AFC Wimbledon defender relishing Millwall test – and admits big matches like Sunderland away are easy to get up for

BY YANN TEAR

yann@slpmedia.co.uk

Tennai Watson reckons he has an appetite for the big occasion – and is already relishing the prospect of a big FA Cup date with Millwall.

The AFC Wimbledon defender, 21, was on the losing side up at Sunderland last weekend, but admits he found the experience of playing in front of 30,000 people to his liking.

And having also sampled the heady atmosphere of the FA Cup win against West Ham, he is convinced the biggest matches bring out the best in him.

“The trip to Sunderland was special, although it wasn’t the biggest crowd I’ve played in front of, as I played for Reading at the Emirates in a League Cup match two years ago.

“I love a big atmosphere and playing in front of a big crowd. Of course you get nerves, that’s normal, but it’s how you deal with that that counts.

“It keeps you on your toes and I feel I enjoy it more. It makes me want to do well. And it makes me want to experience more of the same.

“The FA Cup clash with Millwall will be another big event for us – even if it will be a much smaller crowd.

“The league remains the focus for us this week, but as the game creeps closer, we know we’ll prepare well. Everybody loves the drama of the FA Cup and we’ll look forward to it.”

Watson’s enthusiasm has clearly not been dented by the team’s struggles at the foot of League One.

Nor has it led him to in any way regret the move from Reading for this season in order to get more matches under his belt and recover fitness after injuries last term. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it has allowed him to return to the family home in Hillingdon.

“I can’t really talk too much about the future and am just concentrating on the current situation,” he said.

“Reading is still my club. I loved it when I was there. But we’ll just have to wait and see how I’m feeling at the end of the season. For now, I just want to help Wimbledon get up the table. I 100 percent feel settled here. I’m a family boy really and being able to go back to the family home is ideal.

“I wasn’t totally clued up about the old Wimbledon, although everyone knows about Vinnie Jones, but I know more now. Since the start of the season we’ve had that togetherness about us that used to be what the old teams were about. The gaffer loves that.”

Watson admits to one personal difficulty this season – the exit of Neal Ardley, who signed him.

“The change of manager was initially difficult to deal with,” Watson said. “Someone losing their job – especially someone who brought you to the club – is not a nice feeling. It makes you feel guilty. And you don’t quite know where you stand when a new boss comes in.

“But you just have to get on with it, try your best, and try to show what you can do. I’m lucky that I’ve been given opportunities and I want to repay that faith shown in me by the gaffer.

Boss Wally Downes said: “He’s done very well. He’s mature beyond his years. He’s been thrown in at the deep end, with the club in a difficult position, and he’s coped so well with the pressure. He’s got a great future.”

Watson’s gratitude and level-headed approach is partly down to the sobering experience of growing up with a disabled younger brother.

In a recent matchday programme, the defender spoke movingly about the inspiration he draws from the courage shown by Malachi, who is in a wheelchair having been born with a rare condition called Aicardi-Goutieres. His brother has impaired vision but has attended two matches, enjoying the noise and atmosphere as Tennai plays.

“When I started progressing into a professional career, all that I needed was to think of him,” he said.

“It is the most motivation that I need for my career. I think it’s a big part of why I try to push myself in football.”

And maybe why he embraces the big occasions so much.

Photos by Keith Gillard

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