By Chris Slavin
Will Nightingale produced a Man of the Match display to help Wimbledon earn a clean sheet on Saturday against Rochdale and the 22-year-old centre-back says that now is the time to kick-on in his career.
For those supporters who may have missed it, our interview with Will from Saturday's programme is reproduced in full below.
During his 13 years with AFC Wimbledon, Will Nightingale has earned awards for his community work, carried out cleaning jobs at the stadium and commentated for Radio WDON. And now, he says, is the time to prove himself at first-team level. Will's full debut came against Accrington Stanley in January 2015 after his rise through the Academy ranks, but there have been plenty of ups and downs since – mainly due to injuries – and the strapping centre-back believes he's ready to build on a promising start to the season.
"I've done a lot of different jobs at this club since I joined at the age of nine," said Will. "I've helped clear the stadium up, including weeding around the ground and cleaning out the toilets in the away dressing room. I've also won an award from our Foundation for my appearances at community events. So I've been happy to help the club any way I can, but my main objective is to do my job on the pitch.
"I think I'm at the point now when I really need to start kicking on. Obviously, I've had a bit of bad luck, but I'm hoping I've put that behind me now. I'm looking ahead to the future, rather than looking back. So far this season, when I've played I've done all right, but I want to be doing more. When I get my chance to play I want to show everyone what I can do. I want to start being a leader and taking this club in the right direction."
Will still regards his first start against Accrington as his career highlight, but starring in the recent win against Blackburn Rovers certainly ran it close – and summed up how far the club has progressed during his time here. However, the 22-year-old says that no-one in the current squad should feel daunted by taking on the big clubs at this level – and he is certainly relishing the opportunity.
"It was crazy, because when I first started playing for the Academy we were playing against Carshalton Athletic and Epsom Eagles. To be fair, at non-league level they're as good as you get round here. It was a good learning experience, but to be playing against Blackburn, a team I watched on the TV in the Premier League for years, for Wimbledon, a club I've been at for so long, seemed outrageous.
"I still live in New Malden with my parents. We've all been going to games since I was a kid, and it's a massive honour to get victories for Wimbledon at big clubs like Blackburn. I played at Bolton last season as well – we've played at some big grounds in recent years. At first, it may faze you a little bit – they're still 'wow' moments – but the more accustomed you get to it, the more you think, 'We shouldn't be daunted by this.' It's a great opportunity for us to express ourselves at these places, and that's the way we should be looking at it."
Will is determined to repay the faith shown in him by our Academy coaches and first-team management, having had to put so many injury problems behind him. During his time as a scholar, special dispensation was required from the League to give him an extra year after he was dogged by injury problems.
"It's been a bit of a roller coaster for me with everything that's gone on, and that's why I have to grab my opportunity with both hands. I want to make the fans proud and repay the faith shown in me. Mark Robinson and all the Under-18 coaches have worked hard to help me. Mark stuck his neck out for me when I was a scholar, and the manager and Coxy have also persevered with me. The manager has kept giving me chances despite all my problems. Others may not have been so patient. When I first came in for my debut, I remember George Francomb putting his arm round my shoulder to show his support, and it's important when senior players do that.
"I'd say that the injuries have been the hardest part of making the breakthrough. One of the toughest things in this game is growing up and making that step from being a young boy to being a man. You have to fit in around the place, and you can't have the manager or the coaches worrying about your personality. You have to roll your sleeves up and be a real man. In some games you have to go to war when you cross that white line. I don't want people to be overcompensating for me. I want to be the one who helps to carry others and pushes the club forward. I think I'll get better the more games I play. I can't go into my shell when I go out onto that pitch – I see myself as a leader."
Will is often his own worst critic after performances he feels don't come up to the standards he expects from himself. He's keen to take advice from Neil Cox, but he also feels he can take plenty from watching the top defenders in the game.
"I set high standards for myself, but it's hard to have the perfect game. I'm a bit of a perfectionist! Any little mistake I want to try and cut out. I want to be someone who's making a difference in a positive way. Coxy has worked hard with me on defensive aspects over the years, and the main thing is just cutting out silly errors. Everyone makes mistakes, but as a centre-back errors will be scrutinised that bit more because they can be so costly.
"I watch players like John Stones and Sergio Ramos, and try to take things from their game. I don't have just one or two role models, though – I take bits that I can put into my game from everyone. I want to take everything on board and channel them into my own game. The priority is what the manager wants me to do, but there are other things I can look at to improve my game. I try to learn as much as I can and weigh up what is best for me."
Though he has grown up locally and enjoyed plenty of positive feedback from supporters during his rise through the ranks, Will hasn't attracted too much attention when he's been out and about – but he did when he was enjoying a meal in Nando's!
"I get spotted when I'm out, maybe once every couple of months. The best time was when I was in Nando's with a couple of friends, and I could see that some people on the other side of the room had spotted me. I heard them start chanting 'He's one of our own' and I clocked that they were Wimbledon fans. Everyone in the place was looking over and thinking, 'What's going on here?' It was a nice touch, but that type of thing doesn't happened often.
"I'm still living about ten minutes' walk from the training ground, with my mum and dad. I passed my test a couple of years ago and I'm looking to sort myself out with a car, maybe for a Christmas present!"
Will enjoyed doing Radio WDON match commentary for the Milton Keynes game recently, but he was gutted to miss out on the match due to a neck injury. "Rob Cornell is the seasoned pro as a commentator, and he tells me what I have to do! I just tried to chip in with a little bit on insight every now and then. I enjoyed doing it, but I'd rather be having a positive impact on the pitch and helping my team-mates. It was horrible not being involved in that match. It was a difficult position for me, as I had to weigh up whether to play through the pain or not. In the end, the fact that I couldn't sprint properly was telling me I might let my team-mates down. I had to make a big decision and not be selfish. It was a really tough decision – one of the hardest I've had to make in a while."
But with his talent as a defender, there are likely to be many more opportunities for Will to star in important games for Wimbledon in the years to come.