This season is witnessing a revolution at our club with the first-team as one of the youngest ever fielded in our entire history.
Gone are the days when we signed ageing players looking for a final pay cheque. We are looking to do what Alan Hansen famously said was impossible. Win with kids. Or, in our case, Robbo’s Rookies.
In one of the most important and expansive interviews they’ve ever given, our Head Coach Mark Robinson, Chief Executive Joe Palmer, and Recruitment Manager Will Daniels explain the thinking behind this new approach. They openly discuss our club’s strategy, finances, coaching, selection and recruitment policies - and the critical role fans must play if we are to achieve the success we all want.
It’s a conversation that covers many fundamental issues and we urge all AFC Wimbledon fans to consider deeply the topics raised. Between them, Robbo, Joe and Will give a searingly honest and frank insight into the realities of running the club you all own.
The over-riding message is quite simple: AFC Wimbledon is on a profound and exciting new course. Inevitably, there will be bumps along the road but if we all remain united, then we can achieve what we achieved when we returned to Plough Lane. We can make the impossible happen.
“If we all understand what we are trying to achieve and support each other, then it’s not impossible to believe we can be in the Championship within five years,” says Robbo.
Divided, however, and there is a real fear – shared by all three - that those dreams will shatter and the progress we are visibly making will simply vanish in front of our own eyes, especially if our fans don’t realise the impact they can have on our young squad.
“Our fans are an incredible power for good,” adds Robbo, “but we must remember that many of our first-team players have only been playing senior football for half a season. In fact, some of them have never even played in front of a crowd before.”
Q: Our first team is the youngest – and, therefore, least experienced - in the entire Football League. Why is this?
Joe: It’s largely a financial necessity but it’s also because we believe this is the right way forward. First and foremost, we have a £4.5million loan to sort out. This was taken to complete the construction of our new stadium and it needs either repaying or restructuring. We can't ignore this and we will not cripple our club with unmanageable debt. Yes, our new stadium gives us new revenue streams but these won’t happen overnight.
Everybody knows we have one of the league’s lowest playing budgets, so it’s imperative that we outperform it. Figures released last week showed the top club has £10 million while we are in the bottom three with £1.8m.
That’s our reality but we had to find a way of spending it more effectively. We had to find a competitive advantage somewhere. How could we get more value out of the small budget we have? That’s the crux of everything.
We needed to create a model that would have longevity and never change. We didn’t want to be in the same hopeless position every season, desperately fighting off relegation and relying on old players at the tail ends of their careers. That’s a strategy that only heads one way – downwards.
Q: So, what changed?
Joe: We created a five-man selection panel to identify the sort of players we want at the club – primarily young, ambitious ones with the future still ahead of them. This has three key advantages: one, Robbo and his team can coach and develop them at an early age; two, we can teach them to genuinely appreciate our club’s unique history and the values we hold dear and, three, if all goes well, we can increase their value and – should we need to – sell them on to bring in funds.
Q: Who is on this panel – and what’s so different?
Joe: There’s me, Robbo, Will and two new chief scouts. The panel makes sure fundamental decisions are made as a group, based on solid underlying data and not just one person’s opinion. The traditional manager model is: ‘I want this player, I want that’. Then the inevitable happens: results slide, the manager leaves, and the club is saddled with old players on long contracts. We had to break that cycle.
Will: We created a set philosophy that covers every aspect of selection and recruitment – from how our Academy develops young players to the type of players we bring in and the contracts we offer them. A policy that continues to run, regardless who the coach is.
Robbo: The creation of this panel was one of the main reasons why I accepted the role of Head Coach. I don’t have to get bogged down with contracts and paperwork - those responsibilities are shared so I can spend more time with the players and build a culture I believe is fundamental to sustained success.
The people who inspire me in football are the ones who made radical culture changes at their clubs – the likes of Bill Shankly at Liverpool, Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United and Ted Drake at Chelsea. If I could achieve a fraction of what they did - on and off the pitch - then I’ll be heading in the right direction and delivering what this club deserves.
Joe: We’ve increased the length of contracts we normally give first-year pros so they have more time to develop and we focus more on loaning out players. If our players aren’t in the first-team squad, then we want them out on loan, gaining real experience of the men’s game and seeing if they can develop.
We have basically created a policy that will steer the club into the future - one that won’t change, even if the managers do.
Q: How does the football panel decide which players to keep or bring in?
Will: We want to establish genuine reasons why a player should come to the club. It’s my job to research all the stats that are out there: there are plenty of data providers offering every conceivable metric – such as pass completions, one-on-one duels, the number of tackles, the number of shots, pressing and defensive stats, and so on.
Joe: Basically, it’s player profiling and it’s used widely in the betting industry. There are a lot of tools and they can tell you a lot about players. For instance, are they mentally the right type for us, are they moaners, or will they step up and take responsibility? You ideally want 11 players with the same positive mentalities.
Q: Is it true that our long-standing sponsors, the computer game Football Manager, have helped provide information?
Will: Yes, that’s correct! It might sound unbelievable,but Football Manager has the biggest scouting network in the world with around 1,600 scouts. Every one of their scouts has to rate every characteristic of a player. There’s around 50 in total, such as agility, passing, determination, work rate, shooting, heading – in other words, every possible metric you could think of.
The scouts then rate every single one of those out of 200 –and then that is checked and verified between three and 12 times; every single metric for every single player. OK, it boils down to one person’s opinion – the scouts - but it’s incredibly in-depth and their data can provide additional sources of vital information.
Q: Which players came in this season as a result of this new strategy?
Robbo: Luke McCormick, George Marsh, Henry Lawrence, Aaron Pressley and Dapo Mebude. These players were identified by the panel and I presented to their clubs, and the players themselves, to land them. They had many other options but our new forward-thinking approach was a big reason why they felt we were the right choice for their future.
Q: Just how inexperienced are these players?
Robbo: Extremely, and I think it’s very important we don’t forget that. On average, the players at clubs above and below us in League One have between two and four years experience playing at this level – or higher.
Our players average only one season. In fact, if you take away our most senior players - Will, Ben and Woody - then our players only have half a season at this level.
This is the first time some of them have even played in front of a proper crowd. Ayoub started with us last season when no fans were allowed in; Henry Lawrence and Pres have never played before in front of crowds – even Nik Tzanev hasn’t had much experience of it either.
Q: How are they finding that transition, especially when we are seeing regular crowds of 8,000 plus at The Cherry Red Records Stadium?
Robbo: It’s great, they are loving it. Woody put it best after the Bolton game when we drew 3-3. He said: ‘I felt like I could have stayed out there for ever. I didn’t want to come off the pitch. When the fans are behind you it gives you so much extra energy.’
When it’s like that, everything becomes so much easier - especially with the style of football we want to play, on and off the ball.
Q: When we played AFC Guiseley in the FA Cup, though, some sections of the crowd started booing – even when we were 1-0 up. How did that affect the players?
Robbo: To be honest, it was a little surprising - especially as we were winning. It was definitely something the players hadn’t experienced before, and it definitely didn’t help them improve their performance.
We’ve had some difficult moments in the last few weeks, partly because of injuries but also because opponents have seen us become a threat and reacted by throwing different challenges at us. It’s all a learning curve for our players but it’s much easier for them to prevail if they feel everyone is in it together.
I’ll never be that person who tells our fans how to behave or think but there’s no denying that booing takes something away from the players. I’ve been a supporter myself and I always felt booing your own team was something you only did when you could see a lack of effort. I honestly don’t think, in the 40 games we have been together as a group, anyone could accuse our players of not giving it their all in every game.
Giving young players belief and confidence is critical to the model we are developing. If we want to get the best out of these lads, then we must let them play without fear or inhibition. They need to know they can try to be different and not get a coating if it fails. The club has made it clear that it wants us to play a fast, attacking, possession-based style of football. But we can’t always give the performance we want every time.
Q: The atmosphere didn’t seem any better at Sutton either. Are you concerned a negative vibe is developing on the terraces?
Robbo: No, not really. I’m more concerned that maybe we – the club, me, all of us - haven’t made it clear what we are trying to build here and that patience will be required at times. We want our players to go out and want the ball. We don’t want them paralysed by the thought that, if they get it, and then pass backwards or sidewards - or even lose it - they’ll have the crowd jumping on their backs.
Q: But these are professional footballers. Surely they’ve got to expect this?
Robbo: Just because they are professionals doesn’t mean they are not human, not nervous, not worried about letting the fans down. I am determined to build an attachment between the players and our supporters, one that is totally unique. To do that, I need to open the players up to the fans and take them out of their football bubble.
I also personally want to be as open and accessible to the fans as I possibly can be and I think we have already made some good strides. However, the job becomes impossible if there’s suddenly a bump in the road and people resort to behaviour that undermines everything we are trying to be. If the players aren’t working hard enough, or giving everything to the cause, I’ll let them know long before any supporter gets on the case. I can promise you that.
But some of the things fans have seen recently are predominantly down to a lack of player know-how. That can be resolved far quicker in a positive environment.
Q: What is the message to the fans then?
Robbo: When the fans have seen us at our best, they can see the style of football we want to play - even when we were in a relegation fight last season and inherited a side that hadn’t won in 11 games. I can confidently say we played our way out of trouble - we didn’t just battle our way out.
It’s vital that we build a strong playing identity. If we don’t, then all the other processes we have in place - like keeping our best players, attracting the best-possible loans and the best young players to our Academy – will simply not be possible.
I realise we live in a world of boxsets and takeaways and pretty much everything comes to people instantaneously. However, the really worthwhile stuff never comes that quickly. Of course, the club’s new model comes with an element of risk. But if we get it right over time then it could be so exciting. All we want is for our fans to wake up and have a huge feeling of pride in their club and feel they have an attachment to the players that is second to none.
If you want to see progressive football with players who want to receive the ball in tight areas and do something creative with it, then you can’t have them playing in a fear-based environment. That’s when players stop taking risks, stop taking passes, they go safe instead. That’s not where we want to be. We want to be exciting.
All I would ever ask of the fans is to think about the effect their actions could have on what we are trying to achieve. These lads need the fans to help them through. They need the fans to go berserk when we win - but also to drive us on when we might be struggling. It’s a big ask, but this is a partnership. This is part of our one-club ethos.
Q: Wouldn’t it help to have some older players and play more direct football?
Joe: We simply don’t have the budget for the best older, experienced players. We simply can’t compete toe-to-toe with those clubs that do. If we tried to follow that model, we’d end up with journeymen footballers and they won’t bring us any benefit on the pitch.
There will clearly be teams with more money and they will get the more experienced players. We have to accept that fact and then find a competitive advantage somewhere else. Which is exactly what we are doing.
Will: If it was solely down to me, I’d never recruit a player over the age of 24! But I take Robbo’s point - sometimes you need experience in the right places helping with the culture of the side and out on the pitch.
People will say ‘but you need an experienced player’ and yes, that’s true. But what they actually mean is minutes on the pitch, game time, leadership and ability. These things don’t necessarily correlate to old age. Right now we are the youngest side in the League. The players will still be young next year but, by then, they’ll have loads of appearances and experiences behind them. That is what’s really exciting.
Q: Is there anything else we can do to get a competitive edge?
Joe: Yes, and we have made incredible progress already. Robbo has transformed our coaching and style of play and then gone out to the top Premier League clubs and showed them how we are developing young players to play the game the right way. It’s now got to the stage where those clubs are contacting us and asking whether we want to take on some of their prospects.
That’s music to our ears. We want to be in a position where we get the five best-available loans every season. Now that’s a real competitive advantage worth having. We’d be flying then!
Will has also dramatically improved our chances by transforming our recruitment process and the sort of players we target and bring in.
Q: That’s never happened before. What has convinced the likes of Chelsea, Brentford, Aston Villa and even Manchester United that we are a good place for their kids to come to?
Joe: There’s been a complete change in culture. If we carried on playing the same football we did at Kingsmeadow these clubs would come once to see our new stadium, and they’d never come back.
Q: Training has changed dramatically as well, hasn’t it?
Robbo: We place a huge emphasis on elite behaviours. For this to work, the players have to self manage certain things, we refuse to coach them. Yes, we are there to coach technical details and help them solve tactical problems but there are times when they must take responsibility – not us.
One of the key things has been to encourage honest, face-to-face conversations between the players. We have an environment without mobile phones because we want them to talk more to each other and build those genuine attachments that only stem from small conversations.
This leads to players being more comfortable together and that leads to the honesty that’s required when they need to make demands of one another.
When the players are on the training pitch we have three behavioural principles. First, they must call someone out if that person falls short of the standards required. He has to accept it, and show recognition.
Principle Two is individual positive reinforcement. If a player does something really well, then his team-mates recognise it and show their approval. That is so powerful and the strongest method of learning because it encourages players to keep on relentlessly doing the things they get praised for.
Principle three is collective. For example, if a player feels his team’s standards have dropped in a seven v seven game, then we give him the freedom to stop the session and thrash it out. These are all techniques that I have witnessed in elite sporting environments and over time they lead to intrinsic motivation and consistency.
Q: Where are we in terms of progress right now?
Robbo: From what visiting managers are telling us, they see AFC Wimbledon as a club that is moving forward with a young team that warrants immense respect.
Will: Our own loans are currently out-performing any other loan players at any other League One club in terms of the stats. Our young players in the past never thought they might get in the first team. Now they want to stay, they’re excited about the future because they can see there is a pathway in front of them.
Joe: We are young, bright and - at our best - playing an exciting brand of football that is attracting new fans. Our game last weekend was cancelled because we had four players on international duty. That tells its own story, doesn’t it!