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Monday 11 September 2006
Having a Wales of a time

In the second of an occasional series, Graham Stacey ventures into the AFC Wimbledon dressing room to hear the players' thoughts on the season so far.

For AFC Wimbledon fans bred on a diet of championships and trophies taking success for granted can be all too easy and, sometimes, it takes an outsider to remind us just how lucky we are.

Just lately, falling attendances have been a hot topic for debate on the terraces, despite the fact that the Dons' hardcore fanbase is still guaranteed to make rival clubs turn green with envy. So every now and then it's nice to catch up with someone who is relatively new to it all, whose thoughts on the whole set up of the club serve as a reminder to just how far we have come since those dark days of May 2002. Step forward Mr Steve Wales ? a man who has not only dropped a league to turn out in the yellow and blue, but admits that a major reason for doing so was us, the fans.

?When I came down to have a look around the place in the Summer I was just blown away,? he explains. ?I had a few other offers, including one in the Conference, but I heard from Dave Anderson and came down to look around the ground. There was a World Cup game on in the bar and I couldn't believe there were a load of Wimbledon fans in there watching it. The place was buzzing and it took me aback ? you just don't get that dedication at other non-league clubs.

?Then I had a chat with Dave and he showed me a few videos and, again, I saw how many fans there were in the ground. After that it was obvious to me that this club should be playing at a much higher level than we're at - and I wanted to be part of getting us there?

Having dropped down from the Conference South, former Yeading star 'Josey' could be forgiven for taking the Ryman Premier League lightly. However, chatting to him after the 3-0 win over Hendon, it's soon apparent that he's taking nothing for granted. He said: ?I think we've played well up to now, but I don't think we've set the place on fire just yet. We've drawn too many games and we need to start turning those into wins. That said, I think it's just a case of things clicking into place and, if I'm honest, I will be very disappointed if we don't win the league. With the players we have here, I'd feel as though we hadn't done ourselves justice.?

As for the standard of players at the Dons, Wales reckons they compare favourably with the players he lined up alongside in the division above. He said: ?I've been very impressed with all the players here at Wimbledon since I joined and, to be honest, I don't think there's any real difference in quality between the players here and the players in the Conference South. Picture: Steve foiled at Walton.I certainly think we're as professional a set-up as any of the teams up there. There are a few sides in this division that wouldn't be good enough if they were to step up a level but, in terms of players, I think we're already good enough to compete. Off the field as well, we're geared up to do just that. Now it's just a case of working hard and getting us there.?

As well as having Conference South experience, Wales also arrived at the club with an international pedigree ? having been the only player outside of the Conference to be called up to Paul Fairclough's National Game XI (the non-league England team) last season. Wales said: ?That was a great experience and it all came a bit out of the blue really. I got a call from my boss at Yeading telling me I had a chance, but I didn't really expect anything to come of it. Then I got a call from the NLP asking me about my 'call up', and had to admit that was the first I'd heard of it!

?This was last November. We went over to Belgium and it all went really well. I thought I did okay and the manager told me I'd played well. After that I picked up a couple of little injuries and missed a few squads, but since then I've played for an FA Select XI against Cambridge, and it was nice to be involved again.?

In his brief Wimbledon career, Wales has already turned out at right wing-back, on the right wing and in central midfield - but that's something else he's taken in his stride. He said: ?To be honest I don't really have a favourite position. I've played right-back, wing-back, on the right wing and I used to play in central midfield for Cheshunt. To be honest, I'm comfortable with any of them. Recently we've been playing 4-4-2 and I've been on the wing with Luke [Garrard] behind me, and that seems to be going well. He can play midfield, so I know he can overlap me on the wing and it's just a case of me tucking in ? and vice versa.

?Actually, Luke and I go back a long way. He lives about five minutes down the road from me in north London and we've known each other for ages and we get on really well. It was nice to know someone here when I arrived, although I actually went to school with Byron [Bubb] as well.?

So here's a man who, having started out with what one presumes to have been a pretty decent school team, has gone on to attract offers from professional clubs and represented his country ? all before the age of 22. How does he hope to top that little lot this season? Typically, Wales resists the urge to make any grand predictions, and instead opts for something much more modest. He said: ?To be honest, my ambition at the moment is just to play well, and to the best of my ability. The crowd have been great, and my biggest disappointment is that they haven't seen the best of me yet. I want to play as well as I can and I know that, if I can do, it will mean I'm contributing more to the side.

?We're seven games in and I don't think I've really played well yet, if I'm honest with myself. I can't put my finger on it, and I know confidence comes into it, but I also know I should have knocked in a few goals by now. I've missed a few chances but I got one today and, who knows, perhaps with the law of averages on my side I'll bundle a few more in now. What surprised me most was that, when I did get one, it was with my head - you'll come to see that heading isn't my greatest asset!?

Having interviewed Wales for the first time, it's quite apparent that he's enjoying himself at AFC Wimbledon. Every now and then it's nice to be reminded just how big a part the fans can play in making the players feel welcome at the club, but hearing just how much a player yearns to perform well for those fans is surely the icing on the cake. Given that Wales has had a pretty decent start to his Dons career as it is, it should put the wind up many a Ryman League left-back too!