It’s around midday when I arrive at Wycombe Wanderers training ground. The neatly manicures training pitches are empty, sun glistens on the white gleaming goalposts fresh with new paintwork.
I enter the training complex through the gym entrance. Inside, the gym is kitted out with every conceivable piece of equipment, you would hope to find in any renowned sports training facility, whatever the sport.
I’m met by Wycombe Wanderers manager Gareth Ainsworth, who is sporting 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 19”. 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 second in League Two after 36 games.
For those of you unaware, Wycombe Wanderers FC 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 away 3-0. Bristol Rovers were relegated by the margin of goal difference.
Wycombe’s final home game last season was against Bristol Rovers, they lost 2-1. By chance I tell Ainsworth I attended the game. I offer my opinion: They were awful 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,” he says.
“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.”
I ask if there was a moment of epiphany.
“After the home game against Bristol Rovers I knew my management style would change,” he said. “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 Blackburn Rovers, 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 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”, Ainsworth agrees it was for me as well.
“Without my parents I would have drifted out of the game,” he says. “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.”
I ask about what his career path would have been were it not in football?
“I left school with above average academic results, football was my priority,” says Ainsworth. “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 £2 million when he was 25-years-old. However his career didn’t take off as intended. During his five season stint with Wimbledon 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,” he says. “I didn’t rest or recuperate properly, one injury led to another. During those five seasons I had seven operations, back, and groin. I even have wisdom teeth extracted to try to fix the problem.”
He tells the story with a smile, I flinch.
Ainsworth was on the loan tour again with Preston and Walsall, eventually sold to Cardiff City. Winning 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” season 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 Queens Park Rangers.
Ainsworth signed for Wycombe Wanderers in 2010 after a short loan period. It’s only a couple of seasons ago, his pace, skills and crossing ability was recognised. Season 2010/11 he was named in the PFA Team of the Year as Wycombe Wanderers won promotion out of the division.
November 2012 Ainsworth took over a manager of Wycombe due to the sacking of Gary Waddock.
During his playing career Ainsworth sampled the management styles and temperaments of: Ian Holloway, Luigi Di Canio, Ian Dowie, John Beck, Sammy McIlroy, Les Chapman, John Rudge, Joe Kinnear, Paulo Sousa (yep now manager of Basel FC). With this wealth of experience to call on, what could possible 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%. (Fans of Lincoln, Preston and QPR would agree). I began my management career in similar style,” he says.
“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 my own style, 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 can turn the club around.”
In what way, what was the plan?
“Change our style of play, bring in players who could offer more consistency, let my staff get on with their job,” he says.
“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.
We both know this doesn’t answer the question, so I ask it again. “If we would have been relegated, no I wouldn’t be here today. We survived and I expected to be given this season to turn around our fortunes”
Ainsworth isn’t complaining, he knows his budget.
“I have a squad of 19 or so players along with my coaching staff, we don’t run a reserve or academy team,” he says. “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.
“I have to make sure everyone is focused on getting their job done. There isn’t a magic formula, other than hard work of course.”
I offer him the thoughts of some well-known business leaders, Bill Gates, Steve Job, 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,” he says.
“So yes maybe, 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.”
How do you define last season, a success or failure?
“Oh I agree with my Chairman, a success”, his smile kind of confirming that we are done with this topic.
I ask about hobbies, relaxation how does he switch off?
“You don’t it a constant. Be it phone calls in the office in the car, at home, watching teams or individual players. Transfer window, players in and out. Training schedules, staff meetings, interviews,” he says.
“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.
Ainsworth endured 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 have benn introduced on the field? What is he personally doing different to last season?
“We plan more on our strengths, as opposed to trying to stop the opposition from playing,” he says.
“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 simply 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, let the opposition work out or style and combat it if possible. Not the other way around.”
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,” he says. “No question they have developed and learned by being given more responsibility. I also changed from tracksuit or shorts to a suit.”
“No longer an Owen Coyle?” I quip but the point is lost. Ainsworth (not surprisingly) wasn’t aware the amount of abuse Owen Coyle took at Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic for wearing shorts when in the technical area.
Once the managerial shorts attire update is complete he says, “well 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.”
In more ways than one is very clear.
“Thankfully defeats are limited at present, but win, lose or draw we analyse the game,” he says. “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.”
So is Ainsworth surprised at the current league position?
“Yes for sure. I didn’t expect the formula to work so well so soon. We are punching above our weight,” he says.
“Everyone at the club is pulling in the right direction. Winning changes everyone’s attitude, now we have a winning mentality, it’s refreshing.”
Where does the current success come from? Is it taken from delving into management books on planning and strategy? Does Ainsworth have a sport or business role model?
“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,” he says.
“Some of their methods wouldn’t work today. Shouting, blame game at halftime, 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, bollockings is not management.
“Players today require instruction, what is required by when. The squad here this season are 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 years old. He is keen to get players out in the places where fans work, make them aware of the fans working environments.”
So would Ainsworth describe him 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 says. “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?”
Andrew Howard has been chairman of Wycombe Wanderers since August 2014 having worked closely with trust board member since 2009. Howard took over from Don Woodward who was Chairman for a two-year period from 2010 to 2012.
Howard’s background is ice cream and motorsport. With his wife Susie they set up Beechdean ice cream Ltd in 1989 which has developed into a well-known brand across Europe.
Beechdean Motorsport was founded in 2010 as an independent racing team. The team have produced many success stories over their four-year history. None more so than when Howard became BGT champion in 2013.
In terms of age Howard is a decade older than Ainsworth. They were born less than 20 miles apart in the Lancashire towns of Preston (which is now classified as a city) and Blackburn respectively. 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. 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. This is the question:
“Dave Hockaday was taken from Conference team Forest Green Rovers and given the Leeds United job. If you were 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,” he says. “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. So let’s find out with Ainsworth:
If another team from a higher division came in for you, is the reason you would turn it down due to a lack of confidence in your own ability? It’s not a red card question, maybe verging on a yellow.
“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 is he 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,” he says. “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 13th / 14th 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 I.
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 on how the trip impacted of the team’s awareness of the huge loss of life which occurred throughout WW1.
I can’t help thinking that if last season Ainsworth was in the metaphoric trenches, this season he’s a leader. 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.
The club’s season is edging closer to each game being a cup tie as promotion looms closer by the week. Whatever the season’s outcome, Wycombe Wanderers are in safe hands on and off the field.