Gareth Ainsworth has left his orange 1969 fastback Ford Mustang in a car park a few streets away. He is not wearing the lucky red snakeskin boots he rocked for the League One play-off final at Wembley last year when his Wycombe Wanderers team were promoted to the Championship, either. He is not wearing his open-necked skin-tight black shirt. Or his leather jacket.
Instead, Ainsworth is standing alone on the pavement outside a coffee shop in the centre of Henley-on-Thames with a takeaway cup in his hand, wearing neutral colours, sensible shoes and an elegant overcoat, just right for a walk by the river in regatta country. If it wasn’t for his long hair, he might almost look inconspicuous.
We walk for a while among the dog owners who are wrapped up against the squalls and the joggers on the Thames Path heading towards the little footbridge that skirts the roiling weir. It is very different from the social life he used to lead: the crowded bars; busy restaurants; playing to rock fans or football supporters; holding them there; keeping their attention.
Gareth Ainsworth has been in charge of Wycombe for more than eight years now
The 47-year-old therefore has the longest current tenure as a manager in the League
It is a long way from rock and roll out here. Sometimes, it feels as if we can lose sight of Ainsworth the football man in our enthusiasm for Ainsworth the singer for his band, Cold Blooded Hearts.
In our thirst for difference; for character, there is a danger we overlook the quality of his work. ‘In one breath, people say ‘There are not enough characters in the game any more’,’ says Ainsworth. ‘Then the same people will look at my hair or my jacket and say ‘Look at the state of him’. They can say what they want but the lesson is that it is really important to be yourself.’
Ainsworth, 47, is not some managerial fly-by-night. He has been in charge of Wycombe for more than eight years, which means he has the longest current tenure as a manager in the League. You don’t rescue your small, underfunded side from relegation from League Two then win two promotions to the Championship without being very good at your job.
You don’t mastermind that rise without ever paying a transfer fee and knowing how to improve players and striving every day to do it. ‘Actually,’ says Ainsworth, wryly, ‘there is a debate about whether we paid something for Michael Harriman in one of my first seasons but if we did, it was about £3,000, so we can’t really count that.’
People have taken a shine to him because he has never renounced his love for Guns N’ Roses
You don’t prosper in the cut-throat world of the English lower leagues just because people take a shine to you because you have never renounced your love for Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue. You don’t take a team like Wycombe into the second tier and an FA Cup fourth-round tie against Jose Mourinho and Spurs without belief in yourself and your value system.
‘I don’t want to conform,’ says Ainsworth. ‘I don’t want to blend in. I never have. I enjoy it when people criticise me. I enjoy walking around in my leather jacket just to see the looks you get off people. The question for me is always ‘Why?’ People say ‘Cut your hair’ or ‘Be a bit smarter’. My question is, ‘Why?’ Because I don’t believe there is a reason why you shouldn’t be you.
‘The way I look, the way I dress, it doesn’t make any difference to my performance. If my boys were going to win every game because I had short hair, I’d cut it because I’m a winner and I want to win games but I know it won’t make any difference. There will be a chairman who might say: ‘I want to employ him but he doesn’t look the part.’ And that’s OK, he’s missing out, that’s his choice.
‘Am I an attention-seeker? I like the attention. I don’t go out and seek it. I wouldn’t class myself as an attention-seeker. That’s narcissistic. It has a negative connotation. I’m not afraid of attention. I love being on stage. I’m confident. I’m a people person. With football and music, you’re on the stage. There’s definitely a crossover there. The influence you have over a crowd. The energy you can give the crowd. That’s what I buzz off.
‘I feel fortunate to have this job. I never take it for granted. I just go in to the training ground and try and make these players better than they are every single day, tell them they can achieve things that even they don’t think they can every single day. And that’s my way. That’s my style of management. I think some of our success has been down to the players being allowed to be themselves.
He rescued them from League Two relegation and won two promotions to the Championship
‘They are allowed to express themselves and not just in football. I hear discussions on the bus sometimes or at lunchtime where they will be debating politics. We won’t conform at Wycombe. There was a time when players like Graeme Le Saux would have the mickey ripped out of them for reading The Guardian. We are a hundred million miles away from that.
‘People respect each other at Wycombe no matter what they are into. We have the biggest social media player in the lower leagues in Adebayo Akinfenwa and then we have a player doing a Masters degree in psychology and my job has been to bring them together when they might never have come across each other in our society. That diversity is a huge advantage. You can solve more problems when you have a bigger spectrum of problem solving.
‘Some people worry about going into a room full of people they don’t know. They shrink. That’s not me. I buzz off seeing how much energy I can give these people. It is a challenge for me. How can I influence these people? That’s the challenge as a manager too. If my players can show off and be the centre of attention, that’s enough for me. I don’t need to be the centre of attention. I have stayed being me. I found out who I am quite early on in my life and I stuck to it and I’m happy with it.’
Ainsworth, who featured heavily in Neil Harman’s enthralling book about the club’s promotion season last season, Close Quarters, is relishing the visit of Spurs and not just because his teenage son is called Kane. It is not actually his first name that is a tribute to a great. Kane’s middle name is Presley in homage to The King and the boy is a QPR fan but it is all a happy coincidence nonetheless.
Ainsworth drives an orange 1969 fastback Ford Mustang and does not want to conform
The tie will be a chance for Wycombe’s players, who were exiled from their training ground last week because of a Covid outbreak and are anchored to the foot of the Championship, to express themselves in the FA Cup, a competition that Ainsworth has revered since he was a kid.
Most of all, he is relishing the visit of Mourinho, one of the greatest managers of his generation: a winner of Champions League trophies; a league winner in four different countries; an avid collector of English cups.
Ainsworth’s Wycombe were known for playing attractive football in League Two and League One and now he is about to come up against a man many see as the game’s arch-pragmatist. So, Wenger or Mourinho? Choose one or the other, the one you admire more. Ainsworth pauses for a second before he answers but when it comes, the answer is unequivocal.
‘I’d say Mourinho because he has won more,’ he says. ‘And that’s my philosophy. Who’s won the most? That’s my philosophy of this game. Some people fear Mourinho and so they don’t like him rather than embracing that fear and learning from it and looking into it.
‘I have amazing respect for him. He gets some stick sometimes. People don’t like things that are different and he is different because he did not play at a high level so he has had to earn his respect. People fear things that are different but one of my big things is not conforming. I respect that.
‘I love the way he protects his players, conducts himself after games. He uses mind games the whole time. Everything he says is directed towards the next opponent. There is a reason for everything. Tactically, he’s great. Sometimes, he sets up quite defensively and counter-attacking but that’s fine.
‘I love Man City’s style, I love Wycombe’s style and the old Wimbledon style. There is no right or wrong way to win games. I win games. That is my job. To win games. He is great with the psychology of the game and people fear that a little bit.
Ainsworth now comes up against Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho, who he admits he admires
‘When people say they are not a big fan of his, that’s what Jose Mourinho wants — for people to concentrate on him and then his team can get on with what they do. You might say he is a raging narcissist. No. Everything is geared towards winning football games and everyone has their own way. I have my own way. At times, we have all to put on some facade.
‘There are moments you convince yourself you have to make your boys do something. It is a tough act and I take my hat off to Mourinho. The bottom line is what is our job as football managers? It is to win football games. That is what it is down to. If you are winning games, everyone loves you.
‘I’m sorry if it sounds cliched and if I could find another word, I would, but it will be an honour to have him at Adams Park on Monday and to manage against him. I have huge respect for somebody who has won leagues in all countries, who can speak so many languages, who can motivate players the way he can.
‘Football is not about winning by any means necessary. You don’t cheat. You want to be able to sleep at night. But if you see a weakness or you want to be able to exploit something, then you do it. I hate the phrase about a manager playing football ‘in the right way’. I don’t even know what that means. Surely the right way is to win games?’
Ainsworth was a kid growing up in Blackburn at a time when winning the FA Cup was still considered the equal of winning the League and he has happy memories of his dad organising a family sweepstake for the 1987 FA Cup final between Coventry and Spurs.
Ainsworth insists he prefers the Portuguese to Arsene Wenger due to the trophies he has won
Everyone put in a pound and drew out players from the starting XIs and whoever got the first goalscorer won the prize. Ainsworth drew Clive Allen. There is no chance that Ainsworth will play a weakened team against Spurs and even though Tottenham have a league game against Liverpool three nights later, the Wycombe manager knows Mourinho will put out a team to win the game, just like he always does.
Once the tie is over, though, Ainsworth will be left with the Herculean job of trying to drag his team out of the Championship relegation zone.
Plenty wrote them off before the season even began. Some said that because the points-per-game system helped them climb from eighth to third in League One, eliminating Peterborough from the play-offs, they should not have been promoted in the first place. Ainsworth points out that the other two promoted clubs — Coventry and Rotherham — are also in the Championship’s bottom seven and he is insistent Wycombe will survive.
He says: ‘People sometimes ask me if I want another challenge but there is no bigger test than Wycombe in the Championship with the constraints we have and the budget we have. It’s like sticking my orange Mustang on a Formula One grid and saying ‘keep up’. It’s not going to happen but you have to find a way.
‘We hang in there and maybe there’ll be a few who retire through accidents or engine failures. I still believe we’ll survive. When we went to Torquay on the last day of the season in 2014, needing a win to stay in the League, I believed all week. As long as I keep believing, my players will believe as well. We are up for the fight.
The Wycombe manager knows Mourinho will put out a Tottenham team to win the game
‘To manage in the Premier League would be a dream but challenge-wise, wow, I am so challenged every day. I love the challenge. We have just been turned down by a loan player from a Premier League club. He went somewhere else. So we move on to the next one. How do we get him in? Other clubs don’t have these challenges because they can pay for what they want. I can’t. I have to really earn what I want.
‘Am I ambitious? Absolutely. I am ambitious to be happy, to be content, to be myself. Ambition is not always about millions of pounds and silverware and the best of this and the best of that. Ambition is inside you and you can judge what your own success is. I think that is a problem in society. People look at other people and go ‘I want to be that’. And that causes real issues.
‘Just be you and you is good enough. Your ambition should just be to be happy. I wake up every morning with a smile because I am a football manager and I get to go in every day and inspire boys to try and win a game on a Saturday and we have done OK and I have played football since I was 16 and I get to sing in a band. I’ll take that.’
Ainsworth’s men are in the Championship’s bottom seven but is insistent Wycombe will survive