Tranmere Rovers play their final home game of a disappointing 2023-24 campaign on Saturday afternoon, as Nigel Adkins’ side face Johnnie Jackson’s AFC Wimbledon. 

The Whites will be looking to build on from a good victory down in South Wales last time out as a brace from the ever impressive Robbie Apter ensured all three points were claimed against the struggling Newport County.

The tie brought centre-back Ben Hockenhull’s first ever league start for the club, two years into his time at Tranmere, as his loan at Southport was terminated with Jordan Turnbull, Josef Yarney and Tom Davies all on the treatment table. 

It was a good performance from the 22-year-old as he partnered up well with Jean Belehouan, who has also been placed down the pecking order.

It will be interesting to see whether the game will inspire Adkins to keep the pair at the club as he has revealed his plan to build a well balanced, tight-knit squad consisting of 22 outfield players and three keepers. 

Despite being placed eleventh, having won one of their last six, visitors AFC Wimbledon still have a very slim chance of claiming a play-off spot when the season ends next Saturday thus will be very much up for the game on the Wirral! 

Ahead of the game, I spoke to Chris Draper from The 9yrs Podcast.

Hi 9yrspodcast, when did you start supporting AFC Wimbledon and what was your first experience of the club like?

So for me (Chris, who does the Twitter updates), I started supporting Wimbledon in the early 90’s, since then I’ve worked for Wimbledon FC and volunteered for AFC Wimbledon – both me, my brother Nick and our mate Stu Stu Deacons (who present the podcast) were founder members of the Dons Trust – the owners of AFC Wimbledon – and have been here from the start. Nick now presents a show from the ground on match days, with Stu pitching in, as well as conducting stadium tours. I look after the match day mascot, Hayden the Womble. So we keep busy!

What have been some of your best and worst moments watching The Dons? Wimbledon reached the Football League in 2016, beating Luton Town in the Conference Play-Off Final, after being crowned Champions of the Conference South in 2009. 

Best moment: There have been a few! From WFC – Two Cup Semi Finals and a top ten Prem finish in ‘97. From AFCW – Promotion back to the EFL.

Lowest – The hellish relegation from the Premier League and the year that followed which resulted in the split. Whilst the eventual success of AFCW offsets the pain, it was the lowest moment I have ever felt as a football fan, when two of three panel members thought it was fine to move a club 70 miles away.

Could you tell us a little bit about your podcast? Why is it called 9yrs and what is some of the greatest content that you have produced?

It’s called 9yrs because that’s how long it took us to get back to the league from our rebirth. 

Nick and Stu created the podcast in time for the 2015/16 as there hadn’t been one up to then, and handily we got promoted that same year! 

They would be better placed to answer what some of the best podcasts have been but, probably, but at a guess, meeting and interviewing John Green (AFCW’s American Owner and part-time sponsor), various managers and players probably ranks highly. During lockdown, I was lucky enough to join in interviewing some ex-players from the WFC era as well. 

AFC Wimbledon is owned by The Dons Trust. What are your thoughts on the way the club is being run?

The Dons Trust owners model is working well for us and gives us the necessary safeguards against another MK situation, so I am very happy with that. It does put a glass ceiling over us, whilst we pay off our stadium (AFCW moved into Plough Lane in 2020), but it suits us.

Former Charlton Athletic boss Johnnie Jackson was appointed by Wimbledon in May 2022. What are your thoughts on the 41-year-old’s relationship with fans and his 4-4-2 playing style?

Johnnie comes across well and is good with the fans. He had a rough patch last season, but we stuck with him and that is paying dividends this year. The style is a less-rigid 442 and can be mixed up..we’ve certainly had to vary our style a little at times and it’s working so far.

Wimbledon avoided relegation to The National League last season, finishing 21st. This season, at the time of writing, the club is pushing for a place in the Play-Off’s. What are the main reasons for the great turnaround?

The improvement is mainly down to recruitment. We hired a new head of football operations, Craig Cope, who has brought in some quality, both loan and permanent, which has improved us overall. 

The last meeting between the  two club’s, in late September, resulted in a 4-1 win for Wimbledon at Plough Lane as Ali Al-Hamadi netted a hat-trick. How pleased were you with that performance? Rovers had netted first through Connor Jennings in the fourth minute.

The result came out of nowhere and was obviously heavily influenced by the sending off (Rovers centre-half Jordan Turnbull was sent off in the 54th minute) which changed the game. It was our first home win of the season and it was much needed as our away form was great.  

Ali Al-Hamadi is Wimbledon’s top goalscorer, despite his move to Ipswich Town in January, having netted 16 goals in 27 games whilst also providing his teammates with seven assists. How big of a miss has he been?

Had Al-Hamadi stayed, we could have been top seven easily..but needs must when you’re in a financial hole and that deal from Ipswich could really help!

30-year-old Omar Bugiel is the club’s top goalscorer, from those still with The Dons. The Lebanon international has netted eleven goals in 42 games, providing his teammates with three assists. How good is he? 

Omar is great, and I’m really hoping we can tie him down to a contract. He’s in his prime and provides a touch of class up front. There was the worry he would have been eclipsed by Al Hamadi (we had a problem many years ago when Akinfenwa took the focus away from Matt Tubbs, who went off to Portsmouth, but we should probably have kept Tubbs and left Akinfenwa (just don’t tell him I said that!) In this case, Omar remains and is proving his importance to the team, as his winner on Saturday (6th April at home to Salford City) proved!

In January, three players were brought in on a permanent basis: Centre-back Joe Lewis from Stockport County, Left-winger Ronan Curtis who was a free agent and Striker Josh Kelly from Solihull Moors as Centre-back John-Joe O’Toole was brought in from Mansfield Town on loan alongside two Crystal Palace players. 

How good has the club’s recruitment been recently and how optimistic are you that the club can push on in the summer? 

The new lads have settled in well, sadly Josh Kelly – who has shown some great touches and plays so well – hasn’t broken his duck, which is a shame…he needs one to do the classic “off his arse” job to sort out his confidence..

Ronan Curtis attained legend status by scoring the 94th minute winner against the MK mob (It was the first time that AFCW had beat MK in ten games, since 2017) and Kofi Balmer (who appears to be free this summer) has been impressive. 

Much happier after a long spell of dodgy deals, the new DoF has done well but will need to add a goalscorer as we’ve been misfiring since Al-Hamadi has left. Bugiel would admit that he needs to do more.

What are your thoughts on Nigel Adkins’ Tranmere? Do you believe Wimbledon will complete the league double over The Whites? 

Tranmere … Talk about journeys in football! I remember playing you that season in Nationwide League fact you were the first team we played that season! Now we find ourselves in the same division again, battered but unbowed. 

I’ve always liked Tranmere, was pleased to see you come back up from The National League fairly quickly..that COVID year was BS, by the way.

I kind of hope we do the double over you, only for the off chance of extending the season, but it’s been tough scoring goals at the mo, so maybe not!!

Tranmere have failed to win their last three home games, last defeating promotion winners Mansfield Town on 12th March, but will be hoping to end the season off on a high! 

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