AFC Wimbledon face a make-or-break spell where they must fill the void left by Ali Al-Hamadi’s exit

5 min

Having won just once in their last five games, yet still only four points off the League Two Play-Off places, AFC Wimbledon’s season sits on a knife-edge.

Scepticism following the disappointing end to the 2022/23 campaign has slowly been replaced by cautious optimism as Johnnie Jackson’s side have flirted with the Play-Offs for the majority of the season.

Currently finding themselves 13th in a chaotic League Two table, only five points separate 7th from sixteenth with 11 teams realistically fighting for the final two Play-Off places, presently held by an out-of-form Barrow and flying Walsall.

There’s no doubt Wimbledon’s downturn in form is due to the departure of talisman Al Al-Hamadi, who joined Championship side Ipswich at the end of the January transfer window for a club record fee of nearly £2m received.

It may have been too good an opportunity for both club and player to turn down, helping the Dons pay off the Plough Lane stadium debt as well as contributing to other squad-building costs, but the timing of the departure couldn’t have been any worse.

Wimbledon would have hoped to have kept the Iraqi international until at least the summer and, while they moved swiftly to sign Josh Kelly from Solihull Moors as Al-Hamadi’s replacement, neither player nor club have the luxury of a ‘settling in’ period.

It’s clear Kelly has a similar skillset Al-Hamadi, possessing pace that can carve apart League Two defences on the counter-attack, despite his slightly shorter stature and less physical approach.

Despite still waiting for his first goal, Kelly has made a bright start to his Wimbledon career – causing problems against both Barrow and Morecambe defences, hugging the shoulder of the defensive lines and using his speed to latch onto long passes up the flanks and over the top.

READ MORE: “I just want to do the best I can at AFC Wimbledon” – Johnnie Jackson after signing new deal

However, to remain in the Play-Off hunt, the 25-year-old needs to hit the ground running or, failing that, Wimbledon need to rely on others around him to step-up and replace the impact of losing Al-Hamadi.

Even with Al-Hamadi in the side, the Dons have been wasteful in front of goal this season, missing 50 big chances and ranking 14th in goals scored despite having the fourth highest xG in the division, according to Plough Lane by Numbers.

Last season, Jackson’s side dropped 40 points from winning positions, the most points in the entire EFL, but since the 2-2 draw with Crewe in mid-September, they have won all but one of the 15 games in which they’ve taken the lead (9 league, 5 cup).

Progress that has allowed them to remain in the Play-Off hunt – but there is another side to the story as well.

Given the lack of clinical finishing, Wimbledon struggle to turn games around – losing 10 of the 14 league games in which they fell behind first.

There were worrying signs of this in the two recent home games against Morecambe and Crawley, which saw the Dons take just one point from a possible six. 

READ MORE: Ali Al-Hamadi – From fleeing war-torn Iraq to finding a home at AFC Wimbledon

Both Kelly and Josh Davison missed notable chances and while Al-Hamadi missed his fair share during his time at Plough Lane, the team looks noticeably less threatening without a player manager Jackson branded “the best player in the division”.

“He (Josh Kelly) needs a goal but he’s playing well,” Johnnie Jackson told London Football Scene.

“He’s doing some great work for the team but he just needs to keep working hard and it will come.

“Ali’s not here so I can’t keep talking about him; he was the best player in the league and we’ve lost him, so that doesn’t help. 

“When you lose your talisman, it makes it more difficult, but we know we’ve brought in a good player (Kelly) who just hasn’t scored yet, but everyone needs to be better. All of us.”

The lack of clinical finishing has held Wimbledon back with Jackson acknowledging as much, going on to say, “I feel every time we’re just about to get into that top seven, we stumble.”

The 1-0 away defeat to Doncaster did nothing to quell discontent surrounding Wimbledon’s form as they head into the business end of the season and set to welcome fellow promotion-hopefuls MK to Plough Lane.

READ MORE: Tony Blair’s plan to move Wimbledon to Belfast is not the first time football has been used for political gain

It’s a game of huge significance to the club even without the context of their league position – Milton Keynes sitting in fifth, with a safety buffer of seven points between them and eighth place. 

Jackson’s men have hit a rough patch, not helped by an injury crisis that has sidelined captain Jake Reeves and his three first choice central defenders, at the worst possible time.

There’s no doubt the next few weeks could make-or-break Wimbledon’s season and to remain in the Play-Off hunt, they must find a way to replace the output lost through the departure of Al Hamadi, and quickly.

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