We today feature an extended interview with Neal Ardley for those supporters who may have missed it in last night's matchday programme against Bristol Rovers.
In an in-depth interview below, Neal reveals why he left Wimbledon in the first place, talks about his time spent revolutionising the Cardiff Academy set-up, his coaching philosophy and returning to the Dons 10 years after leaving.
FOR Neal Ardley, the long road to being appointed as AFC Wimbledon manager began at a time when he was helping to establish the Dons as a Premier League force during the 1990s.
Neal was certainly not one of those footballers unsure of his next move when his playing career ended in 2007 – he’d gained his first coaching well before then. As a keen student of the game, our new boss studied the training methods that helped Terry Burton bring so many youngsters through the ranks and while some Dons players were basking in the glory of wins at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, Neal was plotting a successful coaching career.
“I did my UEFA B coaching badge when I was 24 and I always thought that I would be a better coach than I was a player,” he said. “I loved watching training sessions and asking Terry Burton what we were doing and why we were doing it. I looked and listened very carefully to what he was trying to achieve - it was always something that interested me.”
Neal’s big break into coaching came five years ago when then Cardiff City manager Dave Jones gave him the call to be academy manager with the Bluebirds. Neal, who also turned out for Watford, Milwall and Cardiff during his playing days, had little hesitation in accepting the offer and thus began the coaching apprenticeship that would eventually lead him back to the Dons. After helping to revolutionise Cardiff’s Academy set-up, Neal, who holds a UEFA A Pro coaching licence, admitted that it was an emotional goodbye when he left.
“I will always be indebted to Dave Jones as he gave me my first job in management,” Neal said. “He knew that I had my coaching badges and he called me up and said that being academy manager at Cardiff would be a good grounding for me. When I got there I found that the academy was operating out of Portakabins with no running water. The players were not given the right food in terms of nutrition and the pitches were poor. It was as if they were pretending to be an academy. Slowly, but surely, I helped to raise standards off the pitch. We rejigged the academy set-up and put new offices in there, which improved the working environment for the staff. We had a new building there, which I literally did the drawings for myself. My wife was laughing at me as I went round the lounge with my ruler, measuring up space so that I could get an idea of what was needed. There was no way we would have got Academy Two status under the Elite Player Performance Programme when I first went there.
However, it was not all just structural change. Neal was responsible for overseeing a change in style that would help a crop of youngsters to flourish.
“There were a lot of things we did that were not just football,” he said. “But I also helped to develop the playing style during the five years I was there. Our teams played creative, exciting football and now every player in the Cardiff Academy, from the Under-8s up to the Under-21s can tell you how they play and how they try to achieve it. Some of them probably know as much about playing the game as the coaches do. Cardiff had produced players like Aaron Ramsay, but sometimes you can produce players despite the system, rather than because of it.
“When I started there was probably one player who stood out in each age group, but when I left there were half a dozen players in each team capable of going onto better things. Adam Matthews, who is now at Celtic, was phenomenal when he was with us and I think will go onto play for a top-four club in the Premier League. I always pushed the young players and they listened to me because they knew I cared. We had seven players who played for Wales in the Victory Shield and beat England 4-0. The likes of Joe Ralls, Declan John, Tommy O’Sullivan and Theo Wharton are all players who will hopefully go onto bigger things. It was really emotional when I said my goodbyes at Cardiff. I had tried to create an environment where you want players to run through brick walls for you because they enjoy working for you.”
He may have left behind a legacy that will last for years to come at Cardiff City. It may have been a wrench to leave, but Neal admitted that the lure of a return to Wimbledon was just too great for him. Though he first joined Wimbledon as an Under-11 player and went onto make almost 250 club appearances, including helping the Dons to our highest placed Premier League finish of sixth in 1994, it was far from a sentimental decision to accept the job as AFC Wimbledon manager.
“People I knew told me to apply and I decided to go for it,” Neal said. “Then when I came for my first interview, I had a really good feeling about it. The further I got down the line, the more I wanted the job. I was thinking of the worst-case scenario – that at least it would be good experience for me if I didn’t get it - but the more I got involved, the more I decided that it was for me. It’s a tough job. We’re in the bottom five in League 2 in terms of playing budget. You know all of that, but you also weigh-up how unique the club is and how far it’s come from in the last ten years. Then I just thought, ‘I can do this’.
“It may take time to get it right, and we have to stay up in the first season, but I feel that I can take this club up another step. It will not happen overnight, it will take a lot of bravery and patience. I am quite excited by it as the harder the challenge, then the bigger the achievement. It’s about the environment I can create here - recruitment, what sort of players we can bring in, how we try to play and being hard to beat. I’m a little nervous about it as well, but I’m determined to get it right.”
Such devotion to the cause stems from a Wimbledon love affair that began when he was 10 years old. Brought up in North Cheam, Neal played for his father’s team, Talasan Rovers, for the Cheam Park Farm School team, along with Sutton and District Schools side, and he was spotted by Wimbledon FC scout John Phillips. Neal worked his way up through the Dons ranks to become a first-team regular, starting with his debut at Aston Villa in 1992. However, his exit from Wimbledon in 2002 still rankles.
“It was disappointing how I left the club,” he said. “I’d signed a three-year deal, but there was a get-out clause and the ITV Digital deal collapsed. The club, with Charles Koppel in charge at the time, said they wanted to offer me a different contract on not quite as much money. I trained hard in pre-season and then Stuart Murdoch took over from Terry Burton. I was not asked to go on the pre-season tour. ‘Something isn’t right,’ I thought. Then Stuart called me into his office and told me that they didn’t want me around the place anymore, even though he knew what I had achieved during all my years at the club. I grabbed my bag and walked out - and that was it. Terry Burton had gone to Watford and I knew he wanted me there. I ended up joining Watford, I made 118 appearances for them and had some good times.”
Neal enjoyed further playing spells at Cardiff City and Milwall, but his time at Wimbledon was undoubtedly the most memorable time of his career, and will never be tarnished by the manner of his departure.
As one of several players who flourished after coming through the highly productive Wimbledon youth system during the 1990s, right-sided player Neal played a pivotal role as the Dons achieved a number of top-10 finishes.
“We had very good recruitment in those days and we had Terry Burton, who had spent a lot of time around the youth set-up,” Neal added. “Over the years, the likes Neil Sullivan, Dean Blackwell, Chris Perry, Jason Euell and Carl Cort all came through. Looking back, it was a good time to bring youngsters through because of the strength of the first-team. You were coming into a team that could handle itself, a side that was athletic and physical, and the players would look after you. It was a good environment for players to step into. If you are near the bottom like us now though and you need the nous to win games, then it is perhaps not the right environment for young players.
“I made my debut at Aston Villa, along with Neil Sullivan, it was near the end of the season and our final season at Plough Lane. I went onto have great times. Winning at Anfield a couple of times was special for me, but we won everywhere, including Old Trafford, Highbury and Stamford Bridge. It was great when I was coaching at Cardiff Academy that I could throw things like that in and tell the young players that the old man used to be able to play a fair bit!”
Older Wimbledon supporters will certainly recall that Neal was a talented player during his playing career, but now begins the next chapter of his memorable career has now begun as he aims to make a name for himself as a manager.