By Rob Cornell
First-team players met some of their loyal band of followers at an event that has been celebrated every year since AFC Wimbledon's reformation.
With the finishing line in sight on a challenging League One campaign, Neal Ardley, along with his coaching staff, and players, sat down with supporters in a relaxed atmosphere at the club's 17th kit sponsors' dinner.
It was an event that demonstrated AFC Wimbledon's unique bond between playing staff and supporters, even in the toughest of situations.
"It's difficult to put into words how much this means to me," said Commercial Director Ivor Heller. "We do two events a year which involve our true, hardcore fans, that love this club unconditionally and that's the Volunteers' Away Day and this event. I look around and see people who have been kit sponsors for five, 10, or 17 years and they love doing it.
"They come along, mix with the players, and talk to the manager. It's such an important night for the club and shows we can do things on a smaller scale. You don't have to be corporate to get near our team. I just hope that in seventeen years' time this tradition is still going, because I think it really should, and it's a wonderful thing to do. It's all credit to the sponsors for sticking with us, through the ups and downs."
In a passionate speech to supporters, Ivor thanked sponsors and Commercial Executive Pietro Palladino for organising the event.
Proceeds from a raffle boosted the club's coffers with the figure of £770 beating last year's total.
Neal Ardley also gave a speech on the night and he told the official website that the event was a welcome distraction for the squad as they prepare to take on league leaders Wigan on Saturday.
"Obviously we've still got a bit of work to do, but we enjoy it and use it as a chance to relax and then we'll go and do our work at the weekend. I think you should always try and keep this tradition going, particularly when we go to Plough Lane. This club belongs to the fans and they should decide as we go forward the things they want to keep, things they want to tweak, and things they want to do more of. That should always be in their hands, but this is something the players and management get a lot of pleasure out of. There's nothing negative about it, it's very positive, and it always ends up being a really good night.
"This is that time at the end of the season when the kit sponsors sit down with us and get their shirt signed and spend a bit of time with the players. It's informal, but it's where you can get a bit personal and ask questions, have a nice meal with people that you've been cheering on for most of the season. It's a little more informal than an end of season, player-of-the-year dinner, and it's just nice and relaxed."
Anuk Teasdale and her family have been committed kit sponsors for a number of years and the club ethos fits well among a family dynamic of Wimbledon supporters.
"I cannot think of another club where I can go up to somebody who plays, coaches or manages and speak to them and talk to them about how their season has gone," Anuk said. "This is our 13th season and I wouldn't miss this night for the world! We're such a unique club. Who gets to do this? I'm so proud to be able to go up to someone who works so hard and say 'thank you so much'.
"I'm here with my daughter Millie. As a family, we sponsor George Long's shirt, Kwesi Appiah's full kit, and also Neil Cox home and third kit. We've always sponsored the keeper, the striker and Neil Cox.
"George has been phenomenal. I was heartbroken when James Shea left, as he was a true servant of the club. It didn't take long for me though to see George has given everything for this club. Even though he's on loan, I can see how passionate he is. I sit behind the goal in the John Green Stand and I can see how much it means to George. What more could you ask for from a loan player? He's been absolutely brilliant."
Matt Lowndes is another supporter who comes with strong family ties to the club and with fellow members of PISA – the drinking collective for the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association – it remains an important way to help the club and a night out not to be missed!
"I think it's hugely important to keep this up when we move to Plough Lane. When I was a teenager we used to be in the bar chatting to Vinnie Jones, John Scales and Roger Joseph, who became a friend of mine. They are just regular guys and it's a part of Wimbledon culture.
"I think this is the fifth year we've done it. We've sponsored matches, but we identified a player we thought would be the first team captain one day," added Matt, who sponsors Will Nightingale's home and away shirt. "We always wanted to sponsor a young player coming through and have maintained that link and we think that's who we should be sponsoring. We'd love Will to be captain when we run out at Plough Lane one day.
"The tradition is that you get to have a chat with the players. Nowadays they've got a job to do on a match day and it's not like the non-league days, when they'd be in the bar afterwards. It's really important we sponsor the players and they can come and have a chat with everyone and show their appreciation."