So, Gareth Ainsworth. The managerial candidate who seems to bring the biggest grimace to the face of Sunderland fans when touted as Jack Ross’ replacement. But is that a justified opinion?
I’ll admit, when Ainsworth’s name began trending my immediate thought was one of alarming despondency as I quickly relived the two fixtures against his Wycombe Wanderers side last season. It wasn’t football we were subdued to in those encounters, it was the dark arts of shithousery in all of its anti-footballing glory. Ainsworth’s side kicked us off the park both home and away. They threw themselves to the ground. They wasted time from the first whistle to the last, deceiving officials in the process. They lumped it forward and did their best to keep the ball off the ground for as long as possible. The game at Adams Park resembled more of a barroom brawl than a football match, it really was brutal. Do I want to see that at the Stadium of Light week in week out? Absolutely not.
But then I climbed down off my hypothetical horse and attempted to look at Ainsworth without presumption. In both of the aforementioned games, Wycombe will have considered themselves as the ‘plucky underdogs,’ with nothing to lose. For Ainsworth, he brought his side into both of those fixtures with the sole focus of disrupting Sunderland’s ‘everything’ without giving the faintest damn while doing so. And they did just that. What do Wycombe care if it was unfashionable? They took two points from us last season and could count themselves unfortunate not to have bagged all six. It was the exact kind of game where Ross was left scratching his head last season; naïve to some of the League One underhand tactics which ultimately cost us promotion. Tactics which Ainsworth would certainly be savvy to should he arrive.
The potential appointment of Ainsworth deserves a lot more than face value opinions based off of 180 minutes of football and a mass brawl, however. At seven years permanently, we’re talking about one of longest serving managers in the country, throughout all four leagues. In this era of football that is an impressive accolade – without an actual accolade. The 46-year-old has been in charge of 335 games for The Chairboys, winning 138 of them, losing 119 and drawing 84. He has guided Wycombe away from the League Two relegation zone and the threat of dropping out of the Football League entirely and ahead of us into the automatic promotion places of League One. Needless to say, this has been done on a shoestring – and that’s being generous to shoestrings. Quite simply, Ainsworth has had nothing to work with financially due to the convoluted rumblings of ownership at the club in recent years.
And yet what Ainsworth has done is utilise the free agent and loan markets advantageously in that time. In 2014 he brought in centre back, Alfie Mawson, from Brentford on loan as an unknown 20-year-old. Mawson’s season at Adams Park under Ainsworth would be the springboard to what eventually became £20m worth of defender at Swansea and Fulham having scored seven times in 50 appearances and making a clean sweep of the club’s Player Of The Year awards that season.
Mawson is not the only youngster with potential Ainsworth has brought in at Wycombe over his tenure. In 2015 a 20-year-old Luke O’Nien was identified at Watford and acquired on a free transfer. As we well know there was a tidy profit made on the sale of O’Nien who has become arguably one of Sunderland’s better players, certainly the most versatile and without question the most likeable. Jamaal Blackman, the reputable Chelsea goalkeeper, joined on loan in 2016 and kept 17 clean sheets while Queens Park Rangers’ standout player this season, Eberechi Eze, was also brought in for a half season loan during the 2017-18 promotion campaign as a teenager and offered five goals along the way. Craig Mackail-Smith joined on a free in 2017 as an experienced head and contributed 13 goals in all competitions as Ainsworth steered his side to promotion from League Two, and not to mention the acquisition of Adebayo Akinfenwa in 2016 who continues to prove to be an ace in Ainsworth’s pack.
This season Ainsworth has managed to bring in Rolando Aarons and Nnamdi Ofoborh from Premier League squads who have acquitted themselves to League One comfortably, prospering at the top end of the table. They may not be household names, but it can be suggested Ainsworth has an eye for potential and also seems capable of negotiating deals with Premier League clubs competently. Given how well […] our transfer window went during the summer – with a much bigger budget than Wycombe – this would be a welcome trait to have in a manager.
Similar to Ross, Ainsworth seems a likeable, benevolent, character. Nicknamed ‘Wild Thing,’ the man from Blackburn would undoubtedly form an infectious bond with supporters – at least while results complied – through his expressive nature, whether it be out and about in his bright orange Mustang, singing on stage as part of a rock band or whether he should lace up his boots on a Sunday morning at one of a selection of Sunderland’s infamous locals. And what’s more, he has already spoken highly of us: “Sunderland are a magnificent side, what a football club, their fans were awesome - what a following that is,” he said after March’s draw – clearly he knows his stuff.
In a recent interview in The Guardian, Ainsworth suggested he has developed into a considerate manager in recent years, something which will please Sunderland fans. He said: “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.”
Having rejected approaches from Barnsley, Notts. County and Lincoln, Ainsworth has remained fervently loyal at Adams Park, something which would again appeal on Wearside; a manager who wants to be here but who possesses ambitions of managing at a higher level – something that may be more attainable here at Sunderland.
It’s not just the numbers on pages or perceived characteristics of Ainsworth that will sell Sunderland fans on his would-be appointment. In an interview with the Sunderland Echo, Ainsworth’s former team mate and player, Marcus Bean, shared his thoughts on the man who would be king: “His philosophy is about people. He’s a people person and he demands that everyone in the dressing room is a good character. He won’t sign a bad character, so he does a lot of research into what a player is like. Gareth tries to create a harmonious dressing room where there is no bad eggs, and everyone is pulling in the right direction. He’s an attacking manager. Whether you agree with the way he plays or not, he likes attacking football. How will he do it? First of all, he’ll unify the dressing room. I’m not sure if there are any bad characters in there, but he’d look to get them out pretty quickly if there are. He’ll look to bring in players who, first and foremost, can run. He loves to make sure you can run and that’s a given with him. If there’s players there that aren’t necessarily very mobile or aren’t working hard, then he’ll change things up pretty quickly.”
Quite the contrast then from the ‘lump it up to Akinfenwa and boot everyone else in the process’ approach we saw first-hand from Wycombe last season. And it will need to be. For all of the jovial off-field atmosphere Ainsworth might bring with him, the crucial element in his appointment would be succeeding in the remit where Ross failed: promotion. A quick observation of The Gas 2.0 [Wycombe] forum suggests he will be a monumental loss for Wanderers – which is a good sign as far as Sunderland are concerned, but there is no room for error here. While he would be supported and given some length of rope, he would need to hit the ground running.
Wycombe have scored three or more goals on five occasions this season – that is something which would need to be translated the Stadium of Light in place of apprehensively stumbling over the line in games by virtue of an individual moment of brilliance. Wins will be at a premium and the eight-point gap to Ipswich Town would need to diminish.
I guess what I’ve tried to do over the course of this article is convince you, and myself, that Ainsworth wouldn’t be an appointment worthy of a grimacing face or a head in the hands moment. It’s far from the ideal circumstances for any potential manager. The necessity for time to build your own regime just simply cannot be afforded here. It’s ruthless and potentially condescending, but if you get it right…if Gareth Ainsworth believes he can get us promoted with the added flair of some rock and roll football, then he may just be given the gig.
And where would his first act take him? Adams Park against Wycombe Wanderers, of course. It’s a strange entity this football thing.