An exclusive interview with Rob Tuvey
Orlando Valman’s exclusive interview with Rob Tuvey, one of the youngest assistant managers in the EFL and a key protagonist in the AFC Wimbledon’s youthful approach to a sustainable club.
The first thing I asked Rob Tuvey, AFC Wimbledon’s 29-year-old assistant manager, the second-youngest number two across the whole of the EFL, was whether it would be fair to title this piece as I have done, to brand the recent changes at Plough Lane put into place by him and his fellow coaches, overseen by head coach Mark Robinson, as a ‘youth revolution’.
Since Robinson and his new coaching staff – of which Tuvey is a major part – came in at the start of 2021, Wimbledon have been one of the most progressive, forward-thinking and consequently intriguing clubs in the EFL. Immediately most noticeable is their bravery in the extent to which they trust in young players – the average age of their first-team squad this season is 23, and even that is greatly skewed by 34-year-old centre-back Darius Charles, who is the Dons’ only player aged over 30.
Incidentally, Charles has just been added to Robinson’s coaching staff in the wake of the departure of coach James Simmonds, who had been ‘on loan’ from Chelsea’s academy for the first half of the season, but he will still also remain a player for Wimbledon. These two somewhat unusual events may seem strange, especially in the gruelling, Tuesday-Saturday environment of the EFL and League One, but at Wimbledon these types of innovations are now merely nothing out of the ordinary.
“We’ve got to keep producing better footballers. It’s no longer a revolution if we’re not continuously looking at ways to improve. A revolution is something that keeps evolving, so our success is dependent on how we look to the future.”
By Tuvey’s judgement, “a revolution is something that doesn’t stop. That is the biggest thing for us. Of course we measure ourselves on the present, but we don’t look too much into that. We’re always planning for the future, always looking at ways we can improve, and that’s not just looking at how the players improve, it’s also looking at how the staff improve. We believe in these players, we believe in the young players that we’ve got, and the biggest accountability now is for the academy and for us as coaches to keep developing these young players and keep raising the bar all the time.”
Tuvey concedes that, yes, what they are doing can be called a revolution, but this recognition comes with a caveat: “We’ve got to keep providing and keep producing better footballers. It’s no longer a revolution if we’re not continuously looking at ways to improve. A revolution is something that keeps evolving, so our success is dependent on how we look to the future.”
Even though Robinson (known as ‘Robbo’ to all, fans and colleagues alike) and Tuvey came in initially on an interim basis in the middle of a relegation dogfight, the attitude they took was very different to how many others would have approached it.
“When we first got the job, the first task was to keep the club up. But the way we did it is probably the thing we’re most proud of. What Robbo does really well is he creates a great culture, a great environment. What he did straight away was he made everyone aware that we weren’t a plaster, we weren’t a short-term fix. If you wanted to just plaster over it, then we weren’t the people for you,” Tuvey emphasised.
“We went in with the mindset straight away that we were going to build a long-term success at this football club. Even from the day that we thought we were in as caretaker, that was never our mindset. Our mindset was ‘this is our job now. This is what we’re going to do.’ We went in from day one, and we sat the players down and we said ‘okay, this is the plan. This is how we’re going to move forward as a football club, this is how we’re going to build’. Not one day did we think ‘oh, we’ll just have a crack at it and see how it goes’. We really thought about the long-term strategy that we wanted to put in place.”
AFC Wimbledon’s starting line-up against Gillingham in August was the youngest XI named by any team in League One this season – 22.4 years old
As soon the average age of the Dons squad is mentioned, Tuvey is keen to stress that there is a clear thinking behind the process that they are undertaking. “If you took certain boys out of our team, Woodyard (29), Heneghan (28), Darius Charles, we’ve got players in this team that have never played in front of fans, never experienced crowds.
“This is all new, and we’re going on a journey together. That’s why I talk about them [the young players in Wimbledon’s squad] with such passion. How exciting is it that we don’t know where that journey is going to end? What we do know is that they’re only going to get better for the experiences they’re getting now, and we just have to be patient.
“That’s us, as coaches, because if we’re not performing within our job then questions will be asked of us, but also I think it’s for the club as a whole. The club have really bought into it, and this is a club model now. This is not our model, this is where the club wants to go, and it’s exciting. It’s a club that wants young, home-grown talent.”
There seems no better way to go about achieving this goal of tapping into youth development than what Wimbledon have done. “If you look at the background of our backroom staff, we’re all from youth development. We have a huge belief in the way that young players should be coached, and we have a lot of belief in the young players at the club”, Tuvey says.
He cites how Robinson, now head coach, was the man who originally set up Wimbledon’s academy, and how he himself has been there for nine years, working with every age group at the club and now having known some of the players currently in the first team since their age was in single figures.
Ayoub Assal, the Dons’ homegrown number 10
One of my questions to Tuvey is about one of those players, aged 11 when he was first coached by Tuvey – Ayoub Assal. Despite being just 19 years old, he now dons Wimbledon’s number 10 shirt and is their star man in attack.
I ask about him in response to Tuvey telling me about the ‘new Wimbledon way’ that they have designed and introduced: “The old Wimbledon way in terms of going direct and fighting and scrapping, yes we still need elements of that because that’s our DNA, but at the same time we can do that in a different way. We can play through the thirds, we can play on the front foot, we can press aggressively, and that’s where we’re trying to take it. It’s all been driven by the players and what they wanted as well – this is not ‘the Mark Robinson and Rob Tuvey way’, this is the AFC Wimbledon way. It’s something we now all believe really heavily in.”
When posed with the quirky statistic of Assal’s goal contribution tally matching his yellow card count (eight of each) so far this season, Tuvey gives a response that sheds very clear light on how Wimbledon have been able to produce such prodigious talents as the attacking midfielder. “We’re really proud of him, and he’s developing all the time. That’s the best thing about our environment: we don’t look at anyone as the finished article, we always look at ways they can develop, and we honestly believe that whatever age you are – even if you’re 28 or 29 – you’ve still got ways to develop.
“We talk a lot about mindsets and not having fixed mindsets: everyone within a successful organisation, whether that be business or football, should be aware of their mindset and the constraints it puts on their potential development. It’s really important to us that every player, whether it be Ayoub at the start of his career or an older player within our squad, is in an environment in which they feel encouraged to develop.”
“We can play through the thirds, we can play on the front foot, we can press aggressively, and that’s where we’re trying to take it. It’s all been driven by the players and what they wanted as well – this is not ‘the Mark Robinson and Rob Tuvey way’, this is the AFC Wimbledon way.”
It seems that the work being done to achieve this development-friendly environment at Wimbledon is paying off, brilliantly seen in what Tuvey says about Willy Caballero, who earlier this season had been training with AFC Wimbledon for a few months before signing for Southampton.
“Honestly, if you came down, you would think that Willy is a signed Wimbledon player. He talks about how much he’s improved his handling since working with Bayzo [Ashley Bayes, Wimbledon’s highly-regarded goalkeeping coach] – if you think about it, that’s a 40-year-old goalkeeper who has won everything in the game saying that he’s improving within our environment.”
Henry Lawrence, on loan from Chelsea
Delving deeper into the group of under-23s that Wimbledon have in their first-team squad, there is a mixture of players that can be divided up into three groups: academy graduates, players who have been brought in on permanent deals, and players who have been brought in on loan from Premier League clubs.
The latter group especially interests me – situated in south-west London, Wimbledon are on the doorstep of numerous top-level clubs, and, more pertinently, top-level academies – so I ask Tuvey about how Wimbledon are able to make themselves different in the way they appeal to these clubs as a potential loan destination for their young players.
“In our first summer window after we came into the job, the biggest thing we wanted to do was to give ourselves the best opportunity to attract the best youngsters”, he says. “We’ve always found it a bit strange how Chelsea are on our doorstep, and we’re in such a great area, but none of these London clubs are sending them to us. They’re sending them to Doncaster, they’re sending them to Accrington, they’re sending them to here, there and everywhere – and we’re like, ‘we’re on your doorstep!’
“We set up some meetings with a number of clubs – Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Watford, West Ham, even [Aston] Villa – and we spoke about the possibility of loans. We opened ourselves up and presented to clubs, so rather than just sitting there and saying ‘we want this player and that player’, we showed our passion for youth development within the project we’re building.”
AFC Wimbledon are a really interesting team to follow this season, and that’s not just because of Henry Lawrence — they have 18, yes, 18 U23 players in their squad, giving it an average age of 22.2. They have multiple PL loanees, and their star number 10, Ayoub Assal, is 19.— Orlando (@0rland1nho) August 20, 2021
“For the first year of it, to get three Premier League loans – and all three being internationals (Henry Lawrence from Chelsea an England U20; Dapo Mebude from Watford and Aaron Pressley from Brentford both Scotland U21s) – that’s a great statement for us as a club. The club had never had an international break before this season! We hope that now, with the links we’ve built with these clubs, hopefully in the future they will be coming to us and wanting to send their best youngsters to us, rather than us going to them all the time. That’s the reputation that we want to build.”
“We have to look at our own; the pathway that we have is key.”
Too much talk about bringing in players from elsewhere is not to Tuvey’s taste, though. He is keen to stress that “we have to look at our own; the pathway that we have is so key”.
The passionate way he speaks about the changes they have made suggests they spend a lot of time thinking about the way they develop their academy-produced players, noting that they ‘took inspiration from the Chelsea model’ in no longer having an Under-23s group. “All our young pros are now out [on loan] playing Conference, Conference South, Ryman football (the fifth, sixth and seventh tiers of English football; Wimbledon currently play in the third), which is fantastic for them. They need that.”
Ayoub Assal was box office last night. At his tenacious, impish, furious (!) best. Crewe couldn't track his constant movement & clever runs.— Not The Top 20 Pod (@NTT20Pod) November 24, 2021
Won a pen through pressing, fuming he couldn't take it, fuming with McCormick for a poor cross, and then sent off for a scrap at the end. https://t.co/jnChxyMxco
Not only do Tuvey and Wimbledon have a marked approach to developing their youngsters, they also have a clear philosophy behind their methods, as Tuvey tells me.
“Too many times when I was Under-18s manager, I would sit down in meetings and the manager [of the first-team] would ask me ‘is he ready in a year’s time?’ I would think ‘he’s 19, 20 – why would anyone have to be ready at 19? Why would anyone have to be ready at 20?’ It might be 23, it might be 22; that’s when they might hit their peak. Ayoub Assal is in the first-team, but he hasn’t hit his peak yet because he’s still developing, he’s still learning. If you were in the real world, people might still be an apprentice at that age, but it’s only in football where they’ve got to be ready at 19 or 20. It’s ridiculous.
“We [now] really try to give the players more of an opportunity and recognise that everyone’s different, that everyone develops at different rates. Ayoub has developed really quickly, and he’s got his opportunity and done really well; there are other lads who will develop slightly slower but they will get their opportunity if they keep developing, and then they’ll grow and become heroes like Ayoub has as well.”
Although I agree with him that this is a good way of going about youth development, I press Tuvey on the benefits of these players going out on loan, and he reveals something I did not realise: these loans are part-time.
“Obviously they get their game-time there [at the loan club] and they train there once a week, but they’re still training with us [at Wimbledon] and I think they really benefit from that because they’re getting a great mix. They’re getting a lot of individual development with the coaches here, they’re getting a little bit of team training with us at times, but at the same time they are getting those games on a Saturday.
“Whereas, that 23s group at times would always just be training, training, training, or they’re just mannequins; if we’ve got Rotherham on a Saturday then they’re just Rotherham that week, and you’re thinking ‘where’s their development?’
“It’s a really good mix because they’re getting individual development (technically and/or tactically), they’re developing their game understanding when they do the team training with us [Wimbledon first-team], but also then they get to put that development into practice in the games that their loan clubs are giving them. They’re getting a real round, holistic approach to their development.”
As previously alluded to, the way Wimbledon work with young players is far from the only progressive thing they do as a football club. They are full of innovative ideas and projects, and, driven by Robinson’s desire to always maintain an edge, they have a philosophy that there is no harm or shame in trying something new, even if it doesn’t end up working out.
Tuvey tells me that the first day they came into the job, they brought in a restarts coach, Andy Parslow, who was at the time the manager of the Under-14s in Wimbledon’s academy. This is barely groundbreaking in today’s football world, but it is indicative of the openness and pioneering nature of Robbo and his coaching staff.
The most well-known example of this is their use of a substitutes’ coach, something they have been trialling all season and continue to do. Sammy Lander – the man who suggested the idea to the club after doing research on the effectiveness of substitutions in the EFL last season – leads the warm-ups at half-time and spends time talking to the substitutes, making sure that they are specifically prepared for what they are being brought on to do. Tuvey’s appraisal of its effectiveness is only to say that it is ‘potentially’ working, but his attitude to it is welcoming and positive: he is eager to trial things that could give his team what he likes to call ‘extra one percents’.
To youth development purists, it is obvious that an hour’s conversation with Tuvey (or, frankly, just a glance at his first-team squad) is enough to paint a beautiful picture of AFC Wimbledon as a football club. However, it may not be long before ‘normal football people’ also begin to take note of what the Dons are doing. While Tuvey says that he and Robinson are ‘just doing what we believe in’, he is also absolutely right in his judgement that ‘lots of things in football are constantly regurgitated, year on year’.
Perhaps other clubs, particularly in the EFL, might soon begin to see Wimbledon’s pioneering approach for what it is: a sustainable way of putting a football club on an upwards trajectory, and making it self-sufficient, prosperous, and highly appealing to its fans. With their youth revolution in full flow, the Dons will march on.