It is perhaps a little difficult to get our heads around things that happened so long ago. High Wycombe in 1888 was a very different town to what it is today. It was considerably smaller and everyone walked to their destination. The Rye was a focal point of the town and was used by a dozen or so junior sides who wanted to play the still embryonic game of football.
It was of course the year that the Football League was established. The game was still evolving and the penalty area didn’t consist of two rectangles shapes but semi-circular instead. There were no goal nets and penalty kicks had yet to be introduced.
The 1888/89 season was the club’s second and it saw a change in headquarters from the Steam Engine pub to the Masons Arms in Saffron Platt. Friendlies were again played and one of the differences in those days was the use of two ’umpires’, one supplied by each side. This of course led to a number of disputes and on Christmas Day 1889 the game ended with the Wycombe Marsh side walking off the pitch with a quarter of an hour remaining following a disagreement over an offside goal. There are no reports that they took their ball home with them!
The following season saw the club move headquarters again to the Nags Head (the existence of which is now under threat – 123 years later!) with the advantage of its proximity to the Rye. Landlord Bill Pearce’s support played a crucial role in the club’s early days as they found their feet. The 1889/90 season was memorable for a couple of reasons. There was a feisty local derby of sorts against High Wycombe FC, still considered the senior team of the town, just before Christmas and on a bog of a pitch on the Rye the Wanderers were beaten 3-0 by their overly-physical rivals.
One of the interesting aspects of those early days is the unusual names of some of the sides the club faced. That season the award has to go to a team called ‘Stokenchurch Reindeer’, who Wanderers did the double over. You’d like to think the local newspaper headline following the 4-0 home win was something along the lines of ‘Wanderers Blitzed ‘Em’.
It was, however, a season to remember because the club won its first ever silverware. The High Wycombe Challenge Cup was highly coveted and the club committee secretly decided to enter two teams into the competition. The reserves would compete under the name ‘Wycombe Wanderers’ and the first team adopted the name ‘Wild West FC’.
High Wycombe FC thrashed the reserves 6-1 in one semi-final and a considerable crowd of around 500 watched Wild West beat Mr Birch’s Factory 3-0 in the other semi-final. It was reported, however, that many of the crowd appeared to have been disappointed that it had been such a pleasant game and that there had been so little “rough play”.
The final took place at Wrights’ Meadow in Wycombe Marsh, with Wild West coming from behind to draw 1-1. The replay a week later also ended 1-1 after Wild West took the lead with just five minutes remaining, only for High Wycombe to race straight up the other end and equalise.
The second replay was played on the following Saturday and Jim Ray put Wild West ahead in the 15th minute after being set-up by captain Datchet Webb. Edward Crook added a second following a goalmouth scramble just before half-time and they held on after the break to claim the glory.
Webb said afterwards that “they were all glad to have won for the Wanderers, despite the name employed”. The celebrations started in the Red Lion, where everyone took a drink from the cup itself. The players then travelled back to the Nags Head, where they were met by an enthusiastic crowd of supporters. As Webb placed the cup on the shelf, an onlooker said the scene “baffled description”.
The victory was a watershed for the club as it established them as the dominate force in the town. They tried unsuccessfully to have the name ‘Wycombe Wanderers’ inscribed on the cup instead of ‘Wild West FC’ and the subterfuge caused plenty of ill-feeling - there was even concern that it could cause the club to fold. Over the next few years it would only be referred to as “those dark days”.