Wanderers in exile: Jonny King

The fan-written series picks back up with The Wanderer editor Jonny King telling us his story of following the Blues up and, well, pretty much only up the country.

It’s 6 o’clock on a Saturday morning and I’m leaving the house, tired and bleary-eyed, to travel to a Wycombe Wanderers game. But it’s not an away trip to Accrington, Blackpool or Carlisle warranting this early start; the Chairboys are at home and I have a seven-hour journey ahead of me to get to Adams Park. The joys of being a Wycombe fan in Devon.

Although my first Wycombe game was a 1-0 win over Blackpool in 1997, I didn’t start regularly attending matches until towards the end of 1999, when I started going with my friend Matt. Very quickly, the obsession took hold – helped no end that the following season, my first as a season ticket holder, saw us embark on that glorious FA Cup run. I was hooked.

I left home and High Wycombe behind aged 18 as I travelled down to the south coast in 2004 to start a job in Portsmouth. In the 15 years that have followed, that job has taken me to Plymouth (boo!), Fareham, Southampton, back to Portsmouth and now to the small, quiet seaside town of Exmouth.

For several years after I left, I kept my season ticket and at least got to the majority of home games, but the harsh realities of adult life gradually set in and my days of regular attendance are over – for now at least – as distance, work, cost and other commitments are grudgingly given priority. I still endeavour to go whenever I can, though, and usually get to 10-15 games a season, home and away, this number usually being greatly influenced by the number of South West away trips on offer. Getting to a game at Adams Park now usually means a 6am start and returning home around midnight. My wife thinks I’m mad and, depending on how the game’s gone, sometimes I’m inclined to agree with her.

Occasionally, my determination to get my Wanderers fix has got me into difficulties and I’ve required outside help to get home again. When we entertained Chelsea in the 2007 League Cup semi-final first leg, my attendance at the fixture was never in doubt, but whilst slipping out of work early to get from Portsmouth to Wycombe wasn’t too much of a problem, there was absolutely no chance of catching a train back that same night – a classic case of my excitement at a game somewhat clouding my judgement as to whether going would actually be logistically possible. In the end, my dad – who doesn’t even like football – was the hero, getting up at 5am to drive me back down south in time for work. I still owe him for that one…

My time away from High Wycombe has resulted in me undertaking some fairly epic journeys over the years and becoming intimately acquainted with the dubious delights of our country’s rail system. Brentford is one of the shorter away trips for most Wycombe fans, but back in 2008/09, when I was living in the town of Torpoint, right on the Devon/Cornwall border, this meant not only another 5am start but also a combination of bus, ferry (across the river Tamar), taxi, train and Tube – not to mention a lot of walking. Not exactly following Wycombe “over land and sea” but probably about as close as you can get without actually leaving the country, and I like to think that it might be a record for ‘most different modes of transport used to get to a Wanderers match’.

That same season saw us travel to Darlington on a Tuesday night, and Matt and I decided to make a couple of days of it, staying up in Newcastle. After a day’s sightseeing on Tyneside, we boarded a train to Darlington, where we joined the other Wycombe fans who had driven or coached the 230-mile journey from South Bucks. Our efforts were rewarded with a last-minute winner off Chris Zebroski’s face, sending the 120-odd Blues fans off on their mammoth journey home in good spirits. Matt and I were the only Wycombe fans heading to the station and our blue quartered shirts soon attracted some unwanted attention, as our walk was interrupted by some shouted insults and a couple of coins flying past our heads. We turned round, only to discover that our ‘attackers’ were a gang of small boys, the oldest of whom couldn’t have been much more than 12. Fortunately, a quick flurry of good-natured banter won them over (which is handy because I was dreading having to admit to my friends that we’d been beaten up by the cast of Bugsy Malone) and they ended up showing us a shortcut back to the station.

As well as keeping colours covered up after a jammy away win, another lesson I learned that season was that the longer the journey, the greater the danger of being waylaid by other adventures. At the end of the season, Wycombe went into the final game hunting promotion to League One and a Plymouth-supporting friend, keen to see a team doing well, offered to drive up on the Friday night in return for a bed at my parent’s house and a ticket to the game. We managed all of about five miles before we were sidetracked, happening upon a pub where it turned out legendary ska band Bad Manners were playing an impromptu gig that night. Plans were hastily remade and dinner with my family in Bucks was swapped for a sticky dancefloor in Devon. The hectic, hungover dash up the M3 the following morning was enough to make us question our choices, but we made kick-off in the nick of time and then really did question our choices as we sat through a drab 2-1 defeat to Notts County. Fortunately, results elsewhere meant we could still celebrate a somewhat underwhelming promotion, but quite frankly, the surprise gig by Buster Bloodvessel and friends was probably the unexpected highlight of that particular weekend.

Sometimes, though, the most complicated and time-consuming journeys have been for games that were relatively nearby. By the time Wycombe were taking on Southampton in League One in 2009/10, I was now living in Fareham, a small town halfway between Portsmouth and their bitter cross-county rivals. I was delighted at the rare treat of a local game – St Mary’s being a mere 30-minute journey – but I returned to the station after the match to find the local trains in such chaos that Matt had driven all the way back to Wycombe before I’d managed to make it home.

The best and also most uncomfortable away trip that season saw us travel to Leeds. The weekend had seen heavy snowfall across the UK and almost every game in the country had been called off – except, for some reason, ours. Getting to Leeds isn’t exactly a short trip anyway, but the inexplicable decision to let the game go ahead turned our journey north into an exciting, 190-mile near-death experience. Matters weren’t helped when I discovered, all too late, that I had a small hole in one of my shoes, which meant that within half an hour of leaving the house, the icy brown sludge I was carefully walking through had turned one of my feet very wet and incredibly cold. With no chance to turn back, I had to endure this for the rest of the day and although we earned a creditable 1-1 draw at Elland Road, I spent most of the day battling frostbite and gangrene.

The following season saw me undertake probably my most complicated and costly trip, which was certainly disproportionate to the actual importance of the fixture. We had been drawn away to ‘old friends’ Colchester United for a Football League Trophy match (back when that competition still had a degree of respectability about it). With the game on a Tuesday night, I initially ruled it out – particularly as Colchester were a division above us and I had no wish to travel all that way just to see us lose to ‘that lot’ – but the slim possibility of seeing us sneak an upset against our bitter rivals was too tantalising to resist and after a long journey I was rewarded with a superb, unexpected win against our shocked hosts. Travelling back, I was only able to get as far as Waterloo, checking in to a very ‘budget’ hotel (basically a room with a bed in it) next to the station for a precious few hours’ sleep before catching the first train back to Fareham. That trip left me with no money for the rest of the month, but the win over the old enemy – and being there to witness it first-hand – made the expense fully worthwhile.

* * *

If you’re wondering, I’ve not actually experienced too much hostility wearing my Wycombe shirt around the South West. The vast majority of Exeter fans I’ve encountered have been pleasant enough, although these days I generally opt for non-Chairboys-themed attire whenever I have to go to Plymouth. In fact, my closest call came after ‘The Miracle of Plainmoor’, when I travelled down to Torquay from Portsmouth. After the game, I was sat on the train back to Pompey in a smiley coma, wrapped up in my own whirlwind of thoughts and emotions, when I suddenly realised that the train had stopped at Bristol Temple Meads! I quickly pulled my hoodie on and zipped it up, just as a number of very angry Rovers fans piled into my carriage. Something tells me they wouldn’t have been too pleased to see me sat in my Wycombe shirt with a stupid grin plastered across my grid.

I moved to Exmouth later that summer, my arrival in East Devon happily coinciding with a Tuesday night game at Plymouth. When I saw Wycombe were asking for someone to assist the media team reporting from the game, I volunteered my services, safe in the certainty that they wouldn’t pick me… and subsequently panicked when they did. My instructions were to assist Phil Catchpole with the online commentary, write a short match report for the website and provide updates on the club’s Twitter feed. I was absolutely rubbish on the commentary, ran out of time to write the match report and inadvertently swore on Twitter when I told the club’s 75,000+ followers that Matt McClure had “stung the palms of McCormick with a thumping shit. I mean, who the hell had the bright idea of putting I and O next to each other on the computer keyboard? That’s just asking for trouble! Needless to say, I’ve never been asked back and the hopes I harboured of becoming Wycombe’s South West correspondent turned to shot before my very eyes – although I live in hope that I might one day get another chance…?

Later on that season, I took advantage of my new EX postcode to get some cheap ‘Black Ops travel’ up to the return fixture, putting on my best Janner accent to book a place on the Plymouth supporters’ coach to Adams Park. My plan was simple: get on the bus, get a seat to myself and don’t talk to anyone. Unfortunately, by the time they made their Exeter pick-up (oddly enough, I was the only one), the coach was completely rammed, save for one space right at the back with the Stone Island brigade, who suspiciously eyed the bloke they’d never seen before making his way awkwardly along the narrow aisle and plonking himself down amongst them. We lost 2-0 and I pretended to be asleep the whole way there and back.

* * *

Work has sometimes intervened. I had to watch the 2015 League Two play-off final from a hotel bar in Malmö, Sweden (this might make my job sound glamorous – it isn’t). At first, all the screens in the bar were showing that year’s Eurovision Song Contest – which, judging from the number of people intently watching it, is much more of a thing in Sweden than in the UK – but after some gentle persuading, the barman eventually changed one of the screens over to some weird, possibly Greek channel (that I’m not entirely convinced was broadcasting legally) with the sound off. I generally tried to stay reserved but couldn’t help disrupting my fellow patrons’ enjoyment of some out-of-tune Albanian warbler with my frantic celebrations when Joe Jacobson gave us the lead, earning me some stern looks and an angry “Shhh!”. Unfortunately, Wycombe went on to lose on penalties, but the locals enjoyed a much better night as Måns Zelmerlöw scooped the top prize with Heroes. I already despised Eurovision, but that day has now also given me an irrational hatred of Sweden that, I’m ashamed to say, endures to this day.

* * *

Despite living so far away, these days I actually feel closer to the club than ever before. As the club suffered on and off the pitch between the late 2000s and early 2010s, I noticed that I’d been feeling increasingly distant from my hometown team, but the change to supporter ownership and the appointment of Gareth Ainsworth as manager and his ‘One Wycombe’ revolution drew me back closer. I’ve been editor of The Wanderer fanzine since the summer of 2016 and this has further strengthened my ties to the club, getting to know the likes of Phil and Matt Cecil and having the opportunity to meet some of the players when conducting interviews. Even better, it’s allowed me to widen my own Chairboys friendship circle, as I’ve got to know more and more of my fellow fans, whether it’s my comrades in WWISC or those of you who buy and/or write for the fanzine.

Another recent development that has helped is iFollow, which is a godsend. Tuesday night games are usually out of the question for me, but now I can count on getting to watch an extra 10-12 games a season, even if viewing it on a laptop screen sat in my pants is a poor substitute for actually being there in the flesh (fully clothed, I might add). This has probably helped me during the current situation, as I am more conditioned than most Wycombe fans to not being able to make it to games I would otherwise have loved to attend. That said, I’m heartbroken for my fellow supporters who can’t get in to see our team play live and I can only hope that we’re all back in Adams Park sooner rather than later and that we all get to see at least one Championship game in the flesh as the club embarks on its greatest adventure.

My friends have often questioned my logic and indeed my sanity for the lengths I have occasionally gone to in order to see us play, but for those of us who live for the thrill, the heartbreak and the ecstasy of following our team around the country, we wouldn’t have it any other way. The Devon commute continues to throw up unusual scenarios, whether it’s sitting on a bumpy flight to Newcastle for Sunderland away or having to get creative with my train route home after waiting two hours for Sido to get changed so I can interview him! Still, I like to think that the effort that goes into getting to each game and the infrequency with which I get to do so serves only to heighten my enjoyment of each match I attend. Win or lose, getting to a game is a real treat that I relish in a way that reminds me of the same excitement I felt on that first visit to Adams Park back in 1997.

Being a Wycombe Wanderers supporter is big part of who I am and how I define myself. I wasn’t born in Wycombe and I’ve now not lived there for almost half my life, but the connection I feel with my hometown is the strongest it’s ever been. Sure, the journeys can be long and arduous, but Wycombe are a team that never give up, no matter what odds – and the same goes for their supporters.

Photo: Jonny King