Why ‘empowering’ AFC Wimbledon let their youngsters call the shots

<span>AFC Wimbledon Under-18s celebrate victory over Blackburn in the FA Youth Cup in December; player-led matches are at the heart of their academy programme.</span><span>Photograph: AFC Wimbledon</span>
AFC Wimbledon Under-18s celebrate victory over Blackburn in the FA Youth Cup in December; player-led matches are at the heart of their academy programme.Photograph: AFC Wimbledon

A few weeks ago AFC Wimbledon Under-18s won 4-3 at Cheltenham Town in the Youth Alliance Cup. The visitors went 3-0 down but did not panic, tweaking tactics and adjusting systems before storming back. It was a wild contest, a remarkable turnaround, but what was even more impressive was Wimbledon were in effect managerless for the day, with the game designated as one of their player-led matches, a pioneering concept at the heart of their academy programme. Apart from booking the team bus to Gloucestershire, the onus was on the youngsters to organise everything and cope with the challenges: absorb the pressure, problem-solve on the spot and play.

It is an idea that hands the initiative to players and one Wimbledon do a few times a season from the under-nines to under-18s. Safeguarding rules differ between age groups but a physiotherapist is always present, as legally required. “When you see 10-year-olds trying to dissect the game, looking at formations, telling people what position they are going to play in, it is empowering,” says their academy manager, Michael Hamilton, who has been asked to share the concept at Premier League and Football Association conferences. “Life is not easy. There are going to be ups and downs. You might get released when you think you shouldn’t, you might not get a run of games. It is about having a bag of tools you can go into and say: ‘What do I need today?’”

The first time they put the idea into practice, the team bus took a wrong turn and the under-18s’ arrival at Leyton Orient was delayed. The group reassigned pre-match jobs to a handful of players who had made their own way to east London. That was in 2018-19 when Jack Rudoni, now of Huddersfield, was among the scholars and Mark Robinson, appointed head coach of Chelsea’s under-21s two years ago, was academy manager.

“In the debrief the boys admitted they would have seen the problem, known we were running late, but would have done nothing about it if the coaches were also on the bus,” Hamilton says. “Part of the outcome was: ‘Well, what if every day you come in and are as forward-thinking and attentive as you showed then? What can we achieve together?’”

This is UK Coaching Week and the work of the League Two club is a fine example of the chosen theme: holistic development. In another exercise, designed to ensure youngsters have an appreciation of the work behind the scenes while hammering home the value of teamwork, the under-18s are asked to sleep on blow-up beds at the training ground from Monday to Friday.

It means there is scope for triple sessions and for them to prepare sessions, and afterwards socialise in mobile phone-free zones. “We always say that if you don’t want to talk, socialise or be a good team player, go and be a tennis or snooker player, because football is a team game,” Hamilton says. “A lot of the characteristics we try to develop are transferable.”

This time of the year clubs announce their retained lists – detailing which players will be released – and academies are no different. Some of those tough conversations have taken place in recent weeks; for others the decisions are yet to be rubber-stamped. Latest figures from the EFL covering 2022-23 show 32% of academy players receive a scholarship, of whom 17% go on to earn a professional contract and 10% make a league appearance.

“It was always a really emotional time because you knew you were delivering some great news and news that was going to be really hard to take,” Robinson says. “One of the analogies we would use was: ‘Imagine you’re going for an interview for a job and you open the door and there’s 1,000 people there.’ Three times a year we’d meet the parents and the big thing was to never get carried away, never make silly promises: ‘You’re going to be this sort of player.’ Always just say it how it is, what they’re doing well, what they need to work on.”

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The club take pride in the duty of care they provide for players. Jack Currie has established himself as a fixture in the first team since stepping up from the academy, which he joined at 11. Others are across the world: Josef Bursik in Belgium with Club Brugge, Tyler Burey in Denmark with Odense and Ayoub Assal in Qatar with Al-Wakrah. Staff take equal pride in those who have found their feet outside the game since being released, including Nathan Gordon, a PE teacher and technique coach, and Jay Kalama, who works for Nike in sports marketing.

Hamilton cites George Marchant, who halfway into his scholarship cancelled his apprenticeship to study engineering in the US. “The year before we signed papers to put him on the route to a professional contract,” Hamilton says. “That didn’t happen but it wasn’t failure, it was success. That was our-self managing aspect coming to life: a young man taking ownership of his life. We have a bigger responsibility than trying to make sure that at the age of 20, 21, boys are rolling out of the academy as professional footballers.”

Wimbledon’s academy is underpinned by four values: hard work, attachment, memories and self-management, the last of which is perhaps most significant. Hamilton references the thinking of the former England rugby union coach Eddie Jones, who wanted to make himself in effect redundant by allowing players to take control. “We feel the more the boys need us to get through a game, then we’ve not executed what we planned,” Hamilton says. “We reference combat sports a lot, boxing and MMA fighters: ‘Once you close the cage it’s just you.’ Your coach can influence but it is you that has to commit to decisions and action the plan.”

It is a sentiment shared by Robinson, who spent 18 years at AFC Wimbledon, including a 14-month stint in charge of the first team. “Everyone’s different,” Robinson says, “but if you ask me: ‘What does my perfect game look like?’. It is me standing on the line saying nothing while the team perform brilliantly making their own decisions because I believe that is what real education looks like. I don’t think it is pointing and telling and shouting. People say stupid things like: ‘You’re putting yourself out of a job.’ But if you look at what coaching is, it is to change the player’s behaviour, to improve or inspire their performance. It is not to teach them how to play 3-5-2.”