BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Will Nightingale has unfinished business at AFC Wimbledon – and that’s why he rejected interest from elsewhere this summer to re-sign for the club.
The 23-year-old from Wandsworth penned a contract extension last month.
Nightingale joined the Dons at the age of eight.
“I turned down higher offers elsewhere – I don’t feel like I have achieved what I wanted to achieve at Wimbledon,” said the centre-back.
“It was brilliant how we finished the season off, but if that had been offered to me before the season then I wouldn’t have taken it.
“I’m not here to be in a team down near the bottom – I want to have some success. I’m doing what I can in the off-season to improve myself, so that I come back and have a better and more successful season at the top end of the table – or at least a lot higher than what we finished.
“It was great that we finished strongly and retained our League One status – we gave the club and the fans what they deserve. But I’ve got a lot of personal goals and things I want to do here, and by no means at all have I done them.
“The talks have been an ongoing process. I’m pretty sure they first started before Wally [Downes] had even become manager, I think it was around December time.
“At that point I don’t think we were bottom, but we were in the bottom four.
“At the time I was doing everything I could to perform at the best of my ability – I was trying to focus on us getting out of the relegation zone. I said: ‘With everything else, is it okay if you guys [his agent and the club] consult with each other?’
“That was my involvement really until I became a bit more freed up. I didn’t want any distractions.
“I was still on my old contract then and I was here to do a job. We were in the relegation zone and so I’m not doing my job well enough. I didn’t feel comfortable discussing it.
“I had lots of fans and friends asking what was going on. It’s always a worry – feeling you could be out of a job – but if you do your job on the pitch, carry yourself well enough there, then everything else takes care of itself. Luckily in the end it did.”
Wimbledon only clinched safety on the final day of the League One campaign at Bradford City with a nail-biting 0-0 draw.
Nightingale said the achievement hit home straight away.
“Staying up was all I could think about before I went to bed and as soon as I woke up,” he said. “It took over my life. So the moment it was done, it did sink in.
“I did feel a weight off my shoulders, I felt it lift as soon as the full-time whistle went. I could enjoy the moment straight away.
“It was a massive moment – especially to give back to the fans, who gave us great support in the season.”
Nightingale went away on a family holiday to Crete but is getting ready for pre-season training resuming at the end of this month.
“As soon as you are off for two or three weeks then you get the itch to get back at it,” he said. “It’s where I get most enjoyment – being out on that pitch.
“Nothing is guaranteed and I want to make sure I stay out there as long as possible.”
It will be Downes’ first pre-season as Dons chief and also a less hurried transfer window than the January period for trading.
“He had no time to organise or prepare things last time and did a brilliant job,” said Nightingale. “Now he has had that bit of time to think what he wants from us. He’ll let us know in no uncertain terms.
“That is the type of person he is. If you don’t meet his demands and requirements then you’re not for him. It is a ruthless way to be, but it is the best way to be.
“We have got to be disciplined as a unit. You are only as strong as your weakest link. He loves everyone to be together, whether that is the fans or the people who work for the club. The more people you have involved with you and fighting for you, the better you are going to be.
“I’m sure he’ll get us very organised.”
Despite Wimbledon’s trials and tribulations in League One last season, Nightingale earned individual praise.
He walked away with the Player of the Year award as well as bagging the same honour from the Junior Dons. The hat-trick was also collecting the club’s Community Champion honour.
“I’ve never really looked back on a season and been fully happy with my own personal achievements,” said Nightingale. “And even after winning a couple of awards I think I can improve my game here and there.
“It’s a weird one. I’m proud to get them but it’s also given me a kick up the backside, more so than ever – I’m analysing every little bit of my game. I don’t think I’m ever going to be the finished article.
“I know I’ve got more in the locker and I aim to show that.”