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The end of amateurism

16 March 2013

The summer of 1975 was arguably the highest watermark in the amateur era of Wycombe Wanderers.

The abolition of amateurism might have happened 12 months previously, but the consequences were only starting to be felt at Loakes Park. Players, now called semi-professionals, were to be paid for the first time, but that didn’t prevent several influential men from leaving the club during the close season.

Striker Steve Perrin turned professional with Third Division Crystal Palace whilst defender Alan Phillips and Gary Hand also left. The biggest loss was undoubtedly Keith Searle, who joined bitter rivals Enfield after making 249 appearances and scoring 124 goals for the Chairboys.

Defender John Delaney and midfielder Geoff Anthony did return for one last hurrah with the Blues but Searle made the difference as the Wanderers finished as runners-up in the Isthmian League First Division, five points behind Enfield. The second game of the season saw local rivals Slough Town win 1-0 to become the first club to beat the Wanderers at Loakes Park, ending a run of 52 games unbeaten stretching back to November 1972.

There was great joy in October 1975 when the club recorded a famous win over AC Monza to lift the Anglo Italian Trophy. The Blues had lost the first leg of the final 1-0 in Italy, but 3,351 watched the Wanderers win the second 2-0 at Loakes Park courtesy of goals from Delaney and Dylan Evans to lift the trophy.

Events in November acted as another reminder that things were changing, and not necessarily for the better. Brian Lee announced his intention to resign as manager at the end of the season and the month ended with a 1-0 defeat to Slough Town in an FA Trophy third-qualifying-round tie at Wexham Park.

There were some positives too with another marathon FA Cup first-round tie with Bedford Town, which brought back memories of similar tussles in the mid-sixties. This time goals from Dave Bullock and Evans sealed a 2-1 victory in a second replay at Loakes Park to earn the Blues a second-round tie against Cardiff City.

The Third Division side were a little fortunate to claim a 1-0 victory in front of 11,607 at Ninian Park. Wycombe had been forced to start at the first-round stage in the Berks and Bucks Senior Cup as part of the punishment for their protest in the final the previous season. There was more controversy when the club had to withdraw from the competition after fielding midfielder Graham McKenzie when he was ineligible.

Lee recommended former player Ted Powell as his successor and he took the reins at the start of the 1976/77 season. Three defeats in the opening five Isthmian League matches didn’t bode well but one player certainly made an impression. Striker Ian Pearson notched a hat-trick on his debut in a 4-2 home win over Tooting and Mitcham and he went on to outscore Tony Horseman, finishing the campaign with 29 goals in all competitions.

The Wanderers made it through to the second round of the FA Cup where they hosted Third Division Reading on a frost-bound pitch in front of 7,747 at Loakes Park. There was crowd trouble before the game and the iconic Robin Friday gave the visitors a fifth-minute lead before adding a second half an hour later. Pearson pulled a goal back midway through the second half and then crashed a shot against the post late on as the visitors only just held on to win 2-1.

There was yet more woe in the FA Trophy as the Chairboys faithful made the trip to Canal Street for a second-round tie, only to see their side lose 2-1 to reigning Northern Premier League champions Runcorn. Ted Powell left the club in March 1977 and John Reardon took over as interim manager for the rest of the season. It ended in bitter disappointment as Enfield retained the Isthmian League by just a single point.

It really did feel like the end of an era in May 1977 when Horseman played his last game before announcing his retirement. He finished with 416 goals from 749 appearances, both records that are unlikely ever to be beaten. The 1977/78 season saw Reardon continue as manager but Pearson left during the close season to turn professional with Second Division Millwall.

There were two disappointing cup exits with Southern League side Minehead winning 2-0 in an FA Cup first-round tie at the Recreation Ground, before Northern Premier League side Goole Town won 2-1 in an FA Trophy second-round tie amid intimidating scenes at the Victoria Pleasure Grounds. The club did claim silverware, however, as they lifted the Berks and Bucks Senior Cup following a 2-0 win over Chalfont St Peter in the final at Turnfurlong Lane, Aylesbury.

The side finished in third place in the Isthmian League Premier Division, but were an incredible 35 points behind winners Enfield and emphasised the chasm between the two clubs. It didn’t get any better in the 1978/79 season either with the Chairboys finishing in sixth, one place and three points behind local rivals Slough Town! John Reardon had left the club in the summer of 1978 with Andy Williams named as his successor.

It was yet another disappointing campaign with goalkeeper Peter Spittle’s error proving costly in a 1-0 FA Cup first-round defeat to Maidstone United at London Road.  The nadir came in an FA Trophy third-round replay with Hayes at Loakes Park. The first tie at Church Road had ended in a 2-2 draw after the visitors had escaped with two late goals from Howard Kennedy and Steve Long.

A crowd of 2,050 watched in horror as the Missioners overturned a half-time deficit to win 3-2 to reach the quarter-finals. A last-minute penalty from Kennedy rescued another 2-2 draw in the Berks and Bucks Senior Cup final against Hungerford Town in April, before the Blues won the replay 3-1 at Wexham Park, Slough.

The original tie would prove to be the 616thand last appearance for goalkeeper John Maskell. The club now appeared to be drifting and lost without a sense of purpose. With amateurism abolished and the non-league world changing around them the Chairboys didn’t seem to know what they wanted to be anymore.

The summer of 1979 was one of upheaval with the creation of the Alliance Premier League (now the Conference Premier). It was made of clubs from the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues with the Isthmian League refusing to co-operate in a political power struggle. It was not made public at the time but Wycombe Wanderers were invited to join however declined as a national semi-professional league, with increased travelling costs but still without promotion to Football League, seemed an unattractive proposition.

Williams left the club in the close season and Lee took over as interim manager until Mike Keen was appointed at the end of January 1980. By that time the team had suffered an embarrassing 3-0 defeat in an FA Cup first-round tie to Isthmian League rivals Croydon at Loakes Park and was languishing in the lower half of the table.

Goalkeeper Gary Lester, midfielders Bobby Dell and Jimmy Jacobs and striker Terry Scott all made their debuts during the campaign as the club searched for a new sense of purpose. Keen managed to turn it around with the side winning its last seven league games on the bounce to finish in a still-sobering 10th position. 

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