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Gareth Ainsworth: ‘I’m More of a Thinker Now Than I’ve Ever Been’

Gareth Ainsworth: ‘I’m More of a Thinker Now Than I’ve Ever Been’

Sunday, 16 February, 2020 - 08:00
September marked Gareth Ainsworth’s seventh anniversary in charge of Wycombe Wanderers. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA
London - Ben Fisher

No one, Gareth Ainsworth says, loves a fairytale more than him but as much as the Wycombe Wanderers manager stresses there is still scope for such heartwarming stories in the Football League, he accepts money talks higher up the food chain. A self-confessed petrolhead, Ainsworth references Formula One to make his point. “I was big on it in the 80s, when Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Keke Rosberg, [Michele] Alboreto, all these famous names, any one of them could have won,” he says. “As it became very predictable, it turned me off watching it a little bit. You know why the Mercedes and the Ferraris are winning every race, because they’re the fastest cars, and they’re the best because they can invest the most. The rate of inflation in football, I don’t know what percentage you could put on that … but it’s ridiculous.”

For a man nicknamed Wild Thing going back to his playing days at Wimbledon and who drives an orange 1969 fastback Ford Mustang, it is an apt analogy. Ian Holloway, who signed the former winger for Queens Park Rangers in 2003, said Ainsworth’s full-throttle style embodied the sports car. “Great in straight lines, very powerful engine, very quick accelerating, I don’t know about putting a cross in … but that was definitely my playing career,” Ainsworth, who still plays for ninth-tier Woodley United, says, smiling. “In management terms I’ve moved away from the Mustang, a basic straight-line, look-at-me car. I’m more of a thinker now than I’ve ever been and I’m proud I’ve developed into this. I was nowhere near this when I first took over.”

A rock‘n’roll manager (his son Kane’s middle name is Presley in homage to Elvis), in the corner of his office at the training ground is a forlorn guitar stand – his Fender, fresh from recording a version of Dion’s The Wanderer, the club’s unofficial anthem, is at home ready for band rehearsals. Pinned on the wall is a printout of FourFourTwo’s predicted 2019-20 League One table, with Wycombe 23rd. “That will stay up for the rest of the season,” says Ainsworth, whose side are second before hosting Peterborough on Saturday. “We were still looked at as relegation fodder but I think there has been a change [in perception] this season. Our team is looked at in a slightly different way, which I take as a compliment and the players should take as a compliment.”

September marked his seventh anniversary in charge and, in that time, he feels he has matured immeasurably but Ainsworth, the second-longest serving manager in the country behind Morecambe’s Jim Bentley, remains the same infectious and gregarious character; it is easy to see why players and staff run through brick walls for him. Supporters adore Ainsworth and the feeling is mutual. The 46-year-old describes the club as “semi-family”; this summer he and the chairman Trevor Stroud attended a season-ticket holder’s funeral in nearby Amersham. Ainsworth has turned down advances from Barnsley, Notts County and, most recently, Lincoln to stay put at Adams Park, where an important decision is looming. This month Wycombe, fan-owned since 2012, will vote on selling a majority shareholding to Rob Couhig, an American investor who came close to buying Yeovil in May. “I believe we need it; we could be in some serious trouble if that doesn’t go ahead.”

Over the past months Couhig has joined the management structure in a try-before-you-buy capacity, helping restore – and slightly increase – Ainsworth’s budget after it was cut by 35% to around £1.2m at the end of last season, when Wycombe finished 17th. That injection gave Ainsworth, who went on to sign Rolando Aarons and Nnamdi Ofobohr on loan from Newcastle and Bournemouth, an element of breathing space. “Five or six National League sides would have had bigger budgets,” Ainsworth says, of what might have been. “For 10 minutes I contemplated disaster and it’s probably been the only time in my management career where I’ve gone: ‘We are going to relegated.’ I started accepting it, and then I just shook myself.”

Ainsworth has done a remarkable job at Wycombe but is fiercely ambitious to taste further success. Eddie Howe, Chris Wilder and Sean Dyche, each of whom are managing in the Premier League after winning promotion with their respective clubs, fuel his desire to manage at the highest level. “It shows the power of longevity and what can happen at a club. They are great inspiration for me but anyone who has been in charge for a long time and built something I’m inspired by and I’ve got a lot of empathy for, because it’s a tough job.”

The times, they are slowly a-changing at Wycombe but the manager, whose relentless work ethic was born from when he and his brother, Liam, were “latchkey kids” growing up in Blackburn, as his father, Bill, and mother, Christine, juggled jobs, is happy doing the dirty work, filling in rabbit holes at the training ground or collecting balls after training. What you see is what you get with Ainsworth. “I can’t even do [an] around the world! My son can do one now and he’s 13 years old but I can’t do one.”

Above all, Ainsworth says, a healthy work-life balance is most important. “Moments like watching my boy play football or my girls play netball, it’s just trying to get to those games,” he says. “When he turns round when he’s made a good tackle – I don’t know where he got that from – or a good clearance or when he saves a goal and looks at you … you can’t buy those moments and you don’t want to miss those moments. They’re really special.”

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