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Tennai inspired by his brother to come through tough times

Extensive interview with Wimbledon full-back

8 October 2018

For those supporters that may have missed it in the Bradford City programme, we featured an in-depth interview with Wimbledon's on-loan right-back Tennai Watson.

The 21-year-old talked about reigniting his career after an impressive breakthrough with Reading and he's aiming to deliver on the promise that earned him a contract with the Royals until 2021.

Below is the full interview with Tennai that featured in the programme.

Tennai Watson doesn't have far to turn for inspiration as he seeks to realise his potential as a professional footballer. Having signed a long-term contract at Reading, Tennai is highly rated by the Royals, but signing on loan for Wimbledon in the summer came after a 2017/18 season blighted by illness and injury.

One of his biggest fans is his younger brother Malachi, who is wheelchair-bound, and his support puts life into perspective for Tennai when times are tough. "My younger brother is in a wheelchair, and he's been down to watch me twice at Wimbledon this season, which is good for him because he doesn't normally get out that much. He was born like that, and it's been part of my life when I've been growing up. Just little things like having him there while I'm on the pitch means a lot to me.

"Malachi has a rare condition called Aicardi–Goutières syndrome. He can't see, but he has hearing. He certainly reacts to the noise in a football ground! When I started playing football it was just because I loved playing, but when I started progressing into a professional career, a lot of the dedication, for example working in the gym for two hours and putting in that bit extra, came from thinking of Malachi. That's been the motivation that I've needed for my career – it's a big part of why try I to push myself in football.

"Football is a funny sport. You can never predict the future. Signing a contract until 2021 is a good indication, but I don't want to get ahead of myself. I'm focusing on the present at the moment and trying to do the best I can here. I want to develop as much as I can, and when my time is up here I can go back to Reading and show them what I can do. Hopefully, I can go back there, prove a point and still be in their plans."

Tennai made his first-team debut for Reading at the start of 2016/17 against Preston North End, but he joined Wimbledon on a mission to reignite his career after a difficult season. "I didn't come in one day and say, 'I want to go on loan.' The season before, I had injuries and a couple of illnesses, which basically put me out for the season. I was heading back in for pre-season training with the idea of training as hard as I could, getting in shape, and seeing where that would take me. They have a new manager at Reading. I weighed up my options. I could have stayed and tried to fight my way into the first-team squad, but I always had the thought in the back of my mind that it was time to branch out and get more experience. I wanted to play men's football, which is very different from academy football. Even when you're around the first-team squad, you don't get that game fitness of playing regularly.

"I did have other options, though I'm not saying that everyone was lining up to take me! When I heard about Wimbledon's interest from my agent and the staff here, I got a good feeling about coming here. I knew the names before I came here and I thought it would be somewhere I could develop and get experience at the same time. I thought I'd be looked after well during this stage of my career. It was the option that really stood out for me."

The 21-year-old believes that AFC Wimbledon is the ideal place for him to progress as a player, in particular to develop a tougher edge to his game.

"For me personally, I'm trying to add another string to my bow in the sense that football isn't always pretty. I need to have that physicality about me and a bit more of an edge in terms of being competitive and winning. Sometimes when you're coming through an academy you get caught up playing nice football. We do play nice football here, but there will be spells when we are under pressure and we have to push hard and be strong against the other team.

"So far, I've learned a lot. Coxy, Bass, and the manager have all been good for me, especially with the one-on-one coaching. There are times when it's very helpful that the coach has experience himself. He can take you aside and say, 'Look, this is the way I found it in my playing days.' I'm more excited to learn from someone who has that first-hand experience, and the manager here has that.

"You have to earn your place in a team. League One is demanding. For my own development, it's something I need to adjust to and improve. I feel I'm doing that at the moment, but I'm in a team too and I don't want to let anyone down. I think it's important to cope with the demands of playing at this level as well as developing your own game."

Tennai was a relatively late starter in the game. He wasn't one of those players who get snapped up by professional football academies at a young age. It wasn't until he was 15 that Reading spotted his talents, but he didn't suddenly throw out all his schoolbooks.

"My parents were always big on education, so I did stick with that. I completed my GCSEs, and I went on to do A Levels at Langley Grammar School. I ended up with an A, B, B, in Maths, Philosophy and Psychology. For me, I always need a passion for something I want to do, so that I can push on and forge a career in it. Though I liked the subjects I chose, I never really had a passion for them, like I did with football.

"I grew up playing football at school and on the streets. I was just having fun with it, but I wanted to make something out of it and achieve things. I kind of always had it in the back of my mind that I could become a professional footballer. I just kept going with it – and it ended up working out for me.

"I was 15 when I first joined Reading. I was playing for a Sunday league club called Windsor Royals in a summer tournament, and I got spotted by Reading and QPR. I went on trial at both and I ended up being signed by Reading. When you come through the academy at any club it's a big thing. I was kind of overwhelmed and excited at the time to break into the first team. It was a proud day, and something to build on."

The late Eamonn Dolan was his manager when Tennai was coming through the Royals' academy, and he will always be grateful to Eamonn for bringing him through the ranks. Tennai is one of 47 players to have graduated from Reading's academy to their first team – a figure that highlights the success of their youth set-up.

"It's a big tribute to all the staff at Reading when you look at how many players have come through from the academy into the first team. When I first joined them, the set-up was unbelievable with the likes of Eamonn Dolan, who passed away unfortunately, and Martin Kuhl. Eamonn was the academy manager. Normally academy managers oversee the whole set-up, but he was very hands-on, always involved, always watching sessions and every game. You could sense his passion for the game and how much he wanted to teach young players.

"He took some time off from the club to try and get himself right. I was speaking to him during that time. It always looked like he would come back and it would work out, but it was an unfortunate situation. I felt very sorry for his family. He has definitely left a legacy that everyone can be proud of.

"Martin was my coach for about two years. He was a big part of my development – my tactical awareness and technique came from him. His philosophy included playing out from the back and being good on the ball, but also having that grit about you. David Dodds was also a positive influence when we had a good run in the FA Youth Cup. He was a great coach, and a great guy too. He valued me throughout my years coming through the ranks. I'm very thankful to those coaches for helping me to progress."

For now, Tennai's priority is to help AFC Wimbledon climb up the League One table, and he says that the club's unique story makes him proud to wear the shirt. Moving back to West London has also provided the bonus of enjoying home comforts once again.

"I'm back home now, and I've got my little single bed back! I'm close to my family, so that takes away the stress of being away from home and fending for myself, making my own dinners and stuff! I'm back there and I'm loving it. My journey in the mornings isn't too bad. It has a good feeling about it."

"Ivor did a speech to the squad about the history of this club. As much as the boys sat there and had a bit of a laugh, I think it's great that we learn about the history, where the club came from. It's an incentive to want to fight for something. When you walk in every day to training and go into the stadium on match days, you know a lot about the club.

"I like it at this club. It gives me a nice vibe, and you sense the atmosphere around the place. It seems very homely as well, which I think in football can only be a good thing. It is a bit different to the Madejski Stadium – a bit smaller! – but you sense the support from the home fans and they've been great since I came here. I've loved every moment of it so far."

Let's hope that love continues and that Tennai continues to grow as a player in the rest of his season with us.

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