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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Wycombe Wanderers Season Round-Up – A Rollercoaster Ride to Wembley

Sam Day gives a fan's insight into Wycombe's rollercoaster adventure this season.

For me, the world finally felt like it was returning to some semblance of normality as I travelled down to Devon on a balmy Tuesday evening in early August last year. Although I had seen Wycombe Wanderers begin the season with a relatively comfortable home victory over Accrington Stanley three days earlier, the long journey down to Exeter for a Carabao Cup first-round tie represented a much-anticipated return to an activity that had been sorely missing from my life since the end of February 2020: watching Wycombe play away.

On that late winter’s day in 2020, I took a train up from Oxford to South Yorkshire to see Wanderers lose meekly 3-1 against Doncaster Rovers. At the time, the result felt miserable for a whole host of reasons. Of most concern, coronavirus had been looming menacingly over Europe for a few weeks, and after reading a handful of pessimistic articles on Twitter I had already convinced myself of the tragic loss of life to come, as well as the inevitability of the associated lockdowns and social restrictions. Consequently, as my brothers and I trudged out of Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium into the fading daylight, I had a strong intuition that I wouldn’t be stepping foot inside a football ground for quite some time.

Besides the global public health situation, however, matters on the pitch also brought little cause for celebration. After a blistering start to the 2019-20 League One campaign, Wycombe – boasting the second-smallest budget in the third tier of English football – had found ourselves in an unlikely position at the top of the table at the turn of the year. However, a post-Christmas slump brought the team and fans back to reality with a hefty bump, to the extent that defeat at “Donny” represented the fifth consecutive away loss that I had attended and the seventh without a win. This included a series of dreadful performances in freezing temperatures against Portsmouth (0-2), Sunderland (0-4), and Milton Keynes (0-2). In fact, we only won one of the ten away games I managed to take in that season and scored just four goals in the process. Thus, it would be an understatement to suggest that 2019-20 hadn’t been a particularly enjoyable year to follow Wycombe around the country.

Given the abject record described above, a rational reader might question quite why I felt so excited to be sitting in the back of a mate’s car on my way to Exeter, in order to recommence a largely futile and somewhat costly endeavour? The first part of the answer to such a question lies with the events of the intervening 18 months, which had transformed my hometown team into an entirely new proposition. As predicted, Wycombe didn’t play another game after the Doncaster loss before the burgeoning Covid crisis forced the abandonment of the remainder of the regular football season. Fortuitously, however, although Wanderers had been left sitting in 8th position when the league was curtailed, after much debate, drama, and throwing-of-toys-out-of-prams by certain clubs (*cough* Peterborough *cough*), the English Football League (EFL) eventually decided to determine the league’s final standings by ranking teams according to their average points-per-game. Incredibly, because Wycombe had played fewer games than the five teams directly above us, this formula catapulted the Blues up into 3rd place and secured us a spot in the playoffs. In addition, despite entering these post-season playoff games as heavy underdogs, the Chairboys (our furniture industry inspired nickname) gratefully took advantage of this big slice of luck by beating first Fleetwood Town, and then local rivals Oxford United at an empty Wembley Stadium to seal promotion to the Championship. Whilst the club’s first-ever appearance in the second division of English football sadly took place behind-closed-doors and ended with controversial relegation – just one point from safety behind financial wrongdoers Derby County – the strengthened squad and bolstered budget acquired during our foray into the league above had set the team up nicely for another push at promotion.

As it happened, my pre-season optimism did not seem particularly well-placed during a thoroughly anti-climactic 90 minutes of football against Exeter, which of course ended in a drab goalless draw. Moreover, those of us in attendance at St James Park witnessed a grand total of four Wycombe players limp off injured over the course of the contest. Sadly, this casualty count included legendary captain Matt Bloomfield, who sustained a severe concussion which forced him into premature retirement after 18 years of service to the club. Thankfully though, the night ended on a high note for us hardy visiting supporters, as Wanderers won a topsy-turvy penalty shootout to progress to the next round, with veteran ex-Premier League goalkeeper David “Stocko” Stockdale the hero. The charismatic Yorkshireman saved an Exeter penalty to keep us in the tie, got to his feet to thump his own attempt into the top corner, then promptly returned to his natural position to save another opposition spot-kick and spark some long-awaited limbs in the away terrace. As my mates and I traipsed back to the car along Exeter’s narrow Victorian streets chanting “We all dream of a team of David Stockdales” (to the tune of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine), I realised that the football drug was back again. And it hadn’t taken much to hook me.

Fortunately for this relapsed addict, the next football fix wasn’t far away. In fact, I was soon feeling a bit like Tony Montana in his Scarface mansion, because the round trip to the West Country marked merely the beginning of a mini nationwide odyssey facilitated by the fixture Gods, who had scheduled two more away league matches over the subsequent seven days. Like London buses, after what seemed like an eternity of being unable to watch a Wycombe away game, three turned up at once. On the following Saturday, Wanderers won 3-1 at sunny Cheltenham courtesy of two late goals from teenage talent Olly Pendlebury in front of a packed-out away end, allowing me the first taste of an away league win since October 2019. And journeys to these two well-heeled southern towns were then followed by an iconic visit to eventual league winners Wigan Athletic, where Chairboys centre-back Anthony Stewart headed home a completely undeserved last-minute equaliser to trigger delirium amongst the 337 Wycombe-ites who had braved the M6 on a wet midweek evening.

Fittingly, this week-long August road trip perfectly highlighted the most important (yet somewhat counter-intuitive) factor behind the excitement I experienced at the prospect of following my team around the nation again: the non-footballing element. In short – and I mean this is the least patronising way possible – there truly isn’t a better way to see large swathes of England that one would never normally have any motive to visit, and hence meet a range of people from entirely different backgrounds whom one wouldn’t ordinarily have any chance of crossing paths with. Furthermore, away days provide the ideal excuse for keeping in regular contact with siblings and mates from home, whilst offering a fantastic medium for creating new memories and shared experiences. Accordingly, our excursions to random towns and cities across the nation have produced a string of stories and anecdotes, whilst leaving impressions of places and groups of people that I wouldn’t otherwise have any idea about.

Such a point was exemplified in Wigan, where the locals could not have been more hospitable. As an example of this, our pre-match meal at a nearby Indian restaurant was greatly animated by a truly unforgettable fellow customer, who insisted on serving us our food and drinks despite not actually working at the establishment. Rather, it was soon revealed that this character frequented the place at least four times a week (often with his “little lad”) and had basically become an unofficial part of the waiting staff. I genuinely cannot ever recall coming across a more enthusiastically friendly stranger. Later on as we left the Latics’ DW Stadium in a buoyant mood, my already positive opinion of Wigan was further reinforced by a Lancashire lad of about 15, who thoughtfully came over to shake all of our hands and wish us a safe journey home. This gesture was touching, especially from someone so young, and must have taken some mental fortitude given the galling nature of the stoppage-time sucker punch suffered by his team.

Ironically, however, what the well-mannered youth didn’t realise was that we had no intention of heading back south that night at all. Instead, we embarked upon a very soggy trek into the town centre along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, straight past George Orwell’s famous Wigan Pier (a more stereotypically “Northern” landmark could not be envisaged), and into a cracking little railway-themed pub called Wigan Central. Once drying off inside with a few pints between us, we realised that we’d happened to sit down alongside a group of men who’d had the privilege of being that evening’s official matchday sponsors. Fortunately, a more welcoming bunch would be tough to find! After regaling us with nostalgia-fuelled stories about happier times gone by (the 2013 FA Cup Final win against Man City featured most prominently), these Wigan supporters encouraged us to pose for a photo with a framed, squad-signed t-shirt that had been gifted to them by their club, and then suggested going for further drinks at The Boulevard – Wigan’s premier late-night entertainment venue.

Despite politely declining this offer, by coincidence, the route back to our overnight digs took us straight past the entrance to this relatively underwhelming nightclub, which nonetheless tempted two of our party into a quick change of heart. And although I wisely decided not to join their spontaneous clubbing trip, a room key misunderstanding soon forced me back out into the rain to rescue my mates from a night on the streets. Both were found in a much worse state than they’d been left in a few minutes earlier, and one had to be peeled away from a passionate conversation with two bemused but good-natured Scousers, who were no doubt thankful to be saved from further incoherent ramblings about the evils of Liverpool FC. As one would expect, the drive back home the next morning was not especially pleasant for those who’d indulged in too much alcohol. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that Wigan will now forever be associated with positive memories of the people and the place!

Building upon this promising start to the League One campaign, Wycombe’s on-field success continued as the season progressed. Consistent wins at home were backed up by solid performances away from Adams Park, including combative 0-0 draws against both Oxford United (hopefully one of my final visits to the miserable Kassam Stadium) and Rotherham United during the Autumn. More memorable however was the Tuesday night trip up to the Etihad Stadium for a Carabao Cup third-round tie against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in September. The huge gulf in finances and quality between the two clubs was blindingly obvious, as City eased to a 6-1 victory orchestrated by the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Phil Foden, and Riyadh Mahrez. Nevertheless, the resounding end result will never detract from the moment of pure elation experienced when striker Brandon Hanlan tapped in a scrappy opening goal to put Wanderers in front against the reigning Premier League champions. The celebrations as the ball hit the back of the next were truly something special to behold, and the roar from the 3000+ visiting supporters in the away end will stay with me forever. After Christmas, a poor loss at Ipswich’s Portman Road was followed by an impressive win over Charlton at The Valley on New Year’s Day, to start 2022 with a bang. Furthermore, despite yet another collapse in form during February, my presence in the stands seemed to act as something of a good luck charm for the team, who remained undefeated in every match I managed to attend during the remainder of the regular season. This included late equalisers at Lincoln and Wimbledon, battling draws at Portsmouth and Gillingham, as well as an outstanding 4-1 demolition of Cambridge.

Outside of this considerable on-field success, my travels across the nation this year could once again be summarised by a series of snapshots of places, people, and events that greatly enriched the actual football-watching experience. Examples include: sitting in a grotty independent pub in Rotherham town centre where a local complained to me about the price of a pint rising to £1.50 (it had been £1.40 the week before!). My brother parking his Ford Fiesta in a bush outside the Kassam because the car park was full and kick-off was imminent. Wycombe’s administrative staff forgetting to bring our pre-bought tickets along with them to Cheltenham, forcing us to miss the first few minutes whilst they printed off spares. Getting my overnight rucksack confiscated by stewards at Man City for literally no reason whatsoever, and then having to pay City’s multi-billionaire owners £10 to retrieve it at the end of the game (I’m still fuming about that one to be honest!). Enjoying a perfect view of The Shard from a London Bridge beer garden on our way back from Charlton. Seeing Wycombe’s maverick American owner Pete Couhig order a round of 60 jagerbombs for all of the away fans huddled around the bar at a pub in Portsmouth. Receiving a personal tour of Pembroke College, Cambridge, from an old undergraduate mate who had recently made the dubious decision to relocate from Oxford to the Fens. Visiting the Fleur de Lis in Gillingham, which ironically may be perhaps the most Brexity pub in England despite its elegant French name. And experiencing AFC Wimbledon’s notorious SWAT-like security team, who made the Wombles’ brand-new Plough Lane stadium feel like a scene out of Escape to Victory.

The upshot of all this travelling and ball-kicking was that Wycombe went into the last match of the season riding the crest of an eleven-game unbeaten run, including vital home victories over fellow playoff contenders Plymouth Argyle and Sheffield Wednesday during the preceding weeks. However, despite accumulating 80 points from these first 45 games – a total that would have guaranteed a League One play-off place in virtually every previous campaign since they were introduced in 1987 – the Chairboys entered the final day showdown against Burton Albion outside of the coveted top 6 positions. Instead, after an ultra-competitive run-in, Wanderers found ourselves in seventh, level on points with Plymouth (but with a slightly inferior goal difference), one point behind Sunderland, and two behind Sheffield Wednesday. Therefore, because only three of these four clubs could make the end-of-season playoffs, we required at least one of the others to slip up elsewhere, even if we won our own game. Despite the precariousness of the situation, 1600 Wanderers supporters travelled up to Staffordshire in an expectant mood, accompanied by hundreds of photo-booth style inflatables which were gleefully chucked around the sold-out away terrace. Moreover, one enterprising fan had also organised the distribution of 250 cardboard face masks depicting the distinctive face and unkempt curls of Wycombe’s much-loved manager Gareth Ainsworth, which further added to the surreal nature of the crowd.

With 83 different outcomes possible before the final round of fixtures kicked off simultaneously across the country, a tense 90 minutes of checking scores on phones and complex mathematical permutations had been anticipated. Thankfully though for any of us with a nervous disposition, the afternoon could hardly have unfolded in a more relaxing way for those of a Wycombe persuasion. By half-time, playoff rivals Plymouth had dramatically imploded at home to Milton Keynes Dons, finding themselves three goals down and reduced to ten men. In contrast, former Wales international forward Sam Vokes had put Wycombe 1-0 up just before the break with his 16th strike of the season – a trademark bullet header from a Joe Jacobson corner. Consequently, not even a second-half equaliser for our hosts could dampen the party atmosphere generated by those in blue behind the Burton goalposts, as Plymouth eventually succumbed to a horrific 5-0 defeat. In fact, a late winner from Wanderers left-back Jordan Obita proved entirely inconsequential, apart from providing one last regular-season celebration for the Chairboys fans in attendance. After escaping Burton’s Pirelli Stadium with an inflatable orange guitar as a souvenir of the day, a joyous few hours in this agreeable little Midlands market town followed. Burton-upon-Trent is famous for its breweries, and the town centre boasts a pub on almost every corner. Needless to say, I eventually caught my train back to Oxford with some degree of reluctance, although the journey home was greatly improved by a chat with a Nottingham Forest fan sat next to me, who shared a mutual disdain for Derby County.

Quickly on to the playoff semi-finals then, which saw Wanderers come up against an MK Dons side in red-hot form, as highlighted by the thrashing they had handed out to poor old Plymouth just four days earlier. Before continuing further, I will freely state that I despise Milton Keynes far more than any other club in the world (please Google their “history” if you want to understand why), and thus the prospect of losing to our controversial county rivals in these playoff games was highly unpalatable. Happily for me though, Wycombe’s players clearly thought something similar, as they produced one of the all-time great Wanderers performances to come away with a 2-0 lead from the home leg of the two-match encounter. MK’s talented players were clearly rattled as Adams Park was transformed into a hostile cauldron of noise, the like of which I’d never experienced before, and our opponents struggled to impose any of their much-vaunted silky passing style that had taken them to third place in the league table.

Three days later, the second leg at Stadium MK proved to be an entirely different ball game (both literally and metaphorically), as our North Bucks opposition finally showed why they’d had such a successful year by putting on one of the most dominant displays you will ever see in football. However, despite conceding an early goal and then being subjected to the equivalent of an attack versus defence training session for the best part of two hours, the Wycombe boys – backed by an unbelievable away atmosphere – heroically clung on for a 1-0 defeat and hence a 2-1 aggregate victory. I have never attended a football match anywhere near as stressful as that one, and I doubt I ever will again. Several heart attacks were narrowly avoided as the Wanderers goal just about withstood a monumental siege, and I won’t hesitate to admit that the outpouring of emotion sparked by the final whistle left me on the verge of tears. Poetically, MK had done us a huge favour by allowing us into the playoffs in the first place, only to suffer elimination at our very own hands. In direct contrast, Wycombe were off to Wembley! The result could not have tasted any sweeter.

And so on to the playoff final. The last hurdle at the end of a marathon campaign. An all-or-nothing fixture. Mighty Sunderland lay in wait for Wycombe after overcoming Sheffield Wednesday in the other semi. Sunderland, a Premier League sized club with a Premier League standard stadium and a Premier League quality fanbase, who had nonetheless been confined to the third tier of English football for four frustrating years after prolonged mismanagement resulted in a rapid decline. 73,000 spectators would be present, the second-largest crowd at a Wycombe fixture ever, behind only the FA Amateur Cup Final in 1957 (also at Wembley). Games don’t come much bigger than this!

Finally, after slogging through two agonisingly slow-moving weeks, the big day arrived. A direct train from Oxford to Wembley was followed by a raucous few hours in The Torch public house, and then a walk down Wembley Way to the most iconic football stadium in the world. We went inside, took our seats, sang the national anthem, and watched the match kick-off. Then, in what felt like the blink of an eye, it was suddenly all over. Wycombe had lost 2-0, the result was comprehensive, and the better team had deservedly won. There was no doubt about it. We had saved one of our poorest showings of the year for the biggest game of all, and a fairy-tale ending for Wanderers’ 40-year-old retiring legend Adebayo Akinfenwa never looked close to materialising. After all that, Wycombe would be staying in the same division next year.

As the final blast of the referee’s whistle signalled an end to the 2021-22 season, I slumped down in my seat. Dejected. Heartbroken. Empty. I thought about the thousands of miles of road/rail travelled, the hundreds of pounds spent on tickets/fuel, and the tens of pints consumed. I thought of the time passed with the best of friends, and the fleeting acquaintances with strangers from all over the country who I’ll never meet again. I thought of the highs and the lows, the agony and the ecstasy, the boredom and the drama spanning from Exeter in early August to Wembley in late May, and everywhere else in between. Had it all been for seemingly nothing?

Don’t be silly, of course, it hadn’t! In fact, as 50,000 jubilant Sunderland fans poured their heart into a truly spine-tingling rendition of their club anthem, Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling in Love, the sentimental lyrics particularly resonated with me as they reverberated around England’s famous national stadium:

Wise men say

Only fools rush in

But I can’t help falling in love with you

Call me a fool if you want, but I’d fallen in love with Wycombe Wanderers again. Therefore, it had been worth every single second. Besides, there’ll always be next season…!

Images: Sam Day

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