Monday, 25 February 2013

A new lease of life for Kevin Sainte-Luce

As AFC Wimbledon gamble on another so-called 'bad boy', will it pay off better than the last time they took a punt on a potentially troublesome player?

Kevin Sainte-Luce in action for Wimbledon at Kingsmeadow

Wimbledon boss Neal Ardley brought in Cardiff City's Kevin Sainte-Luce in the January transfer window, the winger leaving the Bluebirds (or whatever they're calling themselves these days) under a cloud after a judge spared him a prison sentence for assaulting two women in a nightclub.

Ardley knows 19-year-old Sainte-Luce well from his time as Cardiff's academy manager and, while acknowledging that the nightclub incident was "really bad", believed it to be wholly out of character for his former young charge and felt he deserved a second chance. “I do not condone what he did, but he is genuinely remorseful over what happened," said Ardley.

How glad Ardley must be today that he did offer such a lifeline after Sainte-Luce scored the only goal of the game as Wimbledon picked up a precious three points at Dagenham & Redbridge this weekend, hauling themselves off the bottom of the table and - for now at least - out of the League Two relegation places. With the game drifting towards a nervy 0-0 draw, a ball was cleared to the edge of the box where Sainte-Luce caught it sweetly, sending the ball swerving past a number of bodies, flush into the back of the net. The winger's spectacular cartwheeling celebration a sign of the relief both he and the Dons' large travelling support were feeling. Not to mention Ardley. Wimbledon clung on to grab a desperately needed win and Ardley admitted that he'd fancied his team to win as he'd seen the belief in their eyes before the game.

“It was a fantastic strike," said Ardley of the goal, "and Kevin has been brilliant since he came in – he deserved that. I have told people that he will frustrate the life out of you, but he has unbelievable ability."

Born in Guadeloupe but raised in Paris, Sainte-Luce arrived in South Wales as a teenager and worked his way through Cardiff's youth system under Ardley. Though he never appeared for Cardiff's first team, fans were sad to lose a player with such raw potential, although they sympathised with and fully endorsed the club's decision to firmly show him the door.

The incident which led to his release took place at Cardiff's Glam nightclub, and involved Sainte-Luce punching one girl and assaulting her friend. Judge Bodfan Jenkins spared Sainte-Luce a jail term of up to six months, instead telling him: “Because your promising career could be compromised by prison time, I want to avoid taking such action." Instead he ordered the player to pay £1,250 compensation to the two girls, gave him a 180-hour community service order and a ten-week 8pm-6am curfew.

Just as well for Wimbledon's survival chances that the judge took a lenient view; Sainte-Luce's weekend winner earned the Dons just their second win in eight games and a huge boost in their battle to earn a third season in the Football League.

Hopefully Sainte-Luce will continue to repay the considerable faith shown in him by Ardley - not just in his ability but also his character. With tricky winger Toby Ajala recently departed back to parent club Bristol City, there is a vacancy for some pace and trickery on Wimbledon's flanks and Sainte-Luce looks like he might be one player to offer those traits. 

Searingly quick and with a deceptively long stride for a small man, he's capable of giving weary full-backs all sorts of nightmares when brought on late in games; though if he's able to do for ninety minutes too, that would be a bonus. If Wimbledon stay up by a point or two, then perhaps history will remember Ardley's gamble on bringing the player to the club as one that paid off big time. 

But Wimbledon haven't always been rewarded for their altruistic tendencies when it comes to giving apparently difficult characters a chance to show they've changed their ways. Long-time readers of this site may recall a piece I wrote about wonderfully gifted but hugely frustrating left-back Andre Blackman. Blackman looked like a world-beater in his sole pre-season with the Dons during summer 2010, but a terrible attitude put paid to his chances of making it at the club. Somehow, Blackman ended up at Celtic, where he was loaned out, sent back and, subsequently, quietly let go by the Glasgow club. We weren't the only club that thought we could tame him, but none have managed it thus far.

Released for assorted negative reasons at a string of clubs, the fear is that Blackman may never learn and will only look back on his career with regret.

Thankfully, in the case of Kevin Sainte-Luce, the early signs are that he is focused on rebuilding his career and that the nightclub incident was out of character; a momentary teenage lapse. Let us hope that he continues to make headlines for all the right reasons at Wimbledon.

Neal Ardley hopes Kevin Sainte-Luce will repay the faith shown in him after
giving the winger a second chance to prove himself in the Football League


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