Why empowering AFC Wimbledon lets their young people take the lead

<span>AFC Wimbledon Under-18s celebrate victory over Blackburn in the FA Youth Cup in December;  Player-led competitions are at the heart of their academy programme.</span><span>Photo: AFC Wimbledon</span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/tYlpLoNlIYuHHZU9Aszccg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/f186e2597ea58836917 d4fd82ae31a9d” data-src= “https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/tYlpLoNlIYuHHZU9Aszccg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/f186e2597ea58836917d4fd 82ae31a9d”/></div>
<p><figcaption class=AFC Wimbledon Under-18s celebrate victory over Blackburn in the FA Youth Cup in December; Player-led competitions are at the heart of their academy programme.Photo: AFC Wimbledon

A few weeks ago AFC Wimbledon Under-18s won 4-3 at Cheltenham Town in the Youth Alliance Cup. The visitors lost 3-0, but did not panic. They adjusted their tactics and adjusted systems before storming back. It was a wild match, a remarkable turnaround, but what was even more impressive was that Wimbledon was effectively managerless that day, with the match designated as one of their player-managed fixtures, a pioneering concept that was central to their academy programme. As well as booking the team bus to Gloucestershire, it was up to the youngsters to organize everything and face the challenges of taking the pressure, solving problems on the spot and playing.

It’s an idea that hands the initiative over to players and Wimbledon does this a few times a season, from under nines to under eighteens. Safety rules vary by age group, but a physiotherapist is always present, as required by law. “When you see 10-year-olds trying to break down the game, looking at formations, telling people what position they’re going to play in, it’s empowering,” says their academy manager, Michael Hamilton, who has been asked to present the concept at Premier League and the football association. “Life isn’t easy. There will be ups and downs. You may be released when you think you shouldn’t, and you may not get a run of games. It’s about having a bag of tools where you can go in 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 reallocated the courts before the match to a handful of players who had come to East London on their own. That was in 2018/19, when Jack Rudoni, now of Huddersfield, was among the pundits and Mark Robinson, appointed Chelsea under-21s head coach two years ago, was academy manager.

“In the debriefing the boys admitted that they had seen the problem, knew we were running late, but if the coaches had been on the bus they wouldn’t have done anything about it,” says Hamilton. “Part of the outcome was, ‘Well, what if you come in every day and be as progressive and thoughtful as you showed yourself to be? What can we achieve together?’”

This is UK Coaching Week and the League Two club’s work is a great example of the chosen theme: holistic development. In another exercise, designed to ensure that young people appreciate the work behind the scenes while promoting the value of teamwork, young people under the age of 18 are asked to lie on inflatable beds at the gym from Monday to Friday training field to sleep.

It means there is room for three-way sessions and they can prepare for sessions and then socialize in cell phone-free zones. “We always say that if you don’t want to talk, socialize or be a good team player, become a tennis or snooker player because football is a team game,” says Hamilton. “Many of the features we are trying to develop are transferable.”

This time of year clubs announce their retained lists – with details of which players will be released – and academies are no different. Some of those difficult conversations have happened in recent weeks; for others, decisions have yet to be approved. The latest figures from the EFL for the period 2022-2023 show that 32% of academy players receive a scholarship, with 17% earning a professional contract and 10% appearing in the league.

“It was always a very emotional time because you knew you were delivering great news and news that would be very difficult to bear,” Robinson says. “One of the analogies we used was, ‘Imagine you’re interviewing for a job and you open the door and there’s a thousand people standing there.’ We met the parents three times a year and the most important thing was that we never got carried away, never made stupid promises: “You will become such a player.” Always just say how things are going, what they are doing well, what they need to work on.”

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The club is proud of the duty of care it has for players. Jack Currie has established himself as a first-team regular since making the move from the youth academy, which he joined at the age of 11. Others are around the world: Josef Bursik in Belgium with Club Brugge, Tyler Burey in Denmark with Odense and Ayoub Assal in Qatar with Al Wakrah. The staff is equally proud of those who have found their way outside the game since their release, including Nathan Gordon, a gym teacher and technique coach, and Jay Kalama, who works for Nike in sports marketing.

Hamilton quotes George Marchant, who left his internship halfway through his scholarship to study engineering in the US. “The year before we signed papers to put him on the path to a professional contract,” says Hamilton. “That didn’t happen, but it wasn’t a failure, it was a success. That was the self-directed aspect that came to life: a young man who took ownership of his life. We have a greater responsibility than ensuring that boys leave the youth academy at the age of 20 or 21 as professional footballers.”

The Wimbledon academy is underpinned by four values: hard work, attachment, memories and self-management, the last of which is perhaps the most important. Hamilton refers to the thinking of former England rugby union coach Eddie Jones, who actually wanted to make himself redundant by letting players take control. “We feel like the more the guys need us to get through a game, we haven’t executed what we planned,” Hamilton said. “We refer a lot to martial arts, boxing and MMA fighters: ‘Once you close the cage, it’s you.’ Your coach can influence, but you are the one who has to commit to decisions and implement the plan.”

It is a sentiment shared by Robinson, who spent 18 years at AFC Wimbledon, including 14 months in charge of the first team. “Everyone is different,” says Robinson, “but if you ask me, ‘What does my perfect game look like?’ I stand on the line and say nothing while the team performs brilliantly and makes their own decisions, because I believe that is what real education looks like. I don’t think it’s pointing, telling and shouting. People say stupid things like, “You’re putting yourself out of work.” But if you look at what coaching is, it is changing the player’s behavior, improving his performance or inspiring him. It’s not to teach them to play 3-5-2.”

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