are seven points adrift of safety.

“There needs to be an urgency now of accumulating points and winning games,” said Downes. “That is stark and for all to see. Looking beyond that isn’t a message I’ll be getting across to the players any time soon. But clearly you want to be going into the new stadium in a healthy situation and giving yourself a chance to succeed very early on.

“Initially it is critical we stay in this division. Then I would say in a couple of years we should be looking to be challenging for the play-off positions. I don’t think that is an aspiration beyond the club. It is progression from where we are at the moment.

“A couple of seasons ago we threatened the play-offs a couple of times early on. There is no reason it can’t be done, whether there was the strength in depth to keep that challenge going then is a different thing – clearly there wasn’t.

“The Championship should be the long-term goal, definitely.”

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