LONG READ | A young Wanderer’s memories of Wycombe’s only play-off triumph

To kick off the week building up to Wycombe’s fifth appearance in the end of season lottery, Phil Slatter casts his mind back to some of his earliest experiences as a Chairboy.

For long-time Wycombe fans in their mid to late 30s, their formative years of following the Blues are ones of almost untold glory. After the game came kicking and screaming from the dark days of the 1980s, Wycombe were a lower league success story of the football boom of the 90s and it’s a well-known story of moving from an old, no longer fit-for-purpose ground to a new stadium with the Northern Irish messiah Martin O’Neill leading Wanderers to two FA Trophy finals at Wembley and promotion to the Football League via the Conference title, all in the space of three years.

Yet in 1992, there was disappointment. My first ever football match saw Wycombe defeated 2-1 by Witton Albion in the FA Trophy. My second ever game, also against Witton Albion, may have ended in a 4-0 win, but alongside it came the disappointment of losing out on promotion to Colchester on goal difference. 

We all know what happened the following season, from strolling to the Conference title, to a comfortable 4-1 win over Runcorn at Wembley in the Trophy final, to two televised FA Cup matches against West Brom.

I remember picking up my weekly copy of Shoot! magazine (every kid was either a Shoot! or Match reader back then) and being pleasantly surprised to see a photo of Jason Cousins holding the Conference trophy above his head in the letters section. With nothing online back then, it was rare to find coverage of Wycombe in a national publication. The letter itself asked whether Wycombe would come straight back down the following year, but the response (which I think was penned by Jimmy Greaves) stated that he wouldn’t be surprised if they were in Division Two in 12 months’ time…

The 1993-94 season was my second full season as a Chairboy and there are a few standout memories: our first ever Football League defeat (5-2 at home to Col U – ouch); the stunning second leg of the Coca-Cola Cup tie against Premier League Coventry [the only time we’ve ever beaten – or even avoided defeat against – the Sky Blues]; beating Cambridge in the F.A. Cup second round to set up a tie with Premier League Norwich; a somewhat fortunate 3-2 win over Hereford in the New Year; Torquay scoring a very late equaliser in a match refereed by ‘94 World Cup-bound official Philip Don; Jason Cousins scoring against Scunthorpe with a shot that ended with the ball lodged in the stanchion, almost defying physics.

And some real disappointments: our apparently annual trip to Wembley looked like it was cancelled when we lost 3-1 at Swansea in the first leg of the Autoglass Trophy Southern Area final; the second leg at Adams Park was an unpleasant affair as the Swansea fans caused no end of trouble and kick-off was delayed. Football may have been escaping the hooliganism of the 70s and 80s, but the remnants of those dark days still remained. Yet the tie was alive when Tony Hemmings gave Wycombe the lead on the night after half an hour – but the crucial second goal never came, and my enduring image of the night is of Swansea fans charging towards the Valley end at full-time, only to swiftly retreat when a well co-ordinated team of galloping police horses sent them running back the other way.

No Wembley trip then, but with ten games of the league season to go, promotion was in our hands. Yet Wycombe won just two of the following nine league games and we turned up at Adams Park on the final day needing to beat Preston and hope Crewe would lose at Chester in order to seal third spot. Our poor form continued and we could only manage a 1-1 draw – not that victory would have made any difference as Crewe grabbed a late winner.

It was to be the play-offs, and Carlisle were the opponents. Their form had been the polar opposite to ours in the last ten games of the regular season – they had only lost twice, winning seven and conceding only once in the final five games. There is always a debate about form going into the play-offs (well, maybe not this year), but what happened over the next two matches was a big argument against it having any bearing.

The play-offs were a relatively new concept back then and many people, Wycombe striker Simon Garner included, argued that they were unfair. Why should the team in seventh get a chance to go up? The argument remains, but it is less vocal as people have come to accept them. It’s perhaps strange that Garner wouldn’t be a fan of the format considering he had won the Division One play-off final in 1992 with Blackburn and the Division Two final 1993 with West Brom. The hat-trick was on… 

With Sky sports still in its infancy, the play-offs weren’t broadcast live on TV (the Division One final was still on terrestrial), so following the away leg at Carlisle wasn’t easy. The game also saw its fair share of crowd trouble as Steve Thompson and then Simon Garner secured a comfortable 2-0 victory. Wycombe fans were chased from the ground by some angry Carlisle supporters after the referee blew the full-time whistle early, racing across the open field that lies next to Brunton Park in an attempt to get home unhurt. Not being at the match, I avoided such dangers, but I remember my mum telling me the final score and my initial reaction was ‘Great, we’re promoted!’, before immediately realising that there was a second leg to contest. And then the final. Maybe.

The second leg took place three days later at Adams Park and we arrived at the ground with a sense of inevitability that this would be a mere formality. We were right. Much like against Plymouth 21 years later, Wycombe weren’t ready to sit on the lead from the first leg – Dave Carroll’s 12th minute header really killed the tie and Garner grabbed a second before the hour, with Carlisle scoring a late penalty that nobody much cared about.

After the inevitable pitch invasion, the team gathered on the balcony in the main (now Beechdean) stand and the champagne started to flow. A little, at least. I remember a couple of corks popping, but it wasn’t sprayed everywhere for, as one fan observed, “It’s ok to have a little bit tonight…”. The team had got to Wembley after all, but the job was only half done. A voice from the crowd then called up to the gantry: “Who have we got?” In the days before smartphones (or even mobile phones in any wide usage) and minimal radio coverage, the press box was the only link to news from Deepdale where Preston were taking on Torquay. The Gulls had taken a 2-0 lead into that game, but someone from the club came down to the front and called out, “Extra time being played!”. I have no knowledge of when or how we learnt that it was Preston who had got through [4-3 on aggregate after extra time], but then it didn’t matter. As we walked down Hillbottom Road, we had yet another trip to the Twin Towers to look forward to, a match at our home away from home, a place where we traditionally ended every season with a victory.

Wycombe’s North London retreat

Much was made of the fact that it was North End’s first trip to Wembley in 30 years as historically they’re a giant of the English game – yet Wycombe played there nearly every year. As a result, Preston fans outnumbered the Wanderers faithful, but Wycombe dominated the early stages – only for Ian Bryson to give North End the lead with an overhead kick. As a ten-year-old, I had to appreciate such a technique even if it was against my heroes. Parity was restored within seconds, though, as Thompson raced onto a long ball and tucked it past the ‘keeper. Before half-time, Preston were ahead once again and at the break I remembered a comment that I’d read (probably in Shoot!) that there was no worse place to lose than Wembley Stadium. Gulp.

The despair was short-lived, though. Super Simon Garner equalised early on in the second half before we took the lead with a goal that, I think, doesn’t get the attention it deserves. The one-touch zig-zag passing move in which the ball was switched from left to right and from the centre of the field to the penalty area at pace and with accuracy was a thing of aesthetic beauty, ending in Dave Carroll tapping in to give us a 3-2 lead. As team goals go, Wycombe can’t have scored many better.

As individual goals go, few have scored many better than our fourth. Carroll sealed the victory – and promotion – with a goal that has gone down in Wycombe Wanderers folklore. He took the ball from his own half, but it was on his left side. He held it and held it and held it until the chance came to switch it to his much-favoured right-foot and then … BANG … a wonder goal from just outside the area and promotion was in the bag. I remember looking away to my left where Carroll ran to celebrate and seeing him being mobbed by the players and substitute goalkeeper Chuck Martini (Moussadek) – who performed his own mini pitch invasion. There is a debate about great goals and whether the context and stage upon which they are scored should be taken into account. Think of our last three ‘Goal of the Season’ winners: Jason McCarthy v Walsall, Marcus Bean v Carlisle and Paul Hayes v Spurs. All decent enough efforts, but there were perhaps better goals scored by Wycombe in each season, albeit less important or iconic. Carroll’s effort had it all, though – a wonder goal, scored by a Wycombe legend, at Wembley, in the biggest game of the season. However, we may have even forgotten that goal if a linesman’s offside flag hadn’t (incorrectly) ruled out Garner’s 50-yard lob towards the end… It didn’t matter, though, and an exciting game concluded with us winning 4-2. Happy days.

The final memory of the stadium that day is the trophy presentation and it was, fittingly, something I didn’t get a good view of given our position in the stadium. I say ‘fittingly’ because the play-off final has never been about winning a trophy; promotion was the real prize we were after.

Yet it was the perfect end to the season. We knew we’d probably have to beat Preston at home in the final game to achieve anything. And we were right; we just weren’t expecting to do it at our second home. 

And for all the disappointments along the way – losing to Swansea and missing out on automatic promotion – it was all worth it in the end. Memories of summer victories over Carlisle and Preston were formed and will last a lifetime for those of us just about old enough to have been there.

Wembley photo: David Howard via Flickr. Used under license. Cropped to fit.

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