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  • Writer's pictureBy Dan Evans

Wimbledon a “different animal” to the one that started 2023 but can’t allow January to de-rail them again

The final game of the calendar year for every club invariably brings about bouts of contemplation and anticipation in almost equal measure. There is twelve months’ worth of football ready to be reflected upon; every painful defeat and miserable performance dulled by the brief moments of inspiration that makes following football such an insatiable pursuit.

 

And with the transfer window often just days from opening, the possibility that so much could be set to change can never be ignored. Just one signing can turn also-rans into promotion contenders and, conversely, losing a key player can derail a campaign entirely.

 

As 2022 became 2023, AFC Wimbledon had plenty of hope that their season would end in success.

 

Following their first relegation since reformation, a slow start under head coach Johnnie Jackson had given way to a ten game unbeaten run in League Two before the start of this year, leaving them just two points shy of the play-offs.

 

But then their best player, Ayoub Assal, became the subject of a prolonged transfer to Qatar and to make matters worse all four of the players the club had on loan were prematurely recalled to their parent clubs. Replacements were hastily sought but the rest of the season was proof, if any were needed, that attempting to conduct major surgery on a playing squad mid-season is likely to cause problems.

 

The Dons won just one game between February and May, slumping to a 21st-place finish. Fans openly called for Jackson to go during a sequence of seven home defeats from nine to end the season.




 

However, the 41-year-old was allowed to stay and oversee a summer squad overhaul and also given ample time to bed new players in.

 

The second half of the year has not been without its own problems, but, courtesy of an exciting 5-3 win against Colchester United, Wimbledon will begin 2024 in the League Two play-off places, and there is now a far clearer plan to remain there.

 

“How far we’ve come is ridiculous to be honest,” said Jackson when reflecting on the past 12 months. “As a whole club, not just what’s happening on the pitch. The feeling around the place… there’s real positivity.

 

“We’ve done well up to a point, but we want more. I’d like to be top of the league if we’re being greedy, but we know what we’re up against. We could’ve had more points to show for our performances, but we have to be pleased with how far we’ve come as a football club.

 

“We’re a different animal entirely. Although the league position isn’t greatly different to last year, we’ve got a better points tally, we’ve won more games, scored more goals, conceded less. All the markers are positive.

 

“Something had to change from last season and it certainly has. You can feel it around the whole club, we’re a different proposition to 12 months ago.”

 

One of the few successes of last January was the signing of striker Ali Al-Hamadi from Wycombe Wanderers. The Iraqi international had started just a single game in the Football League before arriving at Plough Lane, yet his ten goals at the end of the miserable 2022-23 campaign made him the team’s most important player and also single-handedly staved off a genuine relegation battle.

 

Al-Hamadi missed penalties in back-to-back games to start the season and took until the end of September to score his first league goal, but he has more than made up for lost time since. The 21-year-old now has 15 for the season after notching against Colchester, and his combination of strength, speed and agility mean he would surely look at home higher up the EFL pyramid.



The forward is set to depart for Qatar to take part in the Asia Cup following the New Year’s Day trip to Forest Green Rovers, yet ensuring he remains a Wimbledon player come February is of far greater concern to Jackson than the prospect of missing him for a few weeks.

 

“It always worries you,” Jackson said when asked about the upcoming January transfer window. “You want to keep your group together. We’re at League Two level so anyone that is doing well is naturally going to attract interest from higher, that’s the nature of where we’re at.

 

“I’ve spoken about this a lot; we want to keep the group together. We worked really hard to bring them to the club and they’ve gelled. They’re a great group to work with.

 

“If there are opportunities to do business that we think will make us stronger we have to look at that but what we can’t do is come out of the window weaker.

 

“That happened last January and the January before when I wasn’t even at the club. Hopefully we’ve learnt the lessons from that and don’t allow it to happen again.”

 

Although Al-Hamadi starred once again in the win against Colchester, it was a pair of braces from fellow forward Josh Davison and centre-back Joe Lewis that ensured victory. Lewis has been a stalwart in the side since arriving on loan from Stockport County in June, but Davison’s promising evening will surely be what pleased Jackson the most.

 

Davison was handed just his sixth start of the season alongside Al-Hamadi and Omar Bugiel in attack, and he more than took the opportunity. The forward tapped home his first home league goal since September to open the scoring from an Al-Hamadi cross and then smashed in the goal that saw the Dons regain the lead in the second half after brilliantly collecting a long ball from Lewis.

 

Al-Hamadi gave the Plough Lane faithful something to remember him by in scoring the fourth goal of the night, and his influence on the team’s attacking play was undeniable, but Jackson and the group he has moulded since the summer has shown that they should be able to compete without him whether that be for a few weeks or for longer.

 

“We’ve got ourselves back in the play-offs and we’ve got to try and stay in and around that,” said Jackson. “Our aims has to got to be to try and get out of the division; however that looks and however it happens, that’s what we’re playing for.

 

“We’re not playing just to finish mid-table. We’re more ambitious than that. We realise how difficult it is with our resources compared to other teams but over half a season we’ve shown that we’re a really good team and on our day we can mix it with anyone.”

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