Rock-star boss and his ‘generals’ – The story behind surprise League One leaders Wycombe
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Ipswich Town host Wycombe Wanderers in a top-two League One clash tonight. STUART WATSON takes a look at the Chairboys – this season’s surprise package.
Following promotion from the fourth-tier, Wycombe had one of the smallest budgets in League One and their 17th place finish was seen as a massive success. The chance of another great escape then looked slim when it was announced the budget was being cut by another third.
Chairman Trevor Stroud said the club, fan-owned since 2012, had two options: "Cut our cloth accordingly, and find our level, which I believe would be the National League. Or find a 'partner'."
Then along came 70-year-old American venture capitalist Rob Couhig as a new investor.
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Gareth Ainsworth is Mr Wycombe. The 44-year-old, nicknamed 'Wild Thing' due to his time spent performing in rock bands, played more than 100 games for the Chairboys at the end of his career and has been their manager since September 2012.
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That near decade-long association looked like it might be coming to an end recently when he was interviewed by Sunderland following the sacking of Jack Ross, but the Black Cats went for Phil Parkinson and so Ainsworth's love affair continues.
Ainsworth calls long-serving quintet Joe Jacobson (33), Matt Bloomfield (35), Dominic Gape (25) and Adebayo Akinfenwa (37) his 'generals'. Between them they have racked up more than 1,000 appearances for the club.
Persuading Gape to sign a new one-year deal this summer, when it looked like he would move on, was big for the club.
There were 12 new additions at Adams Park in the summer - the vast majority frees or loans.
Right-back Jack Grimmer (out of contract at Coventry) and centre-back Darius Charles (released by AFC Wimbledon) have become mainstays in a defence which has conceded just 14 goals in 18 league games.
Ronaldo Aarons (Newcastle, loan), Nnamdi Ofoborh (Bournemouth, loan), Paul Smyth (QPR, loan) and Fred Onyedinma (Millwall, undisclosed) have added some pacey options to the midfield and attack.
With the powerful Akinfenwa acting as a pivot, this is a team which has become very much worth more than the sum of its parts.
FORM AND FIXTURES
Wycombe's sole league defeat so far is a 2-0 loss at Gillingham back in September. They've won 11 of their 18 games so far.
They've had some thrillers at Adams Park - 3-2 against MK Dons, 4-3 against Southend and 3-3 against Peterborough. They've edged plenty of tight games too, beating Portsmouth (h), Sunderland (h) and Rotherham (a) by a 1-0 scoreline.
Unbeaten on home soil, Wycombe have dropped 11 points on the road. They have a tough looking set of fixtures between now and the end of January, with Burton, Oxford, Portsmouth, Coventry, Ipswich again, Peterborough and Sunderland all on the horizon.
Left-back Joe Jacobson has chipped in with six goals already, including an usual hat-trick against Lincoln in September. It consisted of scoring a direct free-kick and, incredibly, direct from a corner... twice.
Akinfenwa has also netted six, with Onyedinma and Scott Kashket both on four and then six other players having all found the net.
Ainsworth said: "It's amazing to be going to Portman Road for the first time ever with Wycombe Wanderers, sitting just above them at the top of the table. We've worked so hard this season and earned our rewards by picking up enough points to reach first place.
"There's still such a long way to go this season, and we won't lose our focus, but I'm so proud to be manager of this club and I know it means so much to everyone to see us in this position.
"But bringing anything back from Ipswich would be a great result for us, as they're a strong side, and favourites for the league title - rightly so. In Paul Lambert they've got a very good manager who's managed at the top level, and they've got an extremely strong squad who I know will be eager to get the win and stop us in our tracks.
"We've got some tired legs in the squad and the long break after the game will come at a good time for us, but we'll think about that afterwards - right now my boys are ready to go out there and give everything they've got to keep this run going and try and achieve a result that most people wouldn't have thought possible a couple of years ago."