Wednesday’s cup tie will mark the first meeting between Arsenal and AFC Wimbledon. The last time Arsenal played the original Wimbledon was back in 2000, with the Gunners winning the Premier League match 3 to 1. Coming into the match AFC Wimbledon had won four of their last five matches across competitions before dropping 1-0 to Plymouth Argyle at the weekend. They now sit in 7th place on 12 points, four behind league leaders Wigan and Sunderland.
In the last round Arsenal easily pushed past West Brom by the score of 6 to 0. Aubameyang led with a hat-trick plus goals from Pepe, Saka, & Lacazette. To reach the third round, Wimbledon first beat fellow League One side Charlton Athletic 1-0, before earning another 1-0 result in the second round on the road at League Two’s Northampton Town thanks to a 94th-minute winner.
For this Q&A with the opposition, and considering it’s the first time Arsenal have faced AFC Wimbledon, we’ve doubled up for this match, bringing in both Andy Silvester, City AM Editor and Wimbledon support, plus The 9 Years Podcast to discuss the club, its history, this season and the League Cup tie.
TSF: Having been formed in 2002, the club has quickly moved up the football pyramid, earning promotion into League One in 2016. Describe the journey from seeing the old Wimbledon move to joining the Combined Counties League to now pushing on towards a hopeful Championship promotion.
9YP: It's really difficult to explain the journey without you seeing it for itself. We started our Combined Counties League campaign in 2002/02 at Sandhurst Town with a 2-1 win in front of just under two and a half thousand fans. I celebrated Kevin Cooper’s opening goal standing on top of a haystack so I could get a better view.
The first season we had a 15-minute delay to our first home game against Chipstead because we had hundreds of fans unable to get in because we had just under five thousand fans in the ground. We had visits to Feltham where they had a roof, but it had burned down earlier in the season, went to Southall midweek and the most amazing curries were served and then went to Merstham when they made enough cheese rolls to feed the village.
Since then we have gained promotion through the non-league pyramid and regained our league status in 9 years which I pinch myself sometimes to actually realise that we achieved it in such a short period. The journey has been fun and I have seen Wimbledon play in every league from the Combined Counties to the Premier League.
AS: The last twenty years have been about as much fun as a football fan can have, despite how painful the start was. Nobody will ever forgive the decision to move the club in 2002, but the journey has been worth it.
TSF: Now nearly 20 years on from the move to Milton Keynes and the formation of AFC Wimbledon, the two clubs both find themselves in the third tier. How satisfying is it to watch Wimbledon climb back up the leagues, while MK hasn’t made any significant progress during that time?
AS: Make no mistake: the feelings of betrayal and anger that came from what happened in 2002 are still extremely raw. I still detest seeing us play against them - but other than chucking a fiver on whoever is playing them, I couldn’t care less about what they’re up to. As far as I’m concerned they’ve got no legitimacy, and I think most Wimbledon fans agree.
9YP: We don’t compare ourselves against any other club in the leagues. It's satisfying to see a club called Wimbledon to play in the London Borough of Merton, on a site that Wimbledon played on during the 20th Century. For the second time in our history, a team called Wimbledon progressed through the leagues and are a league club. I was only two years old when Wimbledon were elected into the football league back in 1977, yet I was able to see the second campaign and enjoy the experience.
TSF: After a long wait Wimbledon finally got to play in the new Plough Lane for the first time last year. How has it been finally getting to see the team in the new ground and what has the atmosphere been like?
9YP: Since gaining permission in 2017 to build on Plough Lane, we have had many challenges such as it being called in for a review by the London Mayor, difficulty funding the stadium and then the pandemic delaying crowds returning. The opening game this season against Bolton Wanderers is a day I and everyone that attended will never forget. We built a ground that wasn’t too big for us, which is very important as it will never look half empty and we can build on the 3 temporary stands when we need to and we can afford to.
AS: The new ground is more than that - it’s our spiritual home. We went more than thirty years without a home game, and unsurprisingly, it still feels like a fairytale. Seeing kids walking through Wimbledon to Plough Lane in Dons kit is hugely satisfying and is a welcome tribute to the hard work of all those around the club who, since we left Plough Lane way back in 1992, have laboured to get us back where we belong.
TSF: We are already ten matches into the season for your side and they’ve only lost once so far (1-0 to Sunderland). What were your expectations for the club before the season started and now that you’ve had a chance to see how the squad has begun the year how well do you think they can do in League One?
AS: I thought we’d be mid-table or a little lower, but for the first time in a very long while I didn’t think we’d be relegation candidates. We finished last season strongly and though we lost 20-goal-a-year striker Joe Piggott, there was a feeling that some of the younger lads coming through the Academy were ready for the big time. As it turns out, we’re better than we thought, playing some really exciting, open football that’s a long way from the defensive dirge we’ve been watching for a few years. I’m not sure we’ll make it, but I think we’ll be in with a shot of the playoffs by the time the crunch comes at the end of the year.
9YP: My expectation every season has been to survive relegation and stay in League One. This season was the same but with the hope that Mark Robinson (Robbo) could continue where he left off last season. Robbo had changed the playing style and not only were we winning games, but we were playing very good football and changing the mentality of the team. This squad is one of the youngest in the league and I have no doubt we will have some bumps along the way, however, the fans trust Robbo and are excited by what’s we see on the pitch and can see that the future looks exciting. This squad has a connection with the fans and Robbo will only bring in the characters who can embrace and continue that, which means even if we lose, the fans are behind them and they have an environment where they can make mistakes and the fans will cheer them on regardless.
TSF: This summer Wimbledon added several players from Premier League academies, both on full deals and loans, how would you rate the summer transfer activity for the club?
9YP: Historically we have always brought loan players into the club and this is nothing new, but this season has felt different. We have a style of play and an environment that encourages Premier League clubs to send their young stars to our club. Robbo has built up a reputation for development in our Academy and has a passion for it and was able to sell that the clubs he made presentations at once last season had finished. Robbo is open to different ways of coaching and was able to encourage Chelsea to loan their academy coach, James Simmonds until Christmas and this was typical of the thinking Robbo has. Whilst we are on the doorsteps of many Premier League clubs, we never managed to build up the relationships we needed for them to send players to us, yet that has changed and we are going to benefit from this in future years.
Luke McCormick was many fans player of the season at Bristol Rovers last season, despite relegation, and to capture him permanently was brilliant. George Marsh joined us on a free transfer from Spurs and has looked good when he has had game time. Aaron Presley from Brentford on a season loan continues our good relationship with them. Pressley is developing all the time and has already scored a couple of goals this season. Dapo Mebude from Watford is an exciting loan and he has pace to burn and gives us the option of turning defences if we need to.
The most exciting loan is Henry Lawrence from Chelsea who was targeted by loads of clubs in the summer and it's been easy to see why. Can play either side as full-back, wing-back and is comfortable in midfield. Finally, our signing of the summer was Ayoub Assal on a new contract in the summer. He created the biggest buzz from last season and went from being a substitute at Shrewsbury in early March to one of the first names on the team sheet by the end of that season. He is exciting, tenacious and has a will to win that is in the Wimbledon mould.
AS: We lost some key players that we simply couldn’t afford as a small club, but Mark Robinson, the new boss, knows his way around the Academy scene and clearly has brought in some technically very good players. Henry Lawrence at right-back is a loanee from Chelsea who looks really top drawer, and midfielder Luke McCormick brings some quality to the attacking midfield.
TSF: Give us an idea of what the strengths and weaknesses are of this squad and how they’ve been playing so far this season?
9YP: Our strengths of this squad is its behaviour, mentality, and fitness levels. Our ability to come back from being behind in games has already shown that this squad is together and the fitness levels have shown the benefit in the last 20 minutes of games. We are a young team and learning on the job which means we make errors, like many younger players, but Robbo has created an environment for them to make errors, but learn from them and express themselves.
AS: We’re playing heart attack football that is fantastically open. We’ll be a bit over-ambitious at times playing out from the back and getting into trouble, but there’s a confidence we’ll score. Set pieces and the flanks going forward are a strength, wingers beating our marauding wingbacks is a weakness.
TSF: Which key players should Arsenal supporters keep an eye on?
AS: Ben Heneghan is a commanding centre back, Henry Lawrence is a technically very exciting player, and up top, the two Academy lads Jack Rudoni and Ayoub Assal have been terrorising League One defenders all year.
9YP: Difficult question as the squad is more important than the individual this season, but if I was going to pick some players, it would be Nik Tzanev between the sticks and our captain Alex Woodyard. Tzanev has waited patiently to get his chance in goal and is pivotal to the playing style we have. He is good with both feet and is a sweeper keeper who is able to help us retain possession and build up from the back. Woodyard is everywhere in midfield and is often the player who starts the aggressive press, wins the ball back and starts our attacks.
TSF: Manager Mark Robinson has been with the club nearly since its foundation but only took over the first team earlier this year. How would you rate his tenure since taking over and how has the fan base taken to his appointment?
9YP: I have been fortunate to know Robbo for many, many years as I would go down to the academy to watch our games and see the players coming through. I have never had any doubt that Robbo could do the job, however, he has made the transition to Head Coach seem easy. He has managed to change our playing style, mentality and recruitment in such a short space of time which is just ridiculous. The best quality Robbo has from a fan's perspective is his honesty. He understands what the fans want and in a culture of managers saying the same old things after games, Robbo has been a breath of fresh air. He has trusted the fans to be included in this journey and he is open, honest and straight with interviews. Everyone I talk to loves Robbo and it's simply because he has strengthened the relationship between the management team, players and fans. We are playing a brand of football that is exciting to watch and we have an identity that is easy to see and embrace.
AS: There was initial scepticism, especially when results didn’t turn around immediately. But I think now it’s a case of ‘In Robbo We Trust’. The guy’s got AFC Wimbledon in his blood but he’s not just using emotion to power us; the quality of technical analysis, the coaching, and the mental side of things are all streets ahead of where we were. He’ll go far.
TSF: What is your projected formation and lineup for AFC Wimbledon this weekend?
AS: I’d imagine we’ll play 4-2-3-1.
9YP: We don’t have one set formation and the players are comfortable in a 4-4-2, 3-5-2 or a 4-2-3-1. As we are a young team, we have rotated the starting line up regularly so that we don’t burn out the players as we have many who are playing their first season in league football.
TSF: And, finally, give us your prediction for the Cup tie.
9YP: My prediction is Arsenal fans will like this Wimbledon team and its style of football a lot more than the old Wimbledon. I expect us to give a good account of ourselves and hopefully manage to stay in the game as long as possible and take you to penalties.
AS: Arsenal should hammer us. But I fancy us to nick a goal, so we’ll go 3-1 to Arsenal. It’ll be nice to give Aaron Ramsdale, who spent six months on loan with us and became a club legend dancing in the stands away at Bradford when we stayed up on the last day of the 2019 season, a warm reception, too. England’s next number one.
Thanks to both the 9 Years Podcast and Andy Silvester for taking time to talk with us about AFC Wimbledon, their incredible journey from formation to league football, and the Cup tie this week.