Neal Ardley leaves the club with our thanks for establishing AFC Wimbledon in the Football League and then taking us to new levels both on and off the pitch.
Having kept Wimbledon in League Two after a dramatic final day of the 2012/13 season, Neal set about making a lasting impression on the club. The high point of his managerial reign came when he led the club out at Wembley in May 2016, as Wimbledon went on to achieve promotion after a play-off final victory over Plymouth. But his legacy is wider than that because, behind the scenes, he was transforming the quality of the pitches and the staff accommodation at our training ground and constantly seeking additional facilities to enhance our fitness and physiotherapy capabilities.
Following his success as Cardiff City’s Academy Manager, where he developed many top flight players, Neal relished the chance to manage the Dons when offered the position in October 2012.
He is a Wimbledon man through and through, having made almost 250 appearances for The Dons as a player between 1991 until 2002, during which time he helped the Dons to a sixth place Premier League finish in 1994. Taking on the challenge of a club close to his heart, struggling towards the bottom of League Two, it couldn’t have been a tougher baptism into league management. Former Watford and England under-21 team mate Neil Cox also joined as his Assistant. Simon Bassey provided continuity and the detailed knowledge he’d accumulated in his 10 years with the Club by staying on as first team coach.
His first task was to keep the club in the league. Shortly after taking up the role, versatile Welsh youngster Jon Meades arrived on loan from Neal’s previous club, Cardiff. Later in the season Irish centre-back Alan Bennett added much-needed experience to the back line and former Millwall team-mate Gary Alexander also arrived to strengthen the attack, both recruited in a frantic last day of the January transfer window. Football League status was retained under dramatic circumstances. The Dons went on to beat Fleetwood Town 2-1 on the final day, with goals from Alexander and a Jack Midson penalty - just 18 minutes from time.
Neal transformed the squad before the start of the 2013/14 season. He brought in more defensive steel with the additions of Barry Fuller and Andy Frampton, as well as the permanent capture of midfielder George Francomb. Wimbledon again fought hard to stay in League Two.
The following season Wimbledon finished fifteenth. There were notable Cup nights under Neal’s leadership as the Dons lost, rather unluckily, 2-1 to Liverpool in front of a global TV audience in the FA Cup third round. Neal’s side also reached the area quarter-finals of the Football League Trophy, going out to eventual winners Bristol City. Dannie Bulman proved to be a vital addition in midfield, while Bayo Akinfenwa made headlines up front.
The summer of 2015 was Neal’s most successful period in the transfer market as he strengthened in key areas. Jon Meades returned to the club on a permanent basis, former Millwall captain Paul Robinson added more leadership qualities to the backline, while Andy Barcham supplied pace and trickery on the wing. Up front Wimbledon now had four strikers that caused untold problems to opponents with their combination of skill, pace and strength, as Lyle Taylor and Tom Elliott bolstered the attacking presence of Akinfenwa and Ade Azeez.
From the beginning of April 2016, Neal led Wimbledon to an eight-game unbeaten run as the Dons evolved from relegation candidates to play-off contenders in less than four seasons. In the play-off semi final, Wimbledon fought their way past Accrington Stanley, 3-2 over two legs, to book a date at Wembley against Plymouth for a place in League One.
It was a proud moment for Neal,who was on the books at Wimbledon as a youngster when the Plough Lane club won the FA Cup against Liverpool in 1988. Twenty eight years on he led the Dons out at Wembley as manager, on a special day for the club, gaining promotion after a 2-0 victory.
Three further seasons in League One have since followed under Neal’s stewardship, including another trip to Wembley last season where The Dons restricted Spurs to hardly any sight of goal for over an hour, before bowing out in the third round of the FA Cup.
Adding to his legacy, Neal’s work as manager has also been to develop the club’s Academy talent into first-team players. Most recently, Neal has overseen the development of Will Nightingale, Toby Sibbick and last season’s League One Apprentice of the Year Anthony Hartigan.
Ahead of Wimbledon’s return to Plough Lane in 2020, Neal Ardley and his assistant Neil Cox have helped build foundations at AFC Wimbledon that will benefit the club for years to come.