If this is the "big time", it was not immediately obvious as I stepped carefully into Terry Brown's "office" at AFC Wimbledon's training ground. Not only is it tiny, there cannot be another Football League manager who works amid electrical fuse boxes, a paint-splattered ladder and other groundsman's equipment, and whose desk is a minuscule occasional table parked between three old chairs on a patch of bare concrete floor. Light comes from a row of small windows above eye level. Only the tactics board on a breeze-block wall, and an incongruously new fax machine parked on a dusty chest, give any indication of Brown's vocation. "It's not exactly Alex Ferguson's," he said. I thought of the Manchester United manager's huge office at Carrington, with its bookshelves, TV screens and picture windows overlooking the training pitches.
Not that Brown is complaining. On Friday he is 59; the following day he gets the best birthday present of his life as he sits in the dugout as a Football League manager for the first time when Wimbledon make their return to the League against Bristol Rovers. It is a long-awaited step for Brown after a lifetime in non-League. Even as a boy he followed part-timers, taken by his father to Southall and Hayes. He went on to play semi-professionally for 20 years, with Hayes (where he replaced West Bromwich Albion-bound Cyrille Regis – "not exactly like-for-like"), Sutton, Slough and Wokingham. He began his coaching career at the latter, then managed Hayes (where he developed Blackburn Rovers' Jason Roberts) and Aldershot Town before taking over at AFC Wimbledon four years ago.
During this time he was thrice on the brink of the League, coming third in the Conference with Hayes, behind Steve Cotterill's Cheltenham Town, and twice losing promotion play-offs on penalties with Aldershot. "After the second occasion, when we were 3-1 up on penalties against Carlisle, and lost, I thought my chance had gone," he admitted. He left Aldershot the following year, in part to nurse his wife during a long battle with leukaemia which, though won, took its toll on the family, with Brown's son, who has learning difficulties, having to go into care.
Then Wimbledon offered him a last stab at glory, and all those years of experience finally bore fruit. After successive promotions, as they sought to climb the five tiers from the Combined Counties League back into the Football League, Wimbledon had stuttered, twice failing to escape the Ryman Premier Division. Brown knew exactly what was required.
"I'd learnt enough to know you have to kick yourself out of the Ryman League, only then can you look to play a more expansive game," he said. Wimbledon scrambled out via a play-off, and Brown set to work remodelling the team. The modern Wimbledon may be the heirs of the Crazy Gang, but, as anyone tuning into Saturday's match will see, their football is utterly different. "It is total football, throw the ball out from the keeper and play from the back under all circumstances," said Brown. "I don't mind a bruiser at the back as long as he can pass the ball. We play attractive, attacking football."
Not that Brown always saw the game this way. As a player he was an ill-disciplined scrapper and when he moved into management his teams were physical and functional. "My Hayes side was once described as a team of nightclub bouncers," he recalled. "I remember going up to Halifax the year they won the Conference and kicking them off the park. They had two animals up front and we won every battle, everywhere. We were big, strong, aggressive and took no prisoners. Boy could we bore people, but we won games. But in the end I got bored too. I'd put a video of our game and I'd fall asleep watching." Then Brown went to Aldershot, where "part of the remit was attractive football" and he changed tack.
Wimbledon have also benefited from his experience at Aldershot of moving from part-time players to full-time. "I trained them morning and afternoon and injured almost the whole squad. They weren't ready for it, but you try and convince directors, who had just doubled their playing budget, that 'full-time' is just coming in for an hour in the morning. Directors want their money's worth, they want players in all day, every day. So do fans. Fans love hearing about Stevenage where they come in at nine and finish at five. Up to about three years ago I'd have said to Graham [Westley], 'you work them too hard', but has he proved a few people wrong [Stevenage have gone from Conference to League One]."
So when Wimbledon went full-time last season he eased the players into it. They now train morning and afternoon, but the latter session is weights, or technical work "like the right-winger practising his crossing". There was another aspect to consider when going full-time. "I sent our scouts to get hungry, quick, athletic players ... living with mum and dad. If we're paying someone £75, £150, £300 a week, and it is their only job, they can't afford to live around here. So it is a young squad, but we told the parents, 'we're not paying a king's ransom, but your son will be coached every day, on a smashing surface. It's a great opportunity'. I keep telling these boys, 'The sun's out, it's a carpet of a pitch, and we've a first-class coaching staff here whose aim is to make you better players, to give you the chance to [move up the league and] earn thousands and thousands of pounds'. What an opportunity that is. But if they are not hungry, if they don't take that opportunity, we get rid of them."
Like George Graham and Paul Jewell, Brown can spot the wasters, because he was one. "I loved the game, but I didn't do the hard work. I wasn't a good trainer and I loved the social side. I wasn't quite good enough or dedicated to be a professional. But as a manager I'm strict on fitness and discipline. Don't do as I do, do as I say."
Brown has lost Danny Kedwell (to hometown team Gillingham) and Steven Gregory (to League One Bournemouth) of his promotion-winners but added a quartet of players with League experience and Erik Samuelson, the club's chief executive, is hoping for a play-off challenge. Brown laughed at that. His first target is the 50 points which should guarantee survival and he hopes the first three will come against an old friend. Paul Buckle, Rovers' manager, played under Brown at Aldershot. Now 40, Buckle was a Football League manager at 38, with Torquay United. "It's taken me 20 years and he gets into the League in five minutes," grinned Brown, "but it's been worth the wait."
Gesturing around the "office", he added: "We intend to paint this, and put some carpet in, but I've asked Eric to invest first in playing facilities, pitches, scouts, medical treatment. We are trying to catch up everywhere, but the team are the priority."