Great Football League Teams 22: Wycombe Wanderers, 2000-1
Number 22 in our Great Teams series features a club who for most of their life competed outside the Football League. Wycombe Wanderers were always non-league royalty and hence it was no surprise to see them promoted into the top four divisions once the madness of re-election was done away with. Here, the multi-talented Kerry Andrew, curator of two superb blogs, Fever Bitch and De-Composing, pens an ode to the early millennium Chairboys in prose that would do justice to David Foster Wallace or Jim Dodge. You may also be interested to know that Kerry was recently picked out by The Observer as a composer to watch.
Forget the three trips to Wembley and several yo-yoing promotions. Forget visits to Villa Park and Stamford Bridge. The best game I have ever seen was on a nose-numbingly cold Tuesday night in February at one of the worst league grounds in the country.
The 2000/2001 season was a nobbut middling one in terms of league success. Lawrie Sanchez stalked manfully into Wycombe’s life in February 1999, pulling the club out of the slavering sarlacc of Division Two’s relegation zone on the last day of the season. Wycombe began the next season with similar fervour, peppering their results with notable wins against the likes of Millwall, Oxford, Walsall and Peterborough, where for fact-nerdlings, Wycombe managed to score twice without the opposition touching the ball.* Injuries, however, began to abound (particularly for strikers, including the fantastically-named Jermaine McSporran; it was good to have signed rumbling carthorse Andy Rammell to bulldoze around up front), and points began to drop off slightly. By that point, fans had forgotten we were even playing in a league; because by that point, we were dancing and swooning down that hallowed yellow brick road: the FA Cup run.
Having beaten Harrow, Millwall, Grimsby and Wolves, Wycombe had heaved themselves up to a draw at home against Wimbledon in the FA Cup’s 5th round with a contentious last-gasp equalizer in which three of our players were obscenely offside – whoopsie! So it was off to Selhurst Park for the replay: a rickety, skeletal pile of corrugated iron and pillars, with the pitch less a canvas for sporting events than the set of a film based in the trenches of World War One. The game was the football equivalent of a psychostimulant-barbiturate bender: each event was timed so close to the wire I’m surprised there weren’t more St John’s Ambulance men waving smelling salts under the noses of both sets of fans throughout the match. Wimbledon scored very early on (courtesy of Gareth Ainsworth, now our very own heroic Aragon-type), and our strikers fell like dominoes. Andy Rammel, the Henry Rollins of League Two strikers, was replaced by Andy Baird (let’s call him James Blunt), himself stretchered off minutes later. Towards the end of the half, Dave Carroll proved that it was worth seeing him play five seasons of limply amateur rubbish for one vital moment of lightening-like inspiration, pouncing on a rebound and making it 1-1. The referee, seeing yellow, enjoyed booking just about everyone on the pitch, including a double to send off our lynchpin of midfield, Michael ‘Simmo’ Simpson on 70 minutes. In the last minute of the game, a penalty was given against us. We wilted with terror; Martin Taylor, an ex-miner with 2 inches missing from one leg and whose goalkeeping was quite legendary this season, saved and 5,000 Wycombe fans fell to their knees in roaring adulation. In extra-time, fresh-legged Wimbledon scored 34 seconds in; subbed-out, ten-men Wycombe were wheezing and asthmatic, barring Danny Bullman, ferreting about in midfield, and Paul McCarthy, defending his line like a particularly well-balanced rock in the Grand Canyon before being put up front. With 30 seconds of injury time to go, Bullman scored and we lost consciousness, ignoring the fact that McCarthy was so far offside he was practically in the stand and that Terry Burton was banished from the bench in apoplectic protest. Penalties were epic; each duel was utterly heart-stopping, like a footy version of The Quick and the Dead. It went to 5 each, to 6 each, to both goalkeepers scoring. Finally, finally Wimbledon missed the 20th penalty, and the whole world burst into blue yells of utter, animal delight, us bathing in delirious, crazy-lucked glory, fans and players mutually applauding for what seemed like hours.
It sent us to Leicester for the quarter-finals; my Dad went through a series of extreme physical and mental trials to get me one of the 3,000 tickets (well, he found a guy who knew a girl who had a spare, and heroically drove over town to collect it, but that’s good enough for me). The odds didn’t look good at 3pm. In a squad of twenty-six, ten were hobbling invalids, including all five of our strikers, and Simmo was suspended. Leicester had the most ‘z’-ed player ever, Muzzy Izzet, Wales’ own surf-muppet Robbie Savage and Wycombe’s treasured gazelle of old, Steve Guppy. A so-so first half passed without incident; through the pelting rain which heralded the second, Brownie’s free kick was hoisted onto the back of Paul McCarthy’s head and/or neck for a damply ragged runt of a goal. Sheer bliss. Leicester eased back in with an Izzet goal but eventually we were on top again, passing like a proper, real team, with Beckhamesque forethought, Scholes-ish precision, and Jason Cousins and Martin ‘Hands Spun of the Purest Gold’ Taylor managing to extinguish all signs of threat. And then, a media’s wet dream, on came Roy Essendoh, who in true FA Cup tall-tale style, had answered an ad on Teletext from Lawrie asking for non cup-tied strikers to come and play. On 92 minutes, with a replay looking certain, an ever-ebullient Dannie Bulman crossed, Jamie Bates flicked on, and from out of nowhere Teletext Roy rose like the phoenix to make contact with the ball and his sublimely polished pate, sending it past Royce, making himself a backpage starlet and shooting us single-headedly into the semis.
In one match, Lawrie Sanchez transformed from cockney chancer to tall, noble chieftain-type. No-one can replace Martin O’Neill as the True Lord and Master of WWFC, but Sanchez came close this season. A pillar of calm throughout the run, he seemed completely unfazed by proceedings – until an ignored penalty chance at Leicester saw him stalking toward the linesman in his rain-soaked camel coat, daggers in his eyes and probably up his sleeves, and ‘having words’. He was banished from the dugout, resorting to watching the game on a monitor, until he stormed back out to remonstrate with the ref for sending off Man of the Match Steve Brown for ‘over-celebrating’. Brownie had revealed a t-shirt with his severely ill son’s name on, had left in tears upon the red card and The Sun’s screamed ‘WYCED’ on their front page on Monday. Lawrie later appeared, gangster-calm and cliché-free, in the Match of the Day studio; Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson were perfectly complimentary, possibly because Lawrie was holding a gun to Alan’s thigh under the desk. By this time we were sagging in the League, losing unluckily to Stoke two days later, getting stuffed by Walsall 5-1, but it didn’t seem to matter too much. Upon watching us a) beat Oldham 2-1 the next Saturday in mercilessly razor-wet wind at Adams Park, and b) lose 2-1 to Wigan the following week, I decided that I was completely in love with Lawrie Sanchez.
The lead-up to the Liverpool game was one of some delirium. We were 20-1 to win the most famous cup in the world. We were, if you squinted at it the right way, the 4th best side in the country. We were, miraculously and side-splittingly, 90 minutes away from Europe. I salivated at the hilarious mismatch of a £200m team against a £400,000 one: Barmby against Bulman; Gerrard against Simpson; Owen against Jason Cousins; Robbie Fowler against McCarthy and Heskey against Jamie Bates. It was a festive occasion at Villa Park, with plenty of glory-hunters joining us (easy to spot: they accused others of racism for shouting ‘Brownie! Brownie!’ at our wonderful, heart-on-sleeve midfielder…). Wycombe defended like plinths in the first half, though we seemed to be playing in an experimental 4-6-0 formation for much of the match. Hhm. Along with supersubs Gerrard and Danny Murphy, Heskey, whom I’d always badmouthed as a two-left-footed blundering fool, brought his pachydermic strength back to haunt me. He scored, Fowler scored, and Keith Ryan’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stylings to make it 2-1 were not enough. Inward weeping from us as Lawrie gathered his blubbing troops into a big group hug.
Once we were out, Wycombe looked at the league and saw how close they were to relegation. Trawling through a backlog of games, they managed to end quite respectably in 13th. The 2000/01 season was the end of an era for two Wycombe legends: Jason Cousins, our right-back for a decade, would be best remembered for his bonkers passion, for his goal celebration against Coventry in the League Cup, for almost crushing Michael Owen to death in the Liverpool game, and for a two-footed, leg-buckling tackle so bad it is seared on the memory (and probably the other guy’s calf). Secondly, my favourite player ever: the whey-faced, straw-haired, whippety winger Dave Carroll, who though frequently displayed little to no skill in his later years, made up for it for flashes of near-Brazilian genius at vital moments (the best against Preston in the fourth tier play-offs at Wembley in 1994) that made me slightly hysterical. Nicknamed ‘Jesus’ for his looks and his god-given skills, he himself was chuffed to bits to see a sign at the Liverpool game saying ‘He’s NOT the Messiah –he’s a very naughty boy!!!’. He scored his 100th goal against Bury in a 1-1 draw to ensure our safety in April, and darts and weaves in and out of many fans’ memories.
* A Jamie Bates goal right at the end of the first half and a Jermaine McSporran goal nine seconds after the break. Classic!