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CHAIRBOYS

‘Underdog story’ is an overused term – but here it doesn’t remotely do it justice

We want to be right in there as a known team, a team on the map, not just this little team that got promoted in 1993 into the Football League.”

That’s Wycombe Wanderers manager Gareth Ainsworth, talking to us as part of the latest in our Football’s Front Lines series on Saturday.


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Gareth Ainsworth talking to Dream Team on Saturday night

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Gareth Ainsworth talking to Dream Team on Saturday night

The Chairboys specialise in punching above their weight, reaching the semi-finals in both the FA Cup and League Cup in the last two decades.

But, like many other Football League clubs, they’ve been flirting with an uncertain financial future for years almost through no real fault of their own.

Wycombe’s losses were estimated at around £600k a year, spending beyond their means merely just to stay afloat rather than on exuberant new additions.

File this under ‘wholesome’

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File this under ‘wholesome’

Adams Park is in dire need of some TLC. They don’t have an academy. The floodlights are a poor quality. The training ground was described as a ‘glorified metal shed with a couple of football pitches next to it’ in a recent report by The Athletic.

In 2014 they escaped relegation from League Two by the skin of their teeth, a final day win at Torquay enough to leapfrog Bristol Rovers and preserve their Football League status.

And Ainsworth is under no illusion as to how damaging a situation that could have been for the Buckinghamshire club.

D-Day for Wycombe at Torquay back in 2014

Action Images - Reuters
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D-Day for Wycombe at Torquay back in 2014

“We nearly went out of business.” Ainsworth confesses. “We nearly went out the league, we didn’t know if the wages were going to get paid at times.

“The Supporters Trust made sure they were paid every month and that was fantastic, but we were losing money hand over fist.”

Five-and-a-half seasons on and seven years into Ainsworth’s tenure – he is now the longest serving manager in England’s top five leagues – it’s safe to say Wycombe are now moving in an altogether different direction.

And fast.

The Chairboys, despite starting pre-season with just nine players and having their playing budget cut by 30%, are sitting pretty at the top of League One and fantasising of the Championship.

Ainsworth has praised the new burgers, new beers and new fan village at Adams Park

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Ainsworth has praised the new burgers, new beers and new fan village at Adams Park

They have never reached the second tier of English football but, having dispatched historic clubs like Sunderland and Portsmouth already this campaign, that dream could soon become a reality.

But even more crucial than any league position, they are now debt free after prospective new American owners The Couhigs settled any outstanding payments.

Before passing the 75% threshold required for a takeover mandate in late October, the Louisiana-based investors paid off their £2.2m debts and supplied a further £1m for other means.

It is testament to their popularity that an approach by a blockbuster consortium containing Dennis Bergkamp and Ronald Koeman, among others, wasn’t seriously considered.

That’s because Peter Couhig, the prospective Chief Finance Officer, isn’t your average owner.

Wycombe fans were really worried about being bought by overseas owners,” Phil Catchpole, match commentator for BBC Three Counties Radio, told us.

“You hear so many horrible stories and things that go wrong. But the Couhigs have come in and these guys are just fans.

“They’ve had three months on the ground here before the vote went through and the best thing about them for me is that they’re in the bar, on the terrace, hanging about in the town.

“They’re with the fans, they’re not on the old prawn sandwiches. They’re proper football people and they’ve really connected with the people of Wycombe.”

Couhigs infectious personality was emphasised on Saturday, mobbed by adoring fans as he led us through the bar area to watch the pre-match entertainment.

As we listened to a performance of ‘The Wanderer’, a song by Ainsworth’s own band the Cold Blooded Hearts, Couhig tells me of the instant rapport he struck up with both the Wycombe boss and the local area.

The Cold Blooded Hearts have their eyes set on Christmas Number 1

YouTube / Wycombe Wanderers
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The Cold Blooded Hearts have their eyes set on Christmas Number 1

We’ve got a rock and roll gaffer,” Couhig says, beaming. “Louisiana is a very musical place, so hooking up with Gareth was a no brainer.

We looked at a lot of different clubs but Wycombe had something special going on.

The difference between a really solid League One and League Two player and someone in the Championship or Premier League is really more opportunity than talent level.

When we look at other clubs that have done what they’ve done in similar circumstances, like Sheffield United, I really don’t believe there’s a cap on what we [Wycombe] can do.”

You will struggle to find a more iconic image in football

Action Images
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You will struggle to find a more iconic image in football

Wycombe now have owners, a manager and a bristling playing squad all firing on all cylinders.

Ainsworth was heavily linked with the recent Lincoln City vacancy and reportedly has several Championship suitors, but seems set on adding a fairytale finish to the project he has masterminded at Adams Park.

Including his three years as a player he has now completed a decade at Wycombe, developing from veteran winger into one of the most sought-after managers in England.

Jacobson speaking after his late winning goal against Donny

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Jacobson speaking after his late winning goal against Donny

To be top of the league going into the end of November is remarkable,” Phil Slatter, co-host of The Wanderer podcast, says. 

“There’s no way we could envisage being in the top six, let alone top of the table.

“A lot of it is down to Gareth Ainsworth, his mentality, his attitude, the players he’s brought in.

“He went through a very dark stage a few years ago when we were nearly relegated and learnt an awful lot from that experience.

He wants to manage in the Championship and be ambitious and his dream is to do that here.”

Ainsworth and Akinfenwa are part of the furniture at Wycombe

PA:Press Association
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Ainsworth and Akinfenwa are part of the furniture at Wycombe

Wycombe also boast the likes of Adebayo Akinfenwa, Joe Jacobson and captain Matt Bloomfield; a trio Phil Catchpole calls ‘the generals’.

Between them they boast over 800 league appearances in Wycombe blue and are still making telling contributions well into their mid-30s.

Jacobson, fresh after making his 500th appearance for the club last week, scored a nerveless late winner from the penalty spot on Saturday to clinch a narrow 1-0 victory over Doncaster.

Jacobson, who admits there was a ‘strange atmosphere’ in the summer prior to the takeover, says Ainsworth makes it impossible for the players not to feel motivated.

Jacobson has racked up 500 appearances for the club

PA:Empics Sport
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Jacobson has racked up 500 appearances for the club

He makes it so simple that you can’t help but run through a brick wall for him,” the Welshman tells us.

“Like I said we’ve got a lot of players here that all buy into what he wants to do and it’s working so far.”

There is now a tangible positivity from top to bottom, spearheaded by the insatiable Ainsworth.

The 46-year-old has combined inspirational man-management with a pragmatic financial approach when so many clubs around them are bending the rules.

An icon with lofty ambitions

Action Images - Reuters
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An icon with lofty ambitions

This club has been crying out for the Couhigs, and not just finance wise,” Ainsworth eulogises.

“There’s not going to be millions of pounds available, we’re not going to turn suddenly into the Sunderland’s or Portmouth’s of this world in this league, no chance. We’re going to do it right.

It’s not going to be overnight, it’s going to take some time. We’ve got a long term plan, we’re just probably going a little bit ahead of the curve at the moment on the pitch. I’m happy with that.”

With sustainability achieved and a core group all singing from the same hymn sheet, who knows what the future holds for these perennial overachievers?