The players of AFC Wimbledon were mobbed by their hardcore fanbase amid jubilant scenes as the final whistle blew at Plough Lane. A 5-2 Wimbledon win was coupled with QPR losing 1-0 at Peterborough, which meant The Dons were promoted to the second-tier of English football for the first time.
Now manager Trebor Mahtal faced a tough task to strengthen the squad for a bid at Championship survival on the thinnest of shoestrings. We began season 3 with the Crazy Gang by releasing a massive 24 players, a transfer budget of £1.5m and a wage budget of £69k, of which we were spending around £32k.
The first dealings were done last season as we renewed the loan deals of star strikers Daniel Jebbison and Jamie Donley. We also relied on our senior affiliate deal with Spurs to draft in Argentine midfielder Fausto Vera and strong centre-back Cédric Zesiger.
The promotion saw our out-of-contract players want silly money to extend their stays, which meant we began the summer with a threadbare squad. And a lack of finances forced us to focus on young released players, including exciting striker Elliot Hall from Man City, centre-back Brandon Bryan-Waugh and striker Kion Etete from Spurs, right-back Luca Stanga from AC Milan, goalkeeper Viteszlev Jaros from Liverpool, and right-back Alessandro Zanoli from Napoli.
We really struggled to find a right-winger, so I decided to go a bit rogue by bringing in Man United midfielder Zidane Iqbal for £50k to convert into a winger. That was followed by a very left-field signing as Uruguayan goalkeeper Gastón Guruceaga came in for £43k from Montevideo City Torque.
With those players through the door, our strict policy of playing 4-4-fucking-2 looks like this:
A stiff Championship challenge
It’s fair to say the media didn’t fancy our chances in the second-tier, predicting us to finish bottom of the league at 500/1 to win it. We’re up against big teams like Bournemouth, Fulham, Watford, Norwich and West Brom. Although QPR, who only got promoted via the playoffs last season, are predicted 8th. Indeed, we began the season with an annual salary spend of just £2m, compared to Bournemouth’s £37m and Watford, Norwich and West Brom’s £35m.
The new season began well as two corners from Lee Brown, last season’s top assister, laid on goals for centre-backs Daniel Csóka and debutant Zesiger. And we held on for a 2-1 win despite a late penalty.
We also nicked a hard-fought 3-3 draw at Hull, who racked up 23 shots at our goal. But, yet again, two Brown corners laid on goals for Csoka and Jebbison got a late third. And the impressive start continued with Donley bagging a hat-trick to beat Huddersfield 3-0, despite winger Jack Rudoni being sent off for a horror challenge. But we finally fell to defeat at home to Forest, who scored a late winner through Demarai Gray, before a 4-2 loss at Fulham despite a Jebbison brace. While Vera picked up a booking in all 5 league matches to pick up an early suspension!
Our style of play finally started getting some awareness as Stoke, ironically, accused our players of “extreme physicality” as we injured Tyrese Campbell during an exciting 3-3 draw. But it was games against teams likely to be fellow strugglers that mattered most. So wins over Coventry, thanks to a classic long-ball goal through Donley and Iqbal getting his first for the club late on, Preston and Luton were crucial.
A third of the way through the season we’d settled nicely into lower mid-table, 7 points clear of relegation. But big results like a draw at QPR, 0-0s at home to Bristol City and Birmingham and a 3-2 win at Blackpool saw us strengthen that position. We weren’t without some big defeats, like a 4-0 hammering at Barnsley, 4-1 at Bournemouth and 4-3 at home to Middlesbrough. But we did end a 5-game losing streak against Sheffield Wednesday to begin 2024 with a 2-1 win, sealed by 17-year-old youth product Jakub Stepien’s first goal for the club.
That left us in a solid 13th-place after 26 matches coming into the new year. Crucially, we were 13 points clear of relegation and, surprisingly, only 9 points off the playoffs! Pleasingly, we had the most bookings, made the most fould and won the most tackles in the league, which showed our style was very much working. Jebbison is the third-top scorer in the league with 13 goals, just 3 behind Stoke’s Campbell.
Can Wimbledon continue to overperform?
There was no FA Cup run this season as we lost at Blackpool. But the rapidly improving Stepien made it 2 in 2 as he scored in a 3-0 win at Preston, which moved us just 6 points away from the playoffs! A few tricky results followed but two massive home wins saw the team with the lowest salary beat two of the biggest spenders. Another youth product Julian Sesay scored his first goal in a 2-1 win over Bournemouth, who have three players earning more in a week than our entire squad combined, to become the youngest Wimbledon goalscorer in history aged 16 years 238 days. And that was backed up by thrashing leaders Fulham 5-2 led by a Jebbison brace!
Good form continued by beating Bristol City away before crashing to a 1-0 defeat at home to Millwall, in which 20 Aggression Stepien picked up his first career red card. And I doubt it’ll be his last. But that sparked defeats at leaders West Brom and Watford, although narrow 2-1 and 4-3 losses offered plenty of promise. But they did virtually kill off any playoff hopes as we trailed 6th place by 13 points with 9 games remaining.
Top goalscorer race!
However, there was still plenty to play for as our exciting strikeforce of Jebbison and Donley were in the top 3 scorers in the league. Donley, who was named number 11 in the NxGn 2024, scored 2 in 2 as we beat QPR then lost to Hull. He then bagged a brace in an impressive 3-3 draw against Blackburn, which saw him go level with Jebbison at the top of the goalscoring chart on 19.
Jebbison ended his mini 4-game drought by scoring in a 3-2 loss at Huddersfield to move on to 20. Then he bagged an incredible four in a mental 5-4 loss at Middlesbrough, in which we led 3-0 and 4-1 but conceded twice in injury-time.
A fairly shaky conclusion to the campaign saw us finish firmly in mid-table in 14th place in the Championship. We ended up 17 points clear of the relegation zone and 21 points off the playoffs. However, only promoted Fulham and 6th-place Middlesbrough scored more than our 77 goals and only relegated Luton conceded more than our 76! So it’s safe to say that entertainment was high at Wimbledon this season.
We also racked up the 3rd-most bookings with 99, which was only bettered by Luton and Coventry, and 3rd-most red cards with 4, only bettered by Coventry and Millwall’s 7. But we did commit the most fouls, won the most tackles and made the most clearances. We completed the least passes in the league, with our 16,166 being over 2,000 less than next-least Luton, and over half that of Fulham’s 34,038! But we also had the highest conversion rate of 13%. And that shows the tactic is working quite nicely. However, we also concede the most shots, which shows there’s clear need for improvement on that front. But, to be fair, that’s to be expected for a team with a salary that’s more than 50% lower than the 23rd-highest in the league and 18 times less than Bournemouth’s!
Jebbuson topped the Championship scoring chart with 24 in 46, with Donley in 3rd with 19 in 40. Jebbison also got the 3rd-most assists with 12. While Rudoni got the second-most bookings with 15 in 37 games and Guruceaga was forced into the most saves per 90 minutes with 5.09 but had the 20th-best save percentage of 76%.
The key to this season’s overachievement has obviously been Jebbison and Donley. Jebbison led the way with 24 goals, 12 assists and a 7.17 average rating in 48 games. However, Donley scored 21 and got 9 assists with a 7.13 average rating, and won fans’ player and young player of the season. So they’ll be delighted that he is returning on loan next season.
Other good performers included Rudoni scoring 9 and getting 7 assists and Brown getting 10 assists. While Zesiger impressed with a 7.06 average rating from 44 appearances.
The future is bright at Wimbledon
Last year’s youth intake produced the exciting Stepien and Sesay, who are already featuring regularly in the first-team. But this year’s looks to have produced players of vastly superior quality. The pick of the bunch is midfielder Mike Robertson, who has 15 determination and aggression, 16 teamwork and 17 bravery. He was joined by fellow top prospects striker Chris Passant and midfielder Ade Lawford.
We also have the likes of Steward and Hall plus last year’s youth product Alphonso Cadogan showing plenty of promise and potentially ready for more game time next season. So it’s safe to say the future is looking bright at Plough Lane.
Can these youngsters help us build on this in our second season in the Championship? And where do we need to strengthen? Join us next time to find out!