AFC Wimbledon defied all expectations as the new generation of the infamous Crazy Gang reached the League One playoffs in their first season under new manager Trebor Mahtal. The challenge now was to build on that success while retaining the focus of kicking as many people as possible and playing high-intensity, direct football. But this certainly looks like a football club on the up.
One of our better attacking prospects Zach Robinson moved to Swansea for £200k. So we moved early to extend the loan deals of striker Daniel Jebbison and winger Tyler Burey.
We also announced a senior affiliate deal with Tottenham that allows us to take their players on loan with no wage commitment. And we immediately tapped into that option by bringing in two of their 17-year-old starlets in midfielder Alfie Devine, who has solid 14 aggression and 16 determination, and striker Jamie Donley, who’s touted as “the next Gerry Armstrong.”
Five players arrived on free transfers, including Blackburn centre-back Tyler Magloire, strikers Jake Wakeling from Leicester and Isaac Olaofe from Millwall, and promising Chelsea goalkeeper Ethan Wady. They were followed into the club by former QPR winger Albert Adomah, who brings vital experience. But in mid-July, I realised we didn’t have a right-back so brought in Aston Villa’s Kaine Kesler Hayden, who impressed at rivals MK last season.
I thought we were done and the squad was in nice shape but Stoke threw a spanner in the works with an offer for midfielder Luke McCormick. His contract was up next summer, he wasn’t great last season and he wanted silly money to stay. Plus Stoke came in with £1.2m, which doubled the record sale we set last season and boosted the bank balance to £4.9m.
We set about replacing him by taking a couple of gambles due to our limited scouting knowledge. First was Regan Hendry, who was superb for me in my Roth Raivers save on FM20 and has high work rate, for £40k from Forest Green. Then we signed 20-year-old Filippo Tripi, who has 16 determination and work rate, from Roma for £95k.
New-look Crazy Gang season 2
We definitely punched above our weight last season as, for context, we have the 18th biggest salary spend in League One. However, the media expect us to finish 11th and have us at 12/1 to win the league in 2022/23.
The season began early due to the stupid Summer World Cup, with the Carabao Cup kicking off in late July. But Donley bagged a debut brace and Hendry bossed the midfield against his former club as we beat Forest Green 3-0 in the first round. Donley scored again as Jebbison notched a hat-trick to down Sutton 4-2 in the second round. The reward for that was Leicester away, which we only lost 3-2 after going behind to a nonsense early penalty decision.
We were less good in the league opener, losing 2-0 at Rotherham. But our first home game was the battle of the Dons against fierce rivals the McDons, which turned out to be an absolute belter! We led early on as Burey whipped in a cross for Donley to tuck home his first-ever league goal, only for McDons to equalise. Hendry then tucked home a penalty only for Mo Eisa to immediately equalise again, and McDons then scored their third shot on target to take a totally undeserved lead on 76 minutes. Out of desperation, I went ‘very attacking’ and, miraculously, it worked as Donley stepped up with two injury-time strikes to nick a 4-3 thriller!
That comeback inspired a good start as we won 2-0 at new boys Oldham, drew with Ipswich and beat Oxford 2-1 with Donley and Jebbison strikes. We kept that going and a 1-0 win over Wycombe took us second in the league after 10 games. And the level we were playing at was highlighted by beating Derby County 2-0 through Reece Burke and a Hendry penalty.
Crazy Gang approach effectiveness
Enough with all this results nonsense. I’m sure the big question you’re screaming at your screen is: “Is the Crazy Gang approach actually working?”
Well, in a way, yes it is. After 16 games, we’ve won the most headers in the league (1253, which is 47 more than the next team), won the most tackles (276, which is 10 more than anyone else) and won possession back more times than anyone (1598 times). We’ve also got the 20th-lowest tackle won ratio (74%), made the second-most fouls (264, which is 40 behind Oldham) and have the 19th-lowest possession ratio.
All of that would suggest we love to get our tackles in and play a fairly risky, some might say dirty brand of football. However, we’ve not had a single red card and only 8 teams have less than our 22 bookings. Why that is, I’m not too sure, but I’m starting to train more players to dive into tackles, even if it doesn’t suit them and maybe that’ll help? Sticking with the stats, we have the 5th worst xGA in League One, with expected goals against of 22.2, yet only three teams have conceded less than our 12!
Another FA Cup run?
Last season, we took Wimbledon all the way to the fifth round of the FA Cup. And when we got past Accrington then beat non-league side Lewes 4-1 to reach the third round, hopes were high again. We got a trip to a Premier League side but not a particularly glamorous one as we took on Burnley, who had Aubameyang playing alongside Weghorst! The battle of the 4-4-2s didn’t start well as Auba scored the host’s first shot on target but we got back into it in first-half injury-time. The striker scored again just after the break to nick a 2-1 win but I was impressed with our efforts, and we could have taken a draw had Wakeling’s late effort not cannoned back off the bar.
Punching above our weight
A run of tough fixtures against League One big boys began in November, just as goalkeeper Nik Tzanev was called up for the World Cup. We beat Portsmouth before losing 3-2 at leaders QPR and were unlucky to only draw with Bolton. But we maintained our hoodoo over Sunderland by beating them 4-1 away thanks to a late Donley double off the bench then, a few weeks later, a Jebbison brace sealed a 3-1 win to take us top of the league for the first time!
Indeed, we headed into 2023 – by which time we’d already played 27 league matches! – sitting pretty at the top of League One. We had a 2-point lead over QPR and a healthy 7-point gap to 3rd place Oxford, although they have 2 games in hand. Our success thus far is very much down to the young strikeforce of Jebbison, who’s scored 19 in 32, and Donley, who’s bagged an outrageous 15 in 20 with a 7.49 average rating.
Can Wimbledon maintain the promotion push?
January 2023 saw just one player walk through the gate at Plough Lane, but it was definitely an exciting one. We snapped up former Juventus midfielder Ervin Omic on a free transfer and he looks like a great prospect – plus, he has the Holy Grail of the “dives into tackles” player trait.
Our direct style of play might not have been earning the disciplinary measures we anticipated but it was winning plaudits from the Crazy Gang faithful and the board. However, even the most hardcore of Wimbledon fans wouldn’t have enjoyed their side’s 1-0 losses at Lincoln and new leaders Oxford.
But things got back on track as we picked up a pleasing 6 bookings en route to beating Peterborough 3-1. Then the deadly strikeforce stepped up as Donley bagged a hat-trick and laid on the other for Jebbison, who passed the Wimbledon record for most goals in a season (22), in a 4-2 win at home to Morecambe. We picked up a few wins against struggling sides then another 6 bookings as we lost to 6th-place Portsmouth.
Despite some slightly iffy form, we had managed to clamber up to 2nd in the league with 10 games remaining. But we faced a big test against QPR, who only trailed us on goal difference. We came out flying as Donley bagged two first-half goals to move to 20 for the campaign. Wakeling came off the bench to put it beyond doubt, assisted by 18-year-old left-back Zak Sturge on his senior debut, while Ormic got booked on his professional debut. That’s my boy! That win saw us pass the board’s objective of recording a League One top-half finish 6 (SIX!) years ahead of schedule.
A rare 10-day break allowed our players and fans to fully prepare for the big one. A trip to the 5th-placed McDons. As per standard, the hosts scored their first shot through Eisa but we dominated the game, including missing three clear chances in one goalmouth scramble. We got level through Jebbison soon after the break then immediately conceded to a direct free-kick. But the team kept scrapping and got their reward as left-back Lee Brown struck a delicious 20-yard stunner to nick a 2-2 in the 91st-minute. And that point is indicative of the fighting spirit of this side.
4 games from glory
With 4 games remaining, we found ourselves locked in a promotion battle with QPR and Bolton behind runaway leaders Oxford. For context, QPR spend £9.5m-per-year on wages and Bolton spend £3m, while our salary is just £1.7m. Our run-in was fairly favourable, with the exception of a trip to Bolton on the penultimate weekend, while QPR’s was so easy that they were probably favourites to go up.
Game 1 – Charlton (18th, away): The run-in didn’t start well as we suffered a 1-0 defeat at Charlton, who dragged themselves out of relegation trouble. QPR won 4-1 and Bolton won 3-1.
Game 2 – Fleetwood (16th, home): We began this game slowly but a lovely Hendry pass sent Jebbison through for his 25th of the season after half an hour. The striker doubled his tally 10 minutes after the break to seal a solid 2-0 win. QPR won 1-0 again at relegated Cheltenham to stay level on points with us but Bolton lost 2-0 at Mansfield.
Game 3 – Bolton (4th, away): We had an 11-day gap between games heading into a massive trip to Bolton. Not for the first time this season, we were undone by a shocking refereeing decision to give Bolton a penalty for no reason on 19 minutes. Donley twice struck equalisers but Bolton claimed a deserved 3-2 win that seemingly handed promotion to QPR, who beat Forest Green 3-1.
Game 4 – Cambridge (21st, away): We went into the final day three points back from QPR. Cambridge had lost 7 on the bounce, so it made sense that they would score their first shot of the match. Obviously. But we responded through a Hendry penalty then Donley and Jebbison pounced to put us 4-1 up at half-time.
All eyes were now on London Road, where Peterborough were holding QPR to 0-0. But we needed them to score. And miraculously, after 72 minutes, whispers began in the Wimbledon faithful, which evolved into huge cries of joy. Sammie Szmodics had put the hosts in front! But could they hold on? The Crazy Gang supporters flooding onto the pitch at the final whistle told us that YES! Peterborough beat QPR 1-0.
AFC Wimbledon were promoted to the EFL Championship!!
We again secured the highest finish in AFC Wimbledon history, taking the club into the Championship on goal difference. And a couple of weeks later, QPR beat Bolton 3-2 in the Playoff Final to join us in promotion. Pleasingly, we had the best attack in League One, racking up 89 goals, which was 20 more than champions Oxford.
Donley was second-top scorer in the league with his 23 goals only bettered by QPR’s Surridge scoring 32. He also had the third-best average rating of 7.35 and a league-high 9 player of the match awards. Brown got the most assists in the league with 13 and topped the key passes list. And I collected the Manager of the Year award.
What a season!! Our success is very much down to the performances of our exciting loanee strikeforce. 18-year-old Donley scored 26 in 38 at a 7.37 average rating, while Jebbison top-scored with 27 in 50 with a 7.27 average rating. So I moved quickly to secure both of them for next season.
Other key performers included winger Jack Rudoni scoring 11 but only 6 assists, Hendry scoring 7 along with 11 assists, Trippi getting 8 assists and Brown getting 15 assists from full-back. While Reece Burke dominated at the back with a 7.21 average rating.
The future is certainly bright at AFC Wimbledon, as proven by a youth intake containing 8 players with 4-star potential or higher and, crucially, lots of aggressive young men. The best players of the class of 2023 are two midfielders Julian Sesay, who’s already the 7th-best midfielder at the club, and Liam Williams. However, striker Alphonso Cadogan also has 5-star potential but, crucially, has 16 determination and bravery, 18 aggression and the “Gets Crowd Going” trait. We just need to work on his work rate and train him up as a left-winger. Another one to keep an eye on is Polish nutcase Jakub Stepien, who boasts a perfect 20 out of 20 aggression and also gets the crowd going.
Upon news of our promotion, the board announced plans to extend Plough Lane by 1,654 seats over the summer. That’ll take us to a 10,804-capacity and the work will complete at the end of August.
We have a massive task on our hands to compete in the Championship, but how will we go about strengthening the squad? Join us next time to find out!
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