Just like that, we’re the happiest of travellers. We are on a roll: three wins on the spin for the first time since January and our longest unbeaten run in almost three years*! Here’s a look at how we gathered more momentum on the Mersey.
*our longest in this division since 2001
Defending Like Beavers
Apparently this is a Kammy-ism, but it’s a good’un. And we certainly stemmed the Tranmere flow on Sunday, facing 15 shots but always looking in control. Five were on target, but perhaps the most telling stat is that we blocked a further five – 1.7 above our average. With the form Ryan Allsop is in – he made 5+ saves for the first time since the 3-3 draw with Peterborough – there’s no guarantee any of them would have found the back of the net anyway, but the heroic efforts of mainly Darius Charles – who threw his body in the way of three attempts, including two in the same passage of play – ensured a third of them never even got close.
You can read the ratings for more, but the (Mango) man of the match produced his best performance of the season alongside the also insurmountable Anthony Stewart. Between them, they made three more clearances than Tranmere’s three centre-bacls, and when the latter wasn’t booting, caressing or heading the ball to safety, he was carrying it upfield and trying to make something happen; he went on as many successful dribbles as Nick Freeman and more than Scott Kashket. We can play out from the back, you know – not that it would matter if we didn’t.
So those two were integral in maintaining the dam when the waters were at their choppiest, but they couldn’t have done it alone. They’ve got Rocky behind them and Jack Grummer and Joe Jackobson on either side – the latter two always likely to be busy against the hosts’ wing-back system. Back from a brief injury lay-off, the Flying Scotsman went steaming into one tackle for which he might have seen red, but he otherwise stayed on track and kept cool, linking up nicely with David Wheeler on the right of our midfield four.
JJ, meanwhile, on his 33rd birthday and 500th Wanderers appearance, in addition to scoring from the spot and setting up the opener, continued to show how he’s recovered from last season’s downturn. He may be having to track back less urgently now that he has the more athletic presence of Charles to cover him, but the whole defensive side of his game has improved markedly as a result. 2019/20 is looking like a career-defining campaign for the man who might well have spent many a season in the Championship if he had pace.
This team has made me – and I’m sure plenty of others – enjoy watching defending. I can’t think of another off the top of my head – Wycombe or otherwise – about whom I could say the same. We parked the bus in the second half but had a party on it, cutting shapes and, frankly, having a generally great time all in the name of preserving our 2-0 lead. Everyone rocked up to the occasion too, from Kashket defending from the front by making a nuisance of himself, to Dom Gape, well, being Dom Gape, to Nick Freeman making more of an impact as a substitute in our own final third than in theirs.
This was a masterclass in how to control a game without the ball (we had barely 40% possession). We set the beat and made Tranmere march to the sound of it. They were poor – let’s be honest – but we didn’t allow them to be anything but. They put in 34 crosses, more than any other side we’ve faced this campaign; only five of them hit their target. Nine of their shots came from outside the box, largely because that’s the only place they were going to find space – and even then, we hardly gave them acres – and saw 13 of their passes intercepted to our three. If someone was pulled out of position, another light and dark blue shirt instinctively popped up in their place. Hmm, sounds a bit like total football to me.
Three of the ten oldest starting 11s in League One this season have belonged to us. Sunday’s wasn’t one of them, but it still contained its fair share of battle-hardened experience: Charles, JJ, Blooms and Akinfenway – our four players aged 30 or older. Gape is ‘officially’ the fourth of Gaz’s ‘generals’, but Darius really should be included among the ranks. They’re so key to what we do, not necessarily as traditional leaders but in the way they enhance those around them with their immense performances.
It may have been important that we injected the squad with some youth back in the summer, but it’s proved imperative that we’ve retained the services of the old guard. Skipper Blooms, with his protective headband that looks like it was stolen from the Enterprise, made sure the Sky cameras knew he was there, producing the kind of robust tackle that, sadly, runs the risk of a red these days – and it just summed up the mentality of this whole group. It epitomised what the gaffer simply called a “a Wycombe performance”. I can’t put it any better than that.
If they’d been playing in the 90s, you could envisage every single one of them carrying on while bleeding profusely like Terry Butcher or Paul Ince. And you can see the same kind of spirit in their less senior team-mates. There’s no hierachy at Wycombe, rather a pyramid of inspiration. It trickles down from the top and imbues everyone with the same kind of unwavering determination. Above all, though, you can see clear as blue that every single player who pulls on the quarters does so with genuine pride. I don’t think you can say the same for many teams these days.
I Thought Championship Football Was Only True in Fairy Tales
Since the start of the season, I’ve taken one weekend completely off from the site. You know which weekend that was? The 14th-15th September – Gillingham away. Now, I’m not claiming all the credit for our tremendous success so far, but I’m yet to have to analyse a defeat. I’m not naive enough to think I won’t have to at some point, but how absurd is it that we, little old Wycombe from the Sands Industrial Estate, sit top of League One and seven points clear of the play-offs in mid-November with Ipswich, Coventry and Sunderland all below us? This wasn’t supposed to happen.
But it has, and everyone who doubts us better believe it. I believe it. I’m a bigger believer than the Monkees were in 1966 (no, that’s nothing to do with the World Cup). Outsiders waiting for the wheels to come off base their reservations on ‘unsustainable’ numbers (I pay close attention to the data, but we’ve won 15 games by a single goal in each of our two most successful seasons under Gareth**, and Shrewsbury did likewise 18 times on their surprise run to the 2018 League One play-off final), snobbery towards our style of football (yawn), or seemingly merely the fact that we’re a small club (I must have imagined Yeovil and Burton in the Championship in recent times).
Let me tell you this: We have the best manager in the EFL. We have an exceptional group of players, not one of whom’s attitude or character you could fault. We play to our strengths and are an effective, efficient, excellent team. We’re Wycombe Wanderers, we’re top of the league – not by fluke but because we deserve to be.
Something special is happening here, but please keep doubting us.
**2014/15 (League Two play-off final) and 2017/18 (League Two promotion)