Of all the opening weekend EFL fixtures, Wycombe Wanderers hosting Rotherham United at Adams Park was not one that would have stood out, demanding attention. Apart from those connected with The Millers or The Chairboys it would appear to be a low profile game so it may come as a mild surprise that Sky chose this as one of their first live broadcasts. Even though the match paired two newly promoted clubs it still did not make it as glamorous a fixture as say, the League One champions Coventry City locking horns with Bristol City.
But on Saturday 12th September at 12.30 the Sky cameras will indeed be in Buckinghamshire. The primary reason is that Wycombe provided one of the stories of the turbulent, truncated season. Apart from Liverpool claiming that long-awaited Premier League title and Leeds’ return to the top flight after 16 long years, Wycombe reaching the second tier of the football pyramid for the first time in their history was the most laudable achievement. That this was accomplished on the lowest budget in the division points to astute management, which squeezed out the very last drop from a modest-looking squad and a little bit more.
In conversation with Neil Harman, author of Close Quarters: An Extraordinary Season on the Brink,a book that delves deep by going behind-the-scenes with the players, managers and coaching staff, it is clear that Gareth Ainsworth was the chief inspiration behind their ascent to the Championship. Ainsworth’s long association with the club over the last ten years as both player and subsequently as manager cemented his connection with the club as Harman describes it as his destiny. When he originally took over as caretaker he was perhaps under-qualified but quickly learned, as he told Harman. “Gareth said ‘I wasn’t, at that stage, a great tactician but I had the affinity with the players, I bonded with players’ and that became a recurring theme. Although last summer he passed the LMA Diploma in Football Management, so he is now fully qualified.”
Considering the difficulties of having an enforced long lay-off of 125 days between their last fixture when they were beaten 3-1 by Doncaster on 29th February to being thrown in at the deep end of the first leg of the Play-Off semi-final at Fleetwood, they started with a sense of purpose that blew their opponents away. As Harman points out these were unique circumstances and it took incredible motivation by the manager to have them primed for the biggest game in Wycombe’s 133-year history.
Joey Barton’s side boasted one of the best home records in the division with only one loss at Highbury and Fleetwood had been beaten just once in the 18 games prior to the regular season’s suspension. But The Fishermen were comprehensively thrashed by an ebulliently energetic Wycombe, conceding four goals for the only time in the league season. “I was very fortunate to be privy to the speech that Gareth gave the players at 5 o’clock before the first Fleetwood match,” Harman says. “Having memorised his speech, Gareth was going round and round in a little circle all on his own, rehearsing it while all the players and coaching staff had gathered in a meeting room at their hotel, looking at each other slightly awkwardly as Gareth paced up and down on his own for a little while.”
“But to be fair to him he delivered it unbelievably well, which even affected a hoary old journalist like me making my skin tingle. It was such an outstanding speech and the fact that they won 4-1 was testament to what he said to them. It was as good a performance as they put on all season, in fact it was their best performance of the season by a country mile.” Wycombe could hardly have been out of the blocks any quicker, taking the lead after 75 seconds and despite conceding an equaliser two minutes later they showed great resolve in retaking the lead, all this within the first six minutes of frenetic action.
It was a lead they did not relinquish, despite Jacobson missing a penalty and they ran out convincing winners. There were a few alarms in the second leg when Fleetwood twice held the lead and laid siege to the Wycombe goal but ultimately a 2-2 draw was more than enough to see them reach Wembley to face Oxford United. Five years beforehand Wycombe had reached the League One Final only to lose out because of a 120th minute Southend equaliser and subsequent penalty shoot-out loss. Ainsworth was determined that the heartache they suffered that day would be well and truly banished.
Harman was again impressed by the manager’s approach to the Final especially in the hours before kick-off. “They went for a short walk, as they always did before any away game, from the Hilton [which is a stone’s throw from Wembley Stadium] and up Empire Way. There weren’t many nerves, they were very relaxed and not weighed down by the significance of the game ahead.” Again his words before the Final were inspirational “He had a catchphrase: This time, right time, our time. That was his three-pronged message, which he wrote it up on the board. Later as the teams were queuing up to go out on the pitch, the Wycombe players were screaming ‘This time, right time, our time’ and the Oxford players must have wondered what was going on.”
Alongside Ainsworth, only two players in this year’s line-up were also involved in the previous Final. Joe Jacobson who scored in the 2015 penalty shoot-out and the captain Matt Bloomfield who did not, with his miss proving crucial as Southend came out on top. Bloomfield admitted that the Southend defeat had been the lowest point of his career and had haunted him ever since. Unfortunately for the 37 year-old Bloomfield his participation in the game against Oxford ended at half-time when “effectively his body went into bit of a spasm,” Harman says. That the outcome was settled by a Jacobson penalty – who not only missed his spot kick in the first leg of the semi but also one in practice the day before the Final – with just over ten minutes remaining served as some sort of redemption for both he and Bloomfield.
Harman expresses the only disappointing aspect of this momentous season came after the match had ended. “The squad players who were in the stands weren’t allowed on the pitch, two or three of them were inconsolable and were in floods of tears. These guys had been with the squad throughout the season but because you’re surplus to the game and you’re not on the subs bench, you can’t join your team-mates to celebrate. I thought that was typically bloody Wembley.”
One player who was certainly in the midst of the joyful scenes on the pitch was Adebayo Akinfenwa who had come on as a substitute just after the hour mark. He gave one of the most highly charged and entertaining post-match interviews of any Final with Sky’s David Craig.
Akinfenwa: “Hold on, hold on. Tell me what we did, tell me what we did.”
Craig: “ You have got yourself a place in the Championship.”
Akinfenwa: “I don’t think they heard you at the back….the only person who can hit me up on WhatsApp is Klopp.” Akinfenwa’s sheer delight bubbled over into magnificent hyperbole and that elation was shared by fan, former director and legendary commentator Alan Parry as Harman confirms “rarely have I seen a happier man. He was just so elated, he has been there for donkeys years. He is at every home game and quite a few of the away games.”
Akinfenwa is accustomed to the limelight but as Harman points out Ainsworth insists that nobody is allowed to be bigger than the others. “He brings in good people, if there’s ever the though that somebody is undermining the stability of the dressing room they don’t last very long. Akinfenwa could easily want to be the biggest personality at the club. He’s big and he’s a personality but he never oversteps the mark, he knows who the manager is and when push comes to shove there is only one gaffer.”
Having guided a club who were 8th in the table when football went into frozen animation and just scraped into the play-offs via the strange workings of PPG, Ainsworth deserves enormous credit. In reaching their ambition of playing in the second tier, 27 years after becoming a Football League club for the first time under another inspirational boss Martin O’Neill, Wycombe provided us all with a good news story. It was an all too rare victory of collective effort over greater resources. As Ainsworth summed it up in his post-match comments: “But that was destined today. There are 25 individual stories that have ended in the Championship and I’m so proud of the boys. They’ve been amazing.”
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