As I keep getting to more and more English soccer clubs — I’ve currently been to more than 60 — I will introduce you to them. This week, we say hello to the newest club in the Championship, Wycombe Wanderers, winners of the 2020 League One Playoffs.
While the media is focused on who will make the coveted European places, who will stay in the Premier League, and every single thing Manchester United does, you have probably missed the extraordinary story of this little club making the second tier. As much a great story, and an easy and fun day out from London, Wycombe Wanderers really are a club you should check out – especially in the coming season.
There’s an American connection, as well: the club chairman is from New Orleans. More on him in a bit. And there’s another connection many Americans will recognize: they have Adebayo Akinfenwa, the 38-year-old forward who stands 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds and goes by the nickname “Beast Mode.” More on him in a bit, as well.
In High Wycombe, about 35 minutes west of London’s Marylebone Station. I’m not aware of a Low Wycombe or any other Wycombe, other than a West Wycombe. But in England “High” often doesn’t mean “higher elevation” like in the States. For example, a High Street is what we would call a Main Street. But I digress. High Wycombe is in the Chiltern Hills area, which is quite nice.
Phone: (+44) 01494 441118
The Blues or the Chairboys, because High Wycombe was known from the 16th century as a center for furniture, especially chair, manufacturing. Their particular claim to fame was the Windsor chair. There’s a Chair Making Museum in town, if you’re interested.
Wycombe Wanderers Ladies (aka the Chairgirls) compete in the Southern Region Women’s Football League Premier Division, tier 5 of the pyramid. Home games are in the Flackwell Heath area of town; see the club website for more information.
This is where Wanderers become such a cool story. Their founding was like virtually everyone else’s: as an amateur club in 1880s. In their case, it was furniture workers getting together for games. But here’s the thing: as the wave of professionalism swept over the country soon after (the Netflix series The English Game covers a bit of this), Wanderers stayed amateur. Until 1974!
They spent much of the 20th century in the Isthmian League, a regional outfit at tiers 7 and 8 of the pyramid. Their biggest accomplishment was winning the FA Amateur Cup in 1931; they also won the League five times, and in 1974 made the FA Cup Third Round — as an amateur team! — where they held First Division Middlesbrough at home before losing the away replay 1-0.
So, to that point, they were a very successful amateur team. They went pro in the 70s, won the Isthmian League a few more times, but kept turning down promotion to higher leagues; they simply couldn’t afford the travel.
Then, in 1990, it all changed when they moved to their current home, Adams Park, and hired Martin O’Neill as manager. In 1991 they won the FA Trophy, and in 1993 they did the double of Conference (now National League) champs and FA Trophy again. O’Neill turned down Nottingham Forest to stay another year and, in 1994, led Wanderers to the Football League for the first time in their 100-plus-year history.
O’Neill got them promoted again the next year, to what is now called League One, before leaving for Norwich, then managed many other top clubs as well as the Irish National Team. But Wanderers stayed in the Football League, bouncing around between League One and League Two.
This will be a chapter in the 2020-21 Edition of my book,
The Groundhopper Guide to Soccer in England.
At the start of the 2019-20 season, things were dire: they had only nine players under contract in the summer of 2019, but that’s when a New Orleans attorney named Rob Couhig, who had previously owned a minor league baseball team, was looking to get into English soccer and found Wanderers.
I don’t mean to paint him as the savior, but isn’t this what you want from an owner? It comes from a story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Couhig made his pitch. He’d open his checkbook to acquire competitive players. He’d improve the food, beverages, and live entertainment at the stadium.
He’d make it easier for people to buy tickets and find parking.
Leave it to a guy from New Orleans to understand what the people want. And it worked: when the season was called for the pandemic, the league adjusted the table to a point-per-game basis, which got Wanderers to third place and the playoffs. They rolled Fleetwood Town 6-3 in the semifinals and beat Oxford United, 2-1, in the final at Wembley.
Here are the highlights from that one.
After the game, Akinfenwa — a legendary character on and off the pitch — gave a remarkable interview. Four years before he had helped Wimbledon get promoted in his last game for them — meaning he was out of a job for that interview, in which he asked clubs to look into him. This time, he invited (successfully, it turns out) Jugen Klopp of Liverpool to hit him up on WhatsApp!
And by the way — don’t you love those shirts??
Apparently there is some heat with local teams Oxford, Reading and Luton Town. Wanderers are now in the same league as Reading, so that might be a fun one to look for on the fixtures list.
Nothing special I noticed.
3rd in League One (promoted via playoffs), First Round FA Cup; First Round League Cup.
Championship (promoted in 2020)
I could show you pictures of Adams Park (capacity 9,448) that make it look as if it’s surrounded by trees and field. And it is — on three sides. On the other side is the industrial estate you’ll probably spend 15 minutes walking through to get there. Bit of an odd place in that regard, but a nice one.
Just over half the seats are in the main Frank Adams Stand on the south side. Adams was a former player who actually purchased their previous home, Loakes Park (1895 to 1990), and then gave it to the club. Owning your stadium helps these small clubs immensely! The Adams Stand is two tiers, so if you want a high view of the action (and trees), sit in the upper Adams like I did (see view to the right).
The other three sides are more like a lower-league place, with single tiers of about 1,200 seats in each. The home rowdies will be in the west (BMI Healthcare) stand, which is also the only one with terracing. So if standing with the lads is your aim, go west!
Away fans will be behind the other goal in the east (Lords Builders Merchants) stand.
The old gates from their Loakes Park are just outside.
Last year in League One, they never sold out, and adult tickets were £16-22. Look for all that to change a little this season.
If you’re walking from High Wycombe Station, plan for an hour. You can knock about 30 minutes off that by taking the #32 bus from Stop S just outside the station. This gets you to the industrial estate, at which point everyone will get off the bus and start walking. Follow the colors! I paid £8 for a taxi to the same spot. There are also “football special” buses from the station; ask there for details.
There are three at the ground, which is nice because there’s nothing else within that 15-minute walk. Right at the base of the hill is the Hour Glass, which has a big space out back. All these let in away fans last season.
Down in town, there’s a Wetherspoon called The Falcon, an O’Neills, and a cool traditional pub called The Antelope, among others.
They have a proper little barbecue, Chairboys Village, right at the ground, so if the weather’s nice that’s an option. There is also food in the stadium clubs, but nothing special. You’ll find all the usual chains down by the station and on High Street.
Even longtime supporters told me there’s little to do around town for a tourist. There is the aforementioned chair museum, on the very slim chance that appeals to you. The main attraction in town is the Hellfire Caves. Apparently, in the 18th century, some old chalk mines were dug out further and became the meeting place of some kind of high-society men’s club for who knows what kind of debauchery. They claim Benjamin Franklin once visited, as well. I didn’t make it there, but it looks a little freaky, with statues here and there and a voice narrating through speakers. Check it out at hellfirecaves.co.uk.
Hughenden Manor, on the north side of town, is a National Trust Victorian-era home with a café and 1,500 acres of walkable scenery; get there via the #300 bus from Oxford Street in town. West Wycombe Park and Estate is a similar place on the west side of town; take bus #40 from the High Wycombe Bus Station for about 30 minutes to the Swan Inn Pub.
The Game I Saw
I was there on what seemed an ordinary February Saturday, when they were playing Rochdale. But it turns out it was “Anything But Blue Day,” an effort to highlight and support mental health efforts. So instead of their traditional blue, the Chairboys were sporting their yellow away kits. Rochdale pitched in with pink kits, making it a pretty colorful experience. It was 1-1 in the final minutes when Wanderers got a penalty in front of their home terrace to win it:
I walked back to the station in 45 minutes, hopped a train to London, and met a friend for dinner in SoHo. And that’s what I call a proper football day!
I think you’ll find the same at Wycombe Wanderers, especially in what should be a historic and thrilling 2020-21 season — you know, assuming people get to go to the games.