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Jack’s journey through the ranks: midfield talent almost switched to left-back!

An interesting insight from Mark Robinson about Jack Rudoni's development

20 April 2020

Jack Rudoni recently signed his second professional contract at AFC Wimbledon after making his first-team breakthrough this season, but he had to come through a lot of difficult challenges during his rise through the ranks.

Mark Robinson, who first coached at our academy in 2005 and is now Lead Professional Phase Coach and Loans Manager for the first-team, revealed that ‘Rudi’ was often getting ‘physically overwhelmed’ in matches as a 14-year-old and the possibility of him switching to left-back was considered.

Mark has put together an interesting insight about Rudi’s path towards the first-team and you can read this below:

We are obviously really pleased with Rudi so far as an academy product, although he still has a long way to go to achieve his full potential. His development story is perfect for any young player who faces challenges along the way and highlights the work that coaches do at our academy and how forward thinking they are.

When Rudi came to us after being released from Crystal Palace at the age of 11, from what we could make out, it was due to his size and athletic make-up. We could see his technical attributes already, but what was key was that we knew he had a mid-June birthday. We always put our players into ‘trimesters’. This basically means we split them into three groups, depending upon what month they were born. The oldest group would be September to December and the youngest May to August. The reason we do this is because when you are making decisions on players, for example whether to keep or release, or if they are struggling in their favoured position, we can make a more informed decision on where they are physically and mentally. Their dips in performance can often have many different reasons, rather than it being that they are no longer able to effect a game of football like they were doing previously. We could have two players in competition for the same position and one is 11 months younger, which can be a massive length of time in terms of the physical and mental development of a player, especially as he moves through the age groups and faces different challenges, like bigger pitches. It is a fact that a lot of professional footballers have September to December birthdays as they are physically, and sometimes mentally, more mature at a young age than those having later birthdays. Some with later birthdays may not always be given the time to develop.

Rudi got off to a very good start when he joined us, but when he got to the age of 14 he started struggling to have an impact in his favoured number 10 position. At the Under-15 age group, lads can often have real growth spurts. This did not happen to Rudi as he was still small, very slim, and not particularly quick. This meant that he was often getting physically overwhelmed, which naturally led to a dip in confidence. We had a very long conversation with his parents as they had been advised he would possibly stand a better chance of developing into a professional footballer if he moved to a full-back position. We explained that we felt Rudi had far too many excellent technical attributes, as well as good vision, to do that, and we were confident that he could excel in midfield. His birth date was discussed and we just felt he needed time and support to develop in midfield as, given time, the physical element would not be an issue. The most important thing was that we were all really positive with him and we felt he had the time to still effect games, despite the physical disadvantage.

Over a period of time, and through the support of his coaches, Rudi grew in confidence and belief. When he came into the Under-18 scholarship programme he was still physically very slim, but now tall. I spoke to him at the start of his scholarship and said that I wanted him to have the attributes of a ball-playing number eight. I explained that, as he matured, he could more than cope in that role, rather than developing him just as a number 10 and limiting his chances of having a career. It certainly wasn’t in Rudi’s comfort zone to win headers and pick-up second balls, but once he realised they were important parts of the game for a central midfield player and how much momentum it gained for the team and him individually, he absolutely embraced it. He worked very hard to improve those aspects of his game. It’s something now that he really enjoys and he will only get better at it.

In his second year as a scholar, his progress started to soar, so for the last few months of the season we arranged for him to go on loan to Cornthian Casuals, where he excelled and further grew in stature. When he came back in as a first-year pro under Wally’s management he looked fit and strong. It was clear that both Wally and Glyn really liked him. However, despite impressing in training, he was not quite making it into the starting 11. It was decided that the odd Under-23 game was not enough for his development, so I arranged for him to go on loan to Tonbridge Angels. I watched his first game – he played as a number 10 – and he was very good. Rudi was therefore a little frustrated to get taken off with 20 minutes to go. The match became a physical battle with the ball going back to front very quickly and Tonbridge ended up losing from a winning position. Rudi would not have experienced being taken off for sometime as a player, so it was again part of his learning curve. He continued to be played as a number 10, but a few games passed him by due to the style of the matches, more than Rudi’s ability. I spoke to Tonbridge’s manager Steve McKimm and mentioned that I thought he would see the best of Rudi if he played him in the thick of things in central midfield. Steve was happy to do it and Rudi was excellent for them, putting in Man of the Match performances. Steve was chuffed for Rudi when Glyn brought him back into the first-team squad, but he was also sad to lose him.

A pathway for a young player can be far from straightforward and many things need to be taken into consideration. If Rudi was six weeks younger he would now be completing his second year as a scholar, NOT his first year as a pro, so this needs to be thought about in terms of our expectations of him, both physically and mentally now that he’s a first-team player. That’s not lowering our expectations of him, these are just facts, and every player needs to be looked at as an individual case if we are going to get the best out of him. Rudi’s personal expectations of himself will be sky high because that’s the kind of lad he is.

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