Wild Thing Ainsworth Leading Chairboys To Championship Football?

On the 3rd May 2014, Wycombe Wanderers went into the final game of the 2013-14 season staring relegation from League Two in the face.

A 2-1 loss to Bristol Rovers on the penultimate day of the season left Wycombe in 23rd, three points behind their west country opponents, and they travelled to Torquay knowing that, not only did they have to win, but either Bristol Rovers or Northampton had to lose for them to keep their Football League status.

However, the seemingly impossible happened. Goals from Sam Wood, Steven Craig and Matt McClure secured a 3-0 win for the Chairboys in Devon, and this combined with Bristol Rovers losing 1-0 to Mansfield, meant that Wycombe survived on goal difference.

Six years later, Wycombe are preparing for the biggest game in their 133-year history. A 6-3 aggregate win over Fleetwood Town, managed by the man I would most like to punch Joey Barton, in the League One Play-off Semi-Final has set up a final clash with local rivals Oxford United at an empty Wembley Stadium. Should the Chairboys win, their reward will be a first-ever season in the Championship.

While sadly their fans will have to watch the play-off final at home on TV, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Adams Park faithful could only of dreamed of second-tier football when they arrived at Torquay’s Plainmoor ground, but what followed was six years of ups and downs all overseen by one long-haired, leather jacket-wearing man from Blackburn.

I have lived in the market town of High Wycombe for a few years now and while it is a bit different to the bright- lights of London, which I grew up in, it has its own certain charms. Look I won’t lie to you there’s not much to do, unless you want to visit the town's chair- making museum; but why would you want to do that? But the surrounding Chiltern Hills are an area of natural beauty and dream landscape for those that like hiking.

Hidden just on the edge of the Sands industrial estate is Adams Park, the 9,400-capacity seater stadium that Wycombe Wanderers call home. I have a soft spot for Wycombe, yes, a big part of it is the close relationship the club and my team QPR have shared over the years, but living in Wycombe and knowing Wanderers fans has grown my affection for them.

For those of you who have a better memory than that of a five-year-old, you might have remembered I mentioned a long-haired, leather jacket-wearing bloke from Blackburn. That is a certain mister Gareth Ainsworth, who prior to his life as the longest-serving manager in the EFL, had an 18-year career at clubs such as Preston, Cardiff, Wimbledon, the original and best version, Port Vale, Lincoln and QPR.

I just missed the best of Ainsworth at Rangers, but his ventures running down the wing at Loftus Road, and 35- yard screamers against Rushden and Diamonds are the stuff of legend. Ainsworth left W12 and headed up the M40 to play for Wycombe in 2009, before becoming player-manager, and later manager, when Gary Waddock was sacked in 2012. ‘Wild Thing’ guided the club from the threat of relegation to 15th in the League Two table in his first year; before the incredible last day survival at Torquay the next year.

The great escape caused Ainsworth to rebuild his squad the following campaign, including the recruitment of a certain Joe Jacobson, which catapulted the Chairboys to the top of the league by January. Unfortunately, for Wanderers, the 2014-15 season ended in heartbreak after they dropped to fourth but managed to reach the League Two play-off final against Southend.

With the deadlock still yet to be broken at full time, Wycombe took the lead five minutes into extra- time, through an own goal from current Bristol City keeper Daniel Bentley, but in stoppage time at the end of extra time, Joe Pigott struck to equalise for the Essex side. When Sam Wood saw his penalty saved by Bentley, giving Southend the win by seven penalties to six, it seemed like the end of the world but again Ainsworth re-grouped.

The following two seasons ended up in 13th and 9th placed finishes respectively, but both included impressive FA Cup performances. In 2015-16, a 2-1 win over League One Millwall set up a third-round home tie with Premier League side Aston Villa and shockingly the Chairboys held their top-flight opponents to a 1-1 draw at Adams Park. While the replay in Birmingham ended in a 2-0 defeat, the Buckinghamshire side went one better a year later.

After beating Stourbridge in the third round of the 2016-17 FA Cup, Wycombe were drawn away to Premier League giants Tottenham Hotspur in the fourth round. Wanderers went 2-0 up at White Hart Lane in the 36th minute, before getting pegged back but taking the lead again in the 83rd minute. Spurs just avoided a famous upset through an 89th-minute equaliser to make it 3-3, before a cruel 97th-minute winner from Heung Min Son, but for six glorious minutes the world watched as Wycombe Wanderers looked set to embarrass Tottenham in their own backyard.

In 2017-18, the memories of three years before were finally banished. Losses for Exeter and Notts County, combined with Ainsworth’s side winning at Chesterfield in the penultimate game of the season sent the Chairboys up to League One. The image of Joe Pigott’s blonde little mop running off towards the Southend fans finally forgotten and instead of the image of Ebere Eze’s lovely afro dancing around defenders during his loan from QPR in the first half of that season.

Despite having one of the lowest budgets when they were in League Two, never mind League One, Wycombe survived in their first season back in the third tier for six years; finishing 17th, three points off the relegation places. But, the next season, aka the current 2019-20 campaign, is where the fairy-tale may finally reach its happy ending.

A phenomenal start to the season saw the Chairboys only lose one game up until December and spend the majority of the first half of the season top. Further good news followed when it was announced that American lawyer Rob Couhig had purchased a controlling stake in the club, which significantly boosts their financial position. While the Bucks side had dropped down the table a bit by the time COVID-19 caused a premature end to the season, the points per game system that decided the final standings launched them back up to third and what followed was the destruction of Fleetwood in the play-off semi-final, winning 4-1 away in the first leg; before a 2-2 draw at Adams Park.

What they did to Joey Barton is already enough to make anyone root for them this Monday, but once again Wild Thing Ainsworth could accomplish the impossible. For Wycombe Wanderers to go from nearly dropping into non- league to the cusp of Championship football in the space of six years is genuinely one of football's great tales, and one not spoken about nearly enough. In 2020-21, the memories of Tuesday nights away at Exeter may be replaced by away days at former European Cup winner Nottingham Forest. Wycombe fans will not be able to be there on Monday, they will watch from home, some with the cardboard cut-out of Gareth Ainsworth that is being sold at Wycombe’s shop for some reason. However, if they win it will not make the moment any less special. In their way will stand a talented Oxford side. Wycombe will be underdogs, but then again they have been underdogs before.

This article was written exclusively for golear.co.uk.