“We faced 14 cup finals and we had to win them all. That’s how we went into them all and we only lost two…”
Those were the reflections of then AFC Wimbledon manager Wally Downes as his side achieved the Great Escape at the end of the 2018/19 season.
The Dons were 10 points from safety in mid-February but with ‘Wally at the Wheel’, went on to claim an impressive 21 points from their remaining 12 games, sitting sixth in the form table but more importantly, staving off League One relegation.
Fast forward 15 months and Wimbledon have achieved the same result – albeit in very different circumstances.
Instead of a series of do or die matches, AFC Wimbledon escaped the clutches of League Two courtesy of the fixtures schedule and a global pandemic that wreaked havoc in every aspect of society.
When football was suspended on March 10th, Wimbledon had scrapped their way to 35 points from 35 games, three points clear of third bottom Tranmere Rovers who had a game in hand.
Tranmere’s momentum had been snowballing following three wins on the trot – in contrast Wimbledon had managed just one win from their past nine games.
Had the world not been turned upside down, the game between the two sides scheduled to take place at Kingsmeadow on March 21st could have been a relegation decider with Tranmere arguably favourites to win.
The remaining biggest threat to Wimbledon’s League One status was the politics of whether or not the league should just be postponed or in fact cancelled due to the spiralling costs of seeing out the remainder of the campaign safely.
However, on June 9 it was formally decided the League One season would be ended on a Points-Per-Game system (PPG), guaranteeing AFC Wimbledon survival for another year.
On the pitch prior to the curtailment, Wimbledon had looked a very different side to the one who achieved the Great Escape the previous season.
The loan signings of Brentford duo Marcus Forss and Mads Bech Sorensen alongside Brighton midfielder Max Sanders and Rochdale’s Ryan Delaney showed Downes’ intention to scour the loan market for developing talent.
Coupled with the release of over-30s James Hanson and Tom Soares and the permanent signings of the likes of Nesta Guinness-Walker meant Wimbledon’s average squad age was just 23 – the youngest in the division.
However, with the loss of age came the absence of experience with the Dons losing their opening eight games as the side struggled to adapt and find the same momentum that had guided them to safety the previous season.
Wimbledon were winless in their opening 11 games before Glyn Hodges took the reins from Downes and began to turn their fortunes around, winning three out of four league games in October.
However, that autumn spell ended up being the highlight of the Dons’ season as the side then managed to win just five league wins in their remaining 20 league matches.
Wimbledon were also further hindered by the loss of Forss to injury in the middle of January having scored 11 goals in 19 appearances – his loss seeing the Dons win just two games in their remaining 10 fixtures without the 20-year-old.
While the Dons struggled in front of goal, there was also vulnerability at the back as Wimbledon struggled to replace the last season heroics of on-loan Bournemouth keeper Aaron Ramsdale.
Four keepers appeared between the sticks during the 2019/20 campaign – Nathan Trott, Joe Day, Nikola Tzanev and Joe McDonnell.
With captain Will Nightingale also out injured for a large part of the season, Wimbledon only managed seven clean sheets in the league – the most significant being a 0-0 draw against Blackpool in February which pushed the Dons eight points clear of relegation.
Therefore it is little surprise Wimbledon’s first foray into this summer’s transfer market was for the loan signing of Birmingham City keeper Connal Trueman.
One move that is delayed is the club’s return to their spiritual home of Plough Lane following a 29-year absence, with the pandemic extending their absence for a few more months as building work is completed on the new stadium.
In the meantime, QPR’s Kiyan Prince Foundation stadium will be another temporary home for a club and fans who have been in the wilderness for far too long.
One thing is certain though – the much-anticipated wait is nearly over and the Dons will once again be playing League One football at their new home.