By Charlie Bennett
The Crazy Gang were renowned for catching the unaware off-guard – and Will Nightingale is using that old spirit to plot the ultimate prank on AFC Wimbledon’s relegation rivals.
Seemingly dead and buried at the turn of the year, the Dons, second-bottom at the time, turned to Wally Downes – often cited as the godfather of that infamous Wimbledon side of the 80s and 90s – in December.
And, thanks to a run of six wins from nine games through February and March, they have added some intense heat to the spiciest relegation battle in the Football League.
Eleven sides currently sit within six points of each other in the bottom half of the table, with AFC Wimbledon’s resurgence causing panic above. Once seemingly condemned to League Two, the South Londoners now occupy the final relegation spot and have a fighting chance of staying up.
At the heart of that is Nightingale. The 23-year-old centre-half from Wandsworth bleeds yellow and blue and Downes installed him as captain in the absence of the injured Deji Oshilaja.
“I can relate to Wally,” he said. “He is a Wimbledon boy through and through and he knows the club. He was part of the Crazy Gang and was part of that true spirit.
“I am trying to learn from him every day and he has been at some top clubs. He has had a big benefit on my career because he has instilled some confidence back into me.
“There is a bit of that old spirit here. It has not been intentional but, naturally, the aura and the way they look at things and think has rubbed off.
“We are aware of who we are up against but it is about us and bringing everything. We have the belief to win every game, as we showed against West Ham in the FA Cup. We don’t care who we play.”
Although the whole club has enjoyed a transformation in recent weeks, there is still a sense of regret that they find themselves in this predicament.
Neal Ardley was the third-longest serving manager in the top four divisions when he was axed by the Dons in November, with the club 23rd in the table.
And Nightingale insists they should be safely in mid-table, not battling the drop.
“We started off okay and had three clean sheets but we got on a run and lost by the odd goal, had a decision or two which went against us, and we were hung up on it,” said the Dons defender.
“We got into a bad spiral and there is nothing worse than bad habits. The main thing is the result and the score at 90 minutes.
“It has been a crazy turnaround. Just the general buzz around the place is huge now but we are trying not to get carried away because we know we have a huge job to do.
“We have only done half of it by giving ourselves a chance of saving our season. We all knew we were underachieving and I think the last few weeks proves that there was always a lot more here.”
Even if the Dons do go down, Nightingale will be there next year. The centre-half joined the club when he was eight and the club were in a very different place.
He said: “I have thrived on being captain and that’s because the club means so much to me.
“I have been at the club since I was eight and I know so many people. They were way down in the Combined Counties League then and it was their second-ever season.
“I am the last one from all the age groups. I am the only one who has stuck it out.”