Wycombe's new crusade: Come on you Chairboys

Carling Cup semi-finals: Beeks the beak has a taste of the big time again as Chelsea enter alien territory
Click to follow
The Independent Football

With their quartered shirts of light and dark blue, a neat little ground in a suburban cul-de-sac, and even the alliterative name, there is something of the good old-fashioned amateurs about Wycombe Wanderers. Should they not still be turning out in one of those competitions with a name like the Isthmian or Athenian League and taking on the northern giants of Bishop Auckland and Crook Town in the Amateur Cup?

Times change, football moves on. This Wednesday, it is Wycombe against Chelsea in the semi-finals of the Carling Cup, an assignment once as unthinkable as confronting Liverpool at the same stage of the FA Cup. They did that too, of course, six years ago, succumbing at Villa Park only after Gérard Houllier had summoned Steven Gerrard and Emile Heskey from the substitutes' bench with 70 minutes played and the game still goalless.

Lawrie Sanchez was the manager at that time, having famously been sent from the touchline in the previous round at Leicester before Roy Essandoh had his 15 minutes of fame by scoring the winning goal. Before that it was Martin O'Neill occupying the manager's office, and subsequently John Gregory, Tony Adams, John Gorman and now Paul Lambert have sat there with varying success, all having been appointed by the long-serving local businessman and justice of the peace Ivor Beeks.

In 20 years on the board, the last 18 of them as chairman, Beeks has overseen the transformation of the club. In 1986 they were, indeed, in the Isthmian League, taking on Dulwich Hamlet and Walthamstow Avenue on a muddy Loakes Park pitch with an 11-foot slope. But the recent history of the Chairboys (often assumed to be a misprint for Choirboys, but deriving from the club's formation by a group of furniture workers) stemmed from O'Neill's appointment in February 1990 and the move out of town to Adams Park a few months later.

O'Neill had been passed over for the job two years earlier, when Beeks says: "He had a terrific background, playing for Northern Ireland and Nottingham Forest and some outstanding managers, but we were looking for someone a little more experienced." Two years on, O'Neill did not know there was a vacancy and would have missed out again had Kenny Swain not turned the job down to stay with Crewe. But the Wycombe director and tele-vision commentator Alan Parry put his name forward after a chance meeting at a match.

"The second time round it was the right thing to do, as history proved," said Beeks. "Martin was a very interesting character - 'lively' would be a good word - and we had some wonderful times. You can understand why he's gone on to manage at the highest level, and I'm absolutely amazed he didn't get made manager of England." In five years under O'Neill, Wycombe won the FA Trophy twice, reached the Football League and secured an immediate promotion, then finished sixth in what is now League One.

For subsequent appointments, Beeks followed the dictum: "If you've played for the best, under the best and with the best, some of that rubs off," which was instrumental in the appointment of Sanchez and, to a greater extent, Adams. "Tony had got the pedigree, played under some great managers and was extremely keen to manage us. He'd turned down Reading two weeks previously. But there's a huge difference between the Second Division and the Premiership, and perhaps training Second Division players was something he couldn't quite cope with."

Lambert came in as a former Celtic player recommended by O'Neill, "head and shoulders above the other people we inter-viewed", and after a deserved victory at Charlton in the previous round has the club in their second major semi-final in six seasons. "I think you'd have to search hard to find a club at our level doing that," says Beeks.

The money from two televised games with Chelsea and a record attendance on Wednesday will be more than welcome to a club living on loan notes from directors, though Beeks believes the Football League are moving in the right direction with measures like salary-capping at 60 per cent of income, and that even agents are becoming more realistic. Fin-ances have also improved since London Wasps moved in to share Adams Park five years ago.

"Who wouldn't want Premiership rugby in the area?" Beeks asks (though some Wycombe supporters did not). "It's good for the town, good for the club and you have between 6,000 and 10,000 spectators every other week using the stadium, which we weren't getting before. We used to open our doors only about 25 times a year. The only worry was the pitch, but we put in a partly synthetic pitch, with undersoil heating, which has been a revelation."

No excuse for Jose there, then, as the nation takes up an unfamiliar refrain: "Come on you Chairboys".