Ahead of Saturday’s 3-1 win over Lincoln, I sat down with ex-Chairboy Super Sammy Saunders to talk coaching, Gareth Ainsworth, and the 2015 League Two play-off final (sorry).
“It was tough, don’t get me wrong. You want to try and play forever. You don’t ever see that coming, that day when you have to hang them up.”
Sam Saunders is reflecting on his decision to retire from playing this summer. Although he’d been offered a new deal at Colchester, our former midfield maestro had his sights firmly set on the next stage of his career. Now Brentford B assistant manager, the 36-year-old seems excited about what the future might hold – ultimately in senior, competitive coaching. “I love playing for three points,” he says assertively. “Of course I feel pride in players progressing and getting better, but ultimately I’ve always been a winner. I always want to win and I want to be playing for three points. I want that pressure of a matchday. When I’m ready…I want to get involved in the first team frame.”
Saunders spent eight-and-a-half years at Griffin Park and sees Brentford as “essentially [his] own club”, but he’s already made of use of his contacts from his two spells in South Bucks – one in particular… “[Last week’s friendly against Wycombe] was a game that I arranged with Gareth personally,” he reveals. “For our boys, it’s a great time – international weekend – to try and push them against a physical League One outfit.” It’s not merely a case of getting minutes in the legs either; it’s about exposing young players to “‘you have it, we have it’ football, that football that gets down your throat.” As Saunders continues, “a lot of our B team boys, if they don’t make it for the first team, that’s [the kind of level] where they’ll be looking to ply their trade,” so you’ve got to try and make them as ready as possible.”
While the man who made scored 30 goals in 205 appearances for the Bees is still finding his feet in the technical area, he appears to have a clear plan in West London. “I see the opportunity here at Brentford,” he enthuses. “I see the longevity of it; I see the fact that there’s a pathway for me to push on and improve [and] a good working environment…Ideally, I’d have liked to have played for a couple more years, and I felt like I could have done, but I didn’t want to let this opportunity slip me by and someone else take it…I felt for myself and my family and the future that this was the right thing.”
As well as Ainsworth, Saunders played under the likes of John Still, Mark Warburton and John McGreal, and he’s learnt from every single one of them from the sounds of things. “I think you’re a fool if you don’t take anything from all the managers you played under, good and bad,” he says bluntly but truly. In that respect, he feels that “Gareth is no different to the other managers that I played for. Of course I want to listen to what he’s done, and his results speak for themselves, so if I didn’t take a smidgen of what he does for the boys – whether it be tactically, physically or emotionally what he does on the training pitch – I’d be stupid.”
Back in February 2015, the gaffer had been at the helm not much longer than two years, but the potential was there – visible not least in how he worked wonders on the most frayed of shoestrings. “[Then], we couldn’t even fill a bench,” reflects Saunders, who’d arrived at Adams Park on loan. “Now we’re playing reserve games…He’s got more players at his disposal…[and] if they don’t do it, there’s someone else who can come in and do it – whereas at the first stage, the boys that he had, he had.” Of course, recent off-pitch developments re as responsible as anything for that particular improvement, but Saunders is full of praise for Gaz’s managerial evolution, especially how he’s become “more tactically aware going forward [with] a plan A, a plan B and a plan C” and adopts “different game plans – low press, mid press, high press.” Someone pass that on to the ‘Gareth Ainsworth: tactically naive’ narrative peddlers.
It’s easy to see it this way in hindsight, but that loss to Southend at Wembley was a blessing in disguise for Wycombe. “I kind of agree,” says Saunders – who admits “It was a tough one take – especially getting injured after literally ten seconds…” – when I mention the suggestion that we weren’t ready to go up. “We couldn’t fill the bench, a lot of young lads were going back [after loans] and, to be honest, behind the scenes, the money wasn’t there – so it would have been a struggle in League One that year,” he continues. “As you could see, in League Two that year, there was a little bit of a hangover because of all the loan players going back and so forth, but fast forward a couple of years after that – when we did get promoted from League Two – we was in a lot better place…I know there was a few little question marks over relegation near the end of [last] season, but all-in-all it was a pretty relatively safe season really, because of the run [before] Christmas.”
The agonising manner of defeat, Dan Bentley’s crowd-baiting antics during the shootout, and the misery-compounding queue for the train home (that was almost the worst thing, I’m not gonna lie) seem like an age ago now. The 2019/20 campaign is barely off the ground, but we’ve soared to heights we probably never thought possible. We’ll enjoy that while it lasts, I’m sure, but we could be about to enter a exhiliarting new chapter in general.
Saunders joins most of us – I hope – in hoping that this club can go to “another level” with the help of Rob Couhig and co.. “There’s still a lot of stuff behind the scenes that still needs to get ironed out, and a lot of past work that’s happened is not going to change overnight, but [Wycombe are] in good hands,” he says. I was speaking to a couple of the investors [and] their heart is definitely in the right place. They’re looking for the future [to be] bright for Wycombe and fingers crossed…I really hope that’s the case.” We all do, Sam. Fingers, toes and everything else crossed.
Sam Saunders is a pundit on the official EFL highlights show EFL on Quest every Saturday at 9pm. Quest is the home of EFL highlights, broadcasting every round of fixtures throughout the season. Also available on desktop and app via QuestOD.
Photo: Matt Cecil