Anthony Hartigan has made 40 first-team appearances at the age of just 18, but he was still playing Sunday League football well into his teenage years.
For those that may have missed it in a recent match day programme, we featured an in-depth interview with Anthony and this is reproduced in full below.
Anthony Hartigan is certainly not one of those players who always felt he was destined to become a professional footballer. He started his career at a relatively late age, joining AFC Wimbledon when he was 14. We were his first professional club, and he had spent most of his playing days until then enjoying Sunday League football with Chessington & Hook United. Fast-forward almost five years, and the midfielder has already made 40 first-team appearances – and he doesn’t turn 19 until later this month.
Anthony recalled: “My parents say I’ve always kicked a football about since I was young, but I never really thought about becoming a professional footballer – I just played for fun. When I watch youth football now I can pick out the talented young players, but I could never really see that in myself! If you enjoy something, you just do it, you don’t think about doing it. When I was six I started playing at Chessington & Hook for a bit of fun. That came about through my dad’s work colleague, Darren Ellis. His family basically run the club, and the coach in my early days was Andy Ellis.
“Although I was always serious about my football, I didn’t appreciate that you had to get picked up by a club to make it as a professional. But when I first signed here I did start to think I could make a career of it. There’s no-one still here who was in my age group when I first signed. I think I stood out a little bit at 15 or 16, and I felt that if I kept working hard it might happen for me. I got my pre-scholarship quite early, at the start of my season in the U15s, so I was guaranteed to be with Robbo and James [Oliver-Pearce] for the next season. In my first year as a scholar I worked hard, and I started to think that I had a chance of progressing here. I had no plans for any other career!
“So AFC Wimbledon is the only professional club I’ve been at. I did attend a development centre for Norwich City at Tooting & Mitcham United, and I also went to a development centre run by Brentford, but Wimbledon is local to me and that helps. I’ve learned a lot about the club’s story since I joined, and I want to help the club to progress.”
Anthony has made rapid progress as a footballer – he bypassed the U23 Development Squad on his way up through the Wimbledon ranks – and he now has a burning desire to push on in his career and help out the team at a difficult time.
“I’m happy getting more games and experience under my belt, but I want to kick on now and play more. I want to try and help the team get out of the situation we’re in. The team comes first. If someone had said to me two years ago that I would play over 30 games for the first team before I turned 19, I would have taken that, but now I want more.
“My targets have changed. I always want to improve my game as much as possible. I have to work on every part of my game, but mostly the defensive side of it, including my heading and one-on-one defending. It’s something I’m getting better at, but I’m still young and learning the game. I’m getting more experience in the games I’m playing and I’m learning from the senior players in training. They’ve been in my position before, and they’re always there for me if I need advice. They give me little pointers. They don’t say too much to me, but they do tell me to be aware of certain situations. That’s good, and I want to try and help them too by doing the best I can for the team.”
Last season was a breakthrough campaign for Anthony as he notched up 16 first-team appearances after making his debut in the Carabao Cup, and he won the League Football Education (LFE) Apprentice of the Year award for League One. However, his first serious injury tested his resolve to keep progressing in his career.
“The knee operation I had last year came at a difficult time, as I was making good progress up to then. It was the first time I’d had a serious injury. I’d previously had ligament damage in my ankle, but that kept me out for only three weeks. I was out for eight weeks with the knee injury.
“I signed a new contract after the Brentford game, when I made my debut in the League Cup. We played them on the Tuesday, and I got a new contract on the Thursday. Coming through the Academy here, I know I’ve put in the hard work to earn my opportunities. Thankfully, that hard work is starting to pay off. Once you get a taste of something good, you want more of it!
“I really enjoyed the night when I got the Apprentice of the Year award. Getting that award was massive for me. My mum and dad were there, and so were Mark Robinson, David Charles and Michael Hamilton. We had a good evening together. When I was in the first team last season I was still a second-year scholar, and it was the biggest thing that I could win in terms of an individual award.
“My debut feels like ages ago now. I feel a disappointed about this season, mainly due to our league position, but also I’ve not played as much as I’d like to – I want to play every week! As players we just get on with it. We can control what happens on the pitch, but when a new manager comes in, that’s not our decision. We just have to be as professional as we can and be ready to do what the manager wants.”
Anthony has taken his move up to the first-team squad in his stride, and he says that senior players have helped to make it a smooth transition for him. He’s also thankful to Neal Ardley for handing him his debut.
“On the pitch, players are quicker, stronger, and more intelligent. You have to be switched on that extra bit. Off the pitch, some people think I’m still a shy boy, but I’m not! I’m just not one for talking if there’s nothing to be said. I tend to say something if I think it should be said. You have different characters in the dressing room. Barchy and Pigs are the ones that stand out in terms of having a laugh. You have to try to earn the respect of the senior players. If it wasn’t for Neal Ardley, I wouldn’t have played as many games as I have now at my age. He taught me a lot at a time when I was trying to break into the first team.”
“I’m aiming to learn as much as possible from the new manager now, and I’m listening to him every day. The manager has proven himself as a top coach over the years. He made things very clear about how he wanted us to play in his first game as manager. People have different philosophies. The previous manager wanted us to run out of our shape and press. When Simon Bassey and Steven Reid were in charge it was similar. They wanted us to pass a bit more and press, but now under the new manager it’s more direct. We are trying to play not just in the right areas but in a more direct style. At my age, it’s great to learn different styles of playing as it helps with my football education. I have to learn how to mix it up.”
Anthony spent plenty of time during his scholarship studying the games of past and present midfielders at the club.
“Before I broke into the first team, I’d come to the home games and watch Jake Reeves, Dannie Bulman and Tom Soares. I’d study the players and analyse their games. It helped me to realise what was needed, and what they did, week in, week out, to earn their place in the team. I’m obviously still learning now as I’m still only 18.
“I felt I made slip-ups that cost the team in my first season. One that stood out was in a home game against Portsmouth. The ball skidded off me, and their player tapped it in. I was worried that I might not get another chance to play for the first team. I’m still young, and I had to try and learn from it.”
Anthony admires the history of AFC Wimbledon, and is eager to focus on pushing the club forward.
“AFC Wimbledon has a brilliant story in terms of how it has risen to its current level, but what has happened has happened. Now we need to push on as a club and try to build something else now. It would be great for me, having come through the Academy, to go on to play at the new stadium in Plough Lane. I’m a local boy, and this is the only professional club I’ve ever played for. I’ll have been here for five years come February, but it doesn’t feel that long at all. It’s all gone so quickly.”
It’s fair to say that AFC Wimbledon supporters will be happy if Anthony is working his midfield magic on a regular basis at Plough Lane in years to come.