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From managing his own business to creating something special at Wimbledon

16 October 2019

Mark Robinson has been a coach at AFC Wimbledon since 2004, and it was a proud moment for him when Glyn Hodges asked if he would help out with first-team duties.

In our last programme, we focused on Mark’s journey from the business world, where he managed a soft play centre for children, to his transition back into football and creating something special at Wimbledon.

For those supporters that missed it, the article is reproduced in full below.

Since his summer switch to Lead Professional Phase Coach and Loan Manager, Mark has certainly had his hands full sorting out loan deals for young Wimbledon talents as well as coaching the first-team at the training ground. But he certainly didn’t mind having his workload increased by helping the squad to prepare for first-team fixtures.

“Glyn told me that Vaughan would be stepping up, but he also wanted me to become closer to the first team,” said Mark. “It wasn’t a question I needed to think twice about. First of all, I wanted to support Glyn because both he and Wally gave me this opportunity in the first place. Secondly, it was a fantastic honour to be asked to be involved with the first team after 15 years here.

“It’s something that made me proud, but at the same time I’m the sort of person who doesn’t want it to be a token gesture. Over a period of time I’m hoping that I can have an influence. I’m hoping that once I earn Glyn’s trust, he’ll let me have a say on certain things. I’m not a groupie who’s just happy to say, ‘I sit on the bench for Wimbledon’. At the moment I’m having little chats with individuals, but I want to have an influence. That’s Glyn’s job, but I’d like to think that over a certain period of time I can have an impact.”

Mark certainly did that with our Academy, as he led the AFC Wimbledon U18s to the last 16 of the FA Youth Cup in two successive seasons, the young Dons knocking out Premier League clubs, including Watford and Newcastle United, along the way. The first big FA Youth Cup run, in 2016, ended with a gallant defeat at the hands of a Chelsea side that included current first-teamers Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount, in front of over 3,000 supporters at the Cherry Red Records Stadium.

The performances of Mark’s squads had certainly captured the imagination of Wimbledon supporters, but it’s not one match in particular that was the big highlight for Mark. Neither is it the fact that he played a big part in helping Will Nightingale, Anthony Hartigan, Paul Osew and Paul Kalambayi progress to our first-team squad. What he takes most satisfaction from is one particular week in 2016 that encapsulates everything he wanted from a group of Wimbledon players.

“Every player you bring through you take real pride in, especially the ones that haven’t been recognised by other clubs as being good players, or have simply been written off by other clubs, or not been noticed until their teenage years. When players like that earn pro contracts, you feel a sense of pride.

“I wouldn’t say it was my biggest achievement, but the thing that made me feel most proud was the week around the Newcastle FA Youth Cup game. I’d always wanted the Academy to produce robust and resilient players that Wimbledon fans could identify with. That week, we played Northampton away on the Saturday and the boys met at 7.00 am, so they would have been up at 5.30 am. We went up there and won 4–0, and then on the Monday we had Barnet away. The players that hadn’t made the squad for the FA Youth Cup game on the Wednesday stayed back and played with Under-16s against Barnet. They won 2–0 with a team that included a young U16 called Anthony Hartigan, who scored from the halfway line! They then got on the coach with the supporters and travelled up to Newcastle, so that shows you their mentality.

“We played Newcastle, won the game, and got back at 5.00 am in the morning. I gave them one day off before they returned to training on the Friday. We then went to Milton Keynes on the Saturday, for a 10.00 am kick-off, leaving at 6.45 am, and we won 2–1. I remember coming back on the coach after four games in a week and everyone was singing Wimbledon songs for the first 20 minutes because we’d won every game. But soon after that the coach fell silent. I turned round, and saw the lads were asleep – some of them were lying in the aisles. If anyone had said to me, ‘What do you want a Wimbledon youth set-up to look like?’ or ‘What do you want their mentalities to be like?’ I’d have answered, ‘Exactly like that week’ because it summed up everything I wanted the squad to be.

“I believe that all elite winning cultures come from the environment that you develop. The players end up developing themselves as leaders. You want to impart what a winning environment looks like, and then over a period of time you want the players to take control of that environment. As an Academy, we’ve always used the All Blacks as an example. We got the boys to read Legacy, which is about the All Blacks. Their philosophy is ‘No-one looks after the All Blacks. The All Blacks look after themselves.’ That’s something we try hard to impart within the Academy. I think it’s very important as it brings that togetherness and humbleness, but most of all it fits in with what we are as a football club.”

Mark says it’s been a hectic start to his new role this season, particularly with sorting out loan deals for young players. And he takes great care to sort out the right move for the development of each player.

“It’s been busier than I expected. I heard someone say that there are a lot of local clubs and it must be easy, but I’d say the opposite. It’s almost a job in itself – there’s a lot more to it than people think. You have to find the right fit in terms of a club that’s best for the player at his stage of development. The player has to go to a club that’s going to develop him in the games while he’s on loan. Ayoub Assal is a very skilful midfield player, but you have to make sure he goes to a team where they’re going to play aggressive football. That will enable him to get valuable experience of the other side of the game.

“You also have to speak to agents and talk to them about why it’s going to be the right fit for the player. There’s a lot more to it than just ringing up your mate! We now have eight players out on loan or work experience, and that means a report to prepare for each of them. The reports go into their individual development plans.

“In discussions with the loan club’s manager, you have to decide what’s best for each player in terms of style of play. For example, Reuben Collins has gone to Basingstoke because I know that they like to play out from the back. Winning tackles and headers isn’t a problem for Reuben, but I wanted to send him to a club where he had decisions to make on the ball. That’s something he needs to improve on.

“You have the work experience for the scholars, youth loans for the young pros, and short-term loans plus longer-term loans. There’s a lot more to it than just ‘let’s get him out there’. The player has to feel that it’s a good loan move for him and that he will get developed at the club where he’s going. The club he’s going to also have to feel that there’s added value to their team. It’s a job in itself, before you even take into account the coaching I’m doing.”

Mark certainly appreciates the life he leads in football now, having worked so hard to get back into the game. Outside football, Mark was a big success, raising enough funds from his job to start a business with his wife called It’s a Kids Thing, a soft-play centre in Earlsfield. He believes that the skills he learned outside football have been very useful for his coaching.

“I worked for the Performing Rights Society, doing a number of jobs there before I went into business with my wife. We looked after the composers and writers of music. If you were a songwriter, you’d get royalties depending on how much your music was played in public. Our job was to collect royalties for the songwriters, and my main job was out on the road. I used to visit pubs, nightclubs, bars and restaurants, initially in South-West London, but because of my success they gave me South-East London. I’d go into pubs in Deptford, Peckham and Bermondsey. When I took it over, that area was the lowest revenue generator for us in the country, but by time I finished it was the third highest! I’m now using skill sets I haven’t used for a while, including negotiating skills, because part of my remit now is also to get money back into the club for these lads.

“The skills I learned in that job in terms of dealing with top people in the trade have proved very useful. I also had to deal with aggressive people. If I hadn’t have been through those experiences, would I have become the coach I am now? I once went into a pub in Brixton once and the landlord threatened me, saying he was going to ‘chop me up’ if I didn’t get out of there. Within an hour, I’d walked out with £600 of royalties, in cash, and he invited me to a reggae night!

“I learned a lot of skills that have been so valuable in terms of how to deal with people, especially now in dealing with young players and their parents. I always had this hankering to get back into football. It was my life, and the only way I thought I could do it was to start up a business. I was earning very good money, so I came to the decision that if I started my own business with my wife, it would give me the chance to get back into football. We borrowed £150,000, which was a lot of money 15 or 16 years ago, and we opened up a business. It seems crazy now, but that was how badly I wanted to do it.

“Thankfully, the business did really well, and within 18 months I didn’t have to work there anymore. The idea came about because we had two young daughters at the time and we were taking them to these centres where the food and customer service was not good. We thought, ‘Let’s see if we can do it better.’ In the first year we received an award at the Wandsworth Business Awards and we went on to make a big success of it. That allowed me to get back into football.”

Mark’s dreams of making it as a professional footballer were not helped by a serious injury at Fulham as a youngster. However, he felt that more could have been done by the coaching team at his old club to help him come through a tough time in his life – and that’s something he’s always remembered as a coach himself.

“From the age of nine I was at Fulham. I ruptured my thigh, which hindered my progress as a teenager, and I think the experience moulded me as a coach. I was one of those players who, between the ages of 9 and 15, everybody was saying would make it. I had a coach tell me that I would play for England. Then one day I came off injured. I was struggling as a person and as a player, but no-one helped me. I think that’s stuck with me as a coach. I wasn’t a soft lad – I’d come from a rough council estate – but I still remember what that did to me mentally. I’m really mindful of that as a coach. Psychologically, there’s a very fine line between making it as a professional footballer and just falling short.”

Mark, who was brought up in Millbank, central London, now holds a UEFA A coaching licence, and he also has the Advanced Youth Award, the equivalent of an A licence for coaching young professionals. His opportunity at Wimbledon came 15 years ago when a coach at the time, Tony Wilson, asked him to get involved.

“Tony was a player I knew from my time as a youngster with Fulham. I’d just started doing some coaching at the Crystal Palace Foundation, and I desperately wanted to get back into it. I bumped into Tony, and he asked me to come to AFC Wimbledon and coach the U9s. He gave me the opportunity to implement my own ideas. Two years later, when those players stepped up to the U11s, Nigel Higgs saw me at a game and asked Tony about me. He asked me to restructure the youth set-up from the top down. We weren’t a league club then, and my job title was Head of Youth, and later Centre of Excellence Manager.

“I was determined to try and so something special here. I didn’t know lots about the club, but once I went to a first-team game it really resonated with me. I was determined to help create something special. Nigel got me to start the youth set-up totally from scratch, and I’ve gone on that long journey, which has included being Academy Manager. It’s taken a long time to get where I am now, but I’m proud of my achievements. That work is going to continue.”

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