Smith goes, Gregory joins - Adrian Wood recounts a difficult season.Part 7 - Season 1996/97 – A season of much change
In his programme notes for the pre-season friendly against QPR, manager Alan Smith wrote: “You can hardly fail to notice the enormous changes that have been made at the club during the close season”. The first change was at the away end - the Amersham & Wycombe College Stand. The former terrace had been replaced by 1,049 seats and the capacity of that section was thus reduced, causing problems when visiting clubs brought large away followings.
Secondly, the new impressive South Stand was nearing completion. It was officially opened by The Football Trust (who had donated £1.1m) at the Brentford fixture (September 21st). To be called “The ServisPak Stand”, it was a 5,000 seater stand which incorporated 20 executive boxes, 50 wheelchair spaces and a 1,738 seated Family Enclosure (sponsored by The Bucks Free Press). The result was that the seating capacity of Adams Park was increased by 476%, giving the stadium a capacity of 10,000. As a result of these two changes the club won the Nationwide Football League Most Improved Stadium Award.
The third instant change was the launch of the club’s new playing strips – the blue home strip had moved away from the beloved quarters to stripes whilst the away strip was white with thin red and navy pin stripes. Many supporters were unhappy with Mizuno’s new designs and this issue was not to go away (see below).
Changes to the playing squad had seen the likes of Simon Garner, Steve Thompson, Simon Stapleton, Tony Hemmings and Terry Howard all depart. Meanwhile keepers Brian Parkin and John Cheesewright arrived as did probably Smith’s best signing - central defender Paul McCarthy for £100,000 from Brighton. Former England international Ray Wilkins made his one appearance for the club in the 0-1 home defeat to Luton. Early results were disastrous. At the end of September the club were bottom and without a win in their first nine league games. Enough was enough and after a 3-6 defeat at Peterborough, the chairman and directors sacked Smith and assistant David Kemp.
Youth team manager Neil Smillie was made caretaker boss and guided the team to home wins over Rotherham and Notts County but three successive defeats followed which left the side languishing in bottom place. In came new manager John Gregory who had been coaching at Aston Villa. His start was inauspicious with the team going three games without a goal. Goals from Steve Brown and Miguel Desouza earned a 2-1 home win over Plymouth but then another three consecutive league defeats followed. Included in that run was a 0-1 home defeat to Preston when Wycombe finished with just eight players; Matt Crossley, Brown and Terry Evans all seeing red. December saw some better results. A Mickey Bell special saw off leaders Millwall 1-0 and Chesterfield were then beaten by the same score line. 1996 however ended with a 0-2 home defeat to Walsall on an ice bound pitch. Wycombe ended the year in 22nd place - they had won just five of their 13 home league games scoring just 10 goals in those fixtures. Average home attendance was down to 4,782.
Returning to the playing strips (see above); Gregory stated that he would like to re-introduce quartered shirts as soon as possible. In the Crewe programme (February 8th), the club carried out a mini survey. One question was would you support a move back to our traditional sky and navy quarters? 98% of respondents answered in the affirmative. It was later announced that the club would be launching a navy and yellow quarters strip as a second away strip. Towards the end of the season the club were selling the current home replica Mizuno kit at half price thus leading to speculation of an early return to the beloved quarters. Gregory also made major squad changes introducing the likes of Jason Kavanagh and Michael Forsyth from Derby, Michael Simpson from Notts County, John Cornforth from Birmingham (£50,000) and Paul Read from Arsenal.
1997 started with more disappointment when Division 1 side Bradford City visited in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. Wycombe had reached that stage courtesy of wins over Colchester and Barnet but, on another treacherous surface, paid for missed chances and lost 0-2. There was controversy at Adams Park on January 11th. Wycombe were leading Peterborough 2-0 when referee Frazer Strettton abandoned the contest after 63 minutes. It seemed that the visitors had played a major part in swaying the referee as conditions had improved considerably since the morning pitch inspection. Justice however was done when the game was replayed, Wycombe winning 2-0 and Desouza and McGavin again being the goal scorers.
Wycombe’s home form improved dramatically. Eight of the last 10 league games were won as the side remained unbeaten at Adams Park. The attendance against Watford (0-0) was 8,438, the club’s largest ever home league attendance. The team however struggled badly on their travels and at the end of March were still in the relegation zone. A hugely crucial game at Adams Park was the meeting with relegation rivals Shrewsbury on March 29th. Wycombe were boosted by the arrival of keeper Martin Taylor (on loan from Derby) and also their former striker Keith Scott on loan from Norwich. A crowd of 6,562 saw Scott score after just 14 minutes and goals from Stallard and Carroll sealed an emphatic 3-0 success as Taylor impressed with a series of fine saves.
Wycombe lost just one of their next six outings and the run included a record Football League victory as play-off hopefuls Burnley were hammered 5-0 at Adams Park. The penultimate Saturday saw Wycombe lose 1-2 at runners up Stockport but Preston’s victory at Shrewsbury meant Gregory’s side could not go down. A crowd of 7,240 saw Wycombe finish the season in style with a 2-0 win over 5th placed Bristol City with spectacular goals from McGavin and Carroll.
Wycombe’s final position was 18th and their final points tally was eight above the relegation zone. It had been a season of great change – both on and off the pitch. Form had ranged from very good to very bad and for the majority of the season the club had been in the relegation zone. The average home attendance had improved to 5,232 - a 14% increase on the 1995/96 figure.