AFC Wimbledon’s Ayoub Assal has been named the EFL Young Player of the Month following an impressive three goals and two assists in the month of April, as Mark Robinson’s side upturn in form secured their League One status next season.
The Dons were ruthless in their fight for survival as the League One season drew to a close, and one player at the heart of it all contributing three goals and two assists in April alone was exciting young teenager Ayoub Assal.
“It’s a great achievement to be recognised,” he said, speaking to the EFL. “I’m really happy to have won the award. I think it’s a great compliment to me and all the hard work I’ve put in recently to make the first team and it’s nice to receive some praise for my performances.”
The 19-year-old first broke onto the scene in March, making his debut for the club against Shrewsbury Town - a game in which he also scored his first goal for the club. Since then the midfielder has dazzled opponents with his pace, directness and willingness to take on defenders at every opportunity and in doing so, has become the latest youngster to thrive on the EFL stage.
Having been picked up at U9 level by Millwall, as a 12-year-old Assal made the decision to make the switch from the Den to AFC Wimbledon with the hope that one day first-team football would come. A brave call at such a young age, but one that has paid dividends, as Assal has since become the latest graduate of the Dons’ academy to make the step up to the first team. And a memorable debut it was too, as he scored with his first touch after coming on as a substitute.
“It’s every boys dream to play for a club from such a young age and then make their debut for that club,” he said, recalling his debut. “I remember every single touch.”
“I remember the goal really well, too. We were 1-0 down and I remember getting the call to go and warm up, I was ready to come on. It happened so quickly after that. I actually think the goal was my first touch, I remember the ball coming across to me and I just put my foot through it. Seeing it hit the back of the net to make it 1-1 was an amazing feeling, I’ll definitely never forget it.
“Every young boy wants to come into the first team and make an impact and that was my dream. It was a journey and a process that took some time with a lot of hard work and sacrifices, but it happened and that’s the most important thing.”
It’s a moment he hasn’t looked back from. In the following games, he went on to net four goals in 14 more appearances, and became a key figure in Wimbledon’s resurgent run to safety.
Robinson’s side were relentless in their fight for League One survival, winning three consecutive league games in April alone, ultimately lifting them to safety. And no one has benefited more from the promotion of Mark Robinson from Academy Manager to First Team Manager than Ayoub Assal, whose influence on the team grew week by week in the final games of the season.
“Survival was key for the whole club. We want to be in League One and it was always our aim to survive. The manager is someone I’ve worked with before in the U18s, so ensuring survival under him and for him made it all the more special."
Following the departure of Glyn Hodges as manager, Robinson was appointed interim boss in January 2021, before being appointed permanently a month later. He had previously held various academy and coaching roles at the club, developing the next generation of Dons talent.
“He’s played such a big part for me from the minute he stepped in,” Assal continued.
“He’s helped me so much throughout my career so far, but more than anything it’s the fact that he’s given me an opportunity. As young players we need a chance, then once you’re given that chance it’s up to you to take it. That’s what I needed and that’s what the manager gave me.
“After my debut, I remember him saying to me that I had to kick on, that I hadn’t achieved anything yet. He kept my feet on the ground and told me that the hard work needed to continue. I appreciated that and I agreed with it.”
Upon taking the reins, Robinson not only steadied the Dons ship, but got his team playing a ruthless style of football that impressed all those watching from afar.
“For me, the most important thing is that, when he came in we were in a real relegation battle, but we never stopped playing football. We didn’t change how we wanted to play to get results, we played football in our style and that was important.
“The team played such a big part in my performances that month as well. Everyone welcomed me with open arms from the minute I stepped up into the first team. They let me express myself on the pitch, which helped me perform at my best because I was comfortable on the ball. They let me come on, be a part of the team and do my thing.”
The teenager qualifies for Morocco through his parents, who were born there and earlier this year was called up for a Morocco training camp at U21 level, an experience he’ll not only remember for a long time, but one that has fuelled his international aspirations.
“It was a great experience for me. The style of play is totally different to here in England, it’s not as fast-paced but it was a great experience because I was playing with people who are playing for clubs all over the world so it was a really good learning curve for me. International football is a big thing for any footballer so that’s definitely something I’m aiming to do more of as I get more experience.”
So with Wimbledon securing League One status for next season, what’s next for the youngster?
“I have a target for next season,” he admitted. “But I’m not going to say the number, I’ve got to back myself to do well. More importantly I want to play a part in the team and put in big performances week in, week out to help the team. We need to be pushing as high up in the table as possible next season.”