Will Nightingale says his eyes still light up when there’s a tackle to be won, and he certainly has a clear vision of running out at Plough Lane when the club returns home.
For those that missed our extensive interview in Saturday's match day programme with Will, who was handed the captain's armband against Rochdale, this is reproduced in full below.
Will, who has bounced back from injury setbacks to be a key part of the first-team picture, thinks that his desire to help the club he joined at the age of just eight has often been the cause of his problems.
“If there’s a 50/50 to be won my eyes probably light up a bit,” Will said. “It’s similar to the hunger of a forward who can see a tap-in! I thrive on tackles, and I want to keep that edge. I’d like to think I win my fair share of them. If there’s a ball to be won, I enjoy the thought in my head of ‘I’m going to win this!’ Over the last few years I’ve changed slightly though. It’s often better to intercept a pass first, even though you don’t get as much excitement and enjoyment out of it. I try to read the game as well as I can, and I think I’ve learned to do that more in the last few years.
“I had growing pains when I was progressing through the ranks, which may have played a part in my injury problems. Now that I’m 6 foot 2 inches tall, I hope that’s the end of it! I was probably average height for my age when I was younger, and after I started my scholarship here at Wimbledon I grew a fair bit.
“Up until I was a scholar I’d never really had any injuries, but that’s when it all started. I was out for nearly one whole season, and I finally came back for an U18s match against Peterborough. I’d damaged the cartilage in my knee, and I was scheduled to have an operation. Because of that I was desperate to get out there, just because I hadn’t played a game for so long. Looking back now, it was a stupid thing to do, but I remember saying that I wanted to strap my knee up, take painkillers and just get one appearance in to show what I could do. I don’t think they’d forgotten what I could do as a player, but I was desperate to get out there. I was going to have the operation, so I thought, ‘Whatever damage I do, I’ll be getting it fixed anyway.’ I kind of forced the issue because I was so desperate to play. And afterwards I was in a bad way.
“A few of my injuries have come about from making goal-line clearances when I’ve had to put my body on the line. I remember one injury I suffered against Notts County making a goalmouth clearance. People may think I’ve been weak, but when you put yourself in there you can get hurt. Over the years I’ve learned more about how to deal with situations before they gets to that point, maybe with better anticipation.”
Now aged 23, Will believes that all those setbacks have made him a stronger player, and his motivation to win games for AFC Wimbledon remains undiminished. But even a Man of the Match display against Premier League West Ham United and congratulations from Manuel Pellegrini was little consolation for him Will after the Dons were knocked out of the Carabao Cup earlier this season.
“The West Ham manager told me I’d a really good game. He said he was impressed, which was nice to hear because he’s won the Premier League! He wished me good luck for the rest of the season. I found it hard to say anything back, as we’d just lost – whenever we lose, my head is all over the place. I can probably look back on that as a high point, but I couldn’t see that at the time because I just hate losing.
“Mentally I feel I’m stronger now, and I want to make the most of my career. I feel that I’ve completely put the injuries behind me. I don’t hear anyone talking about it too much now, and I’m pleased to get rid of that reputation. I’ve had niggles in the last few years, but I’m trying to make sure I’m out on that training field every day, so that I can be available for the coaching staff and the management team.
“I’m at a massive club, a well-known club, so if I’m not producing regularly I can’t expect to play. Wimbledon have been good to me, and I’ve got to make sure I give the club back what it deserves.
“The new stadium has been talked about for a long time, and it will be very nice when it happens. It’s a big transition, so it’s probably best it isn’t rushed, even though everyone’s desperate to be at the new stadium. I wasn’t about when we were at Plough Lane before, so it’s a big incentive for me to make sure I’m still at the club when we play our first game back there. That would be a dream.”
It was not until 2013 that Will was switched to a defensive role. He had progressed through the youth system as a midfielder, and it was our former assistant manager, Neil Cox, who played a key role in converting Will to the role he now fills with such enthusiasm today.
“In my first two years as a scholar I was a central midfielder, but in my third year I played a game for the U23s at centre-back. Coxy had seen me in training and suggested that I could be a good centre-half. He thought I could progress to a higher level as a centre-back. I wanted to help Wimbledon get as high as they could, so I thought it best to listen to Coxy!
“I’d always thought I wouldn’t get much recognition as a centre-back, but I played a game for the U23s against Gillingham and I got Man of the Match. I remember thinking, ‘Maybe I will get more recognition than I thought.’ Previously, I’d turned down the chance to play in defence. As I played in midfield as captain for the Surrey county team and I’d got my scholarship as a central midfielder, I thought I’d be good enough to continue playing there. But after that Gillingham game I knew I’d be more suited to playing in that position.”
Former Dons defender Paul Robinson carved out a long career in the game, which included helping Wimbledon to glory at Wembley in 2016, and Will acknowledges that Paul’s his advice was invaluable.
“Robbo was brilliant for me when he was around the place. He’s someone who’s been through it all in his career. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and I’d like to think I’m similar in that respect. He was a great professional, and it was no surprise that he had such a long career in the game. There were times when he’d speak to me and ask me how I was feeling. He’d always offer to help if there was anything I wanted to talk to him about. He was great for me to have around the place.”
Brought up in New Malden, Will’s association with AFC Wimbledon virtually spans the whole of the time since the club was re-formed. As a pupil at Our Lady Immaculate School in Tolworth, Will recalls attending trials for our U9s during the club’s second season after reformation. A key moment for Will came in 2011, when the Academy’s Mark Robinson convinced him to take up the offer of a full-time scholarship here, instead of doing his A-levels at Richard Challoner School.
“After the club started up in 2002, a couple of my school friends played for Wimbledon in the U8s. I ended up coming down to Wimbledon for trials. I thought I did well, and I got selected for the first team – they had more than one team for each age group. I remember that both my friends were in the second team, and I remember asking if I could drop down so that I could play with them!
“I progressed through the age groups. The number of players I’ve seen come and go has been ridiculous! I think Mark Robinson had a group two years below me that everyone looked up to as the golden boys, and my year got overlooked a little bit in terms of recognition. But we went two and a half years unbeaten, and we were in four county cup finals in a row, from U13s through to U16s, winning three of them. We won the Surrey Premier Elite League in three years out of four. I think we won 10 out of the 12 trophies available during three years!
“The year I stopped playing for Richard Challoner was when the club got promoted at Luton. I was going to stay on and do A levels at school, but when the club got promoted they started offering scholarships. The first year we offered scholarships was when I was going into the U18s. Mark Robinson kept on calling me, but I said to him I wasn’t taking a scholarship unless I could stay on at Richard Challoner and do my A levels. It got to the point when they said they really wanted me to come down, just to be involved at the trials. I thought that if I don’t go for it then, I’d always be thinking, ‘What if?’ I left Richard Challoner and started the college scheme, which involved attending Merton College. I got a treble distinction star through the college, which was the highest mark you could get.
“In my GCSEs I’d got three A stars and two As, and the rest were Bs. My mum and dad pretty much supported me in whatever I wanted to do. I wasn’t really thinking of any career other than football, but I just had it in my head that I was going to stay on at school and do my A levels. I always wanted to be a footballer and that’s why I thought, ‘I can’t walk away from it really.’
With Wimbledon supporters as his next-door neighbours, there is no escaping club matters, but Will enjoys the attention, which has even come when he’s been out eating in a local Nando’s!
“A few times fans come up to me when I’m walking down the high street in Kingston on my day off, but probably the most memorable time was when I was in Nando’s and two people in there started chanting ‘He’s one of our own!’ I heard that at the West Ham game at home too, and though I felt I was having a good game anyway, it gave me that extra incentive. It gave me goose bumps hearing that! I do know a lot of people at the club and a lot of people that support Wimbledon. Both my next-door neighbours are Dons fans! But they don’t really hammer me too much with questions.”
Will is very ambitious to progress as a footballer, and he would love to do that at a higher level with Wimbledon.
“People will say that at the age of 23 I’m still young, but every year goes by quickly, and I think I have to make the most of it because you never know what’s going to happen next. I want to take this club to the highest level possible. And why not dream? I want to play in the Premier League! I have to keep on improving because otherwise I won’t get there, and I’ll need a bit of luck too.
“I think the three things I need to work on are consistency, concentration and confidence. When I’m confident I feel that I do everything naturally, but if I go into my shell or start to overthink, then things can go wrong. I can beat myself up about things, so confidence is the biggest thing for me. I think I’ve got to be more consistent, reach the highest levels I can and stay there. I think every mistake I’ve made has been due to a lapse in concentration. But I really want to take the club to the highest level that we can possibly get to.”