David Wheeler HERO

Sussex born & bred: David Wheeler

Former Lewes midfielder talks affection for The Rooks, rise from Non-League, life under Gareth Ainsworth and more…

In the latest of our Sussex born & bred series, we spoke to former Lewes, and current Wycombe Wanderers midfielder, David Wheeler. 

“It would be quite nice, in a poetic and romantic sort of way [to go back to Lewes]. At this moment in time I don’t know what the future holds, and I definitely see myself maybe in coaching or management after playing. But I wouldn’t rule Lewes out for sure!” There’s a beaming smile on the face of ‘Dave’, when talking about the Sussex club where it all started for him. 

Wheeler is enjoying a career that has taken him through many different experiences and cultures but the first thing that strikes you is he’s never forgot his roots. 

It all started for the Brighton-born winger as a young boy playing for his local side and the ability was there from the start. 

“Growing up in Lewes, I played for Kingston Kestrels from the age of 8 but generally played up a couple of years so I was usually the smallest on the pitch!

“I then went to Lewes Bridge View playing for my own age group at about 11 or 12 and we won literally every game, we had a lot of good players. Before that when I was 10 I was trialling at Brighton & Hove Albion.

“My dad took me down to train with Brighton because he wanted me playing a more difficult level, so I started training with them down at Eastbourne Sports Park.

“He never pressured or pushed me to do anything it was always a case of if I enjoyed it that’s what mattered. I think I actually enjoyed playing for Sussex FA and Sussex Schools FA more than I did playing for Brighton. 

“My dad was into all sports and played county standard in multiple sports when he was younger. He was a P.E. teacher and worked at Sussex Uni, so we were a very sporty family!”

Dave stayed with Brighton until he was 16, before being unexpectedly let go. He was part of a very good Brighton youth team that included Steve Cook (current Bournemouth captain) and also enjoyed success playing for our Representative Squad which he felt was “less pressure.” 

“Even at that young age, I felt a lot of pressure playing for Brighton whereas Sussex felt a bit more of a release, I played with a lot more freedom.

“I think I just felt that Brighton was so important to do well at. I obviously wanted to do well playing for Sussex as well, but I just felt it was more relaxed and most of the Brighton squad was playing for Sussex!

“I was part of a good year group at Brighton. I’m pretty sure we won most weeks, but I actually think it was just me and Steve from that side that made it professional.”

The release from Brighton was hard to take for Dave, having been with the Seagulls for all of his teen years: “I didn’t see it coming at all, especially as I was one of very few players that played up a year to the under-18s. It was a big shock for me at the time and my first taste of rejection in football and it took me a while to get over that.”

David Wheeler Brighton
“Even at that young age, I felt a lot of pressure playing for Brighton whereas Sussex felt a bit more of a release, I played with a lot more freedom."

For Dave though, he had no time to waste, and one of his best experiences followed, playing for English Schools and Sussex Schools alongside fellow Sussex star, James Norwood

“Sussex Schools was brilliant, for some reason we were just so good and won every game we played. People like Simon Johnson who was at Eastbourne Borough, James Norwood, and just talented lads that maybe slipped through the Brighton net and didn’t get a chance. 

“The trials were an interesting experience! You didn’t have a lot of time to prove yourself. I remember James Norwood, we were doing these runs round the pitch, getting round as many times as you can, and James didn’t quite get the memo as he was coasting at the back and all of a sudden, when he realised, he just gunned it in front of everyone!

“But what an experience the English Schools was as well, going to Atlanta in Georgia, Villarreal’s Training Ground and seeing players like Robert Pires train, playing at Wembley obviously, playing on TV for the first time, just such a cool experience.”

David Wheeler Sussex Schools
Dave had a great experience playing for Sussex Schools alongside many talented players.

From a club perspective though, it was time for Dave to make a name for himself and there was only one place it was going to happen, his hometown of Lewes. 

“It was so good for me to go there straight away [after being released]. Jason Hopkinson was there with Steve Ibbotson who were in charge of the under-18s. They were a great pair because Jason was so passionate about coaching and Ibbo was just such a nice bloke.

“Lewes was exactly what I needed at the time and I loved my time in the under-18s there. When I was 17 we got to the Third Round of The FA Youth Cup narrowly losing 2-1 to Hull City in front of a packed-out Dripping Pan.

“It was crazy though because Tuesday night a few of us played away to Torquay with the first team, and the following night we were playing in The FA Youth Cup!

“Hull were obviously full-time and in the Premier League at the time and had players like Tom Cairney in their side, so to narrowly lose, we did really well.

“We had a good side ourselves though, we had Grant Hall at the back who I ended up at QPR with, and is now at Middlesbrough, so it was a decent side we had as well.

“Sussex was always a one team county with Brighton when I grew up so going to Lewes I thought I needed to concentrate on education a bit and prepare for a life away from football.”

For a club that had just been promoted to The National League, there were a few problems at Lewes, but it did present Dave with the opportunity of a lifetime.

“My first year at Lewes we were promoted to the Conference [now The National League] Premier and then the whole team and management virtually left which gave players like me an opportunity.

“It was a baptism of fire really because our budget was nowhere near anyone else and most of the team was made up of under-18s bar a couple of old pros, but it was a great experience for players like me.

“I had a lot of great people to look up to though and Anthony Barness probably sticks out the most. He was a right-back, so I played in front of him and thinking back now I imagine he was tearing his hair out at the stuff I used to do!

“Anthony was very measured and calm under pressure which helped how I viewed the game. Danny Cullip was another one and lots more, too many to name.”

Following Lewes’ relegation that season, Dave stayed on at the club for two more seasons back in the National League South, but a life beyond The Rooks was starting to emerge following their relegation to the Isthmian League.

“Oddly, relegation was all I’d really known! Apart from making the odd appearance when they won the Conference South, but I wasn’t really part of that team. So, all I’d known first-team football wise at this point was relegation or being in and around it!

“Relegation wasn’t the hardest part it was just leaving Lewes in general. I was living in London at the time studying for a Sports Science degree at Brunel University and commuting down to play for Lewes.

“It just got too much. I was leaving lectures at 5pm then travelling down to train for Lewes and getting back at silly times and often sleeping on the trains.

“I was so drained, and it was affecting my studies, so I made the decision to leave. The main reason I stayed for as long as I did was for Steve Ibbotson who was first team manager by this point. He gave so much to that club and was the main reason they didn’t go under; he deserves an awful lot of credit for that.

“It was a decision of the heart to stay at Lewes for as long as I did but it made sense for me to go by that time. It was either get a job or stay in education and I wanted to remain in sport in any capacity if I couldn’t be a pro. 

“I quite liked the idea of teaching or coaching so I thought the Sports Science degree made the most sense for me at the time if football didn’t materialise.”

David Wheeler Lewes Action
“It would be quite nice, in a poetic and romantic sort of way [to go back to Lewes]"

Next up for Dave was a move to stay in the National League South with Staines Town. It was here, that he started to realise his potential.

“I enjoyed some good football at Staines and played there during my last two years of Uni. Word of mouth was going around with clubs looking at me but to be honest it was still mainly non-league clubs.

“I ended up going on trial with Dagenham and also Exeter at the same time both in League Two. I wanted to finish my degree but then spent the summer driving between Exeter and Dagenham playing pre-season games and that sort of thing, bombing up and down in my Corsa!

“I eventually signed with Exeter and it was great to have that faith shown in me. I signed not expecting to play for six-months, I thought I was going to need to train hard and just try and get a look in, but I ended up starting the first ten games.” 

Exeter have been known to produce some very talented players over the years, including the likes of Ollie Watkins, Matt Grimes and Ethan Ampadu. It was an appealing aspect to Dave but a step up he needed to be ready for. 

“Exeter ended up being the perfect place for me to go. Physically I thought I was as good, if not better, than some of the players there but technically I was miles off!

“I had so much to improve on, like the way I thought about the game, my positional play, but Exeter was the perfect place, they did a lot of technique training, shape, and all sorts of things I’d never done before.

“It was tough work, because they knew I needed a lot of improvement, so they were doing a lot of double sessions with me. 

“I’d never slept so much in my life! Even at Uni when I was hungover I don’t think I slept so much - my body was just so tired. I was picking up injuries I had never experienced before just from overdoing it a bit. 

“The eye-opener for me, was going from playing in front of a few hundred people, to all of a sudden well over 3,000 people. 

“My debut was a home game against Bristol Rovers which is a bit of a derby game; there was about 5,000 people there, red hot day, I felt gone after about 10-15 minutes! It was a great day, but I’d say it took a while for me to feel comfortable, mentally, and physically.”

It's fair to say that Wheeler started to become a cult hero at Exeter and notched up 21 goals in the 2016/17 season. City made the Play-Off Final that year and despite scoring, he was unable to prevent a defeat. Looking back, Dave reflects on Exeter with much fondness, but the next opportunity was too tough to turn down.

“I couldn’t stop scoring that year and it was the first point I was confident of starting most games. It was just one of those seasons where everything I touched seemed to go in. I think I had a run where I scored like eight games in a row.

“It was a good period because I felt relaxed and I didn’t need to think about playing well or scoring it just came naturally that year.

“I knew scoring that amount of goals that there’d be some interest. But we had the Play-Offs coming up and I didn’t want my mind to be on that [a move from the club]. Hearts and maybe Luton were the clubs I remember being interested initially. 

“QPR, in the end, was a no brainer for me. It was close to home, big club, in the Championship and it meant a lot to get that chance.”

David Wheeler Exeter
Wheeler was unable to get the fairy-tale ending at Exeter despite scoring in the Play-Off Final.  

Reflecting on the move, Dave knows it’s one that didn’t quite work for him: “There’s lots of factors as to why it didn’t work out there. A lot of players more experienced than me and where the team was near the bottom of the league, Holloway was under a lot of pressure to keep them up.

“It then became a case of sticking with the more experienced players for the level, so it was partly that and needing a year to get my feet under the table, but you don’t get time at that level.

“You need to hit the ground running and to be fair, I scored on my debut and started well but just didn’t get a string of games together after that. Then in January I needed an operation which put me out for the season.

“Holloway left the following season and my face didn’t fit anymore. It was disappointing for me because I was at the top of my game when I went there.”

After a frustrating first season in the Championship, Dave realised he needed games and made the decision to go out on loan. A promising move to League One Portsmouth followed, but he was unfortunate to be playing behind the incredible form of Ronan Curtis and Jamal Lowe. 

With Wheeler struggling for regular starts at Pompy, he decided to look for more minutes in the second half of the 18/19 season, linking up with former Exeter manager, Paul Tisdale.

“It was a shame it didn’t work out [at Portsmouth], but I went out on a high, scoring the winning goal in the Quarter-Final of the EFL Trophy. I just needed minutes. It was pushing 18 months since I’d last played regular football, so I was desperate for it. 

“I joined up with my old manager, Paul Tisdale, at MK Dons for the second half of the 18/19 season and it couldn’t really have gone much better.

“We got automatically promoted on the last day of the season and I scored the winning goal! With three going up automatically in League Two, we were fourth and Mansfield were third, and we were playing them. 

“Anything less than a win and Mansfield would have gone up, but we beat them 1-0 and scoring that goal, it was such a great experience.” 

David Wheeler MK Dons
Wheeler made a huge impact at MK Dons, scoring the winning goal to gain promotion.

Three managers had come and gone at QPR in the time Dave was at the club and out on loan. It was time for a fresh move, a move that would get him back to his best. Step up Wycombe Wanderers. 

“I had a chance meeting with the Wycombe captain, Matt Bloomfield, at a friend’s wedding. We were talking about things and I said I had a year left at QPR who had another new manager by that point and I really wanted a permanent move somewhere. 

“I signed for Wycombe in League One with us favourites to be relegated. We just went on a mad run from the start of the season, and then topped the league in December which was just nuts.

“When COVID hit we’d played less games than the rest so were outside the play-offs and all different scenarios were coming out. Ligue 1, in France, obviously made the first move, curtailing the season and Non-League followed that.

“Any PPG (Points Per Game) scenario was favourable for us because we’d played a game less due to Bury folding, and as much as it did put us up a few positions in the play-offs, I don’t think any team had spent so much time in the top two that season as us.

“We battered Fleetwood in the first leg of the play-offs, came out absolutely firing. We went into the Final, again as underdogs. Oxford had beaten Pompy and were considered favourites, but we played to our strengths and came out on top. 

“It was such a huge deal for me after a frustrating couple of seasons, to prove myself in League One and get promoted back to the Championship. Especially so against the odds at the start of the season. I couldn’t enjoy it until the whistle went and I could have a beer!

“It was just built from really good camaraderie with the lads all of whom it seemed had a point to prove. It was a team of players that might have been released or written off and we were just a tight small unit.”

Wycombe, under the stewardship of Gareth Ainsworth, have been fighting the odds for a long time now, and Dave gives us an insight into just what it’s like playing under the Football League’s second-longest serving manager. 

“He has to be like the most relentlessly positive guy I have ever met I think! We had a bad start to the Championship I think we’d only scored one goal in eight or something and his response when we scored was to come in and say, ‘well done lads we’ve scored in the Championship!’ 

“You almost had to laugh at times! I think near the end of the season we were like 14 points adrift and he just kept saying, ‘we’re going to go on this mad run, we’re going to shock everyone!’ Bar one point, that’s pretty much what we did. 

“All through the season that remained the same and to be fair to him, we went on that mad run to the end of the season, one-point shy of staying up. It was an incredibly hard test, but we gave it everything and there was obviously a big gap in budgets. 

“We’re fighting relegation with the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, Derby and Rotherham and we went to Rotherham and won 3-0 towards the end of the season. We pulled off some great results, managing to beat Reading who were doing well, could have beat Watford if it wasn’t for Ben Foster, and there was only a couple of really bad results.”

David Wheeler Trophy Lift
“It was just built from really good camaraderie with the lads all of whom it seemed had a point to prove."

It’s been fascinating to talk to Dave on his incredible rise from the National League South all the way to the Championship. When talking to him, you realise how level-headed and professional he is which creates no surprise as to how he’s achieved what he has. 

As the conversation draws to a close, he offers his advice to any aspiring footballers in Sussex: “You just need that perseverance and if you’re passionate about the game, keep going. You never know how many games it’s going to take someone to notice. 

“The world is much bigger than Sussex, and that’s something it took me a while to notice. I spent a long time at Lewes and in Sussex and I realised that if it doesn’t work out there, the world is much bigger. I’ve been here, there, and everywhere since I left Sussex.

“There have been plenty of players that I have played with, either non-league or higher, that have had more ability than me but might not have the correct mindset.

“I’ve been very fortunate, but you take the rough with the smooth in your career and you’ve got to learn to be resilient and that’s how I felt it’s gone for me.” 

To find out more about playing opportunities in Sussex please contact:

T: 01903 766855
E: Development@SussexFA.com

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