There’s a sign at the top of the main stand at Adams Park which boasts of Wycombe Wanderers’ ‘Rock & Roll Football’. It isn’t quite on the same lines as Jurgen Klopp’s vision for Liverpool, but Gareth Ainsworth’s rough and tumble style has taken the Chairboys to within 90 minutes of a return to the Championship.
It was more ‘block and roll’ as Wanderers booked their date at Wembley for the League One play-off final with a 2-1 aggregate win over Milton Keynes Dons on Sunday, holding on to the narrowest of advantages after seeing Troy Parrott’s header halve their lead from the first leg. The home side had 29 shots to Wycombe’s two in the second game, but Ainsworth had his men well set up to withstand the bombardment and the fact that David Stockdale’s goal was only threatened six times by MK said a lot for the work put in defensively by the rest of the heroic starting XI.
For many, Wycombe’s elevation back to the second tier would be a lesson in justice. Last summer there were calls for Wanderers to be given a reprieve after their relegation from the Championship due to Derby County’s impending points deductions as a result of financial mismanagement. The writing was on the wall for the Rams, and the cooking of the books that they were about to be punished for had helped the club to Championship safety at Wycombe’s expense.
But 12 months on, Derby are a League One club and the Buckinghamshire outfit are on the verge of a return to the division they entered for the first time in their history two years ago. The fact that they have become such a threat at this level says much for the job that Ainsworth – known throughout the English game as ‘Wild Thing’ – has done over the last decade.
Ainsworth has got his side playing a pragmatic rather than progressive style of football but that makes it no less effective. When they were promoted in 2020 after beating Oxford United in the play-off final at Wembley in front of empty stands, they did so having finished bottom for average possession, passes, short passes and passing sequences in the entire division. They were narrow and they were direct but they were successful with it.
It’s a reflection of Ainsworth himself, this no-nonsense up-and-at-them approach. He’s been known to patrol the touchline wearing a leather jacket and Guns N Roses face covering, and as he stood with his arms aloft at full-time on Sunday he could easily have been mistaken for a random middle-aged rock fan in his slim fit shirt and jeans with his long hair flowing behind him.
His squad isn’t much different in terms of keeping it real. Captain Joe Jacobson had nine minutes of Championship experience in his entire career before 2020-21, defender Ryan Tafazolli – the scorer of their first goal in Thursday’s first leg – came up via non-league Salisbury City and Mansfield Town, midfielder David Wheeler made his way with Lewes and Staines Town before finally getting a shot at league football. Even their bigger names fit perfectly with Ainsworth’s philosophy. Thirty-nine-year-old striker Adebayo Akinfenwa has become iconic thanks to the intelligent use of his physical force even this late on in his career, while 64-cap Wales centre-forward Sam Vokes has revelled in Wycombe’s approach much as he did when leading Burnley’s line under Sean Dyche for seven years.
Vokes’ goal in the first leg proved the key as Wycombe scratched and clawed their way to Wembley, with Ainsworth having set his team up to absorb whatever they could at Stadium:MK.
"I reminded the boys that we will chuck our bodies on the line, we will block things and head things, and that's the way we're going to get to Wembley. And I couldn't believe how well they did," the manager told BBC Three Counties Radio after the match. "MK have some fantastic players. They'll go places without a doubt. We weren't the better team tonight, but we had a defensive set-up that I'm proud of."
Next up, Wycombe head to the Wembley arch, under which they will take on one of Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland on May 21 for a place in the Championship. They will be the smallest club on the day whoever they come up against, but they are guaranteed to have the biggest hearts. And they might just get justice done on the field.
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