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Forty years on: Champagne football for the Chairboys

18 May 2014

Dale Hurman looks back at a momentous occasion in the club's history on this very date.

Forty years ago today Wycombe Wanderers went into their final game of the season knowing a win over Leytonstone would be enough to seal a third Isthmian League title in four years.

The Chairboys had enjoyed a memorable campaign; most notably in the F.A. Cup with a first ever win over a Football League club as Fourth Division Newport County were beaten 3-1 in a first round tie in front of 6,888 fans at Loakes Park. The Berks and Bucks Cup was also retained with a 3-1 win over local rivals Slough Town in the final at Finchampstead Road, Wokingham.

The side played just three league games in January and February which led to a fixture backlog that extended the season into mid-May. Three teams were still in with a shout of the title although Bishop’s Stortford were favourites after going 31 games unbeaten and still with games in hand on both Hendon and the Wanderers.

Stortford’s run was ended by Leytonstone and it was the East Londoners who stood in the way of the Chairboys and glory in the final two games of the season. First up was a trip to Granleigh Road on Wednesday 15th May 1974 and the visitors knew only a win would be good enough.

They made a poor start and fell behind after 21 minutes when goalkeeper John Maskell could only parry striker John Brookes’ low cross from the left and strike-partner Bill Ratty slammed the loose ball into the roof of the net. It could have been worse with Maskell saving well from Ratty at his near post before the striker saw his shot crash back off the post early in the second half.

Time was running out for the Wanderers and their frustrations when Stones understudy goalkeeper John Murphy made a superb save to deny midfielder Larry Pritchard. It was time for a hero and Micky Holifield stepped forward, receiving the ball outside the box before weaving past two defenders and hitting an unstoppable left-footed drive into the net with just 13 minutes remaining.

A draw wasn’t enough though and six minutes later striker Tony “Bodger” Horseman played the ball out to Steve Perrin on the right and he cut in before curling a low shot into the far corner to seal a crucial 2-1 victory. With their job done, all eyes turned to the meeting between their two title rivals, Hendon and Bishop’s Stortford at Claremont Road and a 1-0 win for the hosts meant that victory for the Blues over Leytonstone at Loakes Park would be enough to be crowned Champions.

Saturday 18th May 1974 was a warm, humid day and 2,500 fans packed out Loakes Park, remaining loyal to the Blues instead of watching the England v Scotland international at Wembley, which was one of a handful of games to be shown live on television. They waved their banners and scarves as their side looked to finish the season unbeaten in the league on their own patch and reclaim the title which had been relinquished the previous season.

Leytonstone had proved they were no mugs just three days earlier but this was a different story as the Wanderers came flying out of the traps and missed a hat-trick of chances inside the opening three minutes. The opening goal remained elusive with defender Keith Mead crashing a header against the crossbar before Horseman blazed over from six yards.

There was immense relief therefore when the deadlock was broken in the 26th minute. Holifield robbed defender Les Tilley and showed him a clean pair of heels before coolly lifting the ball over Murphy and into the net. Perrin should have doubled the lead just three minutes later but sent his header over the bar and Tilley was forced to clear Horseman’s effort off the line on the stroke of half-time.

It had been total domination from the hosts with captain Larry Pritchard pulling the strings in the middle of the park and it was therefore appropriate when he sealed the win with a second half brace. It took a while for the side to get going again although they were rarely troubled by the visitors.

With 74 minutes played Pritchard started a fine move which saw him send over a cross to the far post for striker Keith Searle, who checked out before crossing for Pritchard, who met it with a powerful header that Murphy could only push into the top corner. Pritchard wrapped things up in the 86th minute when he buried the rebound after his initial effort had been blocked on the line by defender John Charles.

Hordes of fans invaded the pitch to acclaim their heroes at the final whistle. Pritchard was chaired around the field and the Wycombe players and officials responded by sharing their Championship winning champagne with their supporters. The celebrations didn’t end there with a disco in the evening and chants of “We are the Champions” and “Up the Blues” swamped many of the songs.

Brian Lee’s side were worthy Champions; they lost just six of their 42 league matches, scoring 96 goals into the bargain. The team received just one booking all season (for shirt pulling) and received £1,700 in prize money. They played some wonderful football, sometimes even bettering that seen in the third and fourth divisions of the Football League.

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