As the second longest-serving manager in the English Football League and nearing a decade in charge, Gareth Ainsworth is well accustomed to Wycombe Wanderers‘ status as perennial underdogs.
It is a tag that the Chairboys will have for Saturday’s League One play-off final against Sunderland, even though just a point separated the clubs in the table.
And Ainsworth, who has overseen two promotion-winning campaigns in the past four seasons, plans to use it as a motivational tool for his players.
“It’s their best ever chance apparently of getting back to the Championship,” he said. “That says a lot about Wycombe Wanderers and where people see us. I wonder if people would be saying that if it was another side against them. But for some reason, people do seem to have written us off a little bit.”
Sunderland’s days of Premier League spending are long gone, but their transfer dealings in the third-tier are proof of their ambitions. Free signings Patrick Roberts and Alex Pritchard commanded £12m transfer fees at their former clubs, while loanee Jack Clarke was a £10m signing for Spurs a few years ago.
By contrast, Wycombe’s squad is a blue-and-navy patchwork of misfits, cast-offs, and veterans – players discarded and offered a chance of regeneration at Adams Park.
According to Ainsworth, rejection is a common thread that runs through the squad and is a key factor behind their unity and success.
“I’ve been written off a few times in my career,” he said. “Akinfenwa has been written off for most of his career. Sam Vokes was written off two years ago. Garath McLeary has come out of Reading where he was training with the youth team. People didn’t want Jordan Obita. It’s unbelievable that once you get a free transfer it means that nobody wants you. Who the heck let [Joe] Jacobson go at Shrewsbury? All this for me is real motivational stuff.
How to watch the League One play-off final
- Date: Saturday 21 May
- Kick-off time: 3pm
- TV: Sky Sports Main Event
- Live stream: Watch on the NOW app on mobile, tablet or smart TV (£33.99 per month; £11.98 for 24-hour pass) or via the Sky Go app for existing subscribers
“I’ve been in their position, I’ve been a free transfer. I’ve been somebody who was told they weren’t good enough, I’ve had to fight and scrap and been dropped for important games. I feel like they connect with that and know that I connect with them.”
Wycombe’s transfer policy naturally lends itself to players closer to the end than the start of their careers. The average age of the starting XI against MK Dons in the semi-final second leg was 30.5 years and that didn’t include the 40-year-old substitute Adebayo Akinfenwa. At 26, right-back Jason McCarthy was the baby of the group.
But 35-year-old captain Joe Jacobson, who scored a late winner in the 2020 League One play-off final win against Oxford, believes experience will be a help rather than a hindrance at Wembley.
“This is my fifth play-off campaign, we’ve had players in Championship play-off finals,” he explains. “Two years ago we had eight or nine players that played in that game. We’ve got a lot of boys who have played in the play-offs and we’ve got lots of boys who have won play-off games, which we hope will be really helpful.”
Saturday will be a historic occasion for the club but a poignant one too, signalling the end of Akinfenwa’s 22-year career. “The Beast” initially signed a one-year deal but has stuck around for six, a period that has coincided with two promotions, a relegation, and a club-record 52 EFL goals.
Akinfenwa has generally been restricted to an impact role in his final season, but both Ainsworth and Jacobson acknowledge that one of the most recognisable footballers outside of the Premier League will be impossible to replace.
“He will be missed like you wouldn’t believe,” Ainsworth said. “There will be a hole left that will be filled with magical moments, stories and achievements which Wycombe would never have had if we hadn’t signed this gimmick, one-trick pony from Wimbledon when he was past it. It’s amazing how he’s proven everyone wrong.”
Jacobson added: “He’s probably been Wycombe’s best-ever signing. To still be playing at 40 and have the desire and attitude to go and play at the weekend and come and train every day is a huge credit to himself. I’ve made a friend for life. He’s going to be a huge miss.”
As for Wycombe’s gameplan, Ainsworth insists his side will stick to their principles and not adapt their game to appease their critics.
“If you want me to go out there and play the perfect game that will suit Sunderland so they can beat us convincingly and look like a fantastic football team then you’re talking to the wrong guy.
“My job is to not get beaten by Sunderland on Saturday, it’s to beat them and I have to find ways to do that even though they’ve spent a lot of money on a lot of fantastically talented players who may be physically quicker or stronger or better.
“If we do that, the compliments should be to Wycombe Wanderers, not trying to find why it went wrong for Sunderland.”
Promotion to the Championship not ‘transformational’ for Sunderland insists Alex Neil
By Mark Douglas
Four years, two play-off defeats and the slow recession of a football club: Sunderland’s League One story has not been an edifying one.
At Wembley against Wycombe, there is a chance to finally move on. Alex Neil senses that, which is why he is urging his Sunderland players to seize the moment and help the club move to the “next phase” of its recovery.
Neil, not one for hyperbole, shies away from calling promotion back to the Championship “transformational”. But with the club’s financial figures a concern and ownership issues still not fully resolved, promotion feels crucial to a club that just five years ago were in the Premier League.
“I think it’ll start the next phase for this club. Whether it’s transformational or not, I’m not quite convinced,” Neil said.
“The simple fact is, whether we’re in the Championship or not, next year will come along. It’s not as if it’s going to be the end of anything (if we don’t go up).
“But to get back to where we want to be as a club, the next stage and getting out of League One is fundamental to that. Whether it’s this season or whatever, you’d want it sooner rather than later.”
They will be backed by more than 40,000 supporters at Wembley, making it more akin to a home game. Neil thinks that could be crucial.
“When we need to come up with a key moment we have found it, and the fans are fundamental in what they give the players in the dying embers of games when we need something,” he said.
“You don’t win anything yourself. We’re united. It’s everybody together, but equally it’s everybody together when it doesn’t go so well. What you can’t do is start to divide when it’s good and when it’s bad.”
There is much riding on the result but at least Neil has offered a reason to believe again, re-energising the club in recent weeks. His team have eradicated their tendency to conjure defeat from the jaws of victory and have a happy knack of scoring late goals in crucial moments. They will need it.
“There is a lot riding on it,” Neil said.
“We have experience and quality and guys that can handle the big occasion. You can’t come and play for a team like Sunderland and not come under scrutiny.
“You can’t come and play here and not be under pressure and have expectations on your shoulders. That is part of the job at a team like this. So (Wembley) is part of the job. If we don’t win a game against anyone it is deemed not good enough. That is the expectations that are carried here.”