Banking on Youth

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TWENTY-plus years on AFC Wimbledon club co-founder MARC JONES views the club’s youth scheme as the jewel in the crown. He writes “we’ve been smashing it for some time now and it shows no sign of slowing up.” Some great insights in this pulls-no-punches look back and forward ….

WE are 20 years in now from a scatty idea about what to do after an extinction level event. How we doing? That’s a massive question to answer succinctly so it’s probably easier to pick one facet and sum up the wider picture using that as a motif.

One thing we didn’t discuss at the start of the new chapter was youth players. Sure, we got a lot of kids come to play for us at the trials and beyond, but we didn’t kick off in 2002 with a masterplan. At least not all of us did.

Thankfully, Nigel Higgs gave it focus. Even more thankfully he was pretty much left alone to get on with it and when he bumped into Mark Robinson — well, that was our version of John and Paul at the garden fete of St Peter’s Church, Woolton!!

Nigel Higgs

From kids paying subs for their kit (including Will Nightingale) and dads running their sons’ sides we grew over time into what I have called and continue to consider the jewel in our crown.

Listing success stories to back this up would not only be a roll call of obvious names but it would also eat into my word count.

Suffice to say we’ve been smashing it for some time now and it shows no sign of slowing up.

Not only have our players gained plaudits and approval but we’ve also seen coaching staff move into Championship-level clubs.

When we seemed to not really have a grasp on what we were, who we were and our why  (the very thing Robbo went on to talk about when he finally got the job many said he could have done earlier) the Academy seemed to have it nailed.

Unashamed of our past but not stuck in it the youth set-up was always proud of what Wimbledon meant….. work-rate, humility, drive.

All more than abundant in the latest young bucks plying their trade amongst World Cup and 400+ career players.

Neal Ardley always struck me as someone wanting to get out from the history of Wimbledon like a son trying to prove his millionaire father he was good at business in his own right.

To the point of defying it so aggressively we lost our way under him eventually. It wasn’t hard to get his staff to scoff at how we used to play — you simply can’t head-butt people now —  a well-worn fable about how the Crazy Gang was perceived in that Ardley as manager era.

Sure the game has moved on but hard work, in-your-face football can work – ask Johnnie Jackson since his epiphany at Bradford when we seemed to be reborn led by the aforementioned Will Nightingale.

The Academy revered that past glory like the fans did. Why shouldn’t they applaud a side stuffed with our own tearing up the rule book and defying anything that dared suggest we were not worthy?

Anyone who has seen the youth sides in action can see this running throughout them like a stick of seaside rock. Winners do more is a direct descendant of that Yidaho! FA Cup era where the players had to be dragged off the pitch the night before a cup final.

If there was ever one issue that nagged me it was young players getting into the first team squad, being assimilated and picking up bad habits in place of the good ones they arrived with.

Robbo saw this from afar and it was the first thing he straightened out when he was given the first team hot seat.

Mark Robinson

How it had crept in was probably that modern illness described as player power. A Robinson-led reset that didn’t quite keep us up but that aforementioned player malaise would be unthinkable now given not only how Johnnie Jackson runs the place but also the blossoming connection between player, staff and support.

Plough Lane is gradually making more and more sense and there is a feel of it coming together in a way we all hoped for but didn’t actually believe would take place given how much gloom had settled in. At times Plough Lane, for all its homeliness, was starting to feel like a haunted house.

Setting up loan spells for the younger players, keeping more of them on contract than we had previously was a gift, or even a legacy if you will, of Mark Robinson’s work as not only loans manager but also first team manager.

Hopefully, seeing the likes of Osaze Urhoghide [now at Celtic and on loan to KV Oostende in Belgium] walk away for free, unwanted and straight into a Championship club are gone forever.

Instead we have a new problem — keeping these starlets long enough to even see them kick a ball in a first team game.

Leon Chiwome

This pre-season saw not only Jack Rudoni sulk his way to Huddersfield whilst helping balance the playing budget but also saw Archie Stevens depart for Rangers and Leon Chiwome move to Wolves — both for a rumoured £100,000-odd each.

Chiwome https://academy.wolves.co.uk/news/chiwome-rewarded-with-professional-contract/ has since hit a hat-trick for England in only 48 minutes just four days after his 17th birthday. It makes you wonder how much more we might have got had we kept him a little longer than six months!

It’s clear that clubs with money to burn can make what is a fairly low-risk gamble on our youth players and whilst you’d hope a decent sell-on and clauses exist it remains frustrating the Dons faithful didn’t really ever see them much outside of academy matches.

Morgan Williams

For those interested my recent picks from the youth matches I’ve seen have been Morgan Williams (hardly unknown to most as he’s been superb for a long time) as well as Aron Sasu and Sean Sankanu.

Sasu has been in the first team squad already this season, Sankanu is an absolute powerhouse centre-back who talks (well, shouts) non-stop and leads the back-line with real authority.

This last transfer window featured the understandable departure of Ayoub Assal.

Ayoub Assal

A life-changing move for him but a sad and slightly disappointing end of a love affair with fans who were prepared to watch a bit of attitude and insolence in return for moments of sheer explosive joy. That kid was bottled lightning and I will really miss his antics.

Not only did we have to contend with losing our maverick from Morocco but thE mid-season window also had our nerves shredded as Bristol City circled overhead with an eye on Jack Currie – thankfully the window closed with this being one takeaway that didn’t get delivered.

So what next? I think the club have to restate what the MO is.

Jack Currie

A great academy being pillaged for 16-year-olds and players with 35 games under their belt might feel like a pat on the back.

But we must consider the narrative of  home-grown and available at the right price versus good, well-paid deals for our own players who might just push us on to greater things and a time when only the most insane monetary offers or career-defining clubs should get a chance to steal our diamonds.

Huseyin Biler

If I’m not watching Huseyin Biler for a couple of seasons I’ll know we are not quite there yet but I’d like [Head of Football Operations] Craig Cope to say hello and let me in on his plans for the future — I want to see how bright it actually is.

Why on earth the club didn’t introduce Cope to the fans is completely beyond me — it’s a much-needed important role we took almost a year to fix.

I’d have organised a brief intro first week with him at some stage telling us what his vision is. Because it will be his vision.

Cope’s here to draw it all together top to bottom, Under-11 to highest-paid player and let us all have some concept of what a Wimbledon player is, where they come from and how long they remain one.

If the manager moves because he gets a better offer or fails I expect Cope to remain in the post and hopefully offer something approaching the continuity Mark Robinson’s reign as Academy guru and beyond afforded us.

Now, wouldn’t that be something special?

“Every game is a joy – but this moment, 34 years in the making, will take some beating.” Author Marc Jones with Dons great John Fashanu …

[Banking on Youth was first published in the January-February 2023 issue of the Wombles Downunder fanzine.  Details on how you can subscribe to Wombles Downunder.]