A quarter of a century on from what could – and, in a sense, should – have been Wycombe’s first appearance in the third tier play-offs, we take a look back at a classic season through the eyes of those who saw it first-hand.
Twenty-five years ago this week, Martin O’Neill left Wycombe Wanderers in somewhat acrimonious circumstances. The departure of Wanderers’ greatest (or, depending on which side of 1980 (ish) you were born, joint greatest) ever manager followed, statistically speaking, our best ever campaign on the pitch. Sixth place in the third tier would have earned a play-off berth in any other year, but 1994/95 was no ordinary season.
With the Premier League downsizing from 22 teams to 20, something had to give – and that something was a promotion spot in each division of the Football League, which bumped the Division Two play-off positions from the 3rd-6th to which we’re so accustomed to 2nd-5th. Of course, everyone knew the state of play heading into the season, but that doesn’t automatically mean ‘missing out’ by finishing just one place and three points shy of 5th and a crack at promotion to Division One was any easier to take.
“Had we got that play-off place then we would have absolutely got promoted,” BBC Three Counties’ Phil Catchpole – the voice of Wycombe – states adamantly, “because we were just invincible under O’Neill in knockout football. It would have been a given that we’d have gone up.” Duncan Alexander aka @oilysailor agrees, albeit with different justification: “O’Neill’s forte was winning against the odds.”
Football fans are hardwired to wonder ‘What if?’, although Paul Lewis – who would launch the imperious Chairboys on the Net in 1995 – admits he’s never fixated on it: “If you start wondering how you might have done, you’re forever regretting not getting there.” At least if we find ourselves ruminating this time around, it will only be over how we didn’t get to the final. Oh…
* * *
Should we pull off the unthinkable next month, it will go down as one of the great Football League stories. It would have done in ’95 too – no team had ever gone from fifth to second tier in consecutive seasons – but the pundits and bookies alike fancied us from the beginning. The sight of Terry Evans holding aloft that play-off trophy from the balcony of the Wembley Royal Box would have been less astonishing than Matt Bloomfield doing likewise; O’Neills men were as short as 8/1 for promotion – good value and with good reason.
In those days – still the infancy of the Adams Park era – the only way was up. The spine of the team may have been that which took Wanderers into the Football League at a canter in 1992/93 – admittedly with the considerable exception of the sensational Steve Guppy, who’d got his big move to top flight Newcastle – but, emphasises Phil, “the O’Neill factor” meant anything was possible. “I don’t think at any point when we started [1994/95] we thought we were underdogs,” says Paul, while long-time Blues supporter Ade Dodds looks back on it as just another “normal” season with “Martin being Martin”. If there’s strictly such thing as a normal season with this club!
“I do remember being a bit nervous before the first game [at home to Cambridge],” says Duncan, “[but] we won so comfortably”. Veteran front man (and Gareth Ainsworth’s hero) Simon Garner – who, according to Phil, “was not in any shape at all but still brilliant” – bagged the Chairboys’ maiden goal at the level just two minutes and 17 seconds into proceedings, with Tony Hemmings and Jason Cousins (from the spot) completing the scoring. Addressing any potential lingering negativity post-match, O’Neill said: “Relegation is something we don’t really think about here. We have had a good win, now we have to build.”
And build they did. Next up: a first ever trip to Huddersfield the eventual play-off winners, managed by a certain Neil Warnock – for the opening of their new, state-of-the-art Alfred McAlpine Stadium. Garner struck just before half time to make it two goals in two – and two wins and two clean sheets in two for the Blues. “They gave us about 12 tickets because it was their big day,” Duncan recalls. These were, explains Ade, “allocated seemingly randomly amongst home fans and groundhoppers. [It] was quite surreal.” Wycombe would do the double over their West Yorkshire opponents – Garner again sealing it in a 2-1 success in December after Gary Patterson had seen red on his debut and Cousins had taken a punch to the face from a visiting Terriers fan, all witnessed by, as Chris Beeby – another long-time Chairboys follower – remembers it, “one of the noisiest crowds Adams Park has ever seen” – but haven’t beaten them since. Then again, in those days, there was no one named Jordan Rhodes on the scene.
The legendary Cyrille Regis opened his account with the winner at title favourites – and ultimate champions – Birmingham ten days later – by now, Wanderers sat third and were the only team in the league yet to concede a goal – and while a reality check came in the form of a 2-1 defeat away to Bradford the next time out, the belief was well ingrained by then, says Paul: “We thought, ‘We can grind out these results’.” As if to prove his point, the next four wins came by a single goal – the most notable of them a 4-3 thriller against Brentford at Adams Park.
A 4-1 hammering at Stockport in late September must have served as a firm kick up the backside, because Wycombe would suffer just one more league defeat – oddly by the same scoreline at Wrexham – before January. Although non-League Chelmsford City and Hitchin were thrashed 4-0 and 5-0 respectively in the FA Cup, it remained a case of grinding it out in the league – save for a 3-1 dispatching of Peterborough and one of the results of the season, the 2-0 victory at Oxford – playing in the third tier for the first time since 1984, their golden age over – on 27th December. And yes, there had been a Boxing Day fixture. Madness.
Ade describes it as a “buoyant” occasion, with a 2,500-strong Light and Dark Blue Army cheering on their quartered heroes in the driving rain at the Manor Ground. “It felt pretty inevitable that we’d win the league,” remembers Duncan. Inflicting the U’s’ first home loss in 20 games wasn’t enough to send Wanderers top, but it did narrow the gap to just two points. Just as it did this past Christmas despite a rather less positive result up the M40, the table made for wonderful reading. And with the New Year commencing with the visit of Premier League West Ham in the third round of the Cup, it was just a great time all round.
* * *
Back in the 90s – indeed, until 2002 – there were no transfer windows, but it made no less sense to do the bulk of the strengthening at the midway point of the campaign – and so, equipped with a £200,000 war chest, O’Neill attacked the market in January, having already brought in Patterson and Mickey Bell – “a fantastic full-back, possibly the best we’ve ever had,” reckons Adam Cooper, then in his second year as a season ticket holder – from Shrewsbury and Northampton respectively for a combined £115,000. Veteran defender Terry Howard arrived in early February after, extraordinarily, being sacked at half-time by John Sitton at Leyton Orient, but the ‘marquee’ signings came at the opposite end of the pitch. Steve McGavin became the club’s record buy in a £140,000 move from Birmingham, but it was the man who followed him from the same club whose presence (and subsequent absence) would make the biggest impact: Miguel de Souza.
The lightning-quick 24-year-old had only joined the other Blues – then battling relegation from the second tier – a year earlier, after catching the eye of boss Barry Fry with a haul of 15 goals in 21 games for Dagenham & Redbridge in the Conference. He never got going at St. Andrew’s, though, and left the West Midlands without finding the net once. So Wycombe must have been crazy to shell out £80,000 to secure his services, right? Not at all – and O’Neill’s belief in him was vindicated as he notched a brace on his debut at Chester. “Signing de Souza was a masterstroke,” says Duncan in no uncertain terms. “He came in and was brilliant. I think if he hadn’t have got injured, we’d have probably finished in the top five.” Chris Beeby – who ranks 1994/95 as “without doubt my favourite season supporting Wycombe” – agrees that it “was a cruel blow” to see him ruled out after just six appearances – but, crucially, six goals – for his new club, through an injury sustained on a ‘reward’ training trip to Spain. The ones which just shouldn’t happen are always the hardest to take.
Wycombe’s slump had begun with de Souza still in the side – a double-header in South Wales resulted in a 2-0 defeat to Cardiff and a 1-1 draw with Swansea – but it dragged on for another month, until the end of March. “That spell was the first prolonged bad spell under O’Neill really,” says Duncan. “There were things going on behind the scenes as well,” notes Paul. “O’Neill was not getting perhaps the support he would hope he would get during a poor run.” And it was during that poor run that the beginning of the end came for the legendary Chairboys boss.
Tuesday, 14th March, 1995, Bootham Crescent: York City 0-0 Wycombe. It was, reports Chairboys on the Net an evening of “scant entertainment” aptly summed up by the scoreline. The match itself paled in comparison to what took place after the final whsitle, though. At the end of his regular post-match changing room drop-in, chairman Ivor Beeks told O’Neill: “The team played without passion and desire.” According to Dave Finch and Steve Peart’s official club history, Beeks’ actions riled O’Neill so much that he likely “subconsciously at least, decided to leave Wycombe Wanderers that night.” Another flashpoint occurred a few weeks later, as documented in the same book:
“About a month before the end of the season the directors were holding a board meeting and wanted some information which they knew was in the manager’s office. Graham Peart had a master key and he, Ivor Beeks and Alan Parry went in and were confronted by what they felt was an unreasonably untidy office.
The next day the Chairman told the manager to clean up the room, an instruction which Martin O’Neill reacted very unfavourably to. He not only cleaned it but cleared everything out and the left the door open to make sure that the Chairman noticed. He never went back inside that room.”
It wasn’t just club officials who were rubbing O’Neill up the wrong way either; the supporters “lost the plot” as Duncan bluntly puts it. “You’d like to think there’d be a bit of credit in the bank with the fans – but no. They lost the plot, booed [the team] off, [wrote] letters into the Bucks Free Press and letters into the club – and O’Neill lost the plot [particularly when a half-time parachute display went a bit pear-shaped]. Extraordinary scenes.”
Wanderers would go on to lose only three of their remaining 13 games, winning six of the last ten. Their fate rested in their hands as late as the last two fixtures: relegation-battling Plymouth in the home finale and Leyton Orient – already consigned to their fate – away to finish. If only it were that simple…
“I think the biggest disappointment that season was the Plymouth game,” says Duncan. Plymouth were in the relegation battle and we just didn’t turn up at all; we were awful. I think that’s probably the most angry I’ve been at a Wycombe home game.” That may have been when the play-off push all but hit the buffers, but it was that late winter run of five draws and three losses which “really, really cost us” in the end,” reflects Phil. We’ll never know if 2019/20’s winter dip would have proved similarly terminal.
* * *
The full story of O’Neill’s departure is one to be told in its own right. As far as the fans were concerned when the final whistle went at a sun-drenched Brisbane Road on 5th May – following a 1-0 win thanks to a belter from Regis – the great man was still their manager. “Had we known that O’Neill would be leaving a few weeks later, perhaps it would’ve hurt more,” considers Chris. “At the time though, it just felt a mere blip on our inevitable surge up the leagues.” “The restructuring of the League stitched us up,” says Adam, “but I think the overriding emotion at the end of the season was one of pride in the success rather than disappointment.”
“I just felt we’d done incredibly well to finish where we did,” says Paul, frankly. “The fact we missed out [on the play-offs] didn’t really change where we finished in the table. What you don’t know is that 25 years down the line, that’s the nearest you ever got…” Well, it was, but here are all these years later, finally in with a chance of making history – a genuine chance given all four teams’ lack of that key to play-off glory: momentum.
There’d be an asterisk against our finest achievement of all time, but there’s an asterisk against everyone this season. “I honestly wouldn’t care,” says Duncan. “The older I get, the more I realise loads of shit happens in football – when they changed from two points to three points [for a win] … there were teams going, ‘Oh, if this had been last season we’d have got promoted’ and all this stuff… Would Portsmouth have won the league after the war if they hadn’t had loads of players stationed near there? You’ve got to just roll with reality – and if we get to the Championship because of the coronavirus, frankly I’d just take it and see what happens.” “We’ll just have to see how it goes,” says Paul, “[and] try not to get too wound up about other people’s comments!”
Phil has perhaps the most profound take of all. “If Wycombe go up,” he says, “then you could say that finally that ‘wrong’ [of 1994/95] has been put right. “That would be quite a nice way of looking at it.” That’s taking the concept of evening out in football to new extremes, but who could have scripted the Hollywood drama of 2019/20? Maybe, just maybe, he’s onto something 👀.
A big thanks to Phil, Duncan, Paul, Ade, Chris and Adam for their input! You can watch full highlights of 1994/95 here.