In ‘Living On The Volcano’, Independent on Sunday columnist Michael Calvin’s illuminating new book on football management, Gareth Ainsworth tells the author: “Being a football manager does terrible things to your heart.” Ainsworth has been in the job for less than three years but can already speak with some authority on the matter given how his two full campaigns to date at the Wycombe Wanderers helm have ended.
After the thrill of a last-day escape from relegation to the Conference in 2014 – his “biggest single learning day” – Ainsworth experienced the opposite extreme in May as his team conceded a 121st-minute equaliser in the League Two play-off final against Southend before losing 7-6 on penalties. It was a painful denouement yet the way he conducted himself at Wembley said much about the integrity of the 42-year-old, subsequently voted LMA League Two manager of the year.
Once nicknamed ‘Wild Thing’ for his long hair and musical aspirations, he stood side by side with Southend’s Phil Brown during the shoot-out and then, when defeat came, proffered a quiet word of congratulations. “As a player I thought wouldn’t it be great if the two teams on the halfway line got together and embraced the horrible thing that is penalty shoot-outs,” he tells the Independent. “I thought the next best thing was the two managers getting together. I thought Phil’s not going to celebrate in my face and I’m definitely not going to celebrate in his face. I’ve got respect for the man, he’s a manager and we know how tough the job is so [let’s] stand together.
“Whatever happened, it was important to keep a little bit of dignity. It is a word that footballers and football people can lose easily. I think to put some dignity back in football is important when you can. Right at the end, Phil didn’t run off and celebrate in my face. I said, ‘Well done, all the best next year’.”
Ainsworth does not look back in anger on Wycombe’s near miss. “It was the total opposite [of Torquay] but [there was] a feeling of contentment at the end. Even though we’d got beaten at Wembley, I couldn’t feel too disappointed because of what we’d achieved that season. There were people coming up to me that week saying, ‘All I ever wanted to do was see Wycombe Wanderers at Wembley’. I was also proud of my players. I had players coming off the pitch who couldn’t walk. I even had one or two on loan from other clubs – with their contracts still paid by their clubs – saying, ‘Gaffer, I can’t walk, I’ve given you everything’. What more can I ask?
The hardest thing was the two boys who missed the penalty coming up to me and saying, ‘Sorry gaffer’. I just wanted to reprimand them like one of my kids, saying ‘What have you got to be sorry about?’.”
For Ainsworth himself, his season’s efforts did bring one prize, that LMA award. “The biggest compliment was winning League Two manager of the year from my peers. In my league, there were some huge names – Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Phil Brown – and really good managers like Mickey Mellon, and I was so humbled. I was stood in front of Alex Ferguson, Roy Hodgson and David Moyes and getting that award on stage and it was pinch-yourself time. But I savour every moment and no way will I ever think I’ve achieved anything.”
Wycombe ended last term with 84 points – enough to have won the title the previous year – yet as Ainsworth surveys the season ahead, he is wary of predicting a repeat. The Buckinghamshire club have a “bottom-half” budget and cannot, he says, match the “enormous” spending of other teams. “Luton have signed Craig Mackail-Smith, who’s a phenomenal signing at this level. Leyton Orient have their Championship and League One history and are well up there. Portsmouth are always going to be big with the crowds they get. Cambridge seem to be spending fortunes from their cup exploits last year.
“As a manager you talk to players, you know what these players are requesting wages-wise and you can’t get anywhere near it. When these clubs sign six or seven players you are thinking, ‘Wow, they have got some funds’. They are able to cherry-pick whereas I am not looking off the tree, I am looking at the floor – at the ones that fell off and people have missed.
“Some of these teams are banking everything on getting promoted – we are not one of those,” he adds, yet this is not to say they lack ambition; instead gradual progress is the goal. He and chairman Andrew Howard have set a target of 61 points. “It’s Year Two of the plan,” he explains. “Year One was survival after Torquay and we put it at 55 points because we’d only just stayed up. After last season, some people would go, ‘Right we’re way ahead of schedule, let’s get promoted this year’ but not Andrew. He sees it for what it was. An unbelievable season with some good luck but also some real big hearts that got us to Wembley. But Year Two is not changing. If you’re a business and you do relatively well one year, you don’t plough absolutely everything you’ve got into the next because if it doesn’t come off, where is your business in Year Three?” (Promotion, incidentally, features in Year Four of the original plan.)
Managing is a constant balancing act for the former Preston, Wimbledon and QPR winger. Ainsworth has a 19-man squad – additions to last season’s nucleus include experienced forward Garry Thompson from Notts County – and he is hopeful the addition of a second sports scientist to his backroom staff can keep this tight group fit. “Last year I signed a sport scientist over a player. This year I have probably had to sacrifice a player for a new pitch. There are trade-offs all the time.” That relaid pitch should help a team who earned the most away wins in League Two in 2014/15 – product of what he terms “our jugular approach” – but were hampered at home by a poor playing surface
Off the pitch, they will continue with their ‘development days’ that included a team trip to the Somme last autumn, and this holistic approach has now extended to setting up three of their young players in a house together. “They are learning to cook for themselves, pay direct debits, iron their clothes. It is almost a life academy.”
As for his own learning curve, Ainsworth is grateful to Howard – owner of the Beechdean ice-cream company – for his guiding hand since arriving as chairman of the fan-owned club in summer 2014. “I learned so much last year. I learned so much about finances and the running of a football club that I had no idea about as a player. I can use Microsoft Excel now like I never dreamed I could and it’s all credit to Andrew.”
He may be talking Excel files but the erstwhile ‘Wild Thing’ is not entirely tamed: he has retained his playing registration in case of an injury crisis and, with a nod to the guitar in club colours in the corner of his office, reveals he is still “jamming and singing” with his band. “You can’t take the rock and roll out of me,” says a man hoping to make another big noise in League Two this term.