It’s been a whirlwind 12 months for Jack Rudoni after he signed his first professional contract, went out on loan twice, and established himself as a regular member of the first-team squad.
‘Rudi’ has certainly gone the extra mile to achieve his dream of becoming a professional footballer and this season his efforts have been rewarded as he has made 13 first-team appearances. As well as being guided by our academy coaches, he has clocked up the hours working with his mentor Nigel James.
For those that may have missed our extensive interview with Jack in a recent programme, it’s reproduced in full below.
Having joined AFC Wimbledon at the age of 11, Jack’s rise into the first-team ranks is another success story for our academy, but he’s also honed his skills under the tutelage of Nigel, father of Chelsea player Reece, at his Elite Coaching school.
Now 18 years of age, Jack, who is also known by his nickname ‘Rudi’, has been rewarded for all his dedication with first-team football at Wimbledon, making his full debut in the 2-1 win at Bristol Rovers on Boxing Day.
“Nigel has coached me from a young age and he’s the one who trained me to have quick feet and to be technical,” Jack recalled. “After I left Palace at the age of 10, I was introduced to Nigel, who has worked with me a lot and pushed me hard. It’s not been an easy journey, but I’ve managed to progress in my career and Nigel has played a big part in that. The extra work I did with Nigel is starting to pay off. I would play with other boys in training sessions and small-sided games, or sometimes on my own. When I worked with Nigel on an individual basis, he would work on my technique and my first touch. He aims to sharpen up the touch and skills of young footballers. We would work on using skills in congested areas, using clever skills to get out of certain situations.
“As well as his son Reece at Chelsea, Nigel’s daughter Lauren plays for Manchester United Women. Zech Medley at Arsenal and other players with pro clubs have also worked with him. Reece is a very skilful player and it encourages you to try and make it when you are playing with talented footballers. Training with players like that, combined with the academy here, just helped my career a lot. I always try to be the best, so to train with the best young talents helped to push me forward in my career.”
Dons supporters may also remember Nigel as the manager of Hanworth Villa Under-18s, who faced Wimbledon’s youngsters in the FA Youth Cup earlier this season.
Jack’s introduction into the first-team set-up last season certainly took one experienced player by surprise, as Anthony Wordsworth recalled in a recent interview.
“When he first came over to train with the first-team we were doing one v ones and he twisted me inside out! He is some talent and it’s nice to see him getting games, but if he keeps playing it will mean he’s taking my position!”
Jack’s countless hours of practice in his back garden is still there for all to see, via a social media clip that he posted on Twitter with the following note: “Neymar challenge with a twist. Who's attempting it next?” The clip got almost 20,000 views and provides further evidence of his dedication to his profession.
“I practiced it against the wall, repeatedly over and over again. I used to do it constantly for hours and hours, whatever the weather I would go out and practice my skills. I would play in the garden, kicking it against the wall for hours on end. Everything helps and I think it made me more of a technical player. I’ve got quite a few videos on my phone, I used to work on loads of tricks.
“I started off playing for Epsom Eagles from the age of four or five. I was always kicking a ball about from a young age. My parents didn’t really like football, but my Grandad played a little bit when he was younger, before he had to go to the army. My earliest football memory was playing for Epsom Eagles in a tournament at Pontins and we got to the final, but it was almost unplayable due to the weather. It was hailstones, rain, and wind, but we were determined to win. I think I’ve still got the trophy somewhere!”
Though Jack earned a reputation for his ball skills during his rise through the academy, he admitted that the other side of the game is not something that has come naturally.
“Throughout my scholarship year I had to learn to deal with the physical side of the game. At the start of my scholarship I didn’t like tackling or getting stuck in, I just liked doing nice stuff on the ball. I learned very quickly that it’s not all about that. I have had to adapt and I like that side of the game now. I used to hate it, but now I like getting stuck in, winning balls, and starting attacks.
“When I first joined Wimbledon I was a left midfielder. I was a bit of a late developer and the boys were bigger and quicker than me. I started to become very technical so I could use my skills to make up for the physical side of the game. I progressed into a central midfield position or a number 10 role and I started to get bigger and stronger, catching up with everyone. I stayed central midfield, more of an eight than a 10, so that I could get around the park and get tackles in.
“When I went into the Under-18s with Mark Robinson we did a lot of technical work, but I would say that Robbo and Alan Reeves helped with the other side of the game. I knew that I had to go and win the ball, not just play in the style of Mesut Ozil and float around. They told me that I had to go out there and be aggressive, to win the ball, if I wanted to make it as a pro footballer. I was told that I had to win my headers. I never used to head a ball and I used to do my best to avoid it, but now I love heading.”
A loan spell at Tonbridge Angels also made a big difference for Jack, the spell in non league football coming after a stint at Corinthian Casuals at the end of last season.
“Going out on loan introduced me to men’s football. Playing at Corinthian Casuals was very good. The coaches there showed me a lot of love, played me every week, and I helped to keep the club up at the end of last season. That was a good introduction and then going up to the league above with Tonbridge Angels was another good experience. It’s a good set-up there and they were involved in a relegation dogfight. Playing men’s football at that level prepared me really well for when I got my first-team chance here.”
Jack wasted no time grasping his big first-team opportunity this season, impressing on his full debut in the win at Bristol Rovers on Boxing Day. It was a proud moment for him when he was told by the manager that he was playing, particularly after being with Wimbledon for so long.
“Hopefully the match away at Bristol Rovers was the start of a good career for me. It was a Christmas present to find out that I was in the team at Bristol Rovers on Boxing Day. To play a part in a very good away victory made it a great day for me. My Nan and Grandad, my Mum, my brother, and my uncle were all there, so it was good that they were at the game when I made my full debut. I saw them all after the game and they were all proud of me.
“I’ve been at Wimbledon for most of my career and I just love the club. It means everything to me, especially because I’ve come through the ranks and developed here. I was at Crystal Palace from Under-8s until Under-11s, but I think leaving there was for the best. Coming here worked out brilliantly for me. Wimbledon has helped me so much with my development and this club has been great for my career. Playing for the first-team and making my debut was just the greatest feeling.
“I want to push on now and become a first-team regular. I want to get goals and assists and help the team to stay up this season. Next season I know that we can push on further. We have the ability in the squad, but we just need to work on the management of games sometimes. I believe that we will get there if we keep working hard.
“It’s been an incredible year for me. I signed my first pro contract last March and I’ve managed to push on and make first-team appearances this season. I don’t want to stop there. I want to push on and help Wimbledon into the Championship.
“I want to work on my finishing. I know I can get goals, but sometimes I snatch at things in the box and rush it. I know I have the ability to take a clever touch and compose myself first when a chance comes along. That’s what I am going to work on.
“The manager has been very good to me. He has shown a lot of faith in me, he’s put me in the team, and hopefully so far I’ve repaid his belief. Hopefully, I can work my way back into the team after a slight injury. I want to keep playing and help the team to get results.
“The manager comes and speak to me, he helps me with my game, pointing out what I need to improve upon, but he also tells me what I’m doing right, which is always good. He’s been a pleasure to play for and hopefully I’ve been a pleasure to coach!
“After getting a taste of first-team action I just want more. The atmosphere that you get to be a part of, that feeling of winning important matches in front of a big crowd. I just like that pressure of playing when it really means something with three points on the line. You know that you have to win and I just thrive on that pressure. I enjoy that responsibility because I always want to win.”
As a home-grown player, Jack has received plenty of support from our fanbase as he seeks to progress further, but being recognised is something he’s only starting to get used to!
“I live nearby in Cheam and at the end of last season when I was moving house one of the neighbours came up to me and said ‘Are you Jack?’ They recognised me and said ‘well done’ on making progress towards the first-team. They wished me well for the future, so that was nice. Obviously, I’ve signed a few autographs outside the ground before games and it’s something I’m starting to get accustomed to!”
Jack, who attended Dorchester Primary School in Worcester Park and Overton Grange School, Sutton, grew up as a talented cross country runner. He recalled being asked to represent Surrey, but athletics comfortably came second best to football.
“When I was at school I was good at long distance running. Every year I won the cross country race for Sutton borough. I was asked to go in cross country races and I got selected to represent Surrey at one stage, but I said that I didn’t like running – I just wanted to play football! I didn’t want to be messing around doing running.
“When I was seven years of age I started going to clubs that had seen me play for Epsom Eagles. I went to Chelsea for a bit, but I didn’t get in, then Tottenham for a spell, but I ended up going to Crystal Palace. I was at Crystal Palace from U8 until U11, and then I joined Wimbledon. Jeremy Sauer [formerly the AFC Wimbledon Academy Manager] was at Crystal Palace, and he got me a trial here. It all went on from there.”