Last night at Kingsmeadow, Wimbledon were beaten by a single deflected goal by Torquay United. It was, by all accounts, a scrappy game, with the home team looking almost chronic in their lack of self confidence, but it was also a match that marked the end of an era. At the full time whistle, manager Terry Brown made a tearful lap of the pitch. This, it turns out, has been the last match in charge for a manager that came to redefine the fortunes of this club in his five and a half years in charge of it. After an extremely slow start to the 2012/13 season, Wimbledon are in the market for a new manager.
At the end of the 2006/07 season, AFC Wimbledon seemed to have reached something of a crossroads. Beaten in the play-offs in the Ryman League Premier Division, the club was giving the impression of having stalled, but the appointment of Brown – a non-league journeyman who had previously enjoyed success at Aldershot Town and Hayes – was a canny one. Here was a manager with huge experience of the game at this level, a man with the contacts and respect amongst his peers to bring a different angle to the very difficult job of getting the club promoted from a twenty-four club division with only two promotion places on offer.
It could be argued that Brown cut things fine in his first season at Kingsmeadow. Out-muscled by Chelmsford City at the top of the table, Wimbledon finished his first season in third place, but after a win against AFC Hornchurch in the semi-finals of the play-offs his team found itself a goal down in the final, away to Staines Town, before two late goals from Luis Cumbers and Mark DeBolla sealed victory and promotion to the Blue Square Bet South. The cautious might have expected a season of consolidation at this new level, but Brown’s team seemed to find this league much more to their taste and Wimbledon finished the season as champions despite a tight finish which saw controversial goals both against – at Bromley – and for – at Hampton & Richmond Borough – leading to final match of the season against St Albans City, by which time they could only mathematically lose the title. It was an afternoon that became a coronation, with a comfortable win putting the icing on the cake of a thoroughly well deserved second successive promotion.
The Blue Square Bet Premier was a different matter, though, and the team fell away from a place in the play-offs to finish the season in eighth place. The following season, however, Brown took his team to a head-to-head battle with the financially plumpened Crawley Town. The clubs comparatively meagre resources meant that Crawley ended up winning the title comfortably, but after a thrashing of Fleetwood Town over two legs in the semi-final, the summit of his achievements with the club was reached with a penalty shoot-out win against Luton Town at the City of Manchester Stadium after a goalless draw in the play-off final. Just nine years after the clubs formation, and off the back of three promotions in four years, Wimbledon was a Football League club again.
This was the most romantic football story of 2011, but romance can only take a club so far in modern football and after an encouraging start to life in League Two the club slumped after Christmas to finish in fifteenth place in the final table. More troubling still, a lethargic summer meant that Brown’s capability at this level was now being called into question. He could hack it in non-league football, but his idealism seemed out of kilter with the ruthless bottom division of the Football League. This season started with a home win against Chesterfield, but form since then has been poor and successive home defeats at the hands of Rochdale and Torquay United have proved too much for the club to bear. By the end, his team was playing with such a lack of confidence that a change of manager became something of an inevitability, but none of this can mask a feeling of despondency hanging over the club today. This is a managerial replacement of which the defining characteristic is sadness rather than anger.
Yet Brown himself will be able to look back upon the last five and a half years with considerable pride. The back of a cigarette packet economics which arrive at the conclusion that ‘biggest crowds must necessarily equal promotion’ are always flawed, and in the Ryman League his team was up against a Chelmsford City side that wasn’t short of money. In the Blue Square Premier, winning promotion in only the clubs second season in the division and without a bottomless pit of money being available was a massive achievement, and one that should never be understated. And regardless of todays events or the disappointments of the last nine or ten months or so, that is something that can never be taken away from him. His place in the story of this club is assured in perpetuity for what he did achieve in his five and a half years with the club.
Terry Browns shortcomings were shown up in the Football League. But this, in the fulness of time, will be unlikely to make up the lions share of how he is remembered amongst supporters of the club. He brought in players such as Danny Kedwell and Jon Main, who will long be remembered as being critical components of a team that exceeded most peoples expectations. He took the club to three promotions, gave them those afternoons at Staines Town and The City of Manchester Stadium, and just as no-one can ever take those days away from the supporters of AFC Wimbledon, neither can anyone take those achievements away from Terry Brown. He will, in all likelihood, be back in the non-league game, and non-league football has, over the years, been pretty good to him. The new Wimbledon manager, whoever that will be, will arrive at a club on the cusp of its first relegation battle. If, by the time he leaves Kingsmeadow, this new manager has achieved half of what Terry Brown managed at this club during his time there, then he too will be able to look back on a job well done.
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