Deji Oshilaja reckons Neal Ardley is destined for the top – and that linking up again with the AFC Wimbledon boss will only help his own career.
The Bermondsey-raised defender won the Dons’ Young Player of the Year award in 2015, not bad going when he only had half a season at Kingsmeadow after signing on loan from Cardiff City in January.
Now centre-back Oshilaja, 24, is back with the League One outfit on a permanent basis after being released by the Bluebirds.
He also worked with Ardley when the Wimbledon boss was heading up Cardiff’s academy.
Oshilaja said: “He is definitely one of the top young managers in the game. He took a team from League Two up through the play-offs, which is a great achievement.
“It is a club that is definitely going places since the gaffer got here. They have got the plans for the new stadium, which is exciting.
“This manager will definitely, definitely manage in the Championship – he could manage in the Premier League because of his hunger, drive and the fact he is very good man-manager as well.”
Oshilaja recalls some spiky exchanges with Ardley when he was a scholar at Cardiff. He joined at the age of 16.
“I had a few ups and downs with him – there were run-ins,” he explains. “There were times he thought I needed to go a bit harder. They are the typical player-coach arguments you get, but they are always positive. He believed in me from the beginning and knew I could be something special.
“There were a few clubs interested in me this summer but once I spoke to the manager and he outlined his plans for me and the club I thought it was a no-brainer considering how well I did here last time.
“I know how he, Neil Cox and Simon Bassey work. I want to take my game to the next level.
“The gaffer has said I can be anything I want to be. He has told me I need to come into the side and lead – regardless of my age or the back four.
“Last time I was here he said to come in and enjoy it, that I had played at the level before and knew what it was like in terms of physicality.
“I went into it with a clear mind because he gave me reassurance. The boys were great, really welcoming. It was a shame we didn’t get in the play-offs because we played some good football at times.
“I felt once I stepped on the pitch that the fans took to me and that was mutual. It was a place which always felt comfortable.”
Oshilaja played for Waterloo FC as a youngster – the same Kennington club where Ademola Lookman was spotted by Charlton scouts. It was there that he was moved into the middle of the backline.
At 5ft 11ins-tall he is small for the position but remains dominant in the air.
He said: “A lot of football is played with the mind. If I get my position right then a forward can’t affect me. It has never really been a problem. I’ve been gifted with a great leap.
“I’m strong. I don’t get pushed around. My height is never something which has hindered me performance-wise.”
Oshilaja is eligible to play for Nigeria but first comes Wimbledon building on a promising start to life in English football’s third tier.
“Everyone will have their own targets they’ll be looking to tick off. I wouldn’t say the second season at this level will be harder. I don’t think we should be putting ourselves under extra pressure, we’ll approach every game as it comes.”