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Chairboys flirt with the Football League

27 April 2013

The joy of returning to the GM Vauxhall Conference was brought to an abrupt halt following the shock departure of manager Alan Gane at the beginning of August 1987.

He had fallen out with chairman Brian Lee over proposed signings and the wage budget, and coupled with a change in his work commitments, he handed in his resignation.

It created a huge level of uncertainty and accusations of a lack of ambition from the board. John Reardon took caretaker charge for the opening-day clash with Stafford Rangers, but they romped to a 4-0 victory at Loakes Park. Former player Peter Suddaby, now a local teacher, was appointed as Gane’s permanent successor in time for the next game away at Maidstone United.

Playmaker Noel Ashford won the decisive penalty in a 1-0 win and then played a pivotal role in a 2-0 victory at Kidderminster Harriers the following weekend. Despite still having a year left on his contract, and having been offered an improved three-year deal, his future had been subject of much speculation and supporters’ worst fears were confirmed on the August Bank Holiday Monday when his £17,000 transfer to Barnet was announced.

The autumn and winter would prove to be a miserable time for all Chairboys. The first ever visit to local rivals Aylesbury United’s new Buckingham Road ground ended in an embarrassing 2-0 defeat as the Ducks scored two late goals to win an FA Cup first-qualifying-round tie and worse was to follow three days later when Ashford returned with Barnet and they dished out a footballing lesson in a 7-0 drubbing, with Nicky Evans scoring four times for the Bees at Loakes Park.

Suddaby looked to strengthen the squad with the signing of winger Graham Westley for £7,500 from Barnet, but the side went on to lose seven league games on the bounce in October and November. Striker Mark Boyland was signed for £10,000 from Cheltenham Town before defender Graham Bressington was sold to Lincoln City for the same figure.

Westley scored the winner as relegation rivals Dagenham were beaten 2-1 at Loakes Park, but four weeks later Cheltenham Town knocked the Blues out of the FA Trophy with a 3-2 win at Loakes Park. A 5-1 home defeat to Maidstone United on 2ndJanuary was the final straw as supporters made their feelings known and Suddaby handed in his resignation at the request of the board.

There was a shortlist of two to succeed Suddaby, Jim Kelman and a gentleman by the name of Martin O’Neill. Lee had long since believed Kelman to be a future Wanderers manager and the directors voted 5-2 in favour of appointing him. His first game in charge was a morale-boosting 5-3 win over Cheltenham Town at Loakes Park and performances and results continued to improve.

Mark West scored a vital winner in a 1-0 win away at relegation rivals Wealdstone, with goalkeeper John Granville and defender Matt Crossley both making their full debuts. Boyland became the first Wanderers player to notch a hat-trick as Macclesfield Town were thumped 5-0 in another fine display at Loakes Park. The team finally secured safety following a 1-0 home win over Altrincham at the end of April.

The side finished in 18thplace in the table, nine points clear of the drop-zone with the average attendance increasing to 1,461. In March 1988 there was good news off the pitch as the club won its appeal to build a new ground in Sands. Full consent was received in September 1988 and that saw Ivor Beeks replace Lee as chairman, so the latter could oversee the construction of Adams Park as development director.

Kelman became manager on a full-time basis and soon strengthened the squad with some shrewd signings. A 1-1 draw at Yeovil Town on the opening day of the season saw debuts for defenders Andy Robinson and Steve Abbley, and a winger by the name of Dave Carroll, signed for £6,000 from Ruislip Manor. Midfielder Martin Blackler arrived shortly afterwards before defender Andy Kerr was signed for a bargain £3,000 from Telford United to replace the injured Crossley.

There would be a considerable silver lining following a 3-2 home defeat to Barnet in September. Defender Glyn Creaser had been sent off for the Bees after throwing an elbow at Mark West, yet four days later he was wearing the light blue shirt! Barnet chairman Stan Flashman had told manager Barry Fry to get rid of Creaser and Kelman gratefully snapped him up for £15,000, having had his eye on him for some time!

American striker John Kerr was signed in early October and the team would embark on a nine-match unbeaten run before losing at Kidderminster Harriers in mid-November. There was disappointment in the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup as the Kettering Town-jinx struck once again with a 2-1 win at Loakes Park. Revenge for last season’s FA Cup exit was gained over Aylesbury United with a 2-0 victory at Buckingham Road on Boxing Day and the double was quickly secured in the return fixture on New Year’s Day.

The side was now challenging for the GM Vauxhall Conference title and excitement in the town was bubbling. Title-rivals Kidderminster Harriers arrived at Loakes Park in mid-February and a huge crowd of 4,239 saw Andy Kerr’s second-half strike seal a 1-0 victory. The roar which greeted the goal could be heard throughout the Chair Metropolis.

Glory was being hunted on two fronts with the team reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy. Northern Premier Division side Hyde United stood in their way and they had a secret weapon, a notorious plastic pitch at their Ewen Fields ground. Over 1,000 Chairboys travelled to Manchester but could only watch on in horror as the hosts scored an early goal and held on to win 1-0, with Kevin Durham missing a great chance to equalise in the last minute. 

Kelman tried to boost morale with the record signing of Nicky Evans from Barnet. The fee of £32,000 stunned Wanderers fans and he notched a brace on his debut in a 2-1 home win over Boston United. The possibility of promotion to the Football League brought some problems, with Loakes Park not up to scratch and Adams Park not due to be completed for another season.

Kelman wanted to strengthen his team further in a bid to push for the title, but Beeks was concerned with the finances and the relationship between the pair began to deteriorate. A season-best crowd of 4,890 saw the Blues tussle with promotion rivals Kettering Town at Loakes Park in early April, but the jinx struck yet again as a deflected effort earned the Poppies a decisive 1-0 victory.

A week later a 2-1 home win over Altrincham was rendered irrelevant due to events in Sheffield as 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives at Hillsborough. It brought perspective and the season ended with a best-ever finish of fourth in the GM Vauxhall Conference. Average attendances had climbed to 2,248 and in April 1989 work began on the construction of Adams Park.

The 1989/90 season would prove to an emotional one as the club said farewell to Loakes Park, its cherished home for 95 years. Kelman continued to make astute signings with the captures of midfielder Simon Stapleton and winger Steve Guppy, whilst fans’ favourite Keith Barrett left to join Redbridge Forest. The side failed to win any of the opening five games, scoring just once and the team’s form would prove to be frustratingly inconsistent.

One of the many reasons was the loss of Evans, who managed to play just a dozen games due to a persistent knee problem, although he still scored six goals in that time! There was a high point in September when the team fought back from three goals down to draw 3-3 at home to Kidderminster Harriers, with John Kerr equalising with an iconic last-minute diving header!

Gary Lester deserved a better send-off with his last appearance coming in a 4-1 defeat at Stafford Rangers in an FA Cup fourth-qualifying-round tie in October 1989. An ignominious 3-1 defeat to the Metropolitan Police in an FA Trophy first-round tie at Loakes Park in January 1990 proved to be Kelman’s last game in charge. Contrary to popular opinion, his reasons for resigning were not to do with that particular result, but due to the breakdown of his relationship with Beeks.

Former Wanderer Kenny Swain, a coach at Crewe Alexandra, rejected the offer to take over as Blues boss in January, after accepting promotion to assistant manager with the Railwaymen. It would prove to be fateful as O’Neill would hear of the vacancy in a chance meeting with Wycombe director Alan Parry and he took charge on a part-time basis on Wednesday 7thFebruary 1990.

His first game as boss ended in a 1-1 draw at Merthyr Tydfil, but he made very few changes as he recognised that Kelman had left him with the basis of a very strong squad. The side lost just four of its last 17 league games to finish in 10thplace in the table. Silverware was lifted in April 1990 as O’Neill won his first trophy. Striker Martin Lambert’s extra-time winner sealed a 2-1 victory over local rivals Slough Town in the Berks and Bucks Senior Cup final at Hungerford United’s Bulpit Lane.

The final season saw an average attendance of 1,890 and almost 4,000 fans said goodbye when O’Neill’s International XI beat Wycombe Wanderers 8-4 in the final game played at Loakes Park, with the team resplendent in the traditional quartered shirts, which O’Neill loved so much he requested they make a permanent return!

It was an emotional end to an era that established Wycombe Wanderers as the team of the Chair Metropolis. History never stands still of course and the move toAdams Park saw O’Neill lead the club onto unprecedented glory as the dreams of reaching the Football League came true.


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