Gareth Ainsworth believes in fairy tales. He reads them to his three children at bedtime. This was more Roy of the Rovers than Hans Christian Andersen, and the Wycombe manager wisely suspended disbelief until he turned towards the main stand at Plainmoor, and saw a forest of raised thumbs
We don’t give good news that often from the press box. Our signal, that Bristol Rovers had been beaten at home by Mansfield, and Wycombe had retained their place in the Football League, sent him and his players wonderfully, gloriously wild.
The final whistle blew immediately. Ainsworth sprinted on to the pitch, swung from the crossbar and flaunted a home-made banner which proclaimed “Believe.” All the worry drained away. The prospect of penury was ignored. They lived for the moment.
Even the Torquay supporters, whose team finished bottom of League Two after an abject performance which offered little hope of an immediate return from the Conference, stood in unison and applauded.
“Being a football manager does terrible things to your heart, but no one gets to feel how I feel right now,” Ainsworth said. “I envisaged this earlier in the week. I could see us celebrating, but I still spent more time in the last five minutes looking at you lot than looking at the game.
“This is incredible. It ranks as the best thing I have ever done. We’re a small club from Buckinghamshire. Everyone had written us off. Fairy tales like this do happen. I am going to stay as high as I can for as long as I can.”
It was no time to dwell on the realities of a traumatic season in which Wycombe were so desperate to secure a reliable cash flow they were reduced to ringing clubs on the final day of the January window in a bid to sell their best players.
Wolves waited until an hour before the deadline before buying their top prospect, defender Kortney Hause, for £175,000. He is worth at least double. Goalkeeper Matt Ingram will be snapped up this summer, as will midfielder Josh Scowen, who interests Blackpool.
Yet survival offers hope that a supporter-owned club of Wycombe’s stature can survive in a game which is becoming relentlessly elitist. They have a fighting chance of avoiding administration, that traditional friend of speculative saviours.
Wycombe have only five players under contract for next season. They have players on £100 a week; they sleep in a flat at the Adams Road ground to save money. Yet they possess the power of dreams.
The incestuous nature of lower division life has never been more perfectly expressed than on an afternoon when Northampton protected their status by beating Oxford United 3-1, and Rovers left the Football League after 94 years because of a defeat sealed by Colin Daniel’s first half goal.
Ainsworth still calls Oxford manager Gary Waddock, his mentor and predecessor, “Gaffer” by instinct and inclination. Torquay manager Chris Hargreaves had two interviews to succeed Aidy Boothroyd at North-ampton, whose assistant manager Alan Knill was in charge at Plainmoor for the first 25 games this season. Straws were grasped, and statistics recited as if they were scripture. One of the 992 travelling fans worked out that Rovers had not won on May 3 since 1930. By contrast Wycombe had won nine out of their last 11 matches on that date.
Torquay’s return to the Conference after five years emphasises the cycle of boom and bust. Hargreaves issued a rallying cry on the pitch before the game. “I cannot imagine being in this position,” he admitted. “I will fight with all my heart and desire to get back.”
He needs to find players with similar qualities. They were noticeable by their absence on an afternoon on which news travelled with the speed of light. Wycombe had the perfect start, the unmarked Sam Wood hooking the ball in at the far post in the sixth minute.
Within seconds, 213 miles away at Northampton, Ryan Williams gave Oxford the lead from a corner. The symmetry of the moment was not lost on Ainsworth, who leaped around the perimeter of the pitch with both fists clenched.
“There’s only one Gary Waddock,” chanted the travelling fans. Williams complicated the script by being sent off, and a sudden silence signalled the arrival a John Marquis equaliser for Northampton, who quickly built an unassailable lead.
“You’re going down with the Torquay,” sang the home fans with bewildering gusto. When Daniel put Mansfield ahead, the visitors had the ideal riposte: “You’re going down with the Rovers.”
Further goals by Steven Craig and Matt McClure ensured Wycombe finished with a superior goal difference of three over Rovers, and the choice of song on the public address system, was perfect. It was “Alive and Kicking” by Simple Minds.
Torquay (4-4-2): Rice; Tonge, Pearce, O’Connor, Cargill; Cameron, Lathrope, Mansell, Chappell (Stockley 46); Benyon (Craig 46) Yeoman.
Wycombe (4-4-2): Ingram; Rowe, Stewart, Johnson, Pierre; Bloomfield, Scowen, Lewis, Wood; McClure, Craig (Morais 84).
Referee: Craig Pawson