England’s Longest-Serving Manager on the Rise
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If you had told Gareth Ainsworth six months ago that by mid-November Wycombe would be joint-top on points at the top of the League One table he would have called you mad.
But that is where they find themselves heading into Sunday’s trip to Tranmere. Only behind Ipswich point goal difference, albeit having played a game more.
“To be sat where we are in the league is better than anyone’s expectations,” Ainsworth told the Sky Sports EFL Podcast.
“The boys have been fantastic this season. Even I didn’t realise it would be as special as it has been this year. We went through some real tough times in the summer but the boys are really performing on the pitch, and off of it as well. They are a great group who are still really humble and down to earth.
“But I’m not mad enough to think we’ve cracked anything. Last season we went 12 without a win after Christmas and that could be round the corner. We are still trying to amass as many points as we can as quick as we can.”
Ainsworth’s unique team-building style
“We’ve been to the Somme and the battlegrounds, we went to Shrivenham Defence Academy. We don’t usually just do the paintballing or the go-karting, there is always a message. We had a guy come in to talk to us about the standards the All Blacks uphold, and we learned the Haka that day, although I’m not so sure how many of the boys will remember it now!
“We’ve designed our own ice cream, and we’ve got some others coming up that could be very interesting as well. It’s part of what I think is important in life, not just in football. You’ve got to develop all-round people, and it seems to have worked so far. We have values we stick to, I’m sure all clubs do, but we live them every day.”
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Wycombe didn’t even have one of the bigger budgets in League Two when they won promotion in 2018, and only a run of three wins in their final five league games last season kept them afloat in the third tier.
Things got even more difficult in the summer as Ainsworth was forced to part with a large portion of his playing squad, leaving the situation looking bleak.
“We just about survived last season and at the start of the summer I was told we would have to cut the budget by 35-40 per cent, just because of the inflation of football,” he said.
“We were a trust-owned club who had done all we could to stay in the league, that was our only aim and we did it, but it came at a cost. We just couldn’t afford the budgets in this league and we couldn’t afford to sustain it.
“We are still in the bottom five resource-wise, without a shadow of a doubt. I know what figures are bandied about in some of these leagues and if people start complaining I’ll happily do a game of show me yours and I’ll show you mine!
“I had 10 players out-of-contract and the easiest thing to do was to cut the playing budget, so I think I could only keep two of them. There were eight spaces to fill and we started looking at under-23s and non-league players we could get for cheap. We were so far behind and we thought we were probably going to get relegated because we were so far behind.”
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Then, as summer wore on and pre-season began, the situation took a turn.
“After my family holiday I got a call from our chairman and he said he had an American investor who wanted to speak to us, a guy called Rob Couhig from New Orleans who owned a couple of sports teams over there and wanted to have a look at investing in Wycombe,” Ainsworth continued.
“Meeting him was a great moment. I’m usually pretty spot on at working people out and he was really genuine. He said he has an ego and he was getting into his latter years and he wanted to get involved in football and have a little bit of fun. He said he wanted to put Wycombe on the map and have a go in the Championship, and it was all music to my ears.
“He then put the money back into the budget we had last year and gave us a little bit extra. He had to prove himself to the fans because he needed 75 per cent of the trust to vote for him to really get in. And I’m glad to say that has happened in the last couple of weeks.”
It convinced Ainsworth, amid a flurry of rumours about offers from other clubs, to commit his future to Wycombe. The departure of Jim Bentley from Morecambe last month means the 46-year-old is now the longest-serving manager in the top four divisions in England, with his tenure spanning more than seven years.
“There have been some ifs in the past when I’ve been linked with other clubs in the earlier years, and [some of the offers] made me properly think for the first time,” said Ainsworth.
“Some managers seem to move quite a bit, but I took stock of what I’ve got and made me realise it really is good. We are happy and settled and there is a lot to be said for that sometimes. Sometimes the grass can seem greener on the other side, particularly financially, but the club has to be right as well. It also has to be the right move for me and my family.
“Of course finance comes into it too, I’m an honest guy and I’m not going to say it wouldn’t do, but it would have to be something super special for me to leave this place at the moment after what I’ve built. I’m not going to say it will never happen, and I’m sure people wouldn’t begrudge me moving on, but Wycombe is a good place to be. Everything is mine, I’m in control of a lot and the owners have assured me that will stay the same.
“There have been a lot of people who have moved on and not succeeded the way they’ve thought and maybe taken a hit. I’m not saying they are wrong and I’m right, I’m just saying I can control my path and that is stay at Wycombe and continue the job, because I’m very happy and I think it’s the right decision.”
Ainsworth also knows loyalty works both ways. He realises the club gave him a chance and stuck by him when things got rough. It can never be smooth sailing over such a long tenure in the lower leagues. The sack rate in League One and League Two will tell you that.
“Really and truly I wasn’t ready for a management job, and I’ll never be able to give as much gratitude as I should be able to for those days,” he said. “I was a player who had done okay in his career, finished off at Wycombe and got the caretaker job because I was the oldest pro there.
“We had no money and it was turbulent times, the squad I inherited wasn’t mine and all these things that go against you mean you just have to find a way to survive.
“I remember the day when I stood on the touchline at Torquay United and we could have gone out of the Football League, which would have had an impact on thousands of people in Wycombe who have given everything to this club, and I would have been responsible for that.
“I’m just glad I got a chance to put it right and I’m hoping that the five years since have been an upward curve and I’ve repaid that faith. We do sit far away from those days at the moment and I’m working hard to make sure that gap stays intact.”
When some players step into management they leave the playing side behind entirely, but not Ainsworth. He has named himself on the bench a couple of times during EFL Trophy games for Wycombe, and has recently joined a semi-professional side.
“I play for a team called Woodley United,” he said. “Sundays are becoming very family-orientated and I wanted to be at home, but if Woodley have a game midweek and Wycombe don’t I’m playing for them.
“I love it and it’s still part of what I am. Everyone who has played the game understands that you just want to keep playing as long as you can. Management comes a real close second, but playing is the ultimate and I was so lucky to play for so many years.
“Hopefully I still will for a few more yet.”