BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Johnnie Jackson has been in football long enough to know that success on the pitch – relative to resources – is always the way that any manager gets judged.
And it is why the 39-year-old, appointed AFC Wimbledon manager on Monday afternoon, is determined to get the make-up of his squad right so that they can make a serious push for regaining League One status at the first attempt.
If things had played out differently then Jackson would have been plotting how to gear Charlton Athletic up for challenging at the top end of England’s third tier in the 2022-23 campaign.
But Addicks owner Thomas Sandgaard’s call not to retain his services means instead the Valley fans’ favourite is now sizing up how to reinvigorate the Dons, whose horrific form since early December saw them suffer a first relegation since the club was formed in 2002.
Predecessor Mark Bowen, who has just become head of football operations at Reading, claimed Wimbledon should be one of the favourites for promotion.
Jackson won the League One title as a player in 2012 with Charlton. And he was Lee Bowyer’s assistant boss when the SE7 outfit beat Sunderland in the play-off final in 2019 to reach the Championship.
So is it fair to expect almost instant success when Jackson is bedding into new surroundings?
“It has to be the aim,” he said. “I’m ambitious and the club are ambitious. I wouldn’t have taken the job just to get in work and go and settle.
“I honestly don’t think we’re one of the favourites for promotion and we won’t have the biggest budget in the league. We won’t have the smallest but it certainly won’t be the biggest, or anywhere near the top. But, at the same time, we have to be ambitious. It is my job to push the people above me and below to get the best possible outcome that we can. For me that would be promotion.”
AFC Wimbledon had one of the youngest squads in England’s top four leagues with head coach Mark Robinson a keen advocate of blooding talent.
But he paid a heavy price for the Dons being unable to arrest their slide, leaving his post in late March.
The reality of relegation is that Jack Rudoni is set to move on. And there are also questions marks over the future of Ayoub Assal, another of their promising talents.
“We’ve got to get the right blend,” said Jackson, whose decision to blood Mason Burstow in the 2020-21 season led to Chelsea signing the 18-year-old forward in January.
“We’re a developing club and I’ve always given young players an opportunity, that’s a big part of my mantra. That works in regards to the fit to AFC because they are going to develop young players and some are going to move on. That’s always going to be the case.
“But, at the same time, I’ve come in to win. I’ve come in with ambition – and so have the club. We want to bounce back at the first attempt. So it’s getting that fine balance of giving opportunities to young players and getting some experience on the pitch as well.
“You don’t want a team where you don’t give any opportunities to young players but, at the same time, you don’t want a team which is all young players and you’re not picking up results.
“I have to win, I have to develop, I have to give pathways and opportunities and find a way to do it while I get results as well.”
Wimbledon are without a win in 28 matches in all competitions. While they drew at home with MK and Wycombe, who both made the play-offs, they claimed just four points from a possible 36.
Jackson is confident that there will not be any after-effects from an extended run of disastrous form.
“It’s a reset for the whole football club,” he said. “They realise that mistakes have been made. Relegation has happened and there is nothing you can do about it now.
“There is still a huge positivity around the place and a huge buzz now that a new management team has come in. There will be fresh faces coming in. There will be a turnaround in players, not wholesale but there will be a freshness. And there needs to be, because of what’s gone on before.
“Everyone is keen to freshen the place up so that when we do come back for the first day of pre-season it looks and feels different to what has gone on before. That’s my job.
“There won’t be a hangover, it’s just a new opportunity for the club to move forward again.”
It is also a fresh chapter for Jackson. Since 2010, right up until May 3 this year, his footballing life had been Charlton.
“I was excited by the challenge here – everything was aligned in what I wanted to do,” he said. “It’s a great story, the formation of the club and how quickly they have moved in such a short space of time, culminating in a brand new stadium. The support is brilliant.
“It’s a change of scenery. Yeah, I’ve had a wonderful affiliation with a football club and loved every minute of that. But nothing lasts forever, does it? Twelve great years there but it is time for something new. This is a great opportunity.
“I want to make new affiliations, make new memories and have new successes.
“Plough Lane is a really impressive stadium considering how short they set the goals to get back to Wimbledon. They built a really nice stadium in the process.
“The support they get is fantastic, it was pretty much sold out last season despite not having a lot of success on the pitch. It was a big factor in my decision.
“We need to make that place a real cauldron, a really difficult place for teams to come next season.”
PICTURES: IAN STEPHEN
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