Sad News AFC Wimbledon: He is gone

Conor Keenan’s AFC Wimbledon end of season review – Curtis’ MK winner, Al-Hamadi departure and Dons building in right direction

“It’s going to look and feel a lot different to what it did this year, I can promise you that,” Johnnie Jackson pledged at the end of the 2022-23 season.

Jackson had, by the skin of his teeth, done enough to keep his job, finishing the campaign in a lonely 21st position and winning just two of their final 20 games.

But the ex-Charlton manager and his staff were determined to learn from what became a painful end to a poor campaign.

Wimbledon faced a make-or-break summer. The reset button had to be pressed and as a result, expectations were low heading into the 2023-24 season at Plough Lane.

A near-perfect pre-season would lay the foundations for what would become the most positive AFC Wimbledon season in close to a decade. Deadwood was shipped out and over a dozen players arrived, including a new goalkeeper, two new centre backs and a new captain.

Midfielders Jake Reeves and Armani Little, defenders Joe Lewis and Ryan Johnson, goalkeeper Alex Bass and striker Omar Bugiel, to name a few, would become integral pieces of a side that their manager looked to mould into the ‘Wimbledon DNA’ – physical, dangerous and difficult to beat.

Not only did he have to rebuild a team, but Jackson knew he had to regain the trust of the Wimbledon faithful, so off the Dons jetted to Benidorm for pre-season. The trip allowed the newly built team to gel, with both their new teammates but also the travelling Wimbledon fans. Players, staff and fans enjoyed a boozy evening of karaoke in the Spanish sun to herald in the new season.

“The pre-season trip was massive,” Jackson told South London Press after the 5-1 demolition of Walsall on the final day of the season.

“I did those trips as a player and they are invaluable. You get the lads together for a full week and we got great work done, both getting to know each other and tactical work that would set us up for the season.

“We also had the bonus of our supporters there. The night we enjoyed with them was important for me – I know I wasn’t the flavour of the month at the time but the fans recognised how hard we worked that summer and how much it meant for us to turn it around.”

Wimbledon pushed on from their positive pre-season, smashing local rivals Sutton United 3-0 at Gander Green Lane, completing a memorable late 2-1 EFL Cup victory over Coventry City and almost toppling Premier League giants Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the following round.

The Dons were playing better than their results implied, with lacklustre home form holding them back from the perfect start to the season. Stellar away form wasn’t matched at Plough Lane, with home fans having to wait until 30th September for the first victory in SW17.

The Dons kept plugging away, never venturing too far away from the playoff places courtesy of stunning form from their star man, Ali Al Hamadi. The ‘Iraqi Scouser’ was beloved at Plough Lane, with his eye for goal as good as the story of his upbringing unique.

The sharks were circling as the January window arrived, with Al-Hamadi eventually departing for now Premier League-bound Ipswich Town in a club-record deal. The departure dealt a blow to the Dons playoff hopes after losing a player Jackson described as “the best player in the league”.

Nevertheless, the Dons kept plugging away, and the noticeable progress from the previous campaign was enough to reward Jackson with a new two-year contract.

“This year you’re seeing a team on the up,” Jackson told reporters at the time.

“Building that takes time, but we’re delighted that we’ve built that and installed a feel-good factor about the club.”

The feel-good factor, however, was wearing thin. Wimbledon’s form in January had dipped as Omar Bugiel and Ali Al Hamadi jetted off for international duty at the Asia Cup and injuries began to mount.

A 3-1 away defeat to MK would prove costly, with both Joe Lewis and Ryan Johnson suffering significant injuries in a performance Jackson described as “completely

Wimbledon took just one point from a possible 10 in a two-week stretch in February and suddenly the Dons were wilting. The return fixture of MK at Plough Lane on 2nd March felt like a make-or-break test for Wimbledon’s playoff hopes.

It would prove to be a day for the Wimbledon history books.

The game was an entertaining 0-0 draw for the opening 94 minutes, fiercely but fairly contested.

That was until, for some reason, centre-back Lee Brown found himself bombing into space down the left wing.

The crowd purred at the prospect of an opportunity. The purring turned to silence and the ball fell to Ronan Curtis. Silence then became bedlam.

The existence of MK is a daily reminder of the pain, frustration and betrayal Wimbledon fans experienced when their club was stolen from them.

With one sweep of his left boot, Ronan Curtis provided a moment of ultimate, unadulterated ecstasy to a fanbase richly starved of such joy.

The Curtis goal marked the first ever victory of MK in the new Plough Lane, providing fans a moment that will go down in AFC Wimbledon folklore.

The 1-0 win, unsurprisingly, would be the best moment of a Wimbledon season that fizzled out in the final weeks. The goals dried up as Jackson’s side pushed for the playoffs in a run
that would see just three wins from the remaining 11 games post-MK.

The disappointment of missing the playoff serves as a credit to the season Wimbledon had.

Expectations were low before the season began, and a top-half finish shows that the Dons are building in the right direction.

Jackson wants more, however, making his goal for next season very clear: “I feel privileged to be a manager here, following in the footsteps of the likes of Dave Bassett
and the late Joe Kinnear.

“I want to reward all those who have shown their faith in me, by getting this team promoted.”

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