As the full-time whistle blew on a blustery evening at Home Park a year ago this week, AFC Wimbledon were staring down the menacing barrel of their first-ever relegation since their inception 20 years earlier, teetering dangerously on the brink of the bottom four in League One in 20th.
Left-back Lee Brown, a January recruit back then, issued a battle cry to his team-mates, condemning their attitude and calling for a serious ‘reality check’.
Brown arrived from Portsmouth dripping in Football League experience. Amassing 398 appearances for Pompey and Bristol Rovers, winning promotion twice in his time with the Gas, the 32-year-old certainly had the winning mentality that a side who had not won since December (2-0 at Accrington Stanley) were sorely lacking.
Stunned at the dark clouds he encountered upon his arrival, Brown couldn’t contain his frustrations as the Dons extended their winless streak to 17 league games.
He said: “My Plymouth post-match interview was exactly how I felt; it made the situation a lot more real. I said what I said to try and stir up a reaction. We didn’t have a winning mentality. I wanted the younger players to see it and be riled up, and come out in the next game fighting and pumped up.
“It upset a few people, but I’m not one to shy away from saying what I feel, and I still stand by what I said back then.”
Despite Brown’s arrival, Wimbledon couldn’t shake off their malaise; continuing to tumble down the League One table, finishing the season with a whimper – winless until the end of the season. Their next taste of victory came on the opening day of the next campaign, beating Gillingham 2-0.
Brown said: “It was hard not for the players to begin accepting the losses, and it became the norm after so many games without a win. But if you accept poor results, then you shouldn’t be a professional footballer.
“It’s easy for younger players, who are often very confidence-driven, to drop their heads very quickly. As you keep losing, the confidence keeps getting lower and lower, until it hits the floor.
“These young, confidence-driven players are so low by the end of it that trying to galvanise them became an impossible task.
“Alex Woodyard, the captain, tried everything he could to rally the players through the hard times. He’s a fantastic leader, doing things that captains at better clubs in better leagues don’t do.
“He’d put together video messages before games from people’s families to motivate the players and assure them of their support. He tried to attack people’s mindsets and galvanise people, but by the end of the season, we just weren’t good enough – mentally and on the pitch – to stay up.”
Manager Mark Robinson, an internal appointment after Glyn Hodges’ dismissal the previous campaign, was replaced all too late by panic-interim Mark Bowen on March 30, who couldn’t muster any type of tune from his broken orchestra.
“When Mark came in, he inherited the same squad of players. He tried to implement a more defensively-solid style of play, stripping back the creative freedoms to the mere basics in order to stabilise as we were conceding a lot of goals. But any change he tried to introduce just didn’t work, because he still had a group of players whose confidence was through the floor.”
Now, as Wimbledon seek to stabilise from last season’s humbling relegation, there are mixed feelings amidst the camp and fanbase. They lie 15th in the League Two table, marooned in mid-table obscurity, with just one win in their past 11 games, but Brown insists the grass is greener, and the atmosphere is rosier in the dressing room.
Brown said: “The togetherness and spirit of this group of players this season is one of the best I’ve ever been involved with, even counting those who I got promoted with. The manager, Johnnie Jackson, is a good fit, and recruitment has been positive. On paper, they’re strong signings for where the club is presently, and taking into account the restricted budget as well.
“We should definitely be doing better than we currently are – for an AFC Wimbledon side – but when we haven’t got the budgets of the top sides like Mansfield, Stevenage and Leyton Orient, it’s difficult to compete.
“We’ve sold a lot of players, and put the money generated into the stadium. That’s where the club is at the moment; it’s not going into the squad. That’s great, but then we’ve got to be realistic and alter expectations on the pitch.”
The assets sold on brought in record transfer fees for the Dons. Ayoub Assal, sold in January to Qatari side Al-Wakrah, fetched Wimbledon a seven-figure sum, while Jack Rudoni and Luke McCormick, diamonds in last term’s rough, were moved on for healthy six-figure fees.
However, the Dons seem to be letting those departures affect them, with their recent form alarming to a divided fanbase.
“If we’d kept the players that we sold in the summer, we’d definitely be in a better position than we are now,” said Brown.
“If we were a richer club, we’d be able to reinvest the transfer fees more heavily into the squad, but because we’ve just built a brand new, luxurious stadium, that then needs to be paid for. The club have done extremely well to get the fees that they got for the players that were sold. I don’t think there’d be many other clubs at this level selling that calibre of player for those sums of money.”
However, while Wimbledon may continue to suffer from their relegation hangover, there is a lingering hopefulness, particularly with Jackson at the helm.
Brown said: “The manager fits the Wimbledon model. He’s brought freshness, with a clear idea as to how he wants to play. All the boys respect him, and you can see that they’d all run through a brick wall for him. He’s most definitely got the changing room on-side.”
With a strong core of senior players – including former Wales international Chris Gunter and ex-Millwall defender Alex Pearce – to help bridge the gap between coaching and playing staff, Brown believes Jackson has the tools to turn the tide and end the season in style.
Feature image courtesy of Lucy Dixon, AFC Wimbledon