Gareth Ainsworth: From Crazy Gang to building Wycombe’s culture club

Gareth Ainsworth reaches for his guitar. The Wycombe manager’s instrument is a constant presence in his Adams Park office, so its appearance an hour into our interview is probably overdue. Jurgen Klopp may preach a ‘rock and roll football’ philosophy, but Ainsworth takes the term rather more literally.

The Wanderers’ boss’ 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 seemingly supported by Ainsworth’s spell at Wimbledon during the club’s ‘Crazy Gang’ era.

The Cold Blooded Hearts singer (Ainsworth juggles managerial duties with occasional stints as the band’s frontman) makes no secret of his exuberance. In addition to his part-time music 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’d ever seen’.

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

Gone are the days of clothes-shredding rituals, a fate which befell the suit Ainsworth bought to celebrate his move to Wimbledon in October 1998. Returning to the changing room after an innocuous debut training session with his new teammates, the 25-year-old went to his peg to find the recently purchased blazer and trousers ripped to pieces. His trainers were smouldering in a nearby corner.

Ainsworth was resilient enough to handle behaviour he now acknowledges was tantamount to bullying. Raised in Blackburn and schooled in the workings of lower league football by former Cambridge manager John Beck, who 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 christened ‘Wild Thing’ by his Wimbledon teammates, a moniker that helped him settle at Selhurst Park. Together with defender Trond Andersen and Chris Perry (the club’s groundsman, rather than the ex-Dons centre back), he formed a band called ‘APA’, named after the initials of the group 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 music entrepreneur’s house. In a turn of events in-keeping with Ainsworth’s image, he, Perry and Andersen stayed for a week, sharing the property with a then up-and-coming American singer called Anastasia.

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

Battling against tight finances which forced his coaching team to order goal nets from eBay in the early days of his tenure, Ainsworth has overseen a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. During his time in charge, Wycombe have gone from avoiding relegation to the National League on the final day of the 2013/14 season, to playing in English football’s second tier for the first time in the club’s 134-year history.

Ainsworth’s experiences as a player have had a lasting impact on his managerial style. The Wycombe boss places a real emphasis on communicating with his squad, a concept that while hardly ground-breaking, he believes was often ignored by coaches he worked under.

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

“When people ask me what my biggest weapon is and what’s our biggest strength at the club, they probably expect me to say, ‘Well, we’re good at this corner routine or we’ve got the big man Akinfenwa’, but actually it’s talking.

“I’ve been at clubs where managers shy away from confrontation. They don’t want to tell players why they’re not in the team, so they won’t talk to them. We feel that players who are injured or not in the squad are players we really need to talk to. We want to make sure everyone’s connected.”

While Ainsworth’s repartee is ideally suited to coaxing the best from fellow extroverts such as Adebayo ‘The Beast’ Akinfenwa, who boasts 1.3 million Instagram followers, the Wycombe boss relies on the quieter influence of assistant manager Richard Dobson to establish a rapport with more reserved dressing room personalities.

Dobson, who describes himself as the ‘yin’ to Ainsworth’s ‘yang’, established a psychology programme labelled by the FA’s former head of psychology as the ‘biggest in Europe’ in 2012, and uses social media monitoring tools to analyse the behaviour of any potential Wycombe signing.

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

The approach is indicative of the measures the Wycombe manager takes to protect the club’s culture. Putting a new spin on the traditional dressing room ‘general’ role, he and Dobson entrust senior professionals such as Akinfenwa, Joe Jacobson, Jason McCarthy and Dominic Gape to act as ‘culture architects’.

The group is responsible for spearheading team-bonding activities, rallying teammates during runs of poor form and, in Akinfenwa’s case, advising younger players on how to navigate the pitfalls of social media. While some of the tasks might seem run-of-the-mill, for Ainsworth, the ‘architects’ are much more than stereotypical tub-thumpers.

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

“They’re also coming up with their own ideas, along with our core values. We have to obviously keep things in check… but they’re coming up with really powerful ideas, which they’re really passionate about”.

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

Ainsworth’s adaptation of traditional managerial methods also extends to setting bonuses. ‘Winning moves’, made-up of sequences of play designed to increase Wycombe’s chances of beating opponents, are part of 13 key performance indicators he and Dobson have tasked Wycombe’s players with hitting this season.

By establishing ‘performance-driven’ rather than ‘outcome-driven’ targets, such as appearances and goals, the duo are aiming to ensure players prioritise the processes associated with winning, ahead of simply ‘getting a result’.

Away from matchdays, Wycombe’s backroom team is supported by Dr Misia Gervis, the England Women’s team’s former psychologist. Gervis works with the club one day a week, holding individual and group sessions designed to support both players and staff, who are given advice on their communication style and how to ‘frame’ messages.

At the start of the season, Gervis also held one-to-one sessions with players, as part of a mental health screening process. The programme is symptomatic of Ainsworth’s interest in his squad’s wellbeing. He and Dobson organise regular ‘development days’, designed to foster the kind of bonhomie so vital to Wycombe’s recent success.

The initiative might not sound far removed from traditional ‘away days’, but the duo carefully select activities which reinforce the club’s cultural values. The squad toured the Somme earlier in Ainsworth’s reign and have also welcomed a Haka instructor to Adams Park.

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“We told the boys there was a guy coming in to talk to them and they didn’t have a clue what was happening,” recalls Dobson.

“All of a sudden these guys come in with full face paint and grass skirts, screaming at the top of their voices. The look on the players’ faces was brilliant. But it was an education in terms of what the Haka means to the Maori culture in particular.

“Then we went down into the gym and we did the Haka to each other, and that was immensely powerful. When you’ve done something like that together, it creates stronger bonds.”

It’s an experience you suspect Ainsworth himself relished. Despite last season’s spell in the Championship, Wycombe’s budget is dwarfed by League One competitors such as Sunderland and Ipswich, but the manager’s enthusiasm – after almost 10 years at the helm – remain undimmed.

“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’ll never take one day of my job for granted: I know how lucky I am to be doing something I’ve loved since I left school.”

And it’s a philosophy that’s helping Ainsworth hit the right note with Wycombe.

Gareth Ainsworth: From Crazy Gang to building Wycombe’s culture club
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