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New manager could help club avoid first ever relegation but time is running out



It was a perfect AFC Wimbledon moment, the type that has tended to pepper this young club’s magical journey. On 11 September, having trailed 3-2 with 18 minutes remaining, Ayoub Assal controlled a 94th-minute corner on the edge of the box and thrashed home a shot to give the Dons a 4-3 win. Assal was a 19-year-old academy graduate who joined AFC Wimbledon at the age of 11. Behind the goal, the travelling support danced down the terrace steps. Their club had just gone fourth in League One.

After dreamland, biting reality. Since that away victory, AFC Wimbledon have won three league games. The last of those came on 7 December, 20 long matches and almost four longer months ago. From fourth, AFC Wimbledon have tumbled down League One and are now fourth bottom. That would mean relegation.

On Monday, Mark Robinson paid the price with his job. Draws and defeats had quickly become defeats and defeats, losing five on the spin that ended with a 1-0 home loss to Cambridge United on Saturday.

If his sacking was expected – no manager can go 20 league games without victory and hope to avoid it – it came only five days after the club insisted in a public statement that he was the right man to lead the team forward.

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Robinson was the romantic option at the right time, but probably not the right man for the long term. He had been at Wimbledon since 2004, two years after the club’s formation. He was part of the furniture: head of youth, academy manager, first-team coach, interim manager, head coach. He oversaw one great escape last season when Wimbledon took 15 points from their final eight matches to survive relegation by six points. This season, when decline set in, he was unable to arrest it.

But Robinson was also repeatedly asked to turn water into wine. Even those supporters who strongly believed it was the right decision to sack him will wish him well for his service over the last 18 years. Having kept Wimbledon up last season, he lost striker Ollie Palmer to Wrexham for £350,000, saw top-scorer Joe Pigott leave for Ipswich on a free transfer and loan star Ryan Longman went back to Brighton. There’s only one conclusion that matters: a team that barely survived last season has got considerably fewer weapons.

That’s ostensibly down to financial restraints forced upon the club by their new stadium. Wimbledon have a £4.5m loan to repay and those in power do not wish to cripple the club by allowing that debt to become unmanageable. Chief executive Joe Palmer spoke of the club’s intention to rely upon a model of youth development rather than “relying upon old players at the tail ends of their careers”, but that was an obligation as much as a choice. Wimbledon already had one of the lowest budgets in League One; they also have the youngest average starting XI in English professional football this season.

The stadium is an interesting discussion point, because Wimbledon have won fewer home games than any other team in the EFL this season. Almost 40 per cent of their league wins at the new Plough Lane came in an eight-day period last April. Wimbledon – and their supporters – fought for years for their new home and would not change it for the world. But there have clearly been teething problems settling in.

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Wimbledon are not doomed to relegation just yet. Their start to the season created some breathing room. So too does the form of the teams around them. None of the bottom five clubs in League One have won any of their last five matches, taking only four points in the process – three of those points were earned against other teams in that sorry collective. A new manager might well make a difference and oversee another escapology act.

But supporters are certainly getting itchy. They are inextricably connected to their club like no other group of fans, 74 per cent owners but also bonded to Wimbledon by the unique – and dismal – circumstances of its formation. Even so, there are the usual grumbles about its direction of travel under the current board and the enforced austerity. Nobody likes to go so long without a win.

This is all something new for AFC Wimbledon. Their remarkable, and remarkably pure, rise has been without one aspect of football that is intrinsic to football fan culture: relegation. They have been promoted six times in 20 years and champions three times, but never once fallen backwards. You might argue that until they cope with such heartache, their experience can never be complete. Those travelling to Hillsborough this weekend will tell you that they have no intention of finding out just yet.

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