Raw, revealing, at times excruciatingly tough - but brutally honest and frank.
Our fans’ forum certainly pulled no punches last week when our Club executives took part in a Q&A with supporters, who demanded explanations following a disappointing League Two season - one that left everyone at the Club feeling disappointed and deflated.
In difficult times, Wimbledon fans have always come together to challenge the Club and have frank conversations. The event was planned and promoted as being ‘web highlights only’ so participants could say absolutely anything, without the Club projecting the dialogue to the rest of the football world.
In a normal week, we would have issued this summary sooner but have been focussing on completing the season, ongoing conversations around the squad for next season, and giving people a rest over the long holiday.
As promised, we have already posted ‘highlights’ but understandably, some fans who didn’t attend wanted a more thorough update from the event.
The meeting itself lasted at least two hours and reproducing every word now would involve a lot of unnecessary repetition.
Below is a full report of the meeting therefore, with some comments summarised and paraphrased. Some of the quotes have been combined to make it an easier read.
The forum was split into two halves. The Club’s invitation for fans to send in their questions proved extremely popular, so to make the most of the time, the speakers answered as many questions as possible within prepared opening statements.
The second half of the meeting was an open house, when those present could ask anything they wanted.
The panel comprised our First-Team Manager Johnnie Jackson, Chair Mick Buckley, Head of Football Operations Craig Cope, Managing Director Danny Macklin and Academy Manager Michael Hamilton.
Opening the first half, Mick spoke openly on behalf of the PLC board to explain the Board’s decision to stick with Johnnie as manager, our playing budget for next season, the Club’s debt, and the financial realities of life at Plough Lane.
Getting straight to the number one topic for most fans, Mick began: “Many of the questions sent in wanted to know why we decided to keep Johnnie.
“Four and a half years ago, Neal Ardley was in charge. Since then, we have had four managers and that doesn’t include Simon Bassey or Mark Bowen.
“Every time one of those managers left, it not only cost the Club a lot of money, but as importantly, a lot of important learning left the building. These earnings and learnings leaving the Club have not been helpful.
“The Board looked at the League Two clubs that changed their manager this past season. Rochdale were bottom in March, they sacked Jim Bentley and finished bottom. Hartlepool were third bottom in February, sacked Keith Curle and finished second bottom. Crawley were third bottom in October, sacked Kevin Betsy, then sacked Matthew Etherington after 32 days and still finished third bottom. The Board noted several other League Two clubs had changed their manager with little change in their fortunes."
Statistically, changing your manager has little impact if other areas of the Club are not working as well as they should be. (That’s why we appointed Danny Macklin to increase our revenues and Craig Cope to fully focus on recruitment and training ground operations).
The Board looked at what successful League Two clubs do.
“If you look at the top seven clubs over the last three seasons in League Two, 17 out of 21 clubs had their manager in place at this point in the previous season. They had someone who had got to know the Club and its culture, someone who knew their training ground and how it operated, knew how to make the Club work.”
Mick reminded the forum that Johnnie had been the top candidate in the recruitment process and came highly recommended by respected figures in the game. He was desperate to work with us to rebuild after relegation and was able to fit within our budget.
Most Charlton fans were upset he left, and most Wimbledon fans were excited by his arrival. He arrived late, with most of his squad contracted.
In his first transfer window, with limited flexibility, he bought Alex Pearce, Josh Davison and Harry Pell as permanent signings and added good loans, which included the arrivals of Paris Maghoma and Ryley Towler. During pre-season he showed willingness to work with the Club to manage players at the training ground who wanted to leave, which helped us to maximise their value.
Mick added: “Our first nine games were not very impressive in terms of points gained. Johnnie spoke to the football people who advise our club, he spoke to the board, he got feedback and he changed the style of play. We went to Bradford and were very unlucky not to get three points. That started a run of 18 games when we had a full squad, no injuries, and got 31 points. That was play-off form with an average of 1.72 points per game.
“We then went to Orient at the beginning of February and Huseyin Biler got injured. Then, after respectable draws with Northampton and Carlisle, the wheels came off. We had lost Assal, Towler and Paris, then Pearce got injured and we suffered a long run of key injuries.
“The Board noticed that Johnnie had sought and been responsive to feedback. He had delivered play-off form and, most importantly, he had demonstrated a lot of AFC Wimbledon traits."
In answer to a couple of questions, I talk to him on behalf of the board most days, meet him at least twice a week and he works relentlessly. (For additional info, Johnnie also attends monthly board meetings).
“He shares our values of resilience and togetherness and he’s desperate for success.”
Mick went on to sum-up the PLC Board’s thinking.
Changing a manager is not always the answer as demonstrated by lots of other clubs. The clubs who succeed in League Two have their manager in place by now, and the current manager demonstrated he could achieve play-off form with a full squad. We need to focus on recruitment and keeping our players fit and Craig Cope will talk more about that later.
He also said that when the Club has done everything to provide the resources and environment to succeed, all of our senior leadership would in turn be expected to deliver results and would be held accountable if they didn’t.
Mick then talked about our club’s finances and, after confirming we are on track to deliver our break-even budget operationally, he told the forum: “We have a debt of £10million and pay £400,000 in interest every year. In April 2025, we have to repay £3.5m to our bondholders.
“We are not competing on a level playing field. When all the numbers are crunched and done for this financial year, I think we will see the average club in League Two will lose around £1m-plus. We won’t because we are breaking even and paying £400k in interest. But you could take a view that we start £1.4m behind all the others. It’s not quite that simple as we are able to monetise our unique story and ownership structure but need to do that more."
Many fans wanted to know whether next season’s playing budget would be improved – and whether we can expect to be promoted.
Mick responded: “When we looked at the last 10 years, out of the 33 different clubs relegated from League One, 19 made it back. One in four did that in the first year but, on average, it has taken clubs three years, some longer.
“I want to go into next year thinking we are really going to give it a go. We want to do as well as we can, but the reality is we also want to keep the company solvent.
“As a fan, I’d rather give all the money to Johnnie, but the reality is, we must balance things. We will get as much money as we can into the budget, of course, and there have been some unexpected bonuses. We sold Assal for more than we expected, so some of that will go into next season’s pot.
“Plus, we can further benefit if any of the players we have previously let go move on to bigger clubs. Yes, we want to put as much as we can into the playing budget but we also need to take the debt seriously – not least because a lot of the people we owe are the loyal fans who bought the Plough Lane Bond.”
At this stage, one supporter made his views clear.
“We want success and yet we are miles away from it. This season has been a disaster, the players are gutless, weak-willed and a disgrace to the shirt. It’s disgusted me.”
Johnnie admitted the season had imploded after key loan signings were recalled in January and then we suffered a string of devastating injuries. He candidly said: “The hurt and suffering can’t be for nothing. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the tougher moments and how you deal with it and I’ve learned about the players, the squad, this league, and what it requires, and the opposition we come across.
“All I know is that there’s a big summer ahead. Recruitment is the most crucial part. We didn’t get it right last summer - or in January - but we are in a much better position now. I can’t be sat here in three months saying we have loads of injuries; we will put things in place to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
One fan asked Johnnie whether his touchline style during games reflected his commitment to get results? The supporter was also not impressed by the demeanour of the players at the hotel in Harrogate and noted that Johnnie hadn’t greeted her in the hotel.
Again, Johnnie answered frankly, saying: “I take it on board. I would say, though, that I’m completely invested in this football club. Whether you believe it or not, after a defeat on a Saturday night I don’t think there’s anyone who feels worse than I do.
“I’m passionate about the opportunity I’ve been given here and very grateful for it. Giving you guys what you deserve means everything to me. Perhaps I don’t show that on the touchline, but I certainly take it home with me and try to improve for the next time. I hope you believe that.
“And I apologise for not having a chat with you. I’m not a rude person.”
Another fan asked Johnnie “what mistakes do you wish you could rectify if you could start over again?”
He replied: “The most obvious is the style of play we implemented at the start of the season. I thought we could make it work in League Two but the ingredients weren’t there. Perhaps some of the stuff I was asking certain players to do wasn’t correct for them. If I’d carried on, I probably wouldn’t be sat here now. Recognising that was very important; once we changed our style of play, we became a good, strong team and very difficult to beat.
“I also learned a lot about the physical make-up of the division. The best teams, and the profile of their players, was something we lacked at times and we will be addressing that in the summer.
“Also, we will look at how we structure our loans so that we don’t lose key players in January. We will have to use the loan market, but in a way that doesn’t have such a determinable impact and rip the heart out of our team.”
Our Head of Football Operations, Craig Cope, made it clear that recruitment – and transforming our training facilities – were top priorities. And he promised some tough decisions would be made about players during the forthcoming summer months.
“This summer will be tough and hard and we will right some of the wrongs that have happened this season,” he vowed.
“Recruitment is what we have to get right and we are now putting in a structure to make sure we get the right sort of players and can build a team that is more reflective of what the fans expect to see.
“Everyone here wants to see a committed team going out on that pitch every week, representing the badge and the Club and that’s what we are working towards. A style of play has been defined to reflect what we feel this club is all about.
“We have changed areas we feel need improving. Each player will be inducted thoroughly into the Club and its history and our community engagement will be improved.
“The level of injuries over the past two years has been disappointing and there are structures we can put in place that can make a massive impact so we can keep our money on the pitch - and not sat in the stands.”
Managing Director Danny Macklin expanded on this and added: “The training ground is broken, it’s not fit for purpose, the players eat in a pub and the gym’s not good enough. We are addressing all of that.”
Last Sunday’s Player of the Year Awards night was another topic fans were determined to debate. Many had been angered by the behaviour of some first-team players and one supporter, Craig, got a round of applause after telling the forum: “Why weren’t they asked to leave or told to shut up when people on the stage were trying to be heard?
“Chatting between courses and not returning to their tables just showed a lack of leadership. They saw it as a big party, they were misguided and misinformed on how to behave and we had to witness their oafish behaviour. It was disgraceful and we all deserved more.”
Once again, Johnnie answered the complaint full on and said: “I couldn’t agree more. We were all appalled by a lot of the behaviour. We recognise it wasn’t right in any shape or form, or in line with the values of this club. Certain people have been reprimanded but we are looking to make amends via charitable work and donations to remind the squad of their responsibilities.
“It was well short of what was expected, the players recognise that now, they are very apologetic and keen to make up for it. We don’t condone it in any shape or form.”
And Craig Cope added: “I did not like what I saw. When I say we want to put out a team that you guys can be proud of, that wasn’t it.”
The second half was even spicier than the first, with the panel facing questions from the room itself. One supporter, Mike, jumped straight in by asking Johnnie directly: “Did you apply for the Oxford United manager’s job?”
The reply was instantaneous and emphatic: “No, I was as shocked as you to see my name linked to it. I didn’t apply for it.”
Mike then asked whether the transfer budget had been cut back in January when we lost so many loan players. Johnnie replied: “Our budget was the same but because we lost so many players, we had to spread it thinner than we had expected. In fact, we did get an extra 12 per cent from the Board because of all the outgoings.”
Another fan, Gary, asked: “how will we sell the club to new players over the summer?”
Craig answered that one, saying: “We want players who we feel can fit our style of football so we can say to them ‘come to us and we will play to your strengths’.
“The story of what they can represent by coming here is another big thing. My latest tactic has been to say we have the nicest stadium in League Two in London - and 15 scouts coming to sit in our posh seats every game!
“There are loads of ways for this club to attract players: the location - we are in good part of London – the manager, our fan base, our history and our stadium.
“Our training facility needs more work but once we get that right we can be even more proactive in our recruitment.”
Another fan asked “shouldn’t we be spending less on developing the stadium and trying to get as much as we can into the playing budget instead?”
Mick replied, saying: “We need to get as much as we can into the budget, but we also need to get our stadium facilities to a state whereby we can use them to raise more revenue for the future.
“Danny and his team are building a business plan to grow our revenues significantly. The room we are sat in (Silver Lounge) can stage major events but the sound system needs improving first. The money for that will come from a separate capital expenditure pot, so it doesn’t impact the playing budget.”
And Danny explained that money from the EFL will also help finance improvements at the training ground.
The forum then heard from Oliver, who pointed out we have dropped 79 points in the last two seasons from winning positions. “What are we going to do to sort that out?,” he demanded to know, while another fan insisted that “we dropped more points from winning positions this season than we did last.”
Johnnie explained that the squad’s lack of depth, particularly after January, was pivotal. “Too often we finished games weaker than when we started them,” he maintained. “We didn’t have enough options on the bench, so we left on inexperienced players in pressure moments - and that told.
“The solution is to get our recruitment right so we can be confident that we can make changes from the bench that will make us stronger. We must be better at game management situations as well. We want to be in a position when we can turn around and send on someone that we feel is more than capable of seeing the game through. Too often, we didn't have that luxury.”
That prompted another fan, Peter, to remark: “There’s a lot of pressure on you then, Craig,” and to much laughter, he added: “You said we will recruit players who fit our style of play – so could we please have a keeper who can kick high and wide, a centre back above 6ft 5ins, a midfielder who will run and track back and doesn’t look injured - and a centre forward who can time his jumps to head the ball properly. Shouldn’t be too difficult!”
Our new Chief Scout, Club legend Andy Thorn, then made a guest appearance and said: “I think you will be surprised in the summer. There comes a time when you must be ruthless, and that time has come. When you say what we need, we are fully aware of that.”
Craig added: “We want strong athletes, players who are good on the ball and put it in the right areas, players who can come off that pitch not limping but having given everything out there. It might be corny, but it does come down to attitude and character. That’s what we are looking for next season.”
Johnnie then gave a photofit of his ideal recruits. “Players who have had success at the level and know what winning looks like. That will be one of the key components of our recruitment strategy.
“Guys who have tasted promotion, who have been part of winning teams and changing rooms and know what it takes to get over the line in certain games. I think the make-up of our squad hasn’t had that.
“As coaches, and as a team, we need to do more scenario training. We’ve probably been guilty of not addressing how to play out certain situations in a game. But we can learn and get in front of it before it happens next time.
“Hopefully, we will be 2-0 up on the opening day of the new season and we will know how to protect those three points because we will have rehearsed the scenario in training and we will have the players who have been in that situation before. We want to be a team that puts the opposition to the sword.
“We were all disappointed with how this season turned out. You, the fans, are the heartbeat of this club: you come here and fill the place out, despite the results.
“We know there has been a lot of pain and suffering but every one of us is dedicated to giving you the team you deserve. We will work tirelessly in the summer to get it right and to learn the lessons. We will make next season something special because you guys deserve that.”
"Finally, one fan, vented his anger at the PLC Board. “The problems are far deeper than who’s in the dugout,” he said. “When can we, as fans, expect some culpability and accountability from the Board? It’s all very faceless and you only address the fans when the horse has bolted. The managers are the fall guys, but serious questions need to be asked of you guys.”
Mick agreed that a lot of attention and energy had been concentrated on completing the stadium and the move back to Plough Lane. “We, as a club, were very focussed on the stadium and therefore not as focused as we might have been on things like the training ground. We can all take responsibility for that,” he said.
“Now we must work hard on making the stadium work harder for us so we can put more money into the playing budget and be more competitive as a club. We need to equip our management team with the tools they need to go out and get the results we all expect to see.”
The meeting ended and many attendees continued discussions with the panel members at the silver lounge bar.
An ongoing theme in recent weeks, (including a few questions sent in before the Fans' Forum), focussed on our ability or willingness to communicate with fans on an ongoing basis throughout the season. The Club has tried to provide regular updates but is clearly not ‘hitting the mark’.
The Club will commission a review of its communications strategy and tactics over the summer. This will be a combination of focus groups with fans and an external audit/viewpoint. We want to meet our fans' expectations on this and other related areas and more on this will be shared at a later point.