In 1996 we returned to the Championship and left behind the small-time derby against Wycombe. It would be a brief restbite. Just over three years later, once again relegated and this time in terminal decline, we met again.
High Wycombe is topographically odd town. It sits deep in a valley; its growth came from chair makers who whittled the surrounding woodlands to make furniture. Now, people who live in High Wycombe live on slopes. Your neighbours house is often five feet higher or lower than yours. On either side of the valley are well to-do towns like Marlow, Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross and Henley. It leaves what a friend of mine describes as ‘Valley People’.
You can often find a town’s true character by watching its town centre during a week day. This is when the what might be described as ‘normal’ people are doing normal things, like working. What’s left are the people who make a particular town different. In Oxford, for example, the place is full of students and bohemia. Oxfordshire market towns are a sea of grey hair. In High Wycombe, there is a noticeable number of people with limps and pirated Formula 1 merchandise. These are Valley People. Initially they were physically stuck in the valley, as the rich escaped into the surrounding villages; now they’re economically stuck as the house prices prevent them from moving beyond the town’s boundaries. The character has changed in recent years because of the Eden shopping centre. This has drawn in Ugg Boot wearing privately-schooled girls and their skinny-jeans wearing boyfriends from the middle class surrounds, but they stay safely located in the shopping centre and rarely venture any further.
Generally speaking, Wycombe Wanderers are a friendly, well run club, whereas Oxford have been a basket case in recent years. When the teams met after a three year hiatus in 1999, we were in full free fall mode. Firoz Kassam was in charge and in what, again, was a microcosm of our wider situation, we played three times in 5 months, each time with a different manager. Oddly, however, we came out of those games unbeaten.
The first was under Malcolm Shotton, the dying days of what had promised to be a glorious return, a nondescript 0-0 draw at the Manor was significant only because it was our first point at home in the fixture. Under Mickey Lewis we won on penalties in the LDV Vans Trophy with the spot kick being scored by giant Swedish error-magnet; goalkeeper Pal ‘porn star’ Lundin. Lundin wrote himself into minor folklore by doing an aeroplane celebration around a sparsely populated stadium; it was like watching a vulcan bomber finding somewhere to land. With Denis Smith reinstalled we then went to Adams Park and snatched a 1-0 win with a Joey Beauchamp goal. It was as depressing as an away win could ever be. The goal aside the game was terrible; it was cold and grey and the three points were clearly a blip in what was otherwise a terminal and terrible decline.
The final capitulation happened the following year. It was the most terrible of seasons, and the only one in which Oxford, Swindon, Wycombe and Reading would be in the same division. In the six derbies that season we lost all of them. The first game against Wycombe was at Adams Park on a Friday night in September. To add to the indignity; the game was shown on Sky.
I was working in London and arrived late, the interminable walk more interminable than ever. We were already a goal down at that point. At half-time Richard Knight; the season’s player of the year despite conceding over 100 league goals, was replaced by Hubert Busby Jnr. The Canadian’s absurd name a sign of the the nonsense of the era. He didn’t have a proper ‘keeper’s shirt, but instead wore a training top. Busby’s momentary heroism was that he saved a penalty, which had to be retaken. He conceded the retake and we eventually lost meekly 3-1.
By the time we met at The Manor we were managed by David Kemp and had become so insular we were like a troubled teenager sitting in our bedroom listening to The Cure and contemplating suicide with a bottle of Tixylix, just to make a point. We lost 2-1, they celebrated, we didn’t care. Somehow for us, their happiness was just a shallow facade; they weren’t a real football club like us; one that was suffering. It was hideous.
At the end of that season we finally dropped into the bottom division, while Wycombe would continue to flirt with the division above. And we moved from The Manor and into our new dawn of glory at the Kassam. But that’s where we stuck, just waiting for something good to happen to us. Even if it was only that Wycombe might one day drop to a similar level.