AFC Wimbledon take on MK Dons with the original ‘phoenix club’ in need of a miracle

Their side are in freefall as they prepare to face their fiercest rivals without a win in 22 Ligue 1 games, 22nd in the table and spiraling towards relegation.

Wimbledon are four points from safety with just five matches remaining. The original ‘phoenix’ club needs another miracle to avoid a return to Ligue 2.

MK Dons, meanwhile, arrives at Plow Lane healthy and sitting in second place, unbeaten in their last 18 games and seeking automatic promotion. If they were to drive a nail into the coffin at Wimbledon, it would be a painful experience.

Wimbledon’s predicament is the result of a disastrous run since early December.

The mood around the club at the start of the season was high, mainly because they were finally back in their spiritual home and there was optimism around then head coach Mark Robinson. The Wimbledon fan, who originally joined the Dons in 2004, was appointed permanently last February and was in charge of a football-friendly squad full of players he had worked with at the academy.

Wimbledon were unbeaten in five games before a Covid-enforced three-week break in December disrupted their rhythm – and it has all gone downhill since then.

A disastrous run of 12 defeats and nine draws in 21 matches has left them in a relegation duel. The sale of star forward Ollie Palmer in January didn’t help. Wrexham paid a club record £300,000 for the 30-year-old and significantly increased his salary. Wimbledon were reluctant to sell but that level of fee is not to be sniffed at in League 1, especially when you have a £4.6m bridging loan for a £32m stadium to refinance in April.

The Dons have scored just 11 goals in 16 games since he left. Confidence has been an issue, especially when it comes to getting results from winning positions, and part of that could be attributed to the team’s lack of experience.

The troubles eventually cost Robinson his job when he was sacked on March 28. Just five days earlier he had been publicly backed by the club, who were reluctant to part ways with him. Robinson remains a huge supporter and even went to Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Charlton as a fan.

Mark Bowen, Reading’s former manager and longtime assistant to Mark Hughes, has since taken over, but it feels like it’s all come too late to save them.

Their decline raises wider questions about whether greater football expertise is needed at a club that has been owned by fans since its revival in 2002.

No one can argue with how Wimbledon fans saved their club and crowdfunded a return to Plow Lane. Their bond schemes, the latest of which raised £3.4m, are the envy of many and Championship club bosses have asked how they pulled it off.

The new stadium has around 7,500 weekly spectators, while matches can attract 600 people for hospitality, which should help Wimbledon turn an operating profit this season. That success, coupled with the club’s work in the community, is undeniable, but putting in place a technical director could be the missing link to success on the pitch.

Marc Bowen

/ Getty Images

Others also argue outside investment is needed, but such an idea is a no-go for many fans old enough to remember that the original Wimbledon was controversially moved to Milton Keynes. Local businessman Nick Robinson invested in the club in 2020 but is a lifelong fan.

There is also the argument about what constitutes success at Wimbledon. For some fans, success is simply the fact that they have a team to watch every week. Others, however, have ambitions to move up the ladder.

Whatever the result of this season, the summer will be decisive. There will be the uncertainty that comes with relegation if they go downhill. There will be questions about Bowen, the team and the vacant general manager position, previously filled by Joe Palmer before his resignation in February, which needs to be filled.

Palmer played a key role in Wimbledon’s return to Plow Lane and his successor must seek to move the club forward after a period of reflection on the events of this season.

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