In his most far-reaching interview to date, Head Coach Mark Robinson reflects on his whirlwind 21 League games in charge and how he lifted us from the precipice.
Robbo explains the radical changes to our style of play and training, how he refused to fine players for misdemeanours, the target they set for the season, and the team meeting that defined our destiny.
He also talks frankly about the man who changed his life and the debt of gratitude our club owes, how he is striving to forge close links with our Premier League London neighbours – and the emotional response he got from fans once our team was safe.
Not to forget the £20 gift that reduced him to tears - and why The Style Council rock…
Q: What was the first thing you did when you took over?
A: I asked the players what they thought were the main problems. I had my view on where we needed to improve, but I also wanted to know what they were thinking.
Q: What did they say?
A: I could see they were all very low on confidence and I wanted them to open up. They felt we were predictable, we didn’t get a lot of the ball, and we were easy to play against.
Q: Did you lay down the law?
A: Quite the opposite! When I first talked to the team, I said there’d be no rules and no fines. For example, we had a little issue about boots being cleaned in sinks at away grounds. Straight away the players said: “Fine us Robbo, just fine us!”
It was like they wanted, expected, me to give them rules and barriers. “No”, I replied. “We work under values and we work under standards.” Then I asked them: “How often have you been fined?”
“All the time, always,” they replied. “There you go then,” I responded. “If you’re always getting fined, it doesn’t work, does it?!”
It was about changing behaviour and mindsets. Now when we go away, they clear up, they help the staff. We are all in it together.
Q: How much did the threat of relegation weigh on you, especially knowing next season would be the first chance for fans to experience our new home? Did you set the players a target?
A: I didn’t think like that initially and nor did the players. We did set a target – but it wasn’t about survival. Instead, we wanted to get the most points a Wimbledon side had ever got in League One. Even when we were doing well the players were saying to me ‘Robbo, can we still get there, can we reach the target?’
Up until the Rochdale game, that’s all the players were thinking about. The record was 57 and we wanted to get 58 points.
The only time we started thinking about relegation really was when we lost the two games over Easter. I realised fans were starting to say things like ‘if we go down’ and that was when it really hit me. No way could we allow it to happen.
Q: At the time of your appointment, we were in a slump with no wins in 11 League games and some hefty defeats. How did you set about reversing that form?
A: I wanted us to dominate the ball more. That got the players’ enthusiasm up straight away. I also didn’t want to talk only about the here and now, or winning the next match. I wanted them to get excited about the future – in terms of the style of football we’d be playing and what that might look like. I wanted to give the players more freedom on the ball but at the same time make sure we were really hard to beat.
Q: Overnight we went from a team that couldn’t hang on to the ball, to one that was passing it around with confidence. How did that happen?
A: I told the players that ‘we have to train as we play’. It’s not about the length of the training but the intensity. We introduced a lot of sessions in tighter areas, so there was a lot more problem solving to work out.
If you’re looking for pre-season fitness, then you train in big areas to build up stamina. But in terms of problem solving and being better on the ball and making better decisions, you train in tight areas where there is very little space. That makes you think quicker, you have to move the ball quicker and work on first-time touches.
Yes, we came across quite a bit of failure but I explained that wasn’t a bad thing. Even though the challenge was really hard and there were times when they’d be thinking ‘this is too tough’ it worked. When you work in much smaller areas – and then put it all into practise on a full-sized pitch - suddenly everything seems a bit slower and easier to execute and you have more space to work in.
I felt we needed that if we were going to be better on the ball and we were going to improve the players’ confidence.
Q: But we looked in serious trouble when you stepped in. Wasn’t it too late to change things so radically?
A: We had 21 League games left. In a situation like that you have a choice: let’s just get 10 men behind the ball and try to hit opponents on the break. You might sneak a win that way.
I couldn’t look at it like that, though. I was thinking long term and not just about winning the next game. I wanted everyone to see what the future was going to look like – the players, the staff and the fans.Yes, there was an element of risk but I enjoyed that because there’s always an element of risk when you’re trying to build something.
Q: Did the players surprise you?
A: I had seen them in training so I knew there was a lot more in there. If you show the players there’s a plan and a future and it’s exciting, and part of that is improving them as players and making them better and playing a style of football where they can enjoy themselves, then enthusiasm levels rocket.
But there had to be a trade-off. We needed to work incredibly hard off the ball – then, when we got it, the players could start to enjoy having possession in return. That had to be the deal.
Q: What off-the-ball work did you do?
A: We did a lot of recovery work. So, if a team breaks, what’s our quickest recovery shape and what does it look like? We did lots of repetition over 10/15 minute periods, just so the players would understand their roles and responsibilities.
What you don’t want is a player running past his teammate to get to the quickest recovery position. If we get caught out of shape then it’s about everyone knowing what they need to do. You don’t want someone doing a 50-yard sprint when another player is much closer.
Q: What’s the key to improving a player’s performance?
A: Players have to enjoy playing football. It’s very hard to be a professional footballer, it takes an awful lot of work and dedication. It’s impossible to have a successful team if the players aren’t actually enjoying playing the game. They must enjoy it.
Q: But how can you achieve that?
A: By giving them the confidence to dominate possession. They must believe they are allowed to do things, they’re not limited once they have the ball. For example, letting a player try a clever scoop pass and not be ridiculed or shouted at for daring to give it a go.
Players should be given the chance to try something different or exciting for fans to see. If it doesn’t come off, they shouldn’t get destroyed for it.
By the same token, though, they must realise there are certain areas of the pitch where there are jobs to be done and where you need to make more sensible decisions.
Q: What’s been the hardest part of the job?
A: Telling players they’re not playing. You work hard with them all week and they’re all trying to get in the team. I’ve had players come in really passionate about being dropped and I’ve realised that’s a good thing. They’re desperate to play because they’re really enjoying it. That’s helped me deal with it better. But it’s tough.
Q: What have you enjoyed the most?
A: How the players have bought into a different way of thinking. The learning environment, the shifting mindsets, stuff that I’ve got told for a long time you can’t do at first-team level.
Then there’s the pinch-yourself moments. Ipswich was one. We were totally dominant in the first half and I looked to my left and saw the Sir Bobby Robson Stand. Then I looked at the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and thought ‘wow, I’m standing at Portman Road, I’m managing AFC Wimbledon and we are absolutely passing Ipswich off the pitch.’ That was special.
Q: Did you ever doubt yourself?
A: The two games over Easter were hard because, even when we reflected afterwards, we couldn’t see where we had gone wrong. We totally dominated the second half at Plymouth but came away with nothing.
Then, in the following home game against Fleetwood, an unfortunate error cost us the points. Those two games didn’t make me doubt the processes but they did make me think everything would be wasted if we didn’t start winning.
I could feel the fans were getting nervous as well. Nobody puts me under more pressure than myself and I was beginning to worry when the win would come, especially when we were doing so much right. That’s when we had our big meeting.
Q: What meeting?
A: Our performance mindset coach Steve Sallis rang me and talked about how we could find an edge. “They’re clearly loving what they’re doing, they love coming to work,” he said, “but maybe you need to give them a little reality check.”
That got me thinking about the younger players, in particular, and whether they needed a bit of a nudge. I’d been telling them how well they’d all been doing, so maybe they were thinking ‘well, if Robbo says it’s all good, then the results will come.’ They needed to know we were running out of games and things could get serious.
So, we all got together and I put a League Two table on the wall and made out I wanted to go to the toilet. I didn’t really – I just wanted to leave them looking at the table. Then, when I came back in, I said: “Who fancies playing in League Two next year?”
That was a real turning point. Some of the senior lads started saying ‘no way do I want relegation on my CV’ – and then the younger ones joined in. From then on we all got into a much deeper conversation about how to find that edge.
Q: Over the next four games we started winning and scoring for fun – five against Accrington, three against Ipswich, four against Swindon and two against Oxford. What happened!?
A: After our meeting, we worked on getting into the killer danger areas more. The first bit was unopposed, where we did lots and lots of repetition and second balls and getting into areas. Then we took all that into a game, and concentrated on final third stuff.
We had a couple of banged heads and a black eye and I was panicking that I’d have no players left but they took everything we did in that session straight into the Accrington game.
I felt good for the players. Suddenly they had every reason to see how good they could be. Winning that emphatically gave them belief.
Q: Do you think this job was your destiny and who was a key influence?
A: I have never felt so content or happier than right now. I love coming in every day and seeing us all getting better together.
I always wanted to be a coach. When I started, when I was only doing the under nines, 10s and 11s, I said to my wife: ‘I’m loving this! It’s what I’m going to do.’
All the while, I was being quietly watched by the club’s youth and community director back then, Nigel Higgs. One day he called me in, told me he was having problems with the under 18s and explained what he wanted to do.
He was very much into developing the person as well as the player, stuff I dearly believed in. The club needed to secure Centre of Excellence status to turn professional and when Nigel offered me the opportunity I actually cried.
I knew it was what I was meant to do. I knew I was meant to coach and develop players. I wasn’t even dreaming about the first team back then. Nigel introduced me to everyone, he told me how he wanted it to look, we spent hours together and he trusted me.
He was so forward thinking and he wanted the best academy in the country. A lot of what we have now was what he was striving towards. I truly believe he never got the recognition he deserves but, right now, I feel I’m repaying Nigel for some of the faith he showed in me. So, Thank You Nigel.
Q: Surely there’s a world of difference between coaching under 10s and first team footballers?
A: I think this is one of the biggest mistakes that coaches make. Everything should be about making players better but the higher you go up the age groups, the more obsessed coaches become with tactics. The coaches stop developing the players themselves. If you don’t have the tools to carry out the tactics, then the tactics are always going to fail.
Whether you’re working with the under 10s, or the first team, the main focus should always be to make the players better.
Q: What have you learned about yourself?
A: That I didn’t push myself forward enough a lot earlier in life.
Q: What does the future look like?
A: I just want us to do something really different and special. Football is crying out for something that’s honest and real. Recent events with the European Super League have shown up the vulgarity that’s in football. The game is crying out for something special where there’s real values and players connect with fans in the way they should.
I love the fact we are fan owned because fans are everything. I grew up a fan, my family was obsessed with football, and I get a fan’s pain when the team is struggling. I want our fans to wake up in the morning and be excited about being a Wimbledon fan. That’s what it’s all about. Everyone wakes up, the players are proud to be playing for the club and coming to work, and the fans are proud and excited to be going to the match.
Q: How far can a fan-owned club go?
A: A lot further than most people think. Even though we are 20th or 21st in the budget league, I still say we can get promoted over a period of time. I honestly believe you can massively over achieve if you get the right people together. But you have to get every single person completely in the same mindset, with the same objectives. Then anything is possible. There’s nothing more powerful than a collective culture.
Q: What’s your role on our new five-man football panel?
A: The panel will identify where we need strengthening and give the club direction in terms of the kind of players were are looking to bring in. Then there’s the Academy and making sure we develop players so they either play for us, or have a sell-on value.
For example, say we need a right-sided attacking player but we already know there’s a brilliant prospect in the Academy who might be ready in 18 months. In that case, it makes more sense to get in a loan signing, rather than get someone on a contract who will block the pathway for our promising Academy player.
It's about forward thinking and trying to spend our money wisely as we go along.
Q: Where can we improve?
A: I think formation flexibility is key for us. When I look at our more recent games, it’s obvious teams were doing their homework on us. That was clear against Portsmouth. Lots of teams realised we were suddenly a threat and I could see them setting up very differently.
As well as being incredibly fit and robust, we must have the ability to change our shape and give opponents problems they did not expect.
We also need to be able to rest on the ball. You can’t always go full speed all the time. Going forward is exciting but it can’t all be attack, attack, attack. There are times when you need to keep the ball and take the sting out of the opposition. That’s the next element we want to add.
Q: What are we doing to forge better relationships with our Premier League neighbours?
A: This is something the club has never really done before so we are making presentations to them right now. The key is to show them our style of play and how we could help develop their players. Big clubs like Chelsea, Spurs, West Ham and Arsenal want to know that if we take their promising youngsters on loan, then we will actually help make them better – on and off the pitch.
We are going to show them exactly what our training schedule looks like and explain our style of play. We want to be the first port of call for these big clubs. I want these clubs to phone us and say ‘we have this incredible young prospect, do you need him?’
I’d also like to offer them coaching sabbaticals. They could send over high-calibre coaches from an under 23 or under 18 side and they could get huge experience with our first-team. I’d even go away from football. I’d have no issue going to a top rugby club and bringing in a coach to show us different perspectives on things like resilience and robustness, for example.
Q: What’s your idea of a complete footballer?
A: If we can produce or develop a player who has the technique and decision making to play in a team sport, but the mentality of an individual sportsman, then we will have hit the jackpot.
Q: How have the fans reacted to our League One survival?
A: I’ve been overwhelmed by all the messages. Comments like ‘you’ve made me proud to support the club again’ or ‘I can’t wait for next season’ and ‘I’ve never been so excited’. One guy even said it’s the best football he’d ever seen Wimbledon play.
One supporter in California sent me a book called ‘Leaders Eat Last’. It’s written by an inspirational author I really love called Simon Sinek. The fan sent me a card which said: ‘Mark, I get a feeling you follow Simon Sinek so I’ve bought this book for you!’ I’ll definitely read it.
Another guy sent me a cheque for £20! I guess he was elderly and his note simply said: ‘I just want to say I have been a Dons fan for 45 years and I’ve really enjoyed the football so here’s £20. Cash it in quickly and go treat yourself!’ That one brought a bit of a tear to be honest.
Q: Finally, is it true that you’ve been encouraging the players to get in the groove?
A: Ha! Yes, that’s right. Music is always playing at our training ground. When I first took over I asked everyone - the players and staff - to pick two or three of their favourite tracks. We then compiled a huge playlist and it’s such a mixture.
Nobody knows who selected what. One minute you’ll be listening to Frank Sinatra, then there’ll be some rap or a bit of funk. It’s brilliant.
Q: And you’re favourites?
A: I always liked Level 42 when I was younger, I also loved funk and soul – and I especially liked the Style Council and The Jam. I guess I was a bit of a mixed up kid!