IT’S AROUND MIDDAY when I arrive at Wycombe Wanderers’ training ground. The neatly manicured training pitches are empty, while sun glistens on the gleaming goalposts fresh with new paintwork. I enter the training complex through the gym. Inside, the gym is kitted out with every conceivable piece of equipment you would hope to find in any renowned sports training facility.
I’m met by Wycombe Wanderers manager Gareth Ainsworth kitted out in a red tracksuit, still looking trim and fit enough to be still playing. We go to the canteen where it becomes clear why the training pitches are empty. The players are re-fuelling.
“We did a couple of hours this morning, small sided games. Break for lunch, then we go again this afternoon,” Ainsworth tells me.
The canteen area is functional rather than luxurious, but still impressive. The atmosphere is relaxed. I decline the offer of food, noting a full menu of carbohydrates and protein served up by a smiling chef.
From the upstairs canteen window I look down onto the gym area, which is even more impressive from up on high. “Can the players use the equipment whenever they want?” I enquire. Ainsworth gives a wry smile: “No all the sessions are controlled, and we only have a squad of nineteen.” Point taken. Injuries can determine a season’s success or failure at this level.
As I made my way through the leafy Buckinghamshire roads, I was intrigued and eager to find out why, and more importantly how, Wycombe Wanderers have made such major improvements in just one season. Currently they are top of League Two.
For those unaware, The Chairboys came to within one game of losing their Football League status last season. All Bristol Rovers had to do was to win their home fixture against Mansfield. They didn’t – they lost 1-0. Wycombe Wanderers beat Torquay 3-0 away. As a result, Bristol Rovers were relegated by the margin of goal difference.
Wycombe’s final home game last season was against Bristol Rovers, a match which they lost 2-1. By chance I tell Ainsworth I attended the game. I offer my opinion: they were awful and heading for the Conference. He nods: “We got into a rut and couldn’t get any level of consistency in our play. Believe me I didn’t want to carry the tag of the manager who took Wycombe into the Conference and cost people their jobs. Even on that last day,away to Torquay I knew this was going to be our turning point.
“I remember looking out from the hotel window onto the sea, feeling calm and relaxed. During our pre-game chat I told the players to put pressure on Bristol Rovers. Some of the players didn’t get it. I told them, ‘score early the news will get to their fans, which in turn will get to the players’. That’s just what we did; we scored early, within six minutes, then went on to win 3-0. Bristol lost we stayed up.” His emotion is still palpably raw.
So what was your moment of epiphany, I ask. “After the home game against Bristol Rovers I knew my management style would change. I told my staff it changes now. I took that change it into the Torquay game, at present,” he says tapping wood. “It’s working, but this is football.”
Ainsworth knows all about adversity in football, he’s had his fair share.
Born and bred in Blackburn he was a youth player at with his hometown club but was released on his 18th birthday. This was a year before Jack Walker came in with his millions to spend. He dropped into the Conference with Northwich Victoria before joining Preston North End, spending three seasons with the Lillywhites. It wasn’t until Lincoln City, under the stewardship of John Beck, signed him for £25,000 that he found his way back into the Football League. During his two years with The Imps he scored an impressive 40 goals.
I take him back to the time he was released from Blackburn, stating a lot of players don’t recover. The impact is devastating: “Yes, it was for me as well. Without my parents I would have drifted out of the game. My dad never gave up, he said keep working at your game you will make it. My dad’s work ethic – don’t give up that’s for others. For sure it was and still is that northern mentality, nothing comes easy in life.”
What would his career path have been if football wasn’t in the equation?
“I left school with above average academic results, football was my priority. Probably some kind of office work. I was lucky my parents never put pressure on me to do anything else. They almost willed me to make a successful career in football.”
His next career move was Port Vale. They paid £500,000 for his services, but not before Ainsworth signed off on his penultimate game for Lincoln City with a hat-trick. He was a Port Vale player for one season, before Wimbledon signed him for £2m now 25-years-old. However his career didn’t take off as intended. During his five-season stint with The Dons he only played 45 games.
I ask tentatively: 45 games in five seasons – what happened? “Almost as soon as I arrived I needed a double hernia operation. I didn’t rest or recuperate properly, one injury led to another. During those five seasons I had seven operations on my back and groin. I even had wisdom teeth extracted to try and fix the problem.”
He was on the loan tour again with Preston and Walsall, eventually being sold to Cardiff City. He won promotion with the Bluebirds before moving back to London, signing for Queens Park Rangers in 2003.
Although he had plenty of games for The Hoops in 2005-2006, a broken fibula in 2007 again cut short his number of appearances. During 2008-09 his first management appointment came along as caretaker manager of the West London club.
Ainsworth signed for Wycombe Wanderers in 2010 after a short loan period. It’s only a couple of seasons ago that his pace, skill and crossing ability was recognised. Indeed, in 2011 he was named in the PFA Team of the Year as Wycombe Wanderers won promotion.
By November 2012, Ainsworth was manager of Wycombe, taking over from Gary Waddock.
During his playing career Ainsworth sampled the management styles and temperaments of Ian Holloway, Luigi De Canio, Ian Dowie, John Beck, Sammy McIlroy, Les Chapman, John Rudge, Joe Kinnear and Paulo Sousa. With this wealth of experience to call on, what could possibly go wrong?
I take him back to last season. Is he the type of manager who learns from his mistakes?
“My playing style was to be fully committed each and every game. Give 100%. I began my management career in similar style. I was on the training ground every day, arranging, coaching, getting involved. I was too close to the players. I thought the harder I worked on the training pitch the more success we would have. It doesn’t work like that. I was still looking for the formula, so to speak.
“The final part of last season was a nightmare. We couldn’t dig ourselves out of a losing mentality, no matter how hard we tried, and believe me we tried.
“I genuinely believed if we could just get the job done at Torquay I could turn the club around” In what way, I ask.
“Change our style of play, bring in players who could offer more consistency, let my staff get on with their job. I wanted my style to be less hands on. I needed more leadership on the pitch, which we have this season. I knew what had to be done. If I would get the chance was another matter.”
Did he expect to still be manager of Wycombe Wanderers this season? For the first time since we began the interview Ainsworth doesn’t have an instant answer. After some thought he’s back on track.
“The board knew the limitations; I was working with a small squad, limited finances, loan players, short term contracts. It was a hard job. If we would have been relegated, I wouldn’t be here today. We survived and I expected to be given this season to turn around our fortunes.”
That said the charming Ainsworth is well aware of the reality. “I have a squad of 19 or so players along with my coaching staff. We don’t run a reserve or academy team. We can’t compete with some of the teams in this league in terms of size of salaries on offer.”
In some ways the scale of his squad is a plus. These are his players, his team. Sometimes a squad can be too big, opening the door for in-house trouble.
I offer him the thoughts of some well-known business leaders – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and James Dyson – who say in one way or another that you will only find success through your failures. Does he agree?
“There are lots of good managers and coaches who have failed and can’t get back in the game. So yes, success through failure if you’re given another chance. Some would say I failed last season. Some would say keeping Wycombe Wanderers in the football league was a success”.
I ask about hobbies, relaxation and how he switches off.
“You don’t – it’s constant. Be it phone calls in the office or the car, at home, watching teams or individual players. Transfer window, players in and out. Training schedules, staff meetings, interviews. Seriously it just doesn’t stop. It’s the same for every manager I know. I’d love to say you don’t take the problems and losses home with you, but you do. Last season…” He doesn’t finish the sentence. He doesn’t need to.
Not only did Ainsworth endure what was a brutal psychological battering of a season, he came within 90 minutes of becoming a football legend for all the wrong reasons. Not only did he and the club survive, he found a resilience to implement changes, resulting in, as he said would be the outcome, a better club.
What changes has he introduced on the field both in terms of the team and his own style?
“We plan more on our strengths, as opposed to trying to stop the opposition from playing. Last season we couldn’t move on. We went from one loss to another. It was impossible to analyse defeats, confidence was low. The last thing players and staff want to go through is an hour of how we lost, again.
“During the summer we did simple things. The training ground sign as you come in, we put that up. We got rid of the old training ground goal posts, introduced new ones and painted them. When you come to the training ground it makes a good first impression.
I spent time over the summer with my staff and chairman planning new signings, new training methods, and clear tactical templates. Working to our strengths, we let the opposition work out or style and combat it if possible. Not the other way around.”
He states that he doesn’t want to get into specifics on style of play and changes.
“Probably the biggest change was to let my staff coach without my constant involvement. No question they have developed and learned by being given more responsibility.
“I also changed from a tracksuit to a suit. For me moving from tracksuit to suit made a statement I was no longer another member of the playing squad. I was the manager. It was time for a change.” One of many, evidently.
“Thankfully defeats are limited at present, but win, lose or draw we analyse the game, take a snapshot of positives and negatives, and move on. There’s a lot of ownership and leadership within the squad to maintain the winning mentality we have in place at present.”
Surely going from relegation favourites to title favourites within nine months is a surprise?
“Yes for sure. I didn’t expect the formula to work so well so soon. We are punching above our weight. Everyone at the club is pulling in the right direction. Winning changes everyone’s attitude. Now we have a winning mentality, it’s refreshing”
What about the model for success? Where does it come from – a business book, a coaching book?
“No that’s not my thing, I don’t get a lot of time to read. I take snippets from managers I’ve played under or been involved with. Some of their methods wouldn’t work today. Shouting, blame game at half-time, confrontations – that’s old school. Some of today’s players have come through Premier League academies. Not only have they been educated and coached to play football, but also learned respect and discipline of equipment, timekeeping and man management. Shouting and bollocking is not management.
Players today require instruction. The squad here this season is a team working for each other. We are starting to build a culture of doing the right things right for each other and the club.
“Some of this comes from the chairman. He’s very supportive, successful in business and passionate on how the club is run. Some players have only known the life of a footballer from 12 or 13. He is keen to get players out in the places where fans work, make them aware of the fans working environments”.
Clearly the chairman, unlike many others around the professional English game, is a passionate about having a positive impact himself. Does Ainsworth see Andrew Howard as a mentor?
“Well if that means I can go to him confident he will do whatever is best for the club, then yes. He said from the start he has confidence in the team, staff, and me to take this club forward. What more can you ask for?”
Howard has been chairman of Wycombe Wanderers since August 2014 having worked closely with trust board members since 2009, and a decade older than Ainsworth. They were born less than 20 miles apart in the Lancashire cities of Preston and Blackburn. I have no doubt their northern ethos of graft is a complementary factor in The Chairboys’ change of fortunes.
We have been in interview mode for close on two hours – surely a record for most professional managers in the game nowadays. Ainsworth has been approachable, honest and open. He hasn’t ducked out of a question or scenario I asked him. My next question has stopped the flow of interviews with some managers.
“Dave Hockaday was taken from Conference team Forest Green Rovers and given the Leeds United job. If you would have been offered the position would you have taken it?”
His speed of response surprises me: “No, this is where I want to be. I can honestly say I have no desire to be anywhere else. Every manager dreams or wonders if they can make it at a higher level. But for me, no I don’t want to manager any other club other than Wycombe Wanderers at this point in my career.”
Well that seems clear, however part of these interviews with various managers are to explore if they believe they can manage at a higher level. Does he see himself leaving for a higher league in the future?
“Not in the slightest. I said if we could survive the last game with Torquay last season I knew I could make things happen at this club. I see no reason why managing at a higher level can’t be with Wycombe Wanderers”
OK, but are you good enough to manage at a higher level? He passes the ball straight back. “At this moment in time I intend to be a successful League two manager. I’m learning and developing, ready for the next step”.
On Ainsworth’s desk I see the Wycombe Wanderers’ programme commemorating The Great War Centenary Tour, October 2014.
Back in 2010, Ainsworth was given the privilege of representing the Football League at the unveiling of the Footballers’ Battalions Memorial in Longeuval, France. The memorial honours those footballers from the Middlesex 17th and 23rd regiments who made the ultimate sacrifice in World War 1.
Some four years later Ainsworth returned to the region with his staff and players. In part a remembrance, in part an education and awareness exercise for his young team. We talk briefly about how the trip impacted of the team’s awareness of the huge loss of life which occurred throughout First World War.
I can’t help thinking that last season Ainsworth was in the metaphoric trenches. This season he’s the leader from behind. One who has a plan and the ability to execute it as required. Both the club and manager have produced what is sadly lacking in the modern game: loyalty and honesty to each other, not to mention openness.
The club’s season is edging closer to each game being a cup tie as promotion looms. Whatever the season’s outcome, Wycombe Wanderers are in safe hands on and off the pitch.
By Owen Peters