It’s the FA Cup First Round this weekend so, in the first of five pieces about the Oldest Cup Competition In The World (and there’s a phrase that is probably copyrighted by The FA), we take a look back at Wycombe Wanderers’ run to the semi-finals of the competition in 2001.
The FA Cup is a competition that throws up surprise results every season, but some records remain and one that may never be broken is that no-one from the bottom two divisions of the Football League has made The FA Cup final. If we go back far enough, there are traces of lower divsion clubs excelling in the competition – Tottenham Hotspur, for example, were a Southern League club when they beat Sheffield United after a replay in 1901 – but since the 1920/21 season when the Football League Division Three came into being, nobody from outside the top two divisions of English football reached the final of the country’s most iconic competition.
Clubs from outside the top two divisions do, however, occasionally appear in the semi-finals of the competition. In 1984, Plymouth Argyle ran Watford close at Villa Park, having beaten Derby County and West Bromwich Albion on the way and, in 1997, Chesterfield led Middlesbrough in the first semi-final match between the two clubs at Old Trafford and took them to a replay before bowing out. Surely the most remarkable of these runs, however, belongs to Wycombe Wanderers who, in 2001, made it to Villa Park and pushed Liverpool all the way from a mid-table position in League One, throwing in a last minute penalty save in the Fifth Round and a winning goal in their quarter-finals from a player that had only signed for the club as an emergency signing a few days before the match.
Wycombe’s run in 2001 was made all the more remarkable when taking into account how far the club had come just to get to the third tier of English football in the first place. The key year for the club was 1990. Prior to this, they had been a reasonably successful amateur club (members of the Isthmian League from 1921, and winners of a clutch of titles in that league) before becoming something of a yo-yo club between the Football Conference and the Isthmian League during the mid to late 1980s. In 1990, however, the club moved from its Loakes Park home to the newly-built Adams Park and installed an ambitious young manager called Martin O’Neill as their manager. Three years later, the club was promoted into the Football League and won promotion again at the first attempt.
O’Neill left the club for an ill-fated stint at Norwich City in 1995, but Wycombe Wanderers remained stalwarts in middle of what we now know as League One after his departure. Their 2000/01 FA Cup run began innocuously enough, with a 3-0 win against Ryman League club Harrow Borough at Adams Park – a match most notable for an appearance for Harrow by the former Leyton Orient player and latterly controversial players’ agent Barry Silkman at the age of forty-eight years old. The Second Round saw them drawn away to Millwall. They managed a 0-0 draw at The New Den, before winning the replay 2-1, but they already knew that there would be no glamour tie awaiting them in the Third Round, since the winners of the tie had already been drawn at home to First Division (now The Championship) club Grimsby Town.
The home match against Grimsby was a subdued affair, which looked unlikely to yield very much for Wycombe. Grimsby led at half-time through a goal through David Nielsen after the two sides had spent much of the first half cancelling each other out. Wycombe increased the tempo in the second half, but their equaliser through Paul McCarthy still came as if out of the blue. From then on, however, Wycombe were on the front foot and Grimsby were to be grateful to their goalkeeper Danny Coyne for a couple of outstanding saves to keep themselves in the match. With the winners drawn at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers, the value of finishing the first match strongly was demonstrated in the replay and goals from Paul McCarthy, Michael Simpson and Mark Rogers earned them a 3-1 win at Blundell Park.
The last Saturday in January brought Wolverhampton Wanderers and a record crowd of over 9,500 to Adams Park for the Fourth Round match – their first ever appearance in this round of the competition. If the players were nervous, they didn’t show it and in the opening minute Micheal Simpson lobbed the Wolves goalkeeper Mike Stowell only to see his shot fall narrowly wide of the post. Wolves, however, started to take control of the game with Ludovic Pollet coming close and Adam Proudlock’s deflected shot hitting the crossbar, but with ten minutes to plaay in the first half Andy Rammell hit the post for Wycombe and less than a minute later he gave them the lead, Martyn Lee’s corner saw a header from Paul McCarthy blocked, and Rammell scored from close range. Wolves levelled things up just before the hour had been played with a goal from Carl Robinson but, with five minutes left to play, Wycombe substitute’s cross was headed in by Sam Parkin to win the match for Wycombe.
The Fifth Round brought Wimbledon to Adams Park for what turned out to be the first of sone of the most extraordinary ties of that year’s competition. A crowd to equal that of the Wolves match was against present, but this time it looked as if Wimbledon had over-run their hosts as Mark Williams and Patrick Agyemang scored first half goals to give the Dons a 2-0 lead at half-time. In the second half, however, Wycombe came back again and with eighteen minutes left to play Michael Simpson’s deflected shot pulled a goal back. Six minutes later, Wycombe were level under controversial circumstances. A touch back to the Wimbledon goalkeeper Kelvin Davis saw Wycombe win a free kick for a backpass. A shot from the free kick was half cleared, but was lobbed back into the penalty area by Chris Vinnicombe and Steve Brown, who looked at first sight to be offside, poked the ball under Davis. The presumable reason for the linesman’s flag not going up was that the ball had looped up off a Wimbledon defender’s head, but Brown still looked offside when the ball was first played back in.
Never mind, though. All back to Selhurst Park for another replay with a trip to Filbert Street the prize for the winners. Gareth Ainsworth gave Wimbledon an early lead, but Wycombe levelled things up just after the half hour mark when Rammell’s shot was brilliantly saved by Davis, only for Dave Carroll to put the ball into the empty goal. With twenty minutes to play Michael Simpson was sent off for Wycombe, and in the fourth minute of stoppage time Paul McCarthy and Wimbledon’s Wayne Gray jumped together for a cross. Gray seemed to make full contact with the ball but the referee gave a penalty against McCarthy for handball. Martin Taylor, however, dived and saved Neil Ardley’s penalty to send the tie into extra time. In the first minute of extra time, Gray gave Wimbledon a 2-1 lead and they had chances to put the game beyond Wycombe, but in the last seconds of the match Danny Bulman’s deflected shot fell to McCarthy – who had conceded the penalty in normal time – and he scrambled the ball over the line to send the match to a penalty shoot-out.
At the end of the match, it was appropriate that the penalty contest should end up being as just as thrilling as he match that had preceded it. After Wycombe took the lead, Kenny Cunningham hit the angle of post and bar. The advantage didn’t last long. Keith Ryan shot over at 2-1 and Wimbledon levelled things up. It went to sudden death at 4-4, and the two clubs continued to cancel each other out until, at 6-6, Jamie Bates and Peter Hawkins both had their shots saved. Finally, with Wycombe leading 8-7 (both goalkeepers having taken – and scored – a penalty each) and with away supporters that had travelled by public transport (of which there must have been some in a travelling support of over 4,000) having given up on the idea of getting back by train that night, Mark Williams drove his penalty way over the crossbar to send Wycombe through.
The story of Wycombe’s trip to Filbert Street in the quarter-finals has passed into the legend of The FA Cup. Ten days before the match, with all six of Wycombe’s first choice strikers injured (a total of ten players in a squad of twenty-six were injured), Lawrie Sanchez was forced, in desperation, to advertise on Teletext for a striker that wasn’t cup-tied to have a trial for the club. The advertisement was seen by the agent of one Roy Essandoh, and a week and a half later he was leading the front line for Wycombe away to a Premier League club in an FA Cup quarter-final. This time, the difference between the two sides was apparent. Leicester attacked fluidly and confidently and it looked like only a matter of time for much of the first half as though it was only a matter of time until they scored. They didn’t though, and as the half wore on Wycombe started to create a couple of chances of their own. No score at half-time.
Four minutes into the second half, Wycombe took the lead. Steve Brown curled over a free kick and Paul McCarthy (again!) stooped to head the ball past the Leicester goalkeeper Simon Royce. The lead lasted until just after the hour, but then Darren Eadie crossed from the left and his low cross was touched in by Muzzy Izzet. Leicester, however, failed to take the initiative, and with ten minutes to play Steve Brown’s cross appeared to strike the arm of the Leicester defender Stefan Oakes. No penalty was given, though, and for running the length of the pitch to srue his point, Lawrie Sanchez was sent to the stands. Then, with three minutes of stoppage time played, all hell broke loose. Simpson’s deep cross was punched clear by Royce, Bulman looped the ball back into the penalty area and Jamie Bates headed across the six yard box for Essandoh, the triallist, the man that shouldn’t even really have been there that day, to head wide of Royce and in. Wycombe Wanderers were in the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
Their opposition were Liverpool, and the venue was Villa Park. Wycombe had sold almost 19,500 tickets for the match and, despite the insurmountable odds, they ran Liverpool very, very close. Again, Wycombe took the game to their opposition and chances in the first half fell to Steve Brown and Chris Vinnicombe, while Christian Ziege almost scored for Liverpool. It took the favourites until twelve minutes from time to break the deadlock – a close range header by Emile Heskey from a Steven Gerrard cross. Several minutes later, Robbie Fowler curled the ball in to make it 2-0, but Wycombe still had a sting in their tail. As time ran out, an enormous clearance from goalkeeper Martin Taylor was flicked on by Paul McCarthy and Keith Ryan looped the ball over Sander Westerveld for well deserved consolation, even though this time it wasn’t quite enough.
A few weeks later, Liverpool beat Arsenal 2-1 at The Millenium Stadium in Cardiff for the second of their three trophies that season – the first they had won since the Football League Cup in 1995. This success proved to be the platform upon which they would build the team that won the Champions League in 2005. Wycombe didn’t build any sustained success on their FA Cup run – Lawrie Sanchez left the club in September 2003 and they were relegated the following May. They won promotion back into League One last season although, ironically, they themselves were on the receiving end of a bloody nose from a smaller club when non-league Eastwood Town beat them 2-0 in the Second Round of the competition. Wycombe line up against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday. Eastwood won’t be there, though. They in turn were beaten after a replay in the Fourth Qualifying Round by Ilkeston Town, who travel to Cambridge United. That’s one of the things about The FA Cup. Most of the time, the limelight will fall elsewhere. You just have to wait your turn and keep your fingers crossed. In 2001, though, Wycombe had their spell in the limelight and brought an increasingly moribund competition back to life. If any team manages so much as half of the excitement that Wycombe Wanderers did in 2001, we will all have cause to be grateful.
Roy Essandoh’s goal against Leicester City and Keith Ryan’s goal against Liverpool feature in this compilation of Wycombe Wanderers goals
And there are highlights of both of the Fifth Round matches between Wycombe Wanderers and Wimbledon here.