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On the morning of the 2020 League One play-off final, Wycombe manager Gareth Ainsworth delivered an emotional address to his team at the Hilton Hotel near Wembley. It included video messages from the players’ friends and family, as well as fans who had lost loved ones during the season, and it moved some in the room to tears.
As then-captain Matt Bloomfield told The Independent: “At the end he told us to picture me, ‘Mr Wycombe’ who’s been at the club for 16 and a half years, at Wembley lifting the trophy and to picture how much that would mean to me. I had hairs stand up on the back of my neck, I was emotional, I had to get out of the room. We were ready to go out and play the game right there and then.”
Wycombe beat Oxford United that day to reach English football’s second tier for the first time in the club’s history. Their stay in the Championship lasted only one season, but on Saturday they return to Wembley to take on Sunderland and try to repeat the trick.
Ainsworth pens a speech before every big game and this Saturday will be no different. He has looked to take the pressure off his players this week and his team talk may well stress Wycombe’s underdog tag, a narrative he has used to great effect since he took charge 10 years ago with the club then at the foot of League Two.
“At times in the past maybe I’ve overplayed it against teams of a similar size,” he admits, “but this is just David and Goliath without a shadow of a doubt. I think the Sunderland fans are going to be two or three times as many as Wycombe … Sunderland are probably the biggest club outside of the Premier League and for us to be playing that team is just phenomenal.”
What is intriguing this time around is that, while trying to paint his side as plucky underdogs, Ainsworth is also motivated by a desire to earn his club some respect. For so long the name Wycombe Wanderers has been accompanied by a caveat, in much the same way Iceland’s footballing achievements are put in the context of a country with more volcanoes than professional players (”did you know most of the population of High Wycombe could fit inside Wembley?”). Ainsworth may indulge the “Little Wycombe” moniker at times, but he is determined to shed this long-held image of being on some magical journey and instead be taken seriously as a club worthy of rubbing shoulders with the Football League’s heavyweights.
“We’re averaging more fans than for such a long time, we’re taking 25,000 hopefully to Wembley, so I think calling us ‘Little Wycombe’ now would be wrong. I think ‘Growing Wycombe’ would be better because we’re definitely building something. There’s more kits in the town centre, more press activity, and I think we’ve got to start shaking that ‘little’ tag off.”
The lack of expectation around Wycombe appears to have irked Ainsworth at times this season, and it fuels his team. “We weren’t fancied for the play-offs, pundits were saying the play-off final would be Sunderland vs Sheffield Wednesday – it’s almost like we’re there but people don’t want to recognise we’re there. We love that tag of ‘how are they still knocking around?’.”
Sunderland are certainly the slight favourites on Saturday, as a sleeping giant of English football aiming to end their unprecedented four-year spell in the third tier. But the disparity off the pitch is not matched on it, where both sides have gone unbeaten since the start of March. Alex Neil’s Sunderland finished the league campaign only one point above Wycombe, and both teams may have their most recent encounter at the back of their minds: it was a 3-3 draw in January, but the manner of Wycombe’s last-gasp equaliser, after Sunderland had scored what they thought was a winner moments before, made it feel like a victory. That never-die spirit has been an ever-present trait in their season and could be needed one last time in the play-off final.
It is unfortunate that the only season of Wycombe Wanderers’ 135-year history spent in English football’s second tier coincided with a global pandemic and the outlawing of going to watch football. Bar a couple of limited-attendance games, Wycombe’s sole Championship campaign played out in an empty Adams Park, and the chance to try again in front of 9,000 delirious supporters is another major motivation to return.
In contrast to that silent Championship campaign, this final will play out in raucous noise. Wycombe’s 25,000 allocation is likely to be the most fans watching their team at any point this century. Sunderland will bring many more, and the entire attendance is expected to break the record for a League One play-off final.
Ainsworth has proved a master at inspiring his players for such occasions, and he plans to make another special memory at Wembley. His speech will not be the only surprise up his sleeve: two years ago he attracted plenty of attention on the touchline for wearing a leather jacket and red snakeskin boots, and Wycombe’s showman manager will have something new for Sunderland.
“The leather jacket’s a definite no-no, I’d be stupid trying to look like “The Fonz” while melting in 30 degrees at Wembley, but they’ll definitely be something. The red boots were retired but there might be a surprise with another pair coming out. The more they focus on me and what I’m wearing to take the pressure off the boys, the better.”