Culture club

Gareth Ainsworth: from Crazy Gang to founding the Wycombe Cultural Club

Gareth Ainsworth grabs his guitar. The Wycombe manager’s instrument is a constant presence in his Adams Park office, so his appearance an hour after our interview is likely late. Jurgen Klopp may preach a ‘rock and roll football’ philosophy, but Ainsworth takes the term a bit more literally.

The Wanderers boss’s passion for music is well known. US band KISS sent him a personal accolade to mark the tenth anniversary of his signing for the club, and last year fellow heavy metal enthusiast Petr Cech invited Ainsworth to a gig at Stamford Bridge.

The anecdotes have sometimes been used to paint a picture of a stereotypical “Jack the Lad”, an image apparently supported by Ainsworth’s spell at Wimbledon during the club’s “Crazy Gang” days.

The Cold Blooded Hearts singer (Ainsworth juggles managerial duties with occasional stints as the band’s frontman) doesn’t hide his exuberance. In addition to his part-time musical duties, Ainsworth reveals that an instructor at a recent League Managers Association seminar said his personality test results showed he was “the biggest extrovert they ever had.” have ever seen”.

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But this public figure is slightly misleading. Wycombe manager shuns social media (“I don’t watch it because I’m an emotional guy: I don’t want anyone to influence me except the people closest to me,” he says) and built a culture-inclusive club far removed from the environment he inhabited at Selhurst Park.

Gone are the days of clothes-shredding rituals, a fate that befell the suit Ainsworth bought to celebrate his move to Wimbledon in October 1998. Back in the locker room after an innocuous first training session with his new teammates, the 25-year-old went to his ankle to find the recently purchased blazer and trousers ripped to pieces. His sneakers were smoking in a nearby corner.

Ainsworth was resilient enough to handle behavior he now recognizes as amounting to bullying. Raised at Blackburn and trained in the inner workings of lower league football by former Cambridge manager John Beck, whom he later followed to Preston and Lincoln, Ainsworth was renowned for his tenacious style of play.

Off the pitch, the former Port Vale midfielder’s passion for music led to him being dubbed the ‘Wild Thing’ by his Wimbledon teammates, a nickname that helped him settle at Selhurst Park. Along with defender Trond Andersen and Chris Perry (the club’s field man, rather than the former Dons centre-back), he formed a band called ‘APA’, named after the initials of the band members’ surnames .

The trio were invited by Pete Winkelman, who played a leading role in Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes, to record a single at the musical entrepreneur. In a turn of events befitting Ainsworth’s image, he, Perry, and Andersen stayed for a week, sharing the property with a then-rising American singer called Anastasia.

Following his subsequent stint at QPR (which involved a 50-day stint as caretaker manager, under the colorful guidance of Flavio Briatore), Ainsworth moved to Wycombe, where he was appointed manager in 2012.

Struggling with tight finances that forced his coaching staff to order goal nets from eBay early in his tenure, Ainsworth oversaw a remarkable turnaround in fortune. During his tenure, Wycombe went from avoiding relegation to the National League on the final day of the 2013/14 season to playing in the second tier of English football for the first time in the club’s 134-year history.

Ainsworth’s experiences as a player had a lasting impact on his managerial style. The Wycombe boss places a real emphasis on communicating with his team, a concept which, while not revolutionary, he says was often overlooked by the coaches he worked with.

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“When I was playing, talking was seen as a weakness. You didn’t talk about your problems. Now we accept it,” he says.

“When people ask me what’s my biggest weapon and what’s our biggest strength at the club, they probably expect me to say, ‘Well, we’re good at that corner routine or we’ve got the big one. Akinfenwa man”, but in fact it speaks.

“I’ve been to clubs where managers are afraid of confrontation. They don’t want to tell the players why they’re not in the team, so they won’t talk to them. You feel that players who are injured or missing from the squad are players to really talk to, we want to make sure everyone is connected.

While Ainsworth’s repartee is ideal for drawing the best from other extroverts such as Adebayo “The Beast” Akinfenwa, who has 1.3 million followers on Instagram, the Wycombe boss relies on influence more understated from assistant director Richard Dobson to establish a rapport with a more reserved dressing. personalities in the room.

Dobson, who describes himself as the ‘yin’ to Ainsworth’s ‘yang’, set up a psychology program dubbed by the FA’s former head of psychology as the ‘largest in Europe’ in 2012, and uses social media monitoring tools to analyze the behavior of any potential Wycombe signings.

“It’s no secret that before we sign players, we look at Twitter and Facebook, and we’ll get a view of a player from information online. It’s part of our process to sign the right ones. people in the building,” says Ainsworth.

The approach is indicative of the measures taken by the Wycombe manager to protect the culture of the club. Putting a new spin on the traditional locker room “general” role, he and Dobson entrust seasoned pros such as Akinfenwa, Joe Jacobson, Jason McCarthy and Dominic Gape as “culture architects”.

The group is tasked with leading team-building activities, rallying teammates during runs of poor form and, in Akinfenwa’s case, advising young players on how to navigate social media pitfalls. While some of the tasks may seem mundane, for Ainsworth, “architects” are much more than stereotypical tub beaters.

“As a management team, we pass on our core values ​​to the players and the architects will protect them,” he explains.

“They also come up with their own ideas, as well as our core values. Obviously you have to keep things under control… but they come up with really powerful ideas, which they are really passionate about”.

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Although terms such as ‘culture’ and ‘core values’ are still viewed with skepticism by some football commentators, striker Sam Vokes has cited Wycombe’s locker room spirit as a key reason for joining the club this summer.

Ainsworth’s adaptation of traditional management methods also extends to bonus setting. “Winning moves,” comprised of playing sequences designed to increase Wycombe’s chances of beating opponents, are among the 13 key performance indicators he and Dobson have tasked Wycombe players with hitting this season.

By establishing “performance-driven” rather than “outcome-driven” goals, such as appearances and goals, the duo aim to ensure that players prioritize the processes associated with winning, before simply “getting a result “.

Outside of match days, Wycombe’s behind-the-scenes team is supported by Dr Misia Gervis, the former England women’s team psychologist. Gervis works with the club one day a week, running individual and group sessions designed to support players and staff, who receive advice on their communication style and how to “frame” messages.

At the start of the season, Gervis also held one-on-one sessions with the players, as part of a mental health screening process. The program is symptomatic of Ainsworth’s concern for the welfare of his team. He and Dobson hold regular ‘development days’, designed to foster the kind of bonhomie so vital to Wycombe’s recent success.

The initiative may not be far removed from traditional ‘days away’, but the duo carefully selects activities that reinforce the club’s cultural values. The team visited the Somme earlier in Ainsworth’s reign and also hosted a Haka instructor at Adams Park.

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“We told the boys that a guy was coming to talk to them and they had no idea what was going on,” Dobson recalled.

“All of a sudden these guys are coming in with paint all over their faces and grass skirts, screaming their heads off. The look on the players’ faces was brilliant. But it was an education in what the Haka stands for Maori culture in particular.

“Then we went to the gym and did the Haka to each other, and it was extremely powerful. When you did something like that together, it bonded stronger.

It’s an experience you’d think Ainsworth himself savored. Despite last season’s spell in the Championship, Wycombe’s budget is dwarfed by League One rivals such as Sunderland and Ipswich, but the manager’s enthusiasm – after nearly 10 years at the helm – remains intact.

“I’m such a lucky guy. I wake up every morning full of energy,” he says.

“I know there are people worse off than me. I will never take a day at work for granted: I know how lucky I am to be doing something I’ve loved since I was born. left school.

And it’s a philosophy that helps Ainsworth strike the right note with Wycombe.

Gareth Ainsworth: from Crazy Gang to founding the Wycombe Cultural Club

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