Wycombe Wanderers have been a surrogate second team to my brother and me since he studied in the town twenty years ago. It helped that this coincided with Wycombe’s rise from the non-league to the Football League, which they have remained in to this day. Come 2017, they are a most likeable lower league team. Owned by the fans. Steady, friendly manager. Picturesque ground. Unique and classic kit. Sponsored by an ice-cream company. I could go on. Each season is a battle just to keep in existence, plugging away in the football pyramid with a mixture of locally sourced, career-rebuilding or loan players hoping for that season or even one result that they will be remembered for.
The last few years have been a bit of a rollercoaster- surviving relegation from League Two on the very last day of the 2013/14 season, then coming within ten seconds of promotion in the Play-Off final just twelve months later. It wasn’t to be. Their opponents Southend United nicked an equaliser, won the penalty shootout, and that was that. We were there, and I have never felt a numbness like it, standing within 20,000 people in dumbstruck silence. No-one seemed to move or say anything for half an hour. It was there, the moment was there, and now it had gone.
Memories of Wycombe’s high and low moments have come flooding back this week as they played the mighty Spurs in the FA Cup. A chance in a one-off game to cause an almighty upset and get their names into the record books. And how close they came. 2-0 up in the first half, then back in the lead at 3-2 with just a few minutes to go. Not to last alas. Spurs scored twice in the closing minutes to win 4-3.
Again, that feeling of ‘one moment’ struck me. For a small club, it’s all about grabbing the moments. It’s not like you will necessarily come back stronger next time as continuity is so fragile further down the football ladder you go. That might be it for those type of moments for a generation. Such fine margins.
Having said all that, Wycombe do have previous in this type of thing. Back in 2007 they went on a remarkable League Cup run, reaching the semi-finals and even daring to draw the first leg of the semi-final with Premiership champions Chelsea. Six years previously, even more specially in my eyes, they caught the imagination with a magic ride to the semi-finals of the FA Cup in fantastic circumstances.
My brother and I were lucky enough to actually see Wycombe play live twice in that 2001 cup run. The first was a second-round game away to Millwall, my only ever visit to the New Den. My only memories being the most turgid 0-0 draw you could ever wish to see. Little did we know what would sprout from there. The next time we would see Wycombe remains the best, craziest game of football I have ever been to see. I’ve had to read up on some of the finer details in order to produce his post, and it has been great fun doing so and rewinding a decade and a half.
By the time of this game, Wycombe had won the replay against Millwall and then seen off Grimsby in Round 3 before knocking out, more impressively, Wolves in Round 4 to set up a last 16 clash with Wimbledon- a First Division club but only recently demoted after a long stay in the Premiership. At Adams Park, Wimbledon raced into a 2-0 lead and that looked like that. But Wycombe mounted a comeback, 2-2 the final score, and to a replay at Selhurst Park- helpfully, mere minutes away from where we lived. We joined thousands of other Wycombe fans- easily outnumbering the Wimbledon faithful it seemed- for a night of nerve-shredding sporting carnage.
Until I looked it up I had forgotten who scored Wimbledon’s opening goal that night- none other than Gareth Ainsworth, now Wycombe manager! Of course the Wycombe manager back in 2001, Laurie Sanchez, was a former Wimbledon hero, just to confuse matters. Ainsworth scored early on and Wimbledon looked comfortable, only for Wycombe legend Dave Carroll, who my brother had watched in non-league back in the early-90s, to level after half an hour.
From then on Wimbledon looked more likely as Wycombe, beset by injuries before and then during the game, soaked up pressure. Things began to really hot up when Wycombe midfielder Danny Simpson was sent off for two bookings with twenty minutes still left to play. With a man down and playing superior opponents, Wycombe somehow stood resolute until the very last seconds of injury time, when the referee gave the harshest of penalties against Paul McCarthy, a classic no-nonsense centre-back if ever there were one, and that seemed to be that.
Only in goal for Wycombe that night was another long-serving legend, Martin Taylor. In his mid-30s and always wearing a baggy jumper that belied his speed and mobility, Taylor was a firm fans’ favourite and this night cemented his position in the hearts of the Wycombe faithful. He guessed right and dived to save Neil Ardley’s penalty, and somehow we were in extra time.
The plot then thickened as Wimbledon’s Wayne Gray scored to give them the lead within seconds of extra-time starting. Surely that would be it?
But no. Wycombe scrapped and scraped for their lives. It wasn’t pretty- seven Wycombe bookings testament to that- but somehow they were still in a shout when, in the 120th and final minute, a mishit shot from the edge of the box sliced to a sliding McCarthy, of all people, to prod home the most unlikely of equalisers. Down to penalties!
Given the ridiculousness that went before, the shootout was always going to go the same way. Kenny Cunningham missed Wimbledon’s first to give Wycombe the advantage, only for Keith Ryan to miss their third. By the end of the regular kicks, the last of which was bravely converted by Ardley who had missed half an hour earlier, it was 4-4.
And so it went to sudden death. Kick after kick went in. And in. Until Jamie Bates stepped up to take Wycombe’s eighth kick and drew a save from Kelvin Davis. Advantage Wimbledon- only for Taylor to match his opposite number with a replica save from Peter Hawkins to move the shootout on.
The ninth kicks were dispatched by McCarthy and Davis, and as Taylor himself stepped up and tucked home Wycombe’s tenth to make it 8-7, those who were still following proceedings suddenly began to ask what would happen if Wimbledon scored next. Wycombe were out of takers after having a man sent off! Would we go back to our first (and therefore best) taker while Wimbledon’s nervy last man had to take theirs? Would Wimbledon win by default? Did the referee even know what to do?
We needn’t have worried. Up stepped Mark Williams for Wimbledon, and he skied it with a shot that makes Chris Waddle’s penalties look accurate. Cue pandemonium amongst the Wycombe fans, not caring that with the time some way past 11.00pm they had little hope of getting home!
What a barmy night. Given what was to follow (Wycombe won their quarter-final against Premiership Leicester City with a goal from a striker signed after a Ceefax plea for players, and then ran Liverpool really close in the semi-final), this gem of a game was quickly forgotten amongst all but the Wycombe faithful. Very little evidence of it remains, although I’m pleased that the old BBC match report is still online and amazed at the wide range of match photographs available via Getty Images. I’ve even found out how to embed a slideshow of images into this blog – see above!
If the 2015 Play-Off Final was the worst moment I’ve experienced at a football match, 2001 v Wimbledon remains the best game, best atmosphere, the best euphoria. Strange that my second team have been the ones to provide both extremes rather than my first and foremost football love, Nottingham Forest. Here’s hoping that one day they wake from their perennial slumber and give me something to really shout about…