For academy manager Michael Hamilton, AFC Wimbledon is the perfect place to develop as a young footballer thanks to the foundation built within the club.
The path from the academy to the first team at Wimbledon is proving to be a well-trodden one.
Hamilton said: “When Glyn Hodges was appointed manager, the first thing he said to us was ‘I want to be the first Wimbledon manager to put out an academy XI in a first team fixture’ – that’s a carrot from the academy’s point of view.
“We’ve had 24 league debutants since the inception of the Wimbledon academy. AFC Wimbledon have only been a professional football club for nine years.
“We think we’ve done well, but we could do more. We’re only scratching the surface of our potential.”
The pandemic has impacted and altered the way Hamilton and AFC Wimbledon operate, but the academy manager, who took on the role in August 2019, has found the silver lining in the complex situation.
He has implemented other methods of development, focusing on the mental aspect that imprints on the personality of his players.
Hamilton said: “There’s a lot of logistical issues that we have had to consider, but with a bit of creativity and innovation, I think we’ve been able to educate the boys in other ways.
“We’ve done a lot of cultural education because the history of Wimbledon is what we think stands us out.
“Not just the story of AFC Wimbledon but Wimbledon FC, making sure the behaviours and the values that were present before are still present today.
“If things had been normal, we might not have achieved that.”
Hamilton is perfectly equipped to lead the next generation as he understands the importance of home-grown talent in the UK.
He is under no illusions about the value of young players to a local club and their supporters.
He said: “I think what coronavirus has exposed is the need for clubs to produce their own. I always feel that if you play an academy player in the first team, you’re going to get five or ten per cent more in terms of work-rate and mentality just because there’s a better connection.
“You ask any fans around the country no matter what club they support, the one thing they want to see is their own players being given a chance.
“The boys hopefully will make it into the first team and have the ambition to make sure they play a massive part in the club’s success and drive the club up through the leagues.”
For Hamilton and the staff at AFC Wimbledon’s academy, they are not just moulding their prospects into more evolved players, but well-rounded people, too.
This is a key staple in their philosophy.
Hamilton said: “We put a massive emphasis on how important education is because for those that don’t make it, they’ve got to go find a life after football. It’s important that we tool them to be prepared for what life might ask.
“We pride ourselves on educating the player as well as the person and the values that he upholds means as much to us as a player making his debut.”
In football’s modern landscape tainted by back-room dealings and international investors, Hamilton believes it is necessary that Wimbledon keep their head down and continue with their impressive model.
The manager, who has been at Wimbledon for the last 12 years, asserted that the values of the club must never be forgotten by his academy players.
He said: “As a club, we’re always going to have our limitations but we also stand up for a lot of good stuff that can get lost in the world and the massive billion-pound industry of football.
“It’s so important that the boys understand the club they work and play for, because when they wear the badge it represents a lot. I love the club. I love everything that it stands for.”
Naturally, it is part of the job as academy manager to look forward, but Hamilton won’t be forgetting those that contributed to the resurrection of Wimbledon any time soon.
He added: “Mark Robinson, currently the first team coach, used to be under-18s manager and he’s been a significant person within our story. Jeremy Sauer, the assistant academy manager at West Ham, was academy manager for seven or eight years here and before him, Nigel Hibbs created the academy.
“We are where we are now because of what has happened in the past.”
Featured image credit: Rob Cornell and Chris Slavin