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Club News

Craig Cope on the transfer window and future plans

An in-depth discussion with our Head of Football Operations

6 February 2024

Club News

Craig Cope on the transfer window and future plans

An in-depth discussion with our Head of Football Operations

6 February 2024

With the transfer window now closed, we caught up with Craig Cope for an insight into the meticulous planning that brought in six new signings during January.

After joining us just over a year ago as Head of Football Operations, Craig has helped to ensure progress on and off the pitch, but he’s far from resting on his laurels – and he’s determined to push Wimbledon forward again.

During an extensive interview with us, Craig said that plans are already being made for the summer transfer window and praised the impact of Chief Scout Andy Thorn.

Take a look at the full interview below – and don’t forget that you can hear more from Craig at our Meet the Manager event on Thursday night (7.30 pm start at our stadium).

Q - With Kofi Balmer, Josh Kelly, John-Joe O’Toole, Joe Lewis, John-Kymani Gordon and Ronan Curtis joining us and three departing -  Ali Al-Hamadi, Conor Lemonheigh-Evans and Charlie Lakin – it was a very busy month. What’s your overall assessment of our January transfer window?

I am content with our transfer activity in the window. We have lost some big players for us, but we have replaced them with real quality, and the permanent signings are also for the future, not only for the run-in.

A key aim for us heading into the transfer window was to keep the group together, but unfortunately we lost key members. However, I’m pleased that we were able to keep the spine of the team in place – something we were unable to do last January. Securing Alex Bass for the remainder of the season and signing Joe Lewis permanently enabled us to keep that strong core.

We also discussed what teams in our position really needed. From our collective experience, we agreed that we needed attacking options, so to add real quality and variety in forward areas has been pleasing.

Q - Bringing in new players is certainly not a process that happens overnight. How much forward planning goes into recruitment by you and our Chief Scout Andy Thorn?

Planning started as soon as the last window ended. There were a few moving parts to our squad, so it was important to keep communication open at all times. Andy and I speak at least once a day and he’s in touch with the management team regularly.

The work we do on a daily basis in the recruitment department helps us to make informed decisions under time constraints, especially in the January transfer window. For example, a player may become available at anytime, so we’ve put processes in place to ensure that we have the resources at our fingertips to check the data, video and scout reports.

Togetherness is at the core of everything we do. It really has been a collective effort to deliver this window. It stretches wider than the immediate management - the whole club play their part. A few notable mentions to John Stanley (Club Secretary), the finance department headed up by Laurie Hill, and obviously the media team with their engaging announcements.

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Q - We secured Joe Lewis on a permanent basis as our first piece of business with John Green supporting us. How did this come about?

I had a conversation with John in the summer about him funding a transfer, if we really needed it. At the time I believed we could manage without this support, but I thanked him and said we would keep an eye on Joe’s situation. If an opportunity arose to sign him, it was worth leaving the door open to go back to John – and that’s the way it turned out!

We were in constant dialogue with Stockport over Joe’s loan and that of Connor Lemonheigh-Evans. We even asked the question about purchasing Joe in October, but at the time they had no real motivation to sell as Joe had agreed a new deal only last summer.

Stockport were very transparent with us and they let us know a decision on the recalls as soon as possible. Unfortunately, circumstances changed with both players due to be recalled because of an injury crisis.

We felt that both players had indicated they wanted to stay at Wimbledon and they were really enjoying their time here. I reached out to John and he was more than happy to help. We managed to secure Joe for not just the remainder of the season, but also for the longer term.

We were extremely hopeful of bringing Connor back in the transfer window, but unfortunately for us he went back to Stockport and made a real impact. We wish Connor all the best for the rest of the season and thank him for his time at the Club.

Q: We hadn’t planned for Ali leaving during this transfer window, but the arrival of Josh Kelly showed that we acted quickly to replace him. How important therefore is it to have contingency plans in place for a transfer window?

I think it is all in the planning and communication with the management. We have a joined up approach when it comes to planning for windows. We trust each other and, most importantly, we are honest with each other. It is important to play out every scenario and plan, even if the answer isn’t the one you want.

Despite not wanting to lose Ali and Josh being signed on deadline day, we initially touched base with Solihull in October. The plan was to pursue him earlier in the transfer window, but we were presented with the Joe Lewis signing and had to make a decision. So we said we would wait until the end of the season, unless a player was sold in this window. As soon as it looked like Ali was leaving, we pursued Josh strongly and I am happy we managed to get the signing over the line.

We had prepared for any eventuality, including losing all of our loans, and looked at potential interest in all assets within the squad.

Q: We’ve brought in two players from Crystal Palace, but this isn’t a relationship we have used in some time. How did the relationship come about?

Andy Thorn was instrumental in opening up the relationship with Crystal Palace. We went down to their training ground in March to discuss future loans and the conversations have been frequent ever since.

I would like to thank Crystal Palace for their support and trust in us to play a crucial role in the development of John-Kymani Gordon and Kofi Balmer. We hope we can deliver on that and that it will be a relationship we can call on again in the future.

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Q: As well as the loans from Premier League clubs, we have signed players from EFL clubs and non-league this season. How many games do you and the scouting team watch per week?

Yes, we are quite broad in our work. It will depend on what games are on, but I would say on average Andy and I are at three games a week, including PL2, EFL, Non-League, and academy games. We have a team of three additional scouts who will look at games in their regions and report back to us too. The coaching staff often get out to games as well when our fixture schedule allows, this support has added to our approach.

Some clubs are starting to move away from the traditional scouting methods, but we are advocates of it and will continue to use it. We obviously have the data side of it, which identifies players for us based on our style, but we feel it is important to go and get live eyes on players. At the very least we will video scout players.

Getting out to games physically though has been really beneficial for me since coming down to the area. I have made loads of connections from just being at games and networking, which has had a benefit on our recruitment. 

Q: It’s a year now since you joined us. Are you pleased with the progress made in terms of improving the squad and processes behind the scenes?

Yes, very much so. The most pleasing thing to see is that we now have an identity. I think we can all say that we are watching a Wimbledon team on the pitch. We have had some blips along the way and we are by no means the finished article, but we’ve made a good start.

I think everyone associated with the Club are now part of this journey and internally we are all pulling together to ensure we keep moving forward.

Q: When you joined us did you have timescales in mind for how long it would take for us to be challenging for promotion? For example, four or five transfer windows, or number of years it would take.

Loosely, the biggest thing we needed to do was to lay the foundations for future seasons. I believe we are still doing that, both in terms of the squad and infrastructure. We have made good progress, but I feel we are still at that stage.

I told the board that I felt we were two summers away from having those foundations in place so we could compete consistently at the level. I feel we made good progress last summer, but all the focus now is to ensure that we maintain that progress, both on and off the pitch.

We aren’t a club who can spend big one season and gamble on going up. And nor should that be the way. I feel with clear planning and making progress season by season we can build the foundations for more consistent success further down the line.

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Q: Will a significant amount of the fee we received for Ali be available to reinvest in the squad this summer?

Some of the transfer fee has already been reinvested into the playing squad, and the majority of it will be ringfenced for the debt due at the end of next season. We all have our eyes open and are aware of the financial obligations the club has. This was at the forefront of negotiations with Ipswich in terms of the fee received, add ons, and when we would receive instalments.

Q: What has been the most satisfying aspect of your role?

Speaking honestly, it’s definitely the support and trust of the supporters. I have been here just over a year now and have experienced first-hand how engaged, passionate and involved everyone is.

I am fully aware of the anxiety around transfer windows and the results since returning to Plough Lane. So with this in mind, we are extremely grateful, as a management group, for the patience and trust afforded to us. This has allowed us to put the foundations in place, so that we can all continue on the upward trajectory together.

Q: Though one transfer window has only just ended, does the planning for the next one start straight away?

Yes, and it has already started. Obviously, we have 17 games left this season and we are eager to finish as well as we can, so our immediate focus is on that.

We have a clear look at the summer and like last season we will be working hard to ensure we have good options to improve the squad, regardless of which league we are in.

Q: Quite a lot of changes have been made since you came in, for example enhancing training ground facilities at New Malden. What other key areas are you aiming to improve in the near future?

I have already touched base with two of our hardworking volunteers - Rick Thomas and Ed Halls - to identify areas of the training ground that we need help with to improve. The work of the volunteers last season has had such an impact on the place, so we’ll aim to do it again this summer. Details will be out in due course. This season we are going to be concentrating on the players' changing room, gym and physio areas.

We spent a lot of time working on the training pitches last summer, which we are seeing the rewards of now. We have only trained on 3G twice this season, compared to this time last season when we were training on it for most of the winter. Having said that, the pitches aren’t in an ideal state and we need to kick on this summer to make sure we improve even further, and also to develop the pitches for the Under-18s, so that they can train side by side with the first-team.

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