There was an interview with Rob Couhig, the Wycombe Wanderers owner, on the Price of Football podcast over Christmas. He revealed that prior to taking a majority stake in the club he’d looked at investing in us. He’d been strongly advised against it by a friend due to the lease we have on the stadium. I can’t remember the exact words he used, but it was something like his friend said they’d never speak to him again if he bought the club.
So, instead, as an after-thought, he took over Wycombe and said he now has plans for them to have the most technologically advanced stadium in the world. Let’s say it again: in the world.
Now, this might sound like Lyle Lanley building the Springfield monorail, but Adams Park is certainly changing. It wasn’t long ago that the barrier between the away end and the pitch was a series of crash-mats that fans careened through the moment there was any excitement. Now they have those animated advertising boards and a massive video screen showing replays. The fan park outside works well with lots of space and choice.
Despite this, it’s always going to be an incongruously modern overlay on what is a stadium which is still, at its very heart, a lower-league, maybe even non-league, facility. Quite a way from being the most technologically advanced stadium in the world. I don’t begrudge them any of it, I’ve said before Adams Park reminds me of The Manor, and it’s rarely a bad day out visiting there.
That said, their success maybe starting to spoil the party; they seemed ill-equipped to deal with the pitch invader and the assault on Gavin Whyte in the second half by one of their fans went completely unpunished. I could also live without twenty minutes of 30-year-old heavy metal standards being pumped out prior to the game. I’ve searched for a metaphor to describe the feeling, and the best I can come up with is that it’s like playing Heavy Metal at a Wycombe Wanderers game.
Wycombe have long been styled around the Cuban heels and tight jeans of Gareth Ainsworth. The music seems to be a homage to him. Wycombe fans love him, the media certainly do; no Gareth Ainsworth interview is complete without another reminder that he plays in a rock band and unbuttons his shirt to his naval on warm days. I suppose it’s one definition of counter-culture, but he’s 48 and married with children, in the real world, a man’s devotion to an ancient aesthetic, dressed up as something young and fresh would be considered vain and weird. With what can only be described as aural-Ainsworth pumped through the speakers for half-an-hour before the game, we can only conclude that Wycombe has become a cult which has coalesced him.
While that feels very odd to anyone not seduced by its charms, it’s working. There are two ways to win games; you can pull the opposition apart like we do by moving the ball around at speed until someone loses their bearings. Or you can hold firm and bash them around until everyone falls over. Ainsworth’s approach is very much the latter.
Their second goal illustrated this perfectly; while in possession, Sam Long went down under a heavy challenge, we regained possession and continued to probe so the referee played the advantage. When they got a block in, the ball ricocheted into the space that Long – who was still down – would normally have occupied, giving them a gap and an opportunity to break away to score. It’s infuriatingly effective.
At the top of League 1 there are lots of teams who are impatient to go up; some, like Sunderland, can’t afford to stay down, others like Wigan and Rotherham are expectant. They all play a physical, high-pressure game and Wycombe are much the same. It’s not anti-football, it’s proven to be successful at this level time and again, so why wouldn’t you adopt it?
We simply don’t compete when facing these teams; compare our most physically intimidating player – Elliott Moore – with Ryan Tafazoli. Moore is taller, but Tafazoli still looks bigger. When we were able to play, it was forty yards from the goal, even if we did manage to find some space to bring the ball under control, we were still thirty yards out with the likes of Tafazoli still to beat. Mark Sykes and Matty Taylor spent 90 minutes bouncing off these players, each collision chipping another bit of energy away. In the end, we were left with half-chances.
We play great football and we win a lot of games, but when we come up against these physical teams – the ones who now occupy the top four places in the division – we’re muscled out of contention. That’s not a major issue across the whole season, this is a bad patch and I think we’ll get a second wind when we start playing teams who are less physical and easier to pick apart, but if we do get into the play-offs, the only teams we’ll face are those with physicality in their game – it’s done for us in our previous play-off campaigns.
Do we sacrifice speed and agility, for strength? Not wholesale, but we need the options. When James Henry and Gavin Whyte came on, our game plan started to work, but it was too late. If we’d had players who could challenge Tafazoli – who despite everything seemed vulnerable as he spent gaps in play having to stretch out his muscles – and his centre-back partner Anthony Stewart, then the likes of Henry and Whyte may have been able to affect the play further up the field. People talk about getting a striker in as a back-up to Matty Taylor, I would look for one as an alternative, a Plan B. We need someone who can bully defenders and hold the ball up, goals are a secondary issue because they’d give openings to others. It’s not how we play, but we’re losing points because we don’t have that option.
At the final whistle, there were fireworks and the PA boomed out Our House by Madness, apparently a reference to an Americanised idea of a stadium being a club’s home which they will protect to the death. The overall atmosphere throughout the game was great, but this was a bit strange, another part of the cult that’s building around the club. All this might feel a bit odd, but it’s the reality of what we’ve got to deal with, we probably need to wake up to the that idea.