Paul Robinson said it was Neal Ardley’s persistence that led him towards Wimbledon and a debut season with the Dons that will never be forgotten by our supporters.
Having only signed a contract with Portsmouth in January 2015, Robbo was fully expecting to spend the 2015/16 season at Fratton Park, but then Pompey manager Paul Cook had other ideas, and Neal swooped to bring in his former Millwall team-mate just a week before the start of our promotion-winning season.
Previous attempts to lure Robbo here had hit the buffers, but Neal was rewarded for his efforts as the centre-back made vital contributions at both ends of the pitch. As well as forming a formidable centre-back partnership with Darius Charles, Robbo scored important winning goals against Carlisle and Crawley during Wimbledon’s relentless promotion surge. Robbo left us in 2018 after making 120 Dons appearances in three seasons and he hung up his boots last year after a spell with Havant & Waterlooville.
As part of our ‘Catching up’ series with former Wimbledon players, we talked to Robbo about the glory days and asked him about his coaching career, which has taken him back to his old club Millwall.
Take a look below at part one of our Q&A with Robbo.
How did your move to Wimbledon come about?
“Paul Cook arrived as the new manager at Portsmouth and it just felt like he didn’t really want any of the players who had been there the season before. I think he felt that the club needed a fresh start, so he attempted to bring in plenty of new players. Even players who had done well for Portsmouth, including me and Tubbsy, who had scored goals, were not really wanted. I got a Player of the Season award and even though the team had not delivered, I felt I had played well. I enjoyed my time at Portsmouth, but it felt different for me when the new manager came in.
“Neal Ardley had been chasing me for a long time - for probably six to nine months really. He had tried to sign me in the January, but I signed permanently for Portsmouth. I opted to join Pompey and then earlier in the summer I almost signed for Wimbledon, but I wanted to give Portsmouth another chance. I had moved nearer to Portsmouth and I wanted to give it a good go, but it was pretty clear towards the end of pre-season that the writing was on the wall for me. Thankfully, the opportunity to join Wimbledon was still there. As it turned out, it was the best thing for me.”
In a recent Zoom chat with our academy players, Darius Charles said that, although he didn’t sign for us until March 2016, the lads told him that the Christmas party played a big part in turning things around. Was that a turning point?
“I think so. Up until Christmas we felt that we had under-achieved with the group of players we had and the talent in the squad. We felt that we should have been higher in the table after the first half of the season. The Christmas party did bring us closer together, it was a really good time for us as a group. I think it was a turning point, both on and off the pitch. It bonded us closer together as a group of lads and in the second half of the season we really clicked – we didn’t look back.”
Do you think it was also the case that a squad containing new players had taken time to gel?
“There were a few new additions, including myself, and it took us a while. The manager was trying to find the right formations. He was trying to get Lyle up to speed because he had endured a bit of a disrupted pre-season. The manager was also trying to fit Lyle, Bayo, and Tom Elliott into the team at times. We started with three up front and that changed over a period of time. In the second half of the season the four strikers we had - Ade Azeez was also in the mix - all made significant contributions. Often two would start and the other two would come on when opposition defences were getting tired.
“We started the season with a 3-4-3, the manager was keen to play that, but we couldn’t really get it to work consistently as a group, so that changed. At half-time in the Crawley match we switched to four at the back and we won the match due to our second-half performance. That meant that we ditched the 3-4-3 formation. As a group, we then went from strength to strength as the season progressed and the amount of clean sheets that we kept during the run-in made us tough to beat. We felt really confident going into the play-offs.”
Your speech at the end of season presentation a week before Wembley included Conor McGregor’s ‘We're not just here to take part — we're here to take over’ quote. Do you still look back and laugh at that?
“It does still make me laugh. A few of the lads, led by Callum Kennedy, loved Conor McGregor and it was a quote he used. It just felt right that I used it in my speech! Luckily, it all worked out as we went on to back it up with our actions on the pitch.
“I am still in touch with a lot of the players from that squad. We still have a What’s App group and we are in touch quite regularly. It was a great group of lads. That 24 hours was pretty amazing for us: winning at Wembley and then flying out to Las Vegas to celebrate! That would be a pretty special spell in anyone's life.”
We recently put up on our social media channels about your inclusion in Wimbledon’s team of the decade. What did that mean to you and to be remembered in that way by our fans?
“It’s brilliant. The whole feel about the football club during my time there made it great to be a part of. Everyone mixes well together - the fans have a close relationship with the players. When I was at the club everyone was pulling in the same direction and I think that collective effort is why AFC Wimbledon has over-achieved. Who knows how far the club can go?”
Winning at Wembley and playing a key part in the AFC Wimbledon story, where does it rank in terms of your career achievements?
“It’s right up there in terms of what I experienced in my career. When you get a bit older you savour it more than earlier in your career. To go back to Wembley and experience winning there again, helping AFC Wimbledon to continue on a special journey, and to leave that legacy as a group of players, was fantastic. For AFC Wimbledon, it meant so much to the fans because of the club’s history and the progress it had made since starting again. To have that day at Wembley was incredible.”
The power of the front four during the promotion season has been well documented, but there was also good cover at centre-back with youngsters Ryan Sweeney and Will Nightingale, plus Karleigh Osborne. How important was strength in depth to the team’s success?
“It was a real squad effort. ‘Sweens’ came in and did really well when Karleigh got injured and that was also a shrewd move by the manager. With young players it can catch up with them a little bit after they make breakthroughs and we brought in Darius. We immediately hit it off and we formed a really solid centre-back partnership, but it was a real squad effort throughout the season. It was brilliant for us that we had four quality strikers who all brought different strengths and attributes. They all had really good quality. When we were struggling after 70 minutes and Bayo and Ade Azeez came on, or Tom Elliott and Lyle, I always felt we had a chance if we could stay in the game. The opposition would struggle to deal with their qualities later in the game, particularly with that freshness they had.”
Did you enjoy that aspect of helping young players in that squad to progress in their careers?
“It was brilliant to see players like Will and Ryan coming through and that was an enjoyable part of my role too. I would give the young lads guidance and bits of advice. I would try to set an example for them, so that they could progress in their own careers. Hopefully, Will can get to grips with the injury situation because I always felt that he had a really bright future. I said to him that he was a much better player than I was at that age. I told him that he had a great chance of carving out a good career for himself. It’s no surprise to me to see Will captain Wimbledon and he’s done well when he’s been fit. Will leads by example: he trains hard, he’s a fit lad, and he wants to win. He cares deeply about the club and has all the attributes that any fan of Wimbledon would want with one of their players.”
How is your coaching career going at Millwall?
“I was combining playing at Havant & Waterlooville with coaching at Portsmouth, but the opportunity came up at Millwall last summer with the Under-23s. I had packed in playing last summer as my knees had gone, so it was perfect timing when the chance came to join Millwall again. I’ve been there for this season and it’s ideal for me. It’s been good, though a little strange being a new person at a place I know so well! I have been working alongside Kevin Nugent and he’s been excellent. He has taught me a lot and been a very good person to learn off. It’s been a really good learning curve for me.”
Neal Ardley said in a recent interview that he fully expects you to be a manager one day. Is that a big target for you?
“I’d like to think so. Moving forward, that’s definitely the path I’m looking at. I’m just trying to put the years in now to make sure that when the opportunity comes along I am ready to do the best job possible.”
You can hear more from Robbo this Friday morning by tuning into the 9yrspodcast, a channel run by a group of our fans, which has featured several interesting chats with Wimbledon stars past and present during lockdown.