Semi Final Memories: Wycombe Wanderers 2001
Next up in our semi final series, it’s TTU regular Kerry Andrew – @kj_funk on twitter – and a supporter of one of the most unlikely teams to reach the FA Cup semi finals, Wycombe Wanderers. Throughout their history, the Chairboys have been no strangers to cup success but the FA Trophy and FA Amateur Cup triumphs of yore were as nothing compared to their run to the FA Cup semis under Lawrie Sanchez. Here, Kerry relives an unforgettable few months.
For a few heady weeks in the spring of 2001, I didn’t really walk around in the manner of most humans. I floated. This was solely due to basking in the delirium that was Wycombe Wanderers’ last-minute quarter-final FA Cup success against Leicester City.
That night, my dad and brothers had sat three inches from the TV screen to cheer on our gallant blue-bloods in the highlights on Match of the Day, having beaten Leicester 2-1 with a 92nd minute goal from a jobbing striker we had advertised for on Teletext. We found ourselves in the preposterous situation of eyeing up Arsenal, looking for their weaknesses (verdict: they had none — when you could throw on two French and one Brazilian international as substitutes, you really have none). But it was Liverpool, beating Tranmere 4-2 in their quarter-final, who would be our opponents. Liverpool, my older brother’s childhood team (I can still picture Michael Thomas in extremely short shorts); Liverpool, my first boyfriend’s team (when he broke up with me, I lay morosely about in his old emerald green away top for days); Liverpool, The Sun, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish, John Barnes, Ian Rush, champions over and over again; Liverpool, Liverpool, Liverpool. A Proper Team.
It only got more surreal in the following days: Wycombe were all over the media like a pimply rash and facts were merrily touted about that made me even more serene. 20-1 to win. The first third tier side ever to reach the final. Europe in our sights. Wycombe against a Milan, or Bayern Munich. Like a country bumpkin next to a Dolce e Gabbana underwear model. The fourth best side in England, sort of. Our manager, Lawrie Sanchez, had FA Cup upset running through his veins, as we saw repeatedly in the old footage of him lifting the Cup with Wimbledon. It was a dead-cert. Probably.
It took over my life. Liverpool did glamorous things like play Barcelona in the UEFA Cup. I dreamt that Lawrie asked me out. Wycombe did glamorous things like lose to Stoke and get stuffed by Walsall on rainy Tuesday nights, slipping slowly down the sorry face of Division Two. I dreamt that £35 got us seats half a mile away from the pitch in front of a face full of pillars. I giggled over reports that Lawrie whisked the team away to bronze their pasty heads (most of the team shaved their heads ‘for luck’) to balmy Spain for a week in preparation for the game. I dreamt that we won.
Ah, dreams. That’s what starts to happen. Something peculiar-feeling in the world of football, an unfamilar glow deep in your waters, a daring-to-hope, the idea that maybe, just maybe, we could actually win. It’s the FA Cup! Stranger things have happened at sea! It’s just ninety minutes! Wimbledon! Lawrie’s gangsterish calm in interviews didn’t really help: he seemed utterly assured of Wycombe’s success, offhandedly saying things like ‘Villa Park’s ok, but Cardiff will be better.’ I was perpetually convinced of our downfall in all the previous games and my pessimism was rewarded with ecstatic wins; in retrospect, I should have kept my mouth turned down.
Contrary to my pillow-tossed footymares, we had good seats in the Holte End at Villa Park, and Wycombe fans made up almost half of the 40,000 crowd. There were many Blue Peter-style FA Cup hats, cut-outs of our hero Steve Brown and the best banner for our journeyman midfielder: ‘DAVE CARROLL IS NOT THE MESSIAH, HE’S A VERY NAUGHTY BOY!’ Dave, long ago nicknamed ‘Jesus’ by ardent fans, pointed at it in the warm-up and looked tickled to bits.
It’s not that we were terrible. Anything but. The first half saw Wycombe do the classic underdog tactic of locking it down and making play a bit like wading through just-setting cement. Jamie Bates, the only person to have caught the sun on their Spanish sojourn, blocked everything in sight, and only lacked the gifts of passing or crossing or any form of non-head distribution. Liverpool clung leech-like to our pesky midfielders and we settled for one or two, let’s say ambitious, Beckham-aspiring volleys somewhere faintly towards goal. Lawrie was going with an experimental 4-6-0 formation, it seemed.
The second half carried on in much the same way, bar some feisty, grim-jawed tackling of little Michael Owen, who kept being bulldozed by our bruisers at the back. Jason Cousins tried to pick a fight with him and almost crushed him to death. My hero! ‘Teletext’ Roy Essendoh, who had answered Lawrie’s desperate call for strikers for the Leicester game following the injury of just about everyone else, proved to be a bit of a one-hit wonder and couldn’t deliver. Steven Gerrard loped on. Emile Heskey, whom I’d always badmouthed as a two-left-footed blundering fool (ah, how times have — oh), began to make things look a bit more threatening.
Despite sticking two fingers up at gravity to make several wonderful saves, Martin Taylor couldn’t stop a Heskey header, from an elegant Gerrard cross, going in to make it 1-0 with ten minutes to go. The second one — a heaven-carved free kick from Robbie Fowler — was also unstoppable, so at least our defence’s blushes were spared. By then, we were collectively expiring, but there was just time for captain Keith ‘Rhino’ Ryan, another of Wycombe’s long-term stalwarts, to pull some moves he’d just nicked from ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and leap over Sander Westerveld to score. Four minutes of extra time, and the faithful roared like the MGM lion busting a lung into a loudspeaker, but by then Sami Hyypia had become eight feet tall and it was no use.
The whistle blew, the glory supporters who’d come for a nice day out turned to each other and said ‘ooo, that was good fun, wasn’t it?’ whilst the regulars sat very still, inwardly weeping at having been ten minutes away from an FA Cup final. Martin Taylor, Man of the Match, blubbed his heart out into physio Terry Evans’ beer belly and Lawrie gathered his boys into a group hug. My dad, rigid with nerves all match, sagged with relief that it was finally all over. I bunked off work the next day, giving details of copious yet utterly fictional vomiting in order to recover from the heartbreak.
Really though, I was dead proud. We beat Harrow and Millwall, Grimsby and Wolves, Wimbledon in the best football experience of my life, and Leicester. Wycombe’s Paul McCarthy was the highest scorer of the tournament that year. We fended off Liverpool for 80 minutes, a team went on that season to win five trophies (the FA Cup, the UEFA Cup, the League Cup, the Charity Cup, and the… SuperEuropesomethingorother) and held our stubborn, stubbled, old-man heads high. It was probably best, in the long run. If we’d have gone any further, we’d probably have been relegated. The League’s more important, and all that.
Oh god, who am I kidding.