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Wednesday 11 April 2012
Mike Rayner on a decade of progress at AFC Wimbledon

In the first of a series of features celebrating a decade of AFC Wimbledon and what has changed in that time, we spoke to our long-serving physio Mike Rayner about the dramatic innovations to the club’s medical approach.

The facilities that Rayner now has to work with as a Football League physio compared to when he arrived eight years ago provide compelling evidence of just how far the Dons have come as a club. When he followed Dave Anderson from Hendon in 2004 with the Dons in Isthmian Division One, Wimbledon was a far different set-up then. “It was the bar for the players in those days rather than getting in the ice baths,” he recalled. “But it is protein shakes instead of bottles of beer for them now. Not much has changed at the ground as it is still the same changing rooms, physio tables, and beds from when I started, but it is more our expectations of the players that has changed. The toughest challenge was imposing our ideas upon the players and putting my own stamp on things. The players back then during our part-time days were just used to turning up for matches and then having a drink at the bar, often not with the best recovery if they had an injury. We tried to bring in a lot more professionalism and it was hard work trying to get players to buy into that. Trying to educate the players to look after themselves was a huge part of it.”

However, convincing part-time players to adopt his philosophies was hardly helped by the facilities on offer at Wimbledon’s old training base during their Ryman League days.
“We trained at Kingston University’s Playing Fields in Tolworth then and though it was a massive playing area, it was freezing inside the building,” Rayner added. “We were basically a mobile physio unit when we were based there. We used to bring our own massage boards in and all the other equipment and pack it away at the end of our sessions and get everything back in the car. The shed there was broken into numerous times and we could not store anything. But we started to become more professional at the club when we moved to our current training base at King’s College. That made an enormous difference. We have taken over two squash courts; one has been converted into a gym and the other is a treatment room. The two situations were poles apart as we have everything that we need now.”

Rayner may have Dave Anderson to thank for offering him his first job in football at Hendon, but he admits that the Northern Irishman made it a tough introduction for him at Wimbledon. “The first time I met the players back then was before a pre-season game against Banstead,” he recalled. “Dave said he had a couple of players for me to look at and it turned out to be seven in total and they all had new injuries. It was welcome to Wimbledon so I thought. But out of all those injured players, they all went on to play a part during the next season.”

Anderson was in charge of Wimbledon for three years and he admits that Rayner was one of the best signings that he ever made. Indeed, that baptism of fire for Wimbledon’s new club physio was an examination that Anderson knew Rayner would pass with flying colours. “You do not do that if you do not trust someone,” said Anderson. “I gave Mike his first job in football so I knew what he could do. He applied for a job at Hendon after being at university. We called him the Gazelle because of the way that he ran. When I came to Wimbledon I brought Mike in with me. I did throw him in at the deep end, but it was more of a statement than a test for him. In a way it was saying to the players that here is your new physio and this is the way it is going to be. Mike was top-class from day one and he made a big difference to the club in making us more professional. I cannot speak highly enough of him. He was always ahead of the game. I worked with him for four or five years in total and whenever there was a time when he was not sure of something, he would read up on it and come back with solutions. I would completely trust him, I was the manager but I would not step into his territory and he would not step into mine.”

Wimbledon’s first season in the Conference was the hardest for Rayner as the club were basically operating on a part-time basis in what had become virtually a professional league. However, in 2010 Rayner got the call from Chief Executive Erik Samuelson to turn full-time and he admits it was an easy decision to make. Since then, the Dons have achieved Football League status and Rayner now believes that the club has the medical set-up to go with it. “The toughest time was when we got into the Conference as the players were still only coming in on a Monday, Tuesday and a Thursday for training,” he said. “It was hard to coordinate it all, but then the club went full time and Erik asked me to be a full-time physio and I jumped at the chance. I always wanted to be full-time at a football club and I felt really privileged. I have been here a long time so I have put my own stamp on it, but you want to keep driving your own standards up. I think the players are now very well looked after. There are a lot of people who do great work on the medical side. I have Rhiannon Luke and Leigh Turner, who have both been here for several years. I work closely with Jason Moriarty (fitness coach). He has been a great addition to the team and we look at ways that we can improve the squad physically.

"We are always looking at the nutrition side of things too and how we can maybe get an extra edge for the players. We have been successful in keeping the injury rates down this season. We also have therapists for the reserves and the Centre of Excellence, along with four club doctors, who are involved with the club now and are on the end of a phone when I need them. The two doctors we had when I started were great, but we are now very lucky to have Anup Sharma. He is our head medical doctor and his knowledge is unsurpassed. The contacts he has given us have been fantastic. We use the same knee surgeons, consultants and radiologists for our injured players as Premier League clubs such as Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea. So much has changed and it is a far different set-up that we have now.”