Charley Harper’s influence on the club continued in the summer of 1896 as they learnt that their application to join the Southern League Division Two had been accepted.
It was a big gamble entering the then 13-team league, made up of professional clubs and away trips as far as Southampton (Freemantle FC) and Bristol (Warmley FC).
That summer saw rumours spread that the club was to turn professional themselves but it wasn’t considered necessary and 26 players were registered on amateur terms. The opening league game saw the Blues return to West Herts, where they were a little unlucky to lose 5-0.
The following weekend saw the Wanderers beaten 2-1 by Uxbridge at Loakes Park. The game marked the first occasion that a programme was issued, available on a Saturday morning for free. The club were reported to the FA by the referee for the crowd behaviour towards him but they were left off with a caution. A week later the side lost 9-0 at Dartford but soon found their feet and eventually finished in a creditable fifth place.
The rivalry with Marlow really took off this season with the Chairboys handing out their first defeat of the season with a 1-0 friendly win at the Crown Ground in November. Another feisty encounter was sealed when winger Fred Abbott snatched the winner with just two minutes remaining. The two sides met again in the Berks and Bucks Senior Cup final at Maidenhead in March 1897.
Tragedy struck Marlow left-back Morton who broke two bones in his leg but they scored twice just before half-time to take a two-goal lead into the break. Frank Jennings halved the deficit early in the second half and there was controversy when Marlow goalkeeper White appeared to have pushed the ball back out after it had already crossed the line. The referee awarded a corner and Marlow held on to take the cup. Reports after the game that there were appeals for goal-line technology to be introduced are unconfirmed!
The club were enjoying life in their new home and a new 14-year lease on Loakes Park was agreed with an annual rent of £30. Lily’s Walk was widened and turnstiles were added. Harper might be seen as visionary now but he only just survived a leadership contest against F. Owen at the start of the 1897/98 season. The club switched their headquarters to the Swan Hotel on Paul’s Row which included dressing room facilities.
Wycombe Phoenix FC merged with Wycombe Wanderers and provided most of the reserve players. The side finished in 10th in a 12-team Southern League Division Two but again it was the cup competitions which provided all the excitement. The Blues created a sensation by knocking out FA Amateur Cup favourites Old Westminsters 5-0 on their own patch and made it through to the third round, only to be knocked out by Uxbridge, losing 4-2 in a replay at Loakes Park.
The season ended with Jim Ball retiring from football, having been with the club since the start in 1887. There was another blow with Fred Abbott leaving to join the Metropolitan Police. Half-back Fred Keen was elected captain for the 1898/99 season and the club matched their fifth-place finish in the Southern League Division Two. There was again a debate about turning professional during the season but financial concerns ensured the club remained amateur.
The cups again paired the Chairboys with Marlow, with the first meeting coming in an FA Cup preliminary round tie at Loakes Park in September and the visitors progressed with a 1-0 victory. Both sides again made it through to the Berks and Bucks Senior Cup final with an incredible 7,752 spectators travelling to Maidenhead, 4,000 of who made the journey from the Chair Metropolis.
After a goalless first half, Marlow scored twice in eight minutes before Charlie Buchanan, having rejected pro terms to join Reading earlier in the season, pulled a goal back with a spectacular overhead kick. Sadly the Wanderers searched in vain for an equaliser and the cup slipped through their fingers once again.
There was another eventful summer in 1899 with the club committing £225 to level Loakes Park and a shilling ground fund was established. The club rejected the terms to use the Cricket Ground and were offered use of Barrack Meadow instead. Just three games were played there, however, as it was against military rules to charge admission to the ground.
The club were fortunate to be offered use of Daws Hill Park, rent free by Earl Carrington, although they had to build a bridge for spectators to cross the Dyke from the Rye which cost £37. Only one FA Cup tie was ever played there and the professionals of Reading thrashed the Blues 8-0! The side finished the Southern League Division Two season in seventh place.
Yet again the final of the Berks and Bucks Senior Cup saw the club face their nemesis in Marlow. A crowd of 5,363 saw the two sides play out a sporting 1-1 draw. It proved, however, to be the calm before the storm as the replay at Maidenhead saw the Chairboys take an early lead through Tom Barlow. Marlow had a goal ruled-out before half-time and then again early in the second half. It was too much for the Marlow captain who walked off the pitch in disgust and his goalkeeper soon followed him.
The game continued and the players were eventually persuaded to re-join the action. Within minutes Marlow equalised. With just 10 minutes remaining Wycombe were awarded a penalty despite Marlow’s appeals for offside. Bill Buchanan scored from the spot, only for Wanderers goalkeeper Ernie Wheeler to be bundled into the net after holding on to the ball for too long and a goal was given.
This time it was the Wycombe players who refused to play. Eventually extra-time was started and Marlow took the lead. The Wanderers started the second period of extra-time with just 10 men due to an injury and Marlow scored a fourth goal. Bob White pulled a goal back for the Blues but hardly anyone saw it in the gloom of the evening.
With six minutes remaining the ball was booted into the crowd on the railway embankment and the fans refused to return it. A pitch invasion then followed and the referee abandoned the match. A special meeting of the Berks and Bucks FA ruled that the remaining six minutes should be played but Wycombe Wanderers refused to play them and the cup was awarded to Marlow. It would prove to be a real watershed for football in Buckinghamshire.