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Interviews

Revealed: Robbo's secret journal

Head Coach on moment he lost his temper - and why this season could be our greatest

8 February 2022

Mark Robinson had extra reason to celebrate last week - and not just because we successfully signed a new striker!

Transfer deadline day was also the anniversary of our Head Coach’s first year in the job - 12 months in which he undoubtedly saved us from the jaws of relegation - but also 12 months packed with the highs and lows that have kept us on the edges of our new Plough Lane seats.

When asked what score out of 10 he would give himself for the past year, Robbo split the scoring into two. 

“For everything off the pitch, for where the club is right now and for everything it stands for, I’ll give myself 9 out of 10,” he says.

“I’ve been here 17 years and, despite our story, there have been people who wouldn’t even talk to each other at times. But now, those same people are working together for one common cause and I’m really proud of that.

“For everything on the pitch, though, it has to be five out of 10.

“I genuinely feel we play some really exciting, attractive football, but until that gives us more regular wins I can’t go above that.”

Now, in an expansive question and answer interview, Robbo talks about his vision for the club, losing his temper, the personal journal that lifts his spirits, our fans and dealing with criticism, his favourite three goals, watching After Life - and why his young team can still make this season the best-ever for AFC Wimbledon…

Q: So, congratulations Robbo, one year in the job. Has it flown by – or has it been the year from hell?!

A: It’s gone really quickly. It doesn’t feel like a year at all, although it definitely feels like an awful lot has happened in that period. I’ve come to realise I’ll always be judged on where we are in the league table - and that’s understandable - but in terms of change, it’s quite staggering how much has happened on and off the pitch.

Q: What have been your greatest achievements?

A: I’m proud that we have set little records – like the most successive wins since the club's promotion into League One, the furthest we’ve ever gone in the Carabao Cup since we reformed, top scorers in English football after just eight games.

But, most of all, it has to be keeping the team up. When I first went for the job, people I’m close to didn’t want me to take it because they feared we had the weakest squad in the division. The transfer window was closed, there was no chance of strengthening it, and our form was terrible. We were getting beaten heavily, and consistently.

However, we completely changed our playing style and I don’t think it would be arrogant to say it was the first time this club had played its way out of trouble and not scrambled to safety.

Along the way new talent emerged. We had a keeper who was not even being considered and is now a top League One goalkeeper. Fans had never heard of Ayoub Assal and now he’s one of the division’s brightest young talents – while players who had been written off started playing the best football of their careers.

And all that happened in a really pressurised situation so, yes, up to this moment it’s what I’m most proud of.

What are your three stand-out memories?

1: As just mentioned, playing our way out of relegation;

2: Having the honour of continuing the greatest story in football by leading out the team for our first league game at Plough Lane in front of fans;

3: Hearing and seeing our fans applaud the players after Ipswich had beaten us at home. 

And what about your three favourite goals:

1: I don’t think anything could have been more poignant than seeing Will Nightingale score our opening goal against Bolton in that first game in front of fans. The noise and the joy was beyond words;

2: Paul Osew’s goal against Charlton in the Carabao Cup because there was something like 14 passes in the build-up, spread all over the pitch. That showed me how far we’d come in terms of our style of football;

3: Rudi’s second (our third) against Oxford. It was a goal of great detail and decision making, scored against a top League One side.

What has been the biggest learning curve for you?

Easy - the disparity in playing budgets between clubs. I thought this league was basically the ‘haves’ in the top half of the table and the ‘have nots’ in the bottom. But it’s not as simple as that. For example, clubs I thought were similar to us are actually paying their players £4/5/6,000 a week.

You try not to let that limit your ambition but when you’re confronted with it, then it’s a real problem. It’s only then that you truly see what you’re up against and the differences are staggering. However, if we continue working together, creatively, then I truly believe we can still massively outperform our playing budget.

Q: What’s the solution?

A: Before coming into coaching, I ran my own successful business. The basic rule that applied should also apply to football: your outgoings mustn’t be more than a third of what you’re bringing in. That’s a sound business formula.

When you look at football, though, that goes out of the window. Obviously, big clubs with big crowds will always bring in more income and more turnover but the principle should remain the same.

Football clubs should only be allowed to spend a set percentage of their turnover. I’m glad AFC Wimbledon is spearheading the Fair Game movement, which is trying to force fundamental change within the EFL. It’s the only way to stop clubs going bust.

How do you feel this season – your first full one in charge – is going?

Maybe every manager says it, but I honestly believe we are in a false position in the table and we want to prove that.

We don’t feel we are fighting off relegation at all. In fact, right now we are thinking there’s another 51 points to play for.

Off the pitch, and in terms of assets, the club’s already in the best position it has ever known. I want to say the same on the pitch by finishing the highest this club has ever reached.

If we can do that, then we can further improve next season and kick on again. Confidence will flow and the team will be pushing for a top-half finish.

We’ve drawn 12 games this season so far. Are you concerned that we aren’t winning as many as we would like?

We discussed this last week and genuinely feel there were five games when we should have done better and, therefore, we’re eight or nine points short of where we should be.

A lot of it is down to learning – really tiny things that need to be relentlessly worked through.

What were the five games?

We left points behind against Gillingham and Fleetwood at home, which both ended in draws when the wins were there to be had. Then there was Shrewsbury away when we dominated for a big part of the game and Portsmouth away, which should have been a draw as I’ve already mentioned.

Finally, I’d include Plymouth at home, which we lost despite playing really well - especially in the first half.

Q: Have you ever really lost your temper with the team and what did that look or sound like?

A: I’ve only been really angry after two matches – Portsmouth away when we lost in the last minute and Crewe at home, even though we won 3-2. Let’s just say the tactics board ended up in the showers that night! We were 3-1 up and even though we won, that’s the angriest I’ve ever been because we got self-indulgent and that annoyed me.

Portsmouth away hurt because I felt we disrespected the point. A draw there would have been really good but we switched off right at the end. We went on a counter attack, misplaced a pass and didn’t get our shape back. We went for three points and ended up with nothing.

I only get angry when I feel the players aren’t learning. It doesn’t happen very often because, when you think about it, what does it really achieve? It just shows you’ve lost it. Do it too many times and it simply becomes a noise - and people switch off to noise in the end.

Do you sleep at night?

Not as much I’d like to. It’s switching off that’s so hard. I never stop thinking ‘how can we improve, how can we get better?’ Obviously, that’s not healthy - if you don’t refresh your brain, then you’re no good to anyone - so I’ve started using a journal, which has really helped, especially after the Boreham Wood defeat.

Tell us more about this journal. What’s it called, how did you find it, and how does it help?

It’s called a Six-Minute Journal and was recommended to me by a leadership mentor who said: “Just try it, I think you’ll love it because of the way your brain works.” So, I did - and it’s been absolutely brilliant.

The journal basically asks different questions to get you thinking in a certain way. The questions are very clever, but are phrased as though you are a third person.

For example, it might ask: ‘If a friend was feeling down, what advice would you give that person?’

I then write down the advice I’d give that friend. But what I’m really doing is giving that advice to myself, if that makes sense.

It’s very clever. When I had a low moment after Boreham Wood I was literally telling my friend to keep believing in his processes, remind him of everything he’s achieved so far and not dwell on the negatives.

It’s like you are giving yourself a team talk as you write. It re-evaluates everything, keeps you in line and stops you going off track. It might not work for everyone, but it suits me and how passionate I am about things.

Was Boreham Wood your lowest moment?

Yes. But my pain comes from seeing how much pain other people I care about are in. I have enough self belief, and set myself such high expectations, there’s nothing anyone can say to me that will hurt. But when I see the players suffering, that does have an impact.

I saw how down and upset they were after that game and that was enough to tell me how much they cared. Of course, the fans were hurting, too, but some of the comments that day crossed the line. I know it wasn’t great, none of us wanted it to happen, but you think modern-day life, the way the world is, maybe I’m being too idealistic about the relationship I want to build at our club between all of us – players, staff and fans.

That's what hurt me the most. I want this unbelievable connection that everyone is so jealous of, and there’s so much more I want us to do together – like open days at the training ground, for example. I want us all to build a truly lasting attachment.

But Boreham Wood was the first time I thought to myself ‘maybe I’m delusional, maybe it’s just not possible, with the way the world is and the way people are and the pressures they face in their lives. Maybe it’s not possible’.

Do you still believe in this special bond – or will results always get in the way?

If any club can do it, then it’s us. I have to say our fans have been brilliant ever since Boreham Wood - even when we lost in Buckinghamshire.

It was the same on Saturday at Charlton. In fact, Woody (Alex Woodyard) personally experienced what I’m talking about. Because he’s still injured, he travelled with the fans and stayed with them during the game.

I suppose it could have backfired but I asked him afterwards what it had been like. “It was incredible,” he told me. “I honestly couldn’t imagine doing that at any other club. Those fans are something else and they love this club so much.

“We have to make them proud, Robbo, we have to do it for them.”

That’s exactly the bond I’m talking about. It’s not a pipedream, it’s real and we are in a position right to make it happen. That’s what I want to see more than anything.

How do you approach training when the team is playing well but just not getting the results it deserves?

It’s essential not to be knee-jerk. People think every 90 minutes defines you. If you win, then everyone is happy - even if the performance wasn’t great. I’ve had that: people saying ‘well done, Robbo, that was great’ when I’m really thinking ‘no, it wasn’t at all - even though we won’.

You can’t lose track of all the things that are going well just because you didn’t win. You must not panic. You have to make sure the players keep seeing the positives because elite performance comes from calm heads and clarity.

You have to keep reinforcing the things they’re doing well - without being delusional – otherwise a little bit of anxiety can creep in, and players might start snatching at chances instead of being relaxed and confident. It’s such fine margins.

Before the enforced break, our Expected Goals was the highest in the league, so something was right. We knew we were getting in the right areas and getting the quality in.

Then we had all the cancellations and we were awful for our first game back at Oxford. We had to be honest then and say ‘listen, that was so far off it.’ That was an honest reflection - but at the same time we didn’t lose sight of the fact that so much was going well.

And since then, our Expected Goals has been higher than any of the teams we have been playing - except for the Buckinghamshire game, when we were down to 10 men.

You sometimes invite athletes to talk to the players. Who has visited recently?

The Team GB hurdler, Chris McAlister, is a massive Dons fan and he came in the other day and talked about the mentality of an elite individual sportsman.

I’ve always believed that if you can develop players so they have the mindset of individual sportsmen - but are great team players as well - then you’ll hit the jackpot. Individual athletes are on a different planet to footballers. They can’t hide within a team, they can’t take shortcuts.

Chris explained what his day looks like and our lads were sat there wide-eyed in awe. He’s got a regular nine-to-five job, comes home and then jumps straight into training for three or four hours every night. And he does that purely because he wants to be the best hurdler he can possibly be, knowing it won’t bring him any great financial reward.

None of this is designed to hit our players over the head with a stick. It’s simply to show them this is what people do and the sacrifices they make to be the best versions of themselves. Sometimes footballers can forget just how fantastic their jobs are, and how lucky they are to be doing what they do.

Are you able to forget football when you get home? What was the last TV programme you enjoyed?

I must be honest, I don’t switch off enough. I’ve made sure on Sundays that my wife Claire and I try to meet pals for three or four hours and have some normality but I need to get better at that. I can’t lie.

Actually, I’ve loved watching the Ricky Gervais series After Life. It's so well written and acted and takes me away from that sterile ‘everyone's offended’ culture that's increasingly forced upon us. When people watch football on TV, for example, nobody's really offended when you inadvertently hear fans swearing. So please stop apologising to us when it happens.

We are human and what makes life interesting is that we are so brilliantly not perfect. I recently watched the film ‘Don’t Look Up’ which is about a giant asteroid on collision course for earth. That’s not the scary part, though. What’s really scary is human behaviour.

How do you mean?

Well, for example, the way people treat each other through social media is worrying. It’s the sort of subject we talk about with the players all the time because I want them to feel attached to one another and relationships don’t stem from little meaningless conversations.

We live in a world where we’ve arguably never had so much - yet we’ve also got so little. Materialistically we might be well off but there are things that are more important, like relationships and attachments to one another.

Relationships stem from conversations where you get to know one another. Just simply courtesies like ‘how’s your mum, how’s your dad’. That’s how real attachments build so we always talk about these things at the training ground. I can say with complete 100 per cent certainty that the lads genuinely care for one another as a result.

Finally, what does this club mean to you, Robbo?

AFC Wimbledon is my constant driver. We have this incredible opportunity to create something so real and special. Everything that makes you happy in life is right here on our own doorstep and this is our chance, together, to build and belong to something truly wonderful and ever-lasting.


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