The Crazy Gang was alive and kicking – with the emphasis on kicking – six months into Trebor Mahtal’s reign as AFC Wimbledon. Our 4-4-fucking2 approach had us sitting nicely in League One mid-table and into the FA Cup fourth round.
However, 2022 began with a club-record sale as winger Ayoub Assal moved to Burnley for £600k, which doubled the previous record. He’d barely played this season due to the form of loanee Tyler Burey, but returned on loan for the rest of the season anyway.
The sale took our bank balance to £2.1m and we’re well under our £49k weekly wage budget. So we invested some of that into a much-needed solid centre-back in Hull’s Reece Burke. The former West Ham defender arrived for a club-record £41k, which could rise to £110k, usurping the previous record of £35k.
Can the FA Cup run continue?
Fresh from beating Watford, we were drawn against Championship side Huddersfield in round four. Huddersfield started slightly better but loan winger Burey got down the right and whipped an excellent cross than fellow loanee Sam Cosgrove rose highest top slam a header home. Huddersfield threw everything at it but, like Watford before them, found goalkeeper Nik Tzanev in inspired match-winning form. And we were through to the fifth round!
Slightly annoyingly, we got another home draw. But this time we got one of the big boys as we drew Chelsea! And it turned out to be a thriller. Chelsea, obviously, scored with their first attempt then doubled their lead on 71 minutes. But we went straight down the other end to get one back through Cosgrove. Then, four minutes from time, stand-in right-back Ben Heneghan lofted a cross into the box and Cosgrove got above Thiago Silva to head home an equaliser!! We had to go more defensive but Chelsea still managed to nick it deep into injury-time through Pulisic. But what an effort this was by the boys!
League One continues
Coming into the new year, the brutal exertions of League One with a fairly small, young squad had caught up with us. The boys were knackered.
But we started the year against some of the strugglers, which allowed us to pick up a 1-0 win at Burton before exciting young loanee Daniel Jebbison scored both in a 2-1 win at Charlton. And, despite a couple of draws, we were suddenly within just three points of the playoff places. However, the league was ridiculously tight with 3rd down to 10th separated by just four points!
Immediately after the Huddersfield cup game an exhausted, heavily rotated side faced 5th-place Rotherham and repeated the feat as Jebbison scored the only goal. Cosgrove bagged a brace to down Sunderland – who are way down in 13th before a 0-0 at Bolton. In fact, in Burke’s first five games we only conceded one goal! That continued into playing a few teams at the bottom of the league before a fully rotated side – to rest players for Chelsea – lost to Doncaster.
The cup exit then an international break allowed us some much-needed time off to rest players. And that showed as we beat Lincoln 3-0 but then dropped points in a 0-0 at struggling Cheltenham and a 2-1 loss at a good Sheffield Wednesday side. But we bounced back to beat fellow mid-table side Cambridge 2-0 in our game in hand.
That saw us record Wimbledon’s best-ever League One finish with five matches remaining, surpassing the club’s previous best of 15th. However, we still had an eye on the top of the table as we trailed the playoffs by just four points.
An outside playoff push
Our unlikely push for the playoffs began against the evil “other Dons.” The MK Dons team bus was pelted with rotten fruit as it made its way through thick blue flare smoke as the feisty Wimbledon fans unleashed a level of insanity you won’t see at any other third-tier home ground in the world.
It’s safe to say we don’t like the MK Dons very much. So you can imagine the scenes in the stands when left-back Lee Brown curled a delicious free-kick into the top corner inside six minutes. And when Jebbison got onto the end of a Burey cross to double the lead the home faithful went absolutely bonkers. That proved enough for a huge 2-0 victory despite the visitors probably being the better side.
Other than that game, we had a pretty favourable run-in. The toughest tie on paper was a trip to mid-table Crewe, where another Jebbison strike nicked a 2-1 win in the 90th minute. Cosgrove found his shooting boots with a club-record four goals in a 4-1 thrashing of 18th-place Wycombe to move us into the playoff places for the first time all season! However, we stuttered to a 1-0 loss at mid-table Fleetwood, for which Burke was suspended and it showed.
That sent us into the final day needing to win and hope one of Ipswich and Portsmouth dropped points to sneak a playoff place. We hosted 20th-place Accrington Stanley, who needed to win to survive, Ipswich hosted 15th-place Charlton and Portsmouth went to Sheffield Wednesday, who needed a win to get promoted.
We started badly, gifting Accrington the opener with their first shot. But they swiftly gave away a penalty that Cosgrove smashed home. Two minutes later, we were in front. Burke powered home a header from a corner, before repeating the feat seven minutes later. We were looking pretty as Rudoni made it four only to give Stanley another goal just before the break. But Jebbison removed any concerns with a header 40 seconds after the break before bagging a hat-trick to win a mental game 7-3, which is unsurprisingly a new club and league record high-scoring game.
The key now was whether our rivals, who were both drawing 0-0 at the break would usurp us. But they didn’t as they both ended up drawing 0-0. So Wimbledon were into the League One Playoffs!
League One Playoffs
Unfortunately, the playoffs saw us take on Sheffield Wednesday, who are probably the best team we’ve faced this season. And that proved true as we offered nothing to trail 2-0 in the first leg until Miller popped up to score from our first highlight of the game in injury-time. That gave us confidence for the away leg, which we went and won 1-0 through a Will Nightingale header to take it to extra-time. Wednesday’s dominance finally showed as they scored twice in a minute, only for Nightingale to head home a second! But despite going on the attack, our exhausted players couldn’t do anything to avoid an agonising 4-3 aggregate loss.
The board backed us by spending £660k on improving the club’s youth facilities to increase our youth level over the summer. And they boosted youth recruitment for the second time in a year, taking it to adequate, which was much-needed after a terrible youth intake.
What a first season this has been for the new-look Crazy Gang! Our direct, feisty style saw Wimbledon record the highest finish in the new club’s history and come oh so close to the League One playoff final. And that bodes really well for the future.
The key player this season was probably Burke, who was rock solid at the back, got a 7.14 average rating from 16 games and inspired our playoff surge. But pushing him close was Jebbison, who scored 21 in 44 games and won the fans’ player and young player of the season. He was also joint-second top scorer in League One with 18 in 38, only behind Tyler Walker’s 21.
Cosgrove also scored 21 in 50 while 19-year-old Zach Robinson scored 10 in 37, only 21 of which were starts. Loanee Burey led the way with 14 assists, and racked up a third-most 12 in the league, followed by midfielder Luke McCormick with 11 and Brown with 8.
Join us next time as we look to rebuild the squad a little for a second season with the Crazy Gang!