The long serving gaffer

By: League Managers Association

Gareth Ainsworth is now the longest-serving manager in the Football League. During his playing career at QPR, he twice served as caretaker manager but it was at Wycombe Wanderers that he made his name as a coach. Hanging up his boots at the club, he was appointed as manager in November 2012, after a short period as caretaker-manager. He has been in the job ever since, but behind that longevity, he says, lies hard graft, empathy and a very level head.

“On Saturday, I wore jeans, cowboy boots and a leather jacket.”

It was for ‘Anything but Blue’ day, where we sought to raise awareness of mental health issues. Normally I always wear blue, but I loved it.
I thought, ‘this is me, this is who I am’. People talk about mental wellbeing a lot now, but it’s something we’ve always prioritised at Wycombe. It’s an open, honest environment, where we look out for one another and support each other whenever we can. I believe communication is incredibly important and I never shy away from a conversation. Whatever worries you might have about opening up, it’s always easier than you think it will be. My players know my door is always open.

“Dad had several jobs and mum was a singer.”

My brother and I would take ourselves off to school in the morning and let ourselves back in at the end; mum and dad were off working to pay the bills and put food on the table. Those values were instilled in me. I’ve always worked hard at the club, but in my first 18 months of full-time management I was working hard, but not smart.

“If I’m honest, I wasn’t ready to be the gaffer.”

But there’s no better learning curve than when you’re thrust into the job and have to learn on your feet. Some sink, some swim and I think I had a bit of both in the first 18 months, all of which was really important in preparing me for the next five years. That first 18 months was a crucial time and I learned a hell of a lot. I took over more or less halfway through the season and, as is often the case when a new manager takes over, it gave everyone a lift. The change re-energised the team and we finished mid-table, having been near the bottom. But because we’d had that upturn in performance, I think I became a bit delusional about the state of the team. I was certainly naïve. We had a new season ahead of us – my first full season in charge – and I didn’t plan and prepare and make as many changes as I know now I should have.

“Nearly going down at Torquay United was a wake-up call.”

I don’t know how we survived, but that game was the best thing that could ever have happened to me as a manager. I realised then that it wasn’t enough to just bumble along, planning week-by-week or month-by-month. I had to plan for the season ahead, work hard with the players and sign new ones. I made about a dozen changes that summer and it was a different Wycombe that started the 2014-15 season. I was also really starting to understand the power of the mind in a situation like that crucial game, because although everyone expected us to fail, I’d been repeating to the players all week that we were going to stay up, and we did. I realised how you can tap into the psychological side of things as a manager.

“In my second full season I came into my own.”

I thought, I’m just going to go with it and be myself, be that person who made decisions as a captain, giving discipline out and organising the players on the pitch. I was never the most tactically aware player, but I made sure I learned that side of things. I also worked at convincing the players how good they were; I wanted to be a teacher, an organiser, to build something special that emulated my personality. That season we reached the play-off final and missed out on penalties. I was incredibly proud of what we’d achieved. That was really me then, becoming the gaffer. It was such an important season in my career.

“It’s so important to have something to aim for.”

Andrew Howard, a local businessman, came to the club as chairman that season, and I learned a huge amount from him about off-the-pitch things, like motivation and planning. I can remember going to his office and endlessly planning on whiteboards where we saw the club going and how we’d like its future to be. I’d never done anything like that before.

“My biggest strength is building relationships.”

I’ve been through some tough life experiences and it means I’m able to empathise with people and talk to them on their level. I think if it all ended tomorrow and I had to look for a different job, I’d still make a success of it, because I enjoy energising and motivating people and developing relationships with them.

“If I know I’ve done my best, I can sleep at night.”

When you lose a game, the next one and the one after that take on even greater importance. That’s when the stress really starts to build. I’ve experienced a few winning and losing streaks in my time and I’ve come to realise that I cope better with the stress when I know I’ve done everything I possibly can. For example, I’ll sit down with my loan players and many of my younger players, too, and do clips with them, which takes a good half an hour or more for each player. It would be so easy to miss a player out in order to get home that bit earlier, but I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. I’d know there was more I could have done and that it could have made all the difference.

“The more I understand, the less things stress me out.”

I’m always open to learning new things and, especially, to talking to people to find out what makes them tick. The LMA Diploma was fantastic; there were some amazing people on the course and it was really valuable to talk to them, not just about football, but about their experiences and lives in general. There was a lot of content on stress management and organisation, too, and it helped me to justify how I do things at Wycombe.
I think if I’d gone on the course before those first 18 months in the job it would have really helped me get a running start.”

“Football isn’t everything to me.”

My family is, and other things are important to me, like my music; it’s who I am. I think if you put all your eggs in one basket, you’ll be in trouble one day. While I absolutely love football management and will always keep doing it the best I can, I’m careful never to let the football monster take over, because that can happen. That’s why I think it’s so important to get away from football sometimes. For me, singing with the band is the biggest release, because the only thing on my mind is getting the lyrics or the tune right.

“You can’t worry about how you compare with other people.”

Sometimes you just have to look at yourself and say, ‘Hey, I’ve done pretty well to be where I am, because this world isn’t easy’. The roller coaster of management is a really difficult ride, especially in the first 18 months, but the longer you’re in management the smoother it gets, and you get better equipped to deal with it. Over the years I’ve become more content as a person, and that’s really helped me to deal with the pressure to win and the disappointment of losing.

“I’ve got a line I’ll never fall beneath.”

Because I’m content with who I am, I’ve got my music and I know my family are there for me. I still talk to my dad five times a week. My parents played a big part in who I am and have been there for support all my life, not in the sense of giving me answers, but just being there. You find the answers yourself, that’s what builds and shapes you as a manager, but everyone needs support.