In recent months we have featured plenty of interviews with Dons heroes about memorable matches at first-team level, but today we turn the clock back to a time when our academy players really captured the imagination of our supporters.
For #ThrowbackThursday, we feature an interview with Seanan McKillop, who emerged as a real leader in the heart of midfield during an FA Youth Cup run in 2015/16 that included superb victories at Newcastle United and Watford. A stirring cup run ended in front of a 3,455 crowd at the Cherry Red Records Stadium against a Chelsea youth side that included Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, and Fikayo Tomori. That trio have since gone on to become Premier League players and England internationals, but our Under-18s held Chelsea’s bright talents at 1-1 until the 65th minute, before conceding three late goals.
Seanan is now studying to become a qualified teacher and he’s also contemplating a career in football coaching. However, the 22-year-old said that there’s still a special bond with his team-mates from an FA Youth Cup run that really lifted the mood around AFC Wimbledon before the first-team went on that glorious promotion run.
Take a look below at our Q&A with Seanan.
There was a special spirit during that FA Youth Cup run, which really connected you with the supporters. Do you look back with a lot of pride on that season?
“Robbo knew exactly what the fans wanted. He has been at AFC Wimbledon for a long time, since the start of the academy. He knew how much hard work had been put in by the supporters to get Wimbledon back into the Football League and he understood how they felt when they lost their club in 2002. It’s hard to imagine any club outside the Premier League receiving the backing we had on that night against Chelsea. Well over 3,000 supporters attended an FA Youth Cup match and even when we were losing they were cheering us on. It’s such a nice memory for us all to have. There was a real family atmosphere that season and a great connection with the supporters.
“Everyone knows the stories about the old Wimbledon, but Robbo always made sure that we were aware of what the club was about and the history. You build a house on foundations and they were our foundations! We were all about having that never-say-die attitude and the old Wimbledon traditions. Robbo never once talked about winning. Even though winning is obviously important, he knew that the tools he had given us would make us win. He made sure we knew about the Crazy Gang and the club’s tradition of upsetting the odds. The attitude was ‘We are Wimbledon, and we can beat anyone’.
What sticks in your memory from that night against Chelsea?
“We came in at half-time drawing 1-1 and I was looking around the dressing room thinking ‘we’ve got them, we’ve got them’. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way in the end, but Chelsea were European Champions that year. We were perceived as ‘little old Wimbledon’, but we had the mentality that we could beat anyone. We didn’t care who was in front of us, and we proved that by winning at Watford and Newcastle. We were taking on Premier League academies and Wimbledon were in League 2 at the time. There was a big gulf in terms of the facilities we had compared to those clubs, but we did not care. We had such a strong mentality and a strong belief that it didn’t matter to us who we were playing against. We felt that we could beat anyone because we had such a great team spirit and belief.
“It’s hard to swallow that more of us didn’t go further in the game because we were on the same pitch as current England internationals and we were level with them for the majority of the game. Jody Morris was managing the Chelsea team with Joe Edwards and they said we gave them the hardest game that season. It was such a compliment towards us.”
Robbo once said that you were key to the FA Youth Cup run because you had the mentality of a man in youth football. Where did that mentality come from?
“My Dad is a very strong character, and so is my Mum, and they instilled that in me. You always have to work hard to get anywhere in life and it’s the same with football. Robbo gave us those tools and that never-say-die attitude. When I had my serious knee injury he always kept me involved, whether that was through match analysis, or just keeping me in the loop. I was so involved, even when I was injured. I knew what I needed to do so that I could come back stronger. There were times during that FA Youth Cup when we needed to pull together as a group and I felt we did that. I felt that I really helped the group with my mentality and it was a good role for me. It was something I really enjoyed doing.”
That FA Youth Cup run came during a season that ended with promotion for AFC Wimbledon and the early rounds lifted the mood amongst the fans at a time when the first-team were struggling. What do you remember about that time?
“We went on such a great run and I remember Alfie Egan doing an interview after Watford and he said ‘We are Wimbledon, we can beat anyone’. It felt like that flicked a switch in the minds of the first-team management. All of the fans were talking about the academy. The first-team had a really good squad, but they had to raise their standards after a disappointing first half to the season. There were a lot of meetings at the training ground at around that time. It felt like we had an impact because we went on a such a great run at a time when the first-team had been struggling. Then the first-team went on a brilliant run and earned promotion. Tom Beere, who I still see and speak to a lot, scored that vital goal against Accrington. The academy is such a great asset for the club and I think it’s now starting to be used in the right way.”
You almost joined Chelsea – the club you supported as a boy – at the age of 13. Why did you decide to stay at AFC Wimbledon?
“When I was 13, Wimbledon got promoted to the Football League and about two weeks before the game at Man City I was on trial at Chelsea. They had been asking me for months before, but I kept saying no because I loved it at Wimbledon. It felt like home. I ended up going on trial at Chelsea, but I had one training session on the Saturday and they asked me if I wanted to go to Turkey on tour. I ended up going on tour and had another week with Chelsea after that. The day I came back from Turkey was when Danny Kedwell scored that penalty. Even though I was a massive Chelsea fan and I still love them to bits, Wimbledon just felt like home. Robbo found out about me going to Chelsea, so he called me and my parents. He had a conversation with them about me staying. I went to one more session with Chelsea, but when I got in the car afterwards I cried my eyes out and said ‘I want to stay at Wimbledon, this is my club’. I was at Wimbledon from the age of 13 to 18 and the club meant a lot to me."
Do you think that players in the FA Youth Cup squad that season should have gone onto achieve more in the game?
“It’s perhaps a regret from a coaching perspective that more from that group of players missed out on being pro footballers. We were great as a group, but individually they were good too. It was a shame that a lot of the players couldn’t really kick-on. Coaches obviously have different opinions and see things differently, but I felt that more players should have got pro contracts. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out, but more players are coming through into the first-team now from the academy.”
What do you think you learned from your time at Wimbledon in terms of life skills?
“I’m still in contact with Robbo and we were having this conversation the other day. Not many from that core group we had, the squad that did so well in the FA Youth Cup in 2016, have gone onto progress in football. Obviously Paul Kalambayi and Toby Sibbick have both gone onto be professional players, but coming through the ranks at Wimbledon helped us all a lot. No one gets in trouble with the law, and plenty of the squad have gone onto to do well in other careers. Robbo built a culture that helped us to become good people, as well as offering us opportunities to make it in the pro game. A lot of the boys are doing well in their careers outside football and that’s all down to Robbo really. He prides himself on such a high work ethic. If we mirrored that work ethic we knew that we had a good chance of doing well as young footballers, but we were also taught good values that would help us in life. Coming through at Wimbledon’s academy was all about discipline, and doing your jobs, both on and off the pitch, and hard work. That moulded us into good people.”
Do you still keep in touch with most of the squad from that memorable FA Youth Cup run?
“We met-up regularly before the lockdown because we had such a tight bunch of players. We still speak to each other most days and I’m still close friends with around 10 or 11 of the squad. It was a real family atmosphere when we were playing together and I feel that this has carried on after leaving Wimbledon. It’s four years later now, but there is still a strong bond between us all.
“Dom Bongo is now doing well as an Estate Agent, Reece Batchelor has a good career that he started not long after leaving Wimbledon, and Neset Bellikli has gone over to Turkey to have another crack at football. A lot of the boys are still playing, but have other careers. Alfie Egan has still been playing, but he’s set-up his own Fruit & Veg business, and he is also working in a gym.”
What have you been up to since you left Wimbledon?
“I left almost four years ago now. I got released in October and I was looking to get a job. I found a job in the local newspaper about going to work in a school called The Study, which is a Primary Girls School in Wimbledon Village. It was something completely different for me, but being a PE teacher was something I always wanted to do, so it was a good pathway for me. My initial contract was only for six months, but after that they extended it, and I got to love it, so I went full-time. At the end of that year, I decided that going into teaching was what I wanted to do, so I decided to go to university. I am halfway through my degree at the moment.
“John Scales’s daughters go there, and I often talk to him about Wimbledon, so the connection is always there. After about three weeks at the school, I got introduced to John by one of the teachers who knew how much I loved football. John said he remembered me playing against Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup. We got talking about my experiences and his experiences at Wimbledon. As I was at a girls school and football wasn’t necessarily the first sport, it was good to have someone to talk to about football, especially because John played for Wimbledon."
Despite pursuing other career options, are you still playing football?
“I am playing for Abbey Rangers. After playing against Wimbledon last summer for Met Police, we had a meeting with the manager and the whole issue for me was that their closest away game involved two hours of travel and they didn’t have a budget to cover my petrol, so it just wasn’t feasible. I ended up going back to Raynes Park Vale, but Abbey Rangers, who are also in the Combined Counties League, came in for me, so now I’m playing there. It’s a good club with nice facilities, so I was enjoying playing for them before the football stopped due to Coronavirus.
“I had come to accept that I wouldn’t make a career out of playing football, but I still feel I’ve got something to offer the game. I’ve been speaking to Robbo about getting into coaching and he thinks it’s a great idea. Once I’ve finished my degree I will see where I am with my football and what’s best for my career. When you go from playing football full-time at Wimbledon as a scholar to playing twice a week, and then maybe stopping, you do miss it. I still enjoy football, so I want to stay involved in the game. I am really interested in the coaching side of it and it could be a good option for me in the future.
"You get a start in coaching during your scholarship with a level two coaching qualification, but I’m pretty confident that I can progress further, particularly after getting experience of teaching. Robbo is very keen on me doing it, so it was good to have that chat with him and he is an experienced coach who can mentor me. I’m training to be a Primary School teacher, but specialising in PE. Whether I will do that now, I’m not sure because I’m thinking that coaching could be for me. My head and heart are leaning towards coaching, but not until I finish my degree.”