All smiles at the finish after John Gregory exits, as Adrian Wood explains.Part 8 - Season 1997/98 – Early optimism, but mid-table reality
Despite the bookies’ odds of Wycombe being an outside bet at 33-1 to win the title, around Adams Park there was considerable optimism leading into the new season. Wycombe’s improved form in the final stages of season 1996/97 under John Gregory had seen the club comfortably survive their first relegation scare as a Football League outfit. The supporters were jubilant that the beloved quarters strip had been restored and also that Martin Taylor and Keith Scott had penned permanent deals. The only disappointment was that Player of the Season Mickey Bell had left for Bristol City, the derisory fee of £150k being confirmed by tribunal.
Season ticket receipts were at an all-time record – if purchased by August 8th an adult terrace season ticket cost £170 with seat season tickets starting at £190. With the away end now being called the Roger Vere Stand and the Main Stand now known as the Amersham & Wycombe College Stand, for the first time all four stands were sponsored. Sponsorship didn’t stop there with Robertsons Independent Estate Agents becoming “Official Stadium Sponsors” and the Jenkins Newman Partnership becoming “Official Pitch Sponsors”. The stadium had an Open Day on July 20th when fans had the opportunity to meet Gregory, his assistant Richard Hill, and all the first team squad.
The optimism seemed justified when after a heavy away defeat at Wigan on the opening day and a 1st round Coca Cola Cup exit inflected by Fulham, the side bounced back and Adams Park victories over Fulham and Southend saw Gregory’s side up in third place. Gregory meanwhile had strengthened the squad by spending £75k on defender Nicky Mohan from Bradford City. The league form though proved inconsistent. Carlisle won 4-1 at Adams Park in September but the real problem was away from home where just 20 points out of a maximum 63 were won. Home form was good with only two other sides, Wigan and Bristol City leaving Adams Park with all three points.
Once again Adams Park was selected to host an international fixture – the occasion being the UEFA Under-21 Championship fixture between England and Moldova on September 9th. The game was televised live on SKY and a crowd of over 5,500 turned out. This meant that the club had to open the upper tier of the Woodland Stand just before kick off as the remainder of the ground was reaching capacity. For the record England won 1-0 with a goal from Coventry’s Marcus Hall. The home squad contained the likes of Lee Bowyer, Jamie Carragher, Frank Lampard and Emile Heskey.
Another one-off occasion was the Dave Carroll testimonial on Wednesday November 12th when a crowd of around 3,000 saw an array of old faces turn out to pay tribute to “Jesus”. Carroll had already made in excess of 450 appearances for the club. Martin O’Neill obliged by bringing a full strength Leicester City. Two goals from Kim Casey brought about a 2-1 win for the Dave Carroll XI.
Apart from the above, November 1997 was a month best forgotten. The team failed to win any of the six league fixtures and dropped rapidly down the table to 17th. There was bitter disappointment in the FA Cup as Wycombe were the victims of a giant-killing for the first time as a Football League club. Basingstoke Town of the Isthmian Premier League came from 0-2 down to gain a 2–2 draw at Adams Park and went on to win the replay 5-4 on penalties at the Camrose Ground. Fortunately December saw results improve with league wins over Oldham and Southend and Wycombe went into 1998 in 15th place.
The biggest shock of the season came in February when Gregory was chosen as the unlikely successor to Brian Little at his former club Aston Villa. Gregory commented at the time "It is a great opportunity. I didn't need too long to think about it and I certainly didn't want this chance to pass me by". Youth team boss Neil Smillie again took caretaker control resulting in Gregory’s assistant Richard Hill also leaving the club. Wycombe were to receive a six figure compensation figure for Gregory. This would ultimately assist the financial position as it had been announced in October that the trading deficit for 1996/97 had been close to £400k. After losing just two of 12 games in charge, Smillie was given the job on a permanent basis. That announcement was made just before kick-off of the final home game of the season against Chesterfield.
Smillie’s time in charge started with consecutive 1-0 home wins over Gillingham and York with Keith Ryan being the match winner on both occasions. The next Adams Park fixture saw the side’s best win of the season with relegation threatened Plymouth being thrashed 5-1. That game saw another two goals from Mark Stallard who finished top scorer with 17 league plus 1 cup goals. The season ended with a rare away win, Paul Read netting the only goal at Walsall. Wycombe finished a mid-table 14th, ten points adrift of the play offs and the same number above the relegation zone. It was a comfortable outcome and the team had done well to respond positively following Gregory’s sudden departure.
The average home league attendance of the season worked out at 5,414 which represented a 3.48% increase on the previous season’s figure. Undoubtedly this was helped by doubling the number of Quid-a-Kid days to four. The season’s best was 8,090 for the Boxing Day local derby with Watford. For that fixture the visitors had been allocated areas of the family stand and old main stand as well as the Hillbottom Road end. The low capacity of the away end did cause problems on occasion, for example the Bristol Rovers fixture when, with the away end full, a number of visiting fans purchased tickets for the home terrace. Those fans were eventually moved into the main stand area and fortunately the episode passed off without serious trouble.
This article first appeared in the club's matchday programme on Tuesday 20th October 2015.