The great escape at Lincoln, as told by Adrian Wood.Part 9 - Season 1998/99 – A new manager, and a great escape
The new season saw Gary Micklewhite appointed as Neil Smillie’s assistant and the popular Terry Evans returning as youth team physio. Smillie had suffered a frustrating summer in the transfer market but did sign left-back Chris Vinnicombe on a free from Burnley. The pre-season schedule was testing with home defeats to Division 1 side Crystal Palace 1-3, John Gregory’s Premiership outfit Aston Villa 0-3, and Premiership new boys Charlton Athletic 0-3.
Around the stadium there were changes too. Replacing the Bucks Free Press as sponsors of the Family Enclosure were Hypnos Limited who had agreed a three-year deal. Meanwhile the Valley Terrace had new sponsors and would be called “The Syan Stand” for the next three years. Admission prices for adults were £10 per match in the Syan Stand (£9 if purchased in advance) with seat prices starting from £13 in the wings of the ServisPak Stand Upper Tier (£12 in advance). To give Under 16s admission for just £1 (and boost attendance figures), three fixtures were labelled as “Quid a Kid”. Finally the official club mascot Bluey was “being retired” to be replaced by “Bodger”, so named as a tribute to Wycombe legend Tony “Bodger” Horseman.
The season started disastrously. Despite a Worthington Cup win over Division 1 side Swindon Town and a good showing in round two before bowing out 1-3 on aggregate to Premier League Middlesbrough, the side failed to win any of their first 12 league outings and were rock bottom with just three points. The squad had been hit by injuries and Smillie had signed midfielders Dannie Bulman (Ashford Town) and Paul Emblen (£60k from Charlton), and defender Matt Lawrence for £86k from Fulham.
Meanwhile the financial statements released by the club showed a "small profit" but financial director Graham Peart pointed out that "the wage inflation for senior players is making progress difficult and the need for the youth team to produce quality young players has never been greater.”
Thankfully the rot stopped with a 3-0 home win over Macclesfield with Andy Baird, a youth team product, netting his first senior goal. Two goals from Keith Scott then saw Wrexham defeated 3-0 at Adams Park as results began to improve. Making his debut in a 1-1 draw at Northampton was exciting winger Jermaine McSporran, signed from Oxford City for £75k. The highest home attendance of the season saw Manchester City beaten 1-0 at Adams Park, Michael Simpson scoring the winner from the penalty spot. The official attendance of 8,129 however was surprising as practically every seat looked taken. The kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes to get everybody in but the official figure fell nearly 2,000 short of the 'official' capacity of just over 10,000.
Chances of a decent FA Cup run were dashed when Wycombe could only draw with Division 3 outfit Plymouth at Adams Park and defensive errors led to a 2-3 replay defeat. 1998 ended with good home wins over Lincoln (4-1) and Chesterfield (1-0) but the club were still in the relegation zone. This was when things went from bad to worse for Smillie. The club suffered four consecutive league defeats and were dumped out of the Auto Windscreens Cup 1-4 at home by Division 3 side Brentford. During that sequence the club announced that Smillie had been sacked and Terry Evans had been appointed caretaker manager. A few days later striker Steve McGavin quit the club pointing to personal problems and uncertainty over his future with Wycombe Wanderers.
The stadium maintained its record for being selected to stage international fixtures, the occasion this season being the England v France Under 18 International. The fixture was due to be shown live on Sky Sports and the club were expecting a crowd of 5,000 plus. Unfortunately the freezing conditions throughout the day meant that the half of the pitch remained frozen and the referee called the game off for safety reasons.
Early in February Wimbledon reserve team boss Lawrie Sanchez was announced as the club’s new manager – the fifth in just four years. He soon appointed his former Wimbledon team mate Terry Gibson as his assistant. Sanchez revealed that he was told during his interview that he had to make £200,000 from transfers before the end of the season. This was the cue for of a player exodus – see below. The new manager’s first game was a creditable 1-1 home draw with champions elect Fulham and a first win came two weeks later, 2-0 at home to Burnley. Just one point however came from the next four games and after a 1-2 defeat at Reading on March 20th the club were back in basement position.
The player exodus had started with defenders Jason Kavanagh and Nicky Mohan and striker Mark Stallard all departing. Arriving at the club were Canadian defender Mark Rogers, Brentford defender Jamie Bates and striker Sean Devine from Barnet, originally on loan. Fans though were devastated when the popular Keith Scott joined Reading on transfer deadline day for £250k (he had just previously signed a new two-year deal at Adams Park). Meanwhile Avec Sport and Leisurewear Ltd became new kit suppliers and the new proposed shirt design had the quarters switched and included a banner logo for the club sponsor.
Despite the turmoil the “great escape” commenced with three consecutive victories, Devine scoring in two of them and a brace from Carroll confirming a 3-0 home win over Oldham. Devine then netted twice in the 2-2 draw at Stoke and he and Baird scored the goals as Wycombe won superbly at Maine Road to complete the double over Manchester City. Devine also netted in the 2-2 home draw with Blackpool which left the club in 21st place with just two games left. Quite simply Wycombe had to win those two games to stay up. Promotion chasing Wigan took the lead at Adams Park but goals from Devine and Emblen dramatically turned it round. Safety was then confirmed at Lincoln when Emblen headed the winner with just seven minutes remaining. The remarkable sequence had seen the club take 23 points from the last 11 games. Devine, who had joined permanently in a £200k deal finished top scorer with nine goals from just 12 outings. Average home league attendance was 5,121, a drop of 5% from the previous season.
This article first appeared in the club's matchday programme on Saturday 24th October 2015.