How Jackson healed 'scars' to turn the tide at AFC Wimbledon

How Jackson healed 'scars' to turn the tide at AFC Wimbledon

Last season heralded a new era for AFC Wimbledon.

Nineteen years after the club was formed from the ashes of its tragic predecessor, loyal Dons supporters were finally welcomed back to their spiritual home at Plough Lane, where a new 9,000-seater stadium had been built, though lain empty for a season due to Covid restrictions.

It should have been a dream return. Without fans in attendance, they had finished just four points above the relegation zone, so vocal backing could help even just that extra one per cent, couldn’t it?

A reasonable return of three wins and three draws from the first seven had Wimbledon in fourth in Sky Bet League One and unbeaten at home by mid-September.

AFC Wimbledon are back in League Two this term after six seasons in League One

But the form spiralled thereafter, and the dream, quite frankly, turned into a nightmare.

They were eventually relegated after six seasons in the third tier having, astonishingly, failed to win a single one of their final 27 league matches.

Former Wales international Mark Bowen had overseen the final month of the campaign after signing a short-term deal to replace Mark Robinson at the end of March, but he left when that deal expired, and so fresh blood was needed to lead the way.

On May 16, Johnnie Jackson was appointed as the Dons’ new manager on a two-year deal, less than a fortnight after losing his job at Charlton, where he had spent 12 years as a player, assistant and manager.

AFC Wimbledon’s League One struggles

  • 2016/17 – 15th, eight points above bottom four
  • 2017/18 – 18th, three points above bottom four
  • 2018/19 – 20th, survived on goal difference alone
  • 2019/20 – 20th , season curtailed by Covid, survived by 0.06 PPG
  • 2020/21 – 19th – four points above bottom four
  • 2021/22 – 23rd, relegated three points from safety

He knew he had his work cut out from the word go in order to even attempt to heal the wounds of last term.

“I felt there were a lot of scars from last year,” Jackson explains in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports.

“The relegation and the long run without winning definitely played a part in some of the early season form and results. I felt like, at times, when we went behind or things didn’t quite go our way that you could feel a lot of tension and a lot of anxiety among the group and also in the stands.

“You have to remember that, since being back at Plough Lane, the Wimbledon supporters haven’t seen their team win often. When we were protecting a lead or trying to chase a goal, there was some anxiety that was palpable in the stadium.

“We needed to get over that hurdle as a club; we all needed to see that we could get through it and come out the other side winning. I think there was a hangover, but I’d like to thing we’re well past that now and looking forward.”

Jackson was appointed Dons manager, after 12 years at Charlton, in May

Turning the tide at a club is not straightforward. Take Huddersfield for example; since losing the Championship play-off final earlier this year, the Terriers have won just five of their 23 matches in all competitions.

But since an indifferent start this term, Jackson has begun to do just that. His side sit 12th in League Two going into Boxing Day’s visit of Newport, having lost just two of their last 10.

So how has he managed it?

Bringing in experienced players like Alex Pearce, Chris Gunter and Harry Pell was one of his first ports of call.

“When I came into the club, I looked at what had happened last season,” he says. “You look at the make-up of the squad and try and pinpoint the reasons for what happened and where you feel the deficiencies were.

“It just felt like they had a lot of bright young players, but just a really young squad. And it didn’t go great. So you’re looking at that and thinking perhaps in those tougher moments last season, if they’d have had experience on the pitch, it might have helped.

“It’s definitely something I highlighted that we needed as a group, bringing in more experience, just to help the younger ones. We’ve got some bright young talent, but you need a balance and to get that experience as well is so important.”

Quickly coming to terms with how to manage a wounded group helped, too.

“Positive reinforcement and giving them the room to breathe and to make mistakes and not be on them the minute that happens has helped to change their mentality, too, but it’s not an easy thing to do.

“I’ve had to take the pressure off the players a little bit with the way that we’ve played recently. We’ve had to adapt our style and I just felt that where we were at with results and as a group, I had to find a way of taking the pressure off the players.

“We made it a bit more black and white, with less grey areas and we’ve been a bit more pragmatic with our approach to what we do. We’re certainly seeing the benefits of that.”

The 40-year-old had previously worked as assistant to Lee Bowyer at The Valley

That leads in nicely to his philosophy as a manager.

Jackson played the final game of his 19-year career in May 2018 and, particularly at Charlton, played under more managers than you can shake a stick at.

With that experience under his belt, he knew from an early stage the sort of leader he wanted to be.

“You can get bogged down in styles of play and formations; everyone says they want to get it down and play attacking football, which I do, and we were doing that at the start of the season, but we weren’t picking up the results,” he adds.

“I think you have to be adaptable as a manager, look at what you’ve got at your disposal and find a way of playing with what you’ve got.

“I’m very much for my players. For me, it’s all about the group and creating a real good working environment, a place where lads look forward to coming in every day and want to be around each other. That team spirit can do remarkable things and carry you a long way.

AFC Wimbledon fans were finally permitted to attend games at the rebuilt Plough Lane stadium last season
AFC Wimbledon fans were finally permitted to attend games at the rebuilt Plough Lane stadium last season

“I think that’s been one of the successes of my tenure here so far, the environment that we’re creating around the place on the back of struggles previously for the players to flourish. All the teams that I’ve been successful in in the past have had that and the ones that have struggled haven’t, so that’s something I’m massive on.

“Chris Powell did that at Charlton. What Powelly did was create a really good environment for you to come in to work. He was a really good man-manager and knew how to get the best out of players. He knew when to put the arm round you and when to give you a kick up the backside.

“I had big success with him as a player and a lot of what I remember about him was the human element and how he made me feel, the confidence that he gave me. I always appreciated that and thought that, when I did go onto do it myself, it was something I’d take.”

Jackson is not a man who engages in the mind games of football, nor does he mince his words.

He is refreshingly straight-talking, particularly when discussing aims for the second half of the season, too.

“It [an immediate return to League One] has to be the target doesn’t it?” he says.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet League Two match between Swindon Town and Wimbledon

“I haven’t been given a target to get back to League One this season as such, but I think the club recognises it flirted with relegation a couple of times before it actually happened and there’s a brand new stadium to pay for.

“The club wants to be prudent and run in the right way and ensure it doesn’t get itself in difficulties. There are a lot of different priorities, one of them is that and success on the pitch always has to be a part of that.

“I’m an ambitious manager myself so I’m not just going to come in and say I’m happy to just plod along, consolidate and see what happens. I want us to get up and I want us to get up as quickly as possible, but that has to be within the realms of reality, budget and things like that.

“We’ve put ourselves within a stone’s throw of the play-offs and the next target is to get into those spots and see where it takes us. I’ve got ambitions personally and for the football club and that’s to get us up a division and see where it goes from there.”

With Jackson in charge, the Dons appear to be back on track.

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