It’s been a rapid season of progress at first-team level for Toby Sibbick – and his background in athletics shows why it is that opposition wingers find it tough to beat him for pace!
For those that may have missed it in the Gillingham programme, we published an in-depth interview with Dons academy product Toby – and this is reproduced in full below.
Before he was spotted by AFC Wimbledon, Toby clocked a time of 11.2 seconds for 100 metres – not bad for a 14-year-old! And though football was the only career option that Toby really wanted to pursue, his speed off the mark is certainly an advantage in the wing-back role he’s been filling recently.
“Playing in different positions has improved me as a player. I came through as a centre-back, but during the second year of my scholarship I was playing as a right wing-back. That helped me progress, and now that we’re playing 3–5–2 I’m at right wing-back again. It’s taken me back to my days as a scholar in the Academy. I have to use my athleticism to get up and down the pitch.
“I used to do athletics school, and I represented Middlesex. In the 100 metres my best time was 11.2 seconds, which when I was in Year 10. I didn’t really think about other careers. I got on with my schoolwork, but I wanted to be a professional footballer. My dad knew that, but my mum insisted that I stayed at school and continued with my education, just in case it didn’t work out with my football. My dad had big belief that I could become a footballer. My mum did too, but she made sure that I carried on with my education.”
With 18 first-team appearances so far this season, including that memorable FA Cup cameo in January when he scored against Premier League West Ham, Toby’s career is going from strength to strength. But he had to wait until he was almost 16 for an opportunity with Wimbledon after other professional clubs decided not to sign him up. Raised in Feltham, Toby was playing for the Conquest Football Academy in Isleworth when he grasped his big chance.
“My dad took me along to my local team, Feltham Youth, when I was six. I started progressing and winning things, so it all took off from there. That’s how I got started in football. I went on to have trials at various clubs. I was at Fulham with their U14s for six weeks, Brentford for a couple of weeks, and Watford too. They all said they had players in my position, which back then was in central defence.
“I joined the Wimbledon U16s. It was coming up to the time when you needed to get a scholarship. I was doing my GCSEs at the time, at Gunnersbury Boys’ School in Brentford, but Mark Robinson decided to offer me a scholarship and I’m very grateful for that opportunity.
“I’d been playing at the Conquest Football Academy in Isleworth, and Conor Hayden, who is now my agent, arranged a match against AFC Wimbledon. I thought I did well, and I was offered a chance to come here. The coaches took a long look at me for six weeks, and then I was offered a scholarship. Conor has progressed a few players through to professional teams now.”
In recent weeks, Toby has played alongside fellow Dons Academy products Paul Kalambayi and Will Nightingale in a defence that has kept four successive clean sheets. He believes that familiarity with his team-mates has been a big help, and he is thankful for the coaching guidance provided by the manager.
“We’re all young and so enthusiastic to do well. As we all want to do well for the club, we stick together. Three of us in the back five have come through the Academy, and we’ve played alongside each other along the way. It’s been great to get those clean sheets recently. That’s really boosted our confidence. Personally, this season has gone well for me. I’ve played more than I’d expected. I set a target for this season of playing 15 games, and I’ve passed that now. Hopefully, I can get a few more under my belt before the end of this season and help the club to stay up.
“I think I’m improving all the time. That only happens when you’re playing, and earlier in the season I wasn’t getting games. Now I’m getting a run in the team I feel that I’m improving with every game. It boosts my confidence, but also my game management and positioning too.
“The gaffer is a good man. He’s trying to get everyone on his side. He’s worked hard on making us hard to beat so that teams find it difficult to break us down. If we stay in games and then win late on, as we’ve been doing recently, then so be it. He gets across the message about not letting teams walk all over us. He’s told us that we’re a strong team, a good team, and I think he’s instilled that mentality in us. No-one can walk all over us. We try to beat every team we play against now.
“The manager does a lot of work on our defensive shape and positioning. If one of us goes out, then another player has to be in the correct position. We’ve kept four clean sheets on the run, so I think everything is going to plan. Hopefully, we can continue our good form and get out of the situation we’re in.”
Toby’s first couple of seasons with Wimbledon included those memorable FA Youth Cup runs, the young Dons reaching the last 16 in two successive seasons of the national competition. A real will to win was shown back then by the Academy side, which included Toby and Paul Kalambayi. In particular, Toby recalls the wins at Watford and Newcastle United with great fondness, and he believes that those experiences helped shape his character.
“It meant a lot to me. In my two years as a scholar we reached the fifth round, making history for the club. That was great – and this season I’ve been a part of a team making history again by getting to the fifth round of the FA Cup. Those have been great career moments for me, ones that I’ll definitely look back on.
“We showed real fight in the match at Watford to stay in the FA Youth Cup. We had to show character because we were behind, but we kept digging in and we got the goal we needed to take the game into extra time. Thankfully, we went on to win the game. When we went up to Newcastle we had a great following for that game too – you could see what it meant to our fans. It was crazy to have that much support for an U18s game as far away as Newcastle. I think that really helped the togetherness between the club and the fans.
“Commitment is very important as a professional footballer. You have to show that you’re committed to the team and the club. It means everything to the coaches. Once they see that you have that commitment, they’ll trust you and put you in the team.”
In the match against Watford Toby came up against Michael Folivi, who is now one of his team-mates, and Toby reckons there will be more goals to come from the on-loan Watford striker.
“I’ve had good banter with Michael about that game, but we’ve put that aside! We’re in the same team now, and we’re trying to achieve the same goal. He’s a great addition to the squad. His goals will come – he’s only scored one so far, but I’m sure he’ll score more if he keeps working hard. He’s a good character to have around the place.”
After a spell back in the U23 Development Squad earlier this season, Toby had to work hard to get another first-team chance. He has certainly earned his rewards, and scoring against West Ham was an undoubted highlight.
“With the first team it’s a lot more physical. At U18 level you have a lot more time on the ball to show your quality. But in the first team, as soon as you touch the ball the opposition players are onto you. I’ve had to learn to be mentally strong. Playing outside the first team, you may think you’re doing well, but you have to stay strong. At U18 or U23 level it’s not all about the results, so there may be squad rotation, but in the first team you need to get results so it has to be the strongest team possible. You have to stay mentally strong and appreciate that you can get thrown in at any time.
“The West Ham game meant everything to me. My mum and dad come to nearly every games, but they couldn’t come to that one. They watched it on the telly and they were obviously extremely happy with it! Scoring that goal was a crazy moment for me, and as soon as I got into the changing room my phone was red-hot! I had to leave it for a bit, and I checked all the messages when I got home. All the messages were really supportive.”
At the age of just 19, Toby hopes to progress in his career with Wimbledon, but first and foremost he is fully focused on helping to keep the club in League One.
“It will be a dream come true for Wimbledon to be playing at Plough Lane in a year or two, and I don’t see why I can’t be a part of that. As Anthony Wordsworth said, we haven’t achieved anything yet. We’re still in the bottom four, so we know we need to keep winning games so that we can put pressure on the other teams. There are so many teams involved in the fight against relegation, but if we keep winning and doing our job, then hopefully the other teams will start to tail off.”
Everyone at AFC Wimbledon will be hoping that Toby is right and that he’ll be speeding down the right wing at Plough Lane in the near future!