“We’ve sold out our allocation” said a Wycombe supporting work colleague last week. Beyond work stuff, Oxford and Wycombe is the only axis on which we talk. I asked what the secret was of their success this season – he said, quite frankly, he had no idea.
I was none the wiser after our win on Saturday. Among the favourites to go down, they’re still seven points clear at the top. But, they haven’t unearthed some Premier League loanee who is banging in the goals, and it’s not like they’ve had a big cash injection.
Certainly their defence has been key – the best in the division, while upfront they’re only the joint seventh top scorers; equal with Accrington in 17th. Their long-ball, anti-football reputation is slightly unfair but they reminded me of Ian Atkins’ time at Oxford. Atkins was also capable of taking teams on long unbeaten runs, but he was always found out eventually.
So, what we were up against was a rigid unit. It reminded me of the FA Cup tie against Walsall; from a pure football perspective, it was obvious who was better. The question was whether we could find an angle they hadn’t covered to make the breakthrough.
The key to the goal, and therefore the game, was Shandon Baptiste’s spectacular cross field pass to Tariqe Fosu. There was still much to do before James Henry forced it home, but Baptiste found the magic angle that changed the dynamic and unpicked the lock.
Through the crowd’s roar, you could hear Wycombe’s fans singing about being top of the league, as they did throughout; it’s almost as if they’ve got to convince themselves of the fact. Amidst all the noise, there’s an insecurity, imposter syndrome, if you like.
Ade Akinfenwa’s sending off three minutes later was critical; he’s as big a curiosity as his team. It’s not just his self-styled strongest player in the world, he’s thirty-seven and in previous seasons only really seen coming off the bench. Now he’s starting regularly.
Rob Dickie had him under control before the incident, which may have been why he was chuntering in that, ‘pity the fool’ Mr T way he does, immediately after Gorrin’s tackle which caused the fuss. John Mousinho arrived as peacemaker, though I’m against the daft rules about what constitutes violent conduct nowadays, as soon as he raised his hands, there was only one outcome. It’s not exactly playing nice, but it was another new angle that undid them – the dark arts is in our vocabulary this year.
There were moments during the rest of the game which reminded me of Manchester City when they played us last year. We dominated possession edging forward with each pass, backing Wycombe into their box. It was never a foregone conclusion, but when you consider the characteristics of the teams that have got promoted in previous years; we looked more closely matched to those teams than the league leaders.
The mystery of Wycombe’s success seems to be their dedication to a disciplined, rigid system. As their fans sing, they’re top of the league and they might be able to keep it up. But, take Akinfenwa out of the equation, and their striker looked lost. If you neutralise that threat, they look impotent – set up more to avoid relegation than to get promoted.
With Ipswich running out of steam like Sunderland did last year, it looks to me that as we reach the mid-point of the season, there are two teams with the full tool kit to get promoted this season; one is Peterborough, the other is us.