Richard Dobson’s voice quivers with emotion. The Wycombe Wanderers assistant manager is recounting a conversation with two female supporters, which left an indelible mark on the 45-year-old.
“One of them said to me, ‘I’ve fallen in love with this club’”, he recalls.
“She said she was in a difficult relationship at the time and was contemplating not going on anymore. But then she turned up at this football club and saw this group of players giving absolutely everything. She said it gave her hope in life.
“The other lady who was with her said, ‘It was exactly the same for me. I was ready to give in. I contemplated suicide. But then I came to the club and just fell in love with the attitude and togetherness of the players. I come here every week because these guys give me hope.’”
The story is a powerful reminder of football’s impact on people’s lives. It’s also a testament to the culture that Dobson and Gareth Ainsworth, Wycombe’s manager, have established at the 134-year-old club.
Since taking the managerial reins at Adams Park in 2011, the pair have put in a place a leadership structure with player representation – in the form of dressing room ‘generals’ – at its heart.Embed from Getty Images
Entrusting senior professionals such as Adebayo Akinfenwa, Joe Jacobson, Jason McCarthy and Dominic Gape with responsibility for spearheading team bonding activities and rallying the dressing room during runs of poor form might seem run-of-the-mill. For Ainsworth and Dobson, though, this group of players are much more than stereotypical tub-thumpers.
“They’re our culture guardians, our culture architects,” says Dobson.
“They are the future of our club and the people that will guide us in the right direction”.
‘Culture’ is a term still viewed with some suspicion in certain parts of the football industry, but Dobson believes that such scepticism is outdated.
“A couple of years ago we spoke to somebody at another club. We were talking about our culture and they said, ‘Oh, you know, it’s obviously a soft culture’”, he says.
“There is nothing soft about our football club. The compassion and empathy, which are words that you wouldn’t normally associate with a sport like football, bring us strength. We wouldn’t be where we are without those things.”
Beyond the ‘generals’, who, in Akinfenwa’s case, also advise younger players on how to navigate the pitfalls of social media, Ainsworth and Dobson are exhaustive in their search for ways of influencing the club’s culture.
The pair changed dugouts after a poor season to avoid a mental hangover at the start of the following campaign and also run ‘development days’, bringing together the first-team squad to take part in off-pitch activities, including a Haka coaching session from a group of trained Maori dance instructors.
“We told the boys there was a guy coming in to talk to them and they didn’t have a clue what was happening,” recalls Dobson.
“All of a sudden these guys come in with full face paint and grass skirts, screaming at the top of their voices. The look on the players’ faces was brilliant. But it was an education in terms of what the Haka means to the Maori culture in particular.
“Then we went down into the gym and we did the Haka to each other, and that was immensely powerful. When you’ve done something like that together, it creates stronger bonds.
Ainsworth believes that the team spirit at Adams Park is playing a role in helping to recruit players – such as new signing Sam Vokes – which the club might otherwise struggle to attract, with the manager on-record as saying Wycombe are unable to compete financially with rivals such as Ipswich, Portsmouth and Sunderland.
“Sam Vokes actually said to me, ‘I’ve heard about your dressing room’”, says Ainsworth.
“To say that rather than, ‘How do you play?’ or ‘I want to play every week’, is so powerful”.Embed from Getty Images
Ainsworth and Dobson – currently the longest-serving managerial duo operating in any of England’s top four professional leagues – carefully screen potential signings, with the latter using social media research to better understand a player’s character.
“It’s a great source of information which helps us understand people,” says Dobson.
“We have turned players down based on their social media accounts. We look at that (a social media profile) and go, do you know what, that person doesn’t represent the values that we have at Wycombe Wanderers.
“People are sometimes it a little bit too quick in giving too much away (online), so what you see sometimes is the worst version of them when they’re not with you. So, they come in, they meet you with their agent and they say the right things because they want to come to your club, and then you look on their social media and you realise what they’re like when they’re sat at home thinking that no-one’s judging them”.
Despite a tough 2020/21 season, which saw the team relegated from the Championship, Wycombe’s attitude was widely heralded.
“I remember at Swansea, we were two up, they got two late goals to draw and at the end of the game, Steve Cooper (Swansea’s then manager) shook our hands and said, ‘I have so much respect for you guys’”, says Dobson.
“That meant so much to us. It was our first season in the Championship but I think from a coaching point of view, we went there and went, actually, we can do this.”
Ainsworth and Dobson are quick to point out that Wycombe’s recent resurgence – promotion to the Championship in 2019/20 saw the Chairboys compete in the second tier of English football for the first time in its history – is down to a club-wide effort, pointing to the backing they receive from owner Rob Couhig and the involvement of all the Adams Park staff.
“It (our culture) is like a fabric. If the fabric has few points of connection, when it’s stressed, it easily falls apart. But we’ve got so many points of connection within our club that you can stress it and it won’t fall apart. I think that’s super important in terms of breeding a successful team and a successful football club,” says Dobson.
Wycombe’s backroom team is supported by Dr Misia Gervis, the England Women’s team’s former psychologist, who works with the club one day a week. Gervis’ input is part of a comprehensive psychological support structure that Dobson has established, which also sees all Wycombe players undergo mental health screening.
It’s a part of football which the UEFA-A qualified coach, who founded a similar academy-level programme described by the FA’s former head of psychology as ‘the biggest in Europe’, believes a lot of clubs are only paying lip-service to.
“What I’m seeing now is a lot of people that are recently qualified from university going into jobs at clubs to tick boxes, because the Elite Player Performance Plan says you have to have a psychologist,” says Dobson.
“So they (the clubs) go, ‘Well, we’ve we bought one in – although we are paying them peanuts – but we’ve got one, so we are doing psychology now’, but they’re not. It’s not as simple as that. You have to understand psychology at a far deeper level.”
Dobson believes that psychology is still widely misunderstood by many people in the game, who believe the practice needs to be overly formal, and cites his work with Wycombe centre back Anthony Stewart as an example of how casual conversations can provide psychological support.
“I think they’ve got this understanding that psychology is somebody sat across a table talking to somebody else on the other side of the table, very much like counselling,” he says.
“From my perspective, as someone who’s studied psychology and certainly from Misia’s perspective, some of our best work has been done in chats, walking across the pitch after training.
“Some of my best work with Anthony Stewart as a young lad was when I was dropping him off at digs. He was sat in front of the minibus with me, and then you conversations from there.
“Psychology manifests itself in many different ways. I don’t think people truly understand that it can be done very subtly. It doesn’t have to be done in this quite fearful environment where someone is sat across the table, waiting for you to lay yourself bare in what feels like an interview situation”.
Ainsworth and Dobson have included psychological and social support targets as part of 13 key performance indicators (KPIs) which Wycombe’s players will be tasked with hitting this season.
Squad members will be rewarded for meeting the goals, which also include technical and tactical facets of performance, such as the number of times the team enter the opposition box.
“With most clubs, you get your win bonus and you’re talking about the black and white of winning and losing,” says Dobson.
“With us, we talk about the way that we can win and our KPIs, which are set by the things that give us a greater chance of winning, if we perform them correctly.
“The boys have got a pool for carrying out the right KPIs and every now and then they’ll play really well and lose, but the KPIs will show us it’s a game we could easily have won.
“It’s actually worked out really well and more often than not, if we win, our KPIs are very high.”
As Wycombe’s season gets underway at Adams Park on Saturday, when the Chairboys face Accrington Stanley, Ainsworth and Dobson’s complimentary qualities will be key to helping the squad meet the targets the pair have set for the upcoming campaign.
“I’m an introvert…but introverts can be important and you can still lead as an introvert”, says Dobson.
“It doesn’t mean that you shy away in the corner and you don’t want to speak to people. It just means that you do things differently to other people.
“Gaz (Ainsworth) is jumping for every header and if you put a GPS on him, he’d do as much mileage as the players during games.
“There’ll be some players, like Bayo (Akinfenwa), that connect with Gaz because they want that energy, but there’ll be others, like Dominic Gabe, who’s a quieter person, that will connect with me.
“If we can touch as many parts of that dressing room as possible, then happy days.”