Words: Ethan Van Ristell
Images: Marc Atkins / Offside Sports Photography
Let’s talk about Neal Ardley. A gifted central midfield player in his heyday, over 300 appearances for Wimbledon, a touch of class in the Crazy Gang. A fresh-faced teen when he made his debut in 1991 for the club, now he’s there (at AFC Wimbledon) in a different capacity. He’s been walking up and down that touchline, patrolling the technical area, for just over six years. That makes him the second longest serving manager in the whole Football League.
It’s been a relatively successful reign too, starting off with staying up on the final day of the League 2 season with an iconic win over Fleetwood in his first year as a manager and keeping AFC clear of the drop for the next couple of years. In 2015/16, the Wombles snuck into the final play-off place. It was a rousing second half of the campaign that did it, their form getting better, gaining momentum, Ardley at the centre of it, arms around the shoulders of his players, and telling them what they could become. 42 points from their last 25 fixtures. Not bad at all.
Hang on: it gets better.
At Wembley, in front of 22,000 Dons fans, not quite a sea but at least a lake of yellow and blue, they achieved victory in the play-off final against Plymouth Argyle. An emotional day for all involved, me included. I may or may not have shed a small tear. A comfortable season in League One next term made it clear that Ardley’s team could compete in a better league… and then, as you know, as with all stories, as every fan outside of the cushy confines of the Premier Leagues top two/four/six knows, things started to go wrong.
A last-gasp survival in 2017/18 was a warning sign that standards were slipping after a solid mid-table finish the season before. It was not good enough, made worse by the mass exodus of long serving players that summer.
Club icons Lyle Taylor and Barry Fuller packed their bags and headed for the exit door, leaving a chasm in the dressing room that Ardley couldn’t fill. He wanted to freshen things up with a younger team. It was a gamble that he had to make. And now, six points from safety in November, seven league defeats on the spin—the worst form in the EFL—and an incredibly divided fanbase, things… things do not look good.
A catalogue of errors has led to Ardley’s downfall: Below-par recruitment, questionable selection decisions, and an inability to defend set pieces are what sticks in the mind. Fans are singing ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt!’ from the stands. Ardley was allegedly in tears after the loss away to Bristol Rovers. After that game, I thought it was over. The final goodbye for a Wimbledon hero. Not in the way any of us wanted either. Somehow he’s escaped the sword. He has managed two league games since, and two more defeats.
A 4–0 win against Stevenage in the Checkatrade Trophy—a competition that, at this point, means less than nothing—did little to check our anxiety. A pumped up Haringey Borough await in the first round proper of the FA Cup, a seventh-tier team eyeing a giant-killing, and, not gonna lie, I’m bricking it.
It all has me thinking: How long can managers rely on past glory? Should fans like me be more patient? As they say, you support your team through thick and thin… but how thick? How thin? How thin must it go before fans are left tired and anaemic, standing there listlessly watching on as defeat after defeat comes our way? Is it better to kick off and kick a legend out or to simply just stop going?
Neal Ardley gave me my best moment as a football fan: a day forever known as That Day at Wembley. Maybe he could do it again? Maybe we could. But, it’s the hope that kills you. Especially when you know you have a manager that really cares, that is really trying, and who you desperately want to see turn things around and do well. Surely, I have to give him my support in return knowing that if he delivered that euphoria once, he can make me jump up and down like a kid in celebration once again…
It’s not just about football, either. There is a job on the line for someone, and all the permutations that it has.
As fans of football, we need to look at the bigger picture: The phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ rings in the ears. But when is the turning point? Surely, as weeks turn into months, the care of what to wish for comes second? Sometimes a change needs to come.
Go into the archives, your memory bank, and it’s clear to see that, more often than not football club boards are hesitant to act when the individual has done so much for their clubs. Look at Señor Unai Emery. A lot higher up the pyramid, I know. A different level of football completely, but now, after years of (relative) misery, things are (relatively) looking up for Arsenal fans. Now, not only do journalists get a complimentary ‘Good Evening’ at the start of every press conference, Arsenal fans have their Arsenal back. Whatever that means. In the space of a couple of months, Emery changed all of those things critics had moaned on about Wenger lethargic side… It was a tough decision, one that wasn’t taken lightly (or at all quickly): losing a club legend like Arsène is never easy. But, sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do.
I hear a common argument, especially in the lower reaches of the Football League, that mid-season changes have less of a desired effect. Three teams in League 1 last season did exactly this. And what happened? They succumbed to the drop. The immediate managerial bounce does exist to a certain extent, but the ridiculous amount of pressure to get results straight away for a new coach is one of the many question marks, as it’s difficult to estimate the time it will take for them to put their stamp on the team.
If… but… maybe? There are a lot of things going through my mind at the moment. Does this appalling run merit me sticking by the man when there is no evidence that progress is being made? There have been just seven wins in 31 games—including that meaningless one in the second-rate Checkatrade trophy—is an appalling statistic. It extends all the way from last season if you couldn’t already tell.
I owe Neal my eternal gratitude; he is a bloody Wimbledon legend. There is no denying that at all. I have belted out chants of his name at the top of my lungs in the packed Chemflow End Terrace at our Kingsmeadow ground countless times, even after the most convincing of defeats.
But it hurts to say, but I think that his time has come to an end. I said it after the Bristol Rovers defeat, and it pains me to the core. The team is devoid of ideas. No character. No leadership.
If the board do decide to keep him and his backroom staff on a while longer, we could be discussing when we will be relegated, not if. That will tarnish one of the greatest days in his managerial career and in AFC Wimbledon’s short history. The best outcome would be one that is the most respectful. I really wouldn’t like to see a ‘classical sacking’—a club statement that comprises of a couple of lines of hollow platitude. It should be a mutual decision to part ways. The football club board, those on The Dons Trust Board, and Ardley himself.
Then they should do what they did with Terry Brown—invite him to the next fixture and let us—the fans—clap him off and give him a fitting farewell. Let us give the man the respect he truly deserves.
The short-term pain that comes with making a decision like this is miles better than to if we were to go down on his watch. I may not be able to admire him in the same way ever again. And that’s a tough thing to say.
“The Wombles had a dream, to watch a football team / Playing back at Plough Lane where we belong…”
Part of that dream was for Neal to lead us out for that first game at New Plough Lane. For him to walk down that tunnel, with the widest of smiles—proudly knowing that the club he supports and manages is back in Merton after more than a quarter of a century. For him to hear the hair-raising roar of noise from the 10,000 fans in the stands. For him to patrol that touchline like he owns it…
And it’s gut-wrenching to think that it may never come to fruition.