As we prepare for football’s return, I caught up with a man who’s going to have a very busy Christmas (not that one). Of BBC Three Counties and FSA Award-nominated Ringing The Blues fame, it’s none other than @bluntphil.
“The thing that I really remember about that day was walking up to the ground and this brilliant smell of fried onions and stale beer. That smell never leaves you.”
You probably know Phil Catchpole as the voice of Wycombe in the Ainsworth era, but he’s no newbie to wandering around with the Wanderers. A fan since the last years of Loakes Park, he doesn’t just let us know what’s going on with the Blues from week to week; he gets what it’s all about. He’s exactly the kind of person you’d want keeping you informed on your club.
“I just remember being absolutely fascinated by the entire experience,” Phil continues, reminiscing about his very first game, a 3-0 Isthmian League win over Bromley in January 1987 in which Graham Bressington and the Link brothers – George and Declan – were on the scoresheet. “As soon as I was old enough, I had a paper round and the money from that was solely for buying myself football tickets really. By that point, Wycombe were at Adams Park, O’Neill was the manager, and the rest is history. That was an amazing time to be following – and ever since then, it’s been a part of my life.”
A regular since 1991/92 – when the Blues agonisingly missed out on promotion from the Conference on goal difference – Phil became a season ticket holder for the first time a year later. Of course, there were no plastic cards with QR codes back then, rather booklets with tearable sheets for each game. “That took pride of place in my bedroom,” he recalls fondly. “That was a phenomenal time really. I think football is quite formative of your life when you’re a fan, and I remember being a kid and just thinking ‘This is great; my team plays at Wembley pretty much every year and wins’. Maybe that’s why I’m an optimist now as an older person.”
To Wycombe supporters of a certain age, the non-League days are but newspaper clippings, stories from their elders, and the odd grainy YouTube clip. Phil caught the end of them, though, and he’s absolutely glad he did. “The actual League history of Wycombe Wanderers is very small in terms of the grand scale of the history of the club,” he points out, “so to have been there and seen it, I feel quite lucky actually.”
“I think it’s helped me with the recent developments at the club,” he goes on to explain. “I totally get fans who want us to get to the Championship and spend money and do whatever. I’d love Wycombe to exist as high as possible, but my main drive – the thing I learnt from the non-League days – is that they have to exist. My dad brought me here when I was a small boy and one day I might have children – and I just want to be able to bring them to see Wycombe play.”
Despite his quite philosophical outlook, Phil is as delighted as the rest of us about what’s unfolding before our very eyes: Wycombe Wanderers are top of League One with barely two weeks to go until Christmas, unbeaten in 11, pulling up trees which should enjoy protected status. “Oh, these are great times,” he states emphatically. “I see a lot of fans who are my age and older who describe growing up and seeing the things that we did in the Conference saying ‘This must be what younger fans feel like now’. I get that completely. Football fans go into games fearing the worst normally, but I love going to Adams Park now – and the away games especially. There’s no fear anymore; it is 100% enjoyment.”
However, he’s keen to keep his feet on the ground – as we should all try our utmost to do, no matter how increasingly hard it becomes. After the 1-0 victory against Doncaster, Mr Wycombe himself, Matt Bloomfield, gave an insight into what the focus is like inside the camp. “He is your model pro really, on and off the pitch,” says Phil. “I’ve interviewed him at the worst of times and the best of times and the bits in between – and he is very consistent in how he conducts himself. And his immediate answer to me was ‘You don’t win anything in November’.”
Indeed you don’t, and this could all still go south quicker than a swallow jacked up on Red Bull piloting an F-16. We’re still not halfway through the season and have already exited all three cup competitions at the first hurdle. All of our eggs are in one quite delicate basket. “If we were to fall away in the league and finish 13th, we could look in 30 years time through the annals of Wycombe Wanderers and it would be no cup runs, mid-table finish in League One – well, whatever,” Phil puts it, appropriately bluntly.
That’s not to say anyone is worried about the wheels unceremoniously coming off any time soon, but it’s a sensible way of looking at things. Still, “it’s tremendously exciting,” he enthuses, “and I think the reason why everyone is so euphoric is that this has come from a place of complete surprise. I don’t think I was alone in June and July in thinking ‘We’re definitely going to get relegated’. I was just running the numbers and thinking ‘There’s no way. As much as I love Gareth and think he’s a great guy, and think he’s definitely in the top two managers the club’s ever had, he’s not Paul Daniels’.”
While the gaffer may not be a magician (well, actually, he kind of is), Phil’s current vocation – the one for which we recognise him – came after quite a dramatic career change. After 20 years in the music industry, he left to go and study journalism, but the world of media is something he rather fell into by accident, getting his first taste of the airwaves at a community level. “Without trying to exaggerate, it’s completely changed my life,” he says. “I ended up quitting my job and going back to college at the age of 39 to become a journalist on the strength of rocking up at Adams Park five or six years ago to volunteer for a hospital radio station.”
Within that, probably unsurprisingly, his fan experience has become altogether different. “On my regular matchday before,” he reflects, “I would be in the pub for a few beers and then down to Adams Park [to] catch up with people and watch the game – and let off some steam. I think I really appreciate that side of being a football fan, and I do miss that, I’ll be honest with you – I miss that side of it – but I absolutely love my role now.”
How about highlights from his time commentating on the Blues? That day at White Hart Lane springs to mind. After all, this is someone deeply connected to Spurs as well as Wycombe. “My grandmother was born and bred two streets over from White Hart Lane,” he explains. “My dad was a season ticket holder there; to have my family there and to call a game at White Hart Lane was a dream come true.” Was it a win-win situation, though? No, Phil was “genuinely gutted” at full-time. “You can hear it in my voice.”
Of course, the small matter of 3rd May, 2014 crops up. “Torquay is possibly one of the weirdest days of my life,” he says, “and having to report on that and not get caught up in the emotion of it was impossible. “I totally got caught up in the emotion of that.” Of course he did. How could anyone associated with Wycombe not have done?
That’s one of the advantages of working for a local station. You can be more partisan, get behind the team from your ‘patch’. That is until we come up against an opponent from the Three Counties stable. “It becomes tricky when we play MK Dons, Luton, Stevenage and – next season – Watford,” admits Phil, seemingly with one eye on next season… “Those games are tough because you have to respect that fans from other teams will be listening in on their local station. I’ve covered Arsenal for BBC London a few times away from home – and they’ve lost pretty much every time. As someone from the other end of the Seven Sisters Road, I was having to sound dejected on behalf of BBC London’s listeners – but no one picked me up on it, so I think I got away with it.”
Perhaps expectedly, Phil also cites the 2015 League Two play-off final – when he commentated at Wembley and called a penalty shootout for the very first time – among his defining days as a broadcaster – and a fan – but let’s not forget that his support goes back 30 years. Dilapidated old grounds and wins against clubs who no longer exist pepper his memories. Seeing Wanderers “win 4-1 in torrential rain on the open terrace” at Oxford United’s Manor Road in October 1995 is something he remembers “really, really vividly.”
Then there was April 1993’s 5-1 demolition of Runcorn at Adams Park, the result which all but clinched the Conference title and, with it, promotion to the Football League. “Steve Guppy [produced] possibly one of the finest performances in a Wycombe shirt I think I’ve ever seen,” Phil remarks. “He was my favourite player and still is – phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal performance. And that was the night. It wasn’t done mathematically, but that was the night that we went up. There was a pitch invasion and I remember running onto the pitch and getting a piggyback. I’m 41 now and I remember that happening as if it was yesterday. And trust me, when you get to this age, well, there’s some things I don’t remember doing last week.” A chuckle of acceptance follows.
Not much more than a quarter of a century on from that momentous day, the Championship is a real possibility for Wycombe. It still feels like a crazy thing to come out with, but why wouldn’t we believe it? Phil can’t think of any reasons why we shouldn’t keep this sensational run, this sensational season so far going, giving a short answer of “Yeah, why not?”
Although he’s not one to single out individuals, he can’t help but be full of praise for one man in particular – as we probably all are, completely understandably. “I think I’m a lot calmer watching Wycombe defend when Darius Charles is on the pitch,” he says. Aren’t we all?! “He’s been fantastic and he’s a leader and a warrior back there. Sometimes I worry that if he was to get injured or not to be able to play for an elongated period of time, we may not be able to keep as many goals out as we have been.” You have to say he’s probably right. “But I think the thing that is phenomenal about the team is this unbelievable spirit – and I think if there was to be injuries, they would pull together and they would get through it and they would find a way.”
Ultimately, though, the biggest challenge might be that from elsewhere. “As much as Wycombe are over-performing this season,” Phil goes on, “there are a lot of teams in this division that are underperforming, and I can’t see that continuing over an entire season.” That’s something of which Ainsworth and co. will be acutely aware, so there’s no need to worry, but there will be more pressure on us to carry on doing what we’re doing. It may not come from those directly behind us either: Oxford haven’t lost since early September and look like one of the most dangerous teams in the division; Portsmouth are climbing their way up the table after a slow start; Sunderland can’t continue to stagnate in mid-table, can they?
However, as much as the underdog card has served us well in recent years, it might be time to put it back in the deck. “Wycombe are there to be shot at now,” Phil points out, “which psychologically is hugely different to everything that we’ve been expecting [under] Gaz. It’s like ‘Little Wycombe are up against it…’. And there’ll come a point – we may have even surpassed it – where actually, that sounds a little bit ridiculous.”
For Phil, like several thousand more of us, it’s back to Adams Park on Saturday after an agonising football-less 17 days. The game against Burton marks the start of a period which could define Wycombe’s season. Are we in it for the long haul or are we destined for mid-table mediocrity? We might be about to find out. One thing’s for sure, though: a certain voice will be there to guide us every step of the way. And it belongs to one of us.