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Wednesday 18 April 2012
Simon Bassey on a decade of changes to our coaching set-up

In the second of a series of features celebrating a decade of AFC Wimbledon and what has changed in that time, we spoke to first-team coach Simon Bassey about the evolution of our managerial approach.

Perhaps no one is in a better position to offer an insight into our transformation than Bassey, who was there from the very start in 2002 as a player and has served on the coaching staff since 2006 when Dave Anderson offered him a chance to guide the club’s reserves. With Wimbledon’s survival in League 2 now assured, Bassey is involved in our meticulous preparation for next season, which involves running the rule over the current crop in the squad and scouting for new players. But that is all a far cry from Bassey’s playing days when the likes of Matt Everard signed for Wimbledon after interacting with a fan on a chat site. Even that was a step-up from Wimbledon’s initial recruitment policy after the club was first founded.

“I had officially retired from playing with Carshalton at the end of the season before we were formed due to a knee ligament injury, but a friend told me I would still be good enough to play at Combined Counties level so I played in the third game at Walton and Hersham. We got battered and we had Keith Ward, who was a good right-back, playing centre forward. We were terrible and at half-time the manager Terry Eames went mad. I was just thinking that we needed players quickly. It was just a case of anyone that we could get hold of. I got Neil Robson down and a couple of other players. But things did start to take shape and we signed Matty Everard after he scored against us for Ash United. One of the fans tapped him up on a website (the 'Weird and Wonderful World' chat site) and he went onto be one of the greatest signings that the club ever made.

“It is so different now as there are a lot of miles covered on the motorway looking for new players. This week, I have been to Crawley versus Northampton and I am going to Southend versus Barnet on Friday. Terry and Stuart are also going to games this week and we have another two scouts going to games at this time of the season. It is a vital time to look at players that can improve us for next season. You can watch them on videos, but you need to get out there and see players with your own eyes. It is a case of getting out there, meeting people and hearing stuff on the grapevine about who might be available. We as a club are still evolving and there are loads of areas we can improve in, including scouting.”

Now aged 36, Bassey admits he has had to change his own approach a lot from a part-time footballer to a first-team coach with a Football League club. Bassey is now studying for his coaching badges and he hopes to earn the Uefa A grade qualification before he is 40. However, when the former Aldershot midfielder was asked to join Dave Anderson’s coaching team six years ago, the training facilities he had to work with were far from professional.

“We were going to Dover on the coach and Dave pulled me to one side and told me there would be no more games for me, but he said that he wanted me to stay as he respected my opinions on the game,” Bassey added. “When I first started coaching I was looking after the reserves with John Morris at Kingston University Playing Fields in Tolworth. We only had one pitch for everyone and the first-team had three-quarters of it. We basically had one floodlight out of the six and a penalty area to work in.

"The changing rooms were also freezing and it was not a great environment to progress. We only had from 7.30pm until 8.30pm to train and then we had to be off the pitch. But I think we finished second in the league and we helped players towards the first-team. Chris Hussey was one who we picked up and he went onto the first-team and then to Coventry. It was harder then, but you knew that players wanted to be there for the right reasons, not because they wanted to get paid or because of the training facilities.

"When we moved to our current training base at New Malden, it was a fantastic move for the club. I think we had one exercise bike at Tolworth and that was broken. Now we have a gym for the players to work in, a physio room, and we are always improving the equipment that they players have to work with. We also have several pitches to work on skills and tactics with the players and it is all spread out through the day so you can work on things better. I have had to change too. It is effectively a full-time job with the hours that I put in at the club now, but I still need to supplement my income and I still run a taxi, something I have done for 11 years now.”

Obviously, visiting Football League grounds up and down the country is a world away from Wimbledon’s days in the Combined Counties League. When the Dons sealed promotion to League 2 at Manchester last May, Bassey admits that it took time to sink in. In particular, he remembered the game against Coney Hall in 2004, played at Bromley FC, which was eventually abandoned due to crowd trouble.

“There was something not quite right about the atmosphere,” he added. "The game was fantastic and my kind of match with tackles flying in, but a can got thrown onto the pitch and it all started kicking off in the crowd while we were still playing. There were a lot of people just intent on causing trouble. We used to take a thousand away fans even then, teams wanted to beat you and there would be opposition fans who would turn up for the wrong reasons. There was no adequate stewarding or policing and people were drinking so there was always going to be trouble.

"Funnily enough, in the rearranged game at Sutton I missed a penalty. I had never scored for Wimbledon so that is why I took it. I told people afterwards that I missed on purpose because it was 6-0 at that time and I had that score in a sweepstake. To go to some of the big grounds and win this season, in particular places like Bradford, has been fantastic. When we started 10 years ago in the Combined Counties League, they were in the Premier League and this season we did the double over them. That shows how far we have come.”

The importance of tactics and diet for the professional players of today is all a far cry from Bassey’s playing days with the Dons when the post-match warm down took place in the Walkabout bar in Wimbledon by sharing a drink with the fans. It is a time that Bassey remembers with affection, but he says the club has had to evolve.

“The first competitive game at Sandhurst was fantastic, there was a special buzz really,” Bassey added. “Our supporters seemed to be everywhere, they were eating and drinking on the big green outside the ground and inside they were standing on bales of hay to see the match. After the Sandhurst game, we all had a few beers on the coach and we used to go to the Walkabout pub in Wimbledon for a few drinks with the fans. There was a great family feeling, but now it has all changed. At our training ground after sessions, it is pasta and fresh fruit for the players instead of a lager.

"Obviously, the technical side of things has changed massively. There is now more time to look at tactics. On a Thursday and a Friday, we will look at match reports and scouting reports about the opposition. Then we will work that into our sessions and put that into our defensive strategy for a game. We have a light session on a Friday and run through more technical points, maybe planning set pieces to suit the opposition.

"Everything has evolved over time and when Terry Brown came in he knew how to get us promotions. He knew the squad that we needed to get us out of the Ryman Premier and when we did that he changed a lot of the players. People were thinking why he did that at the time, but he always knew what was required for the next level. He knew that if we were going to progress as a club, then it needed to be freshened up. What this club has achieved in 10 years is amazing. I stood there on the pitch at Man City last May and I was so proud. I looked at the fans celebrating and the players going wild and it was touching. But we have to try and keep progressing as a club.”