Match Preview Extra: Chairboys Central's Tom Hancock
Ahead of this weekend’s clash with league leaders Wycombe Wanderers, we sat down with Tom Hancock of Wycombe site Chairboys Central to find out just why our next opponents have found themselves at the top of the table against the odds.
Tom started the site this summer and it has grown quickly during the season, you can check out the site here and find them on Twitter @chairboyscentrl. He interviewed our editor earlier this week for the game, and you can check that out here, whilst our dedicated ITEN Match Preview is available here. Read on for our interview with Tom regarding Wycombe and this weekend’s game.
1. There’s only one place to start and that is with the league table. Did you ever think you’d be sat in 1st place at this stage of the season?
No. And anyone who says they did is lying. Early in the summer, things looked bleak. Our already shoestring budget had been cut by about a third and it looked like we'd end up with a squad of 20 at the absolute most. We needed about ten players but probably would have got five if we were lucky. Even though I made out that we'd stay up again, I think I knew deep down that we were facing a right old slog of a season.
Then the Couhigs came in – initially on what was effectively a probationary period – and things soon started to look up. They've instilled a real feel-good factor about the place and recently had their investment approved by almost 95% of our Trust 'Legacy' members (season ticket holders for four or more years). They loaned us some money at first, but that meant we were able to make a lot more signings. Only Fred Onyedinma signed for a fee – although that was to do with add-ons and was effectively a swap deal with Millwall for Jason McCarthy – but we were able to put more players on the wage bill, and I imagine it helped us bring in a couple of Premier League loanees.
Our management team (more on that in my next answer) remain the key figures in our success, but we fans are just so happy with what we're seeing - as we would be! Where we are in the league hasn't fully sunk in yet. Maybe it will when we have this gap in fixtures shortly and we can sit back and take stock of an amazing season so far.
2. Gareth Ainsworth has rightly been a manager in demand of late. How important is he to your hopes, particularly with the recent takeover?
Ask Wycombe fans who our greatest ever manager is and you'll probably get quite a clear split between those over and under about 35. Older fans will probably tell you it's Martin O'Neill, who took us to the Football League for the first time in our history, all the way up to the third tier - and almost to a play-off finish in it. Younger fans (of which I'm one) will say it's Ainsworth - for obvious reasons. At the very least, he's a very close second.
The job he's done over the last seven years cannot be understated. He's steered us through off-field turbulence, dodged relegation to non-League by a single goal on a dramatic final day in 2014 - before taking us to within seconds of play-off success a year later - kept us competitive on consistently one of the smallest budgets in the EFL, eventually taken us back up to League One after six seasons away, guided us to safety, and now... Well, just look at the table.
He and assistant Richard Dobson - whose time here predates Gareth - have instilled a culture that even our players have said they've never found at any other club. If you don't give 100%, you don't get signed in the first place. You could bump into each and every single one of those lads down the shops and they'd stop and have a nice conversation with you. They do not stop working and you can tell that they all take genuine pride in pulling on that shirt.
Gaz and Dobbo - and, to be honest, everyone else whose names I don't know - get an extra 5% out of every member of this squad. The core of the team that's taken us to the top of League One were regulars for us in League Two. As for our signings both this summer and in previous windows, we've come to be confident about everyone who walks through the door. I don't know if it's easier to be more discerning in the transfer market when you don't have cash to splash, but very few of our signings in the last few seasons have turned out to be flops.
I'm going on a bit now, so in short: We'd be mid-table in League Two at best without this management team. They're brilliant blokes as well as coaches, and we can't thank them enough for what they have done and continue to do for Wycombe. The new investment has been crucial to keeping them here - it's well known that other clubs have sniffed around Gareth of late - and I can't wait to see where we could go.
3. Who would you say have been the key players behind your great start to the season?
Honestly, I can't pick standouts. Well, I did come up with my player of the season 'so far' a little while ago, but that was unfair on the rest of the squad in hindsight. We don't have superstars; we are a team in every sense of the word and everyone who's played a part, no matter how little, can take credit for our start to the season (well, it's more than a start by now).
4. Ade Akinfenwa remains a talisman for Wycombe. Are you surprised by his ability to continue producing?
If you'd asked me when he joined in 2016 if he'd still be producing the goods three years later at the top of League One, I'm sure I'd have said no - but knowing what I've come to know of him, I'm not all that surprised. He's a nightmare to play against and, if anything, looks in his best form since coming to Wycombe. We play to his strengths and have had success through starting him and bringing him off the bench later on. He's our leading scorer and assister and plays such a vital role on and off the pitch.
5. How do you see Saturday’s game going? Will your strengths match-up well with ours?
As you've said, you're in a false league position, for understandable reasons. You lead the league in shots per game so are clearly good at creating goal-scoring opportunities, so we'll look to restrict you in that sense by trying to shut down our box – we're quite content to defend and don't have the third best defence in the division for nothing, although we have let in ten of our 14 goals conceded at home. It looks like you play a 4-2-3-1, and we shut Lincoln's down superbly by letting them have the ball in their own half and severely limiting the wide threat from their full-backs. I've not seen you see this season beyond highlights so couldn't comment, but we may well draw from that experience – in what was our best home performance so far.
We know we don't need much of the ball, so we don't apply much pressure on teams who like to keep it until they venture into our half. I'd expect us to go with our usual 4-3-3 – although we have switched it up more this season – and perhaps keep it more on the ground for the first hour or so. That would mean starting with Alex Samuel - a superb hold-up player who will run at defenders all day long and make a right nuisance of himself - before bringing the Beast on. I may be completely wrong, but that's how I see it going. Whatever happens, though, I'd take a draw against a very good side in Donny.
6. Finally, do you think the Chairboys can sustain this form for the rest of the season?
The fans – and I think the players and staff – are growing in belief by the week. I don't see any reason why not, and I'm reassessing whether I think a top ten finish will constitute a successful season – having already reassessed and decided that we should be doing better than merely improving on last season's finish of 17th! Let's see where we are at the halfway mark – so Boxing Day – but I don't think this spirit, determination and efficiency is suddenly going to grind to a halt. We won't be able to go crazy in January, but I reckon we'll be able to bring in another decent loanee or two (depending on whether or not Rolando Aarons goes back to Newcastle, which I don't think is a given). We've got a better quality squad than last season while retaining the same all-important identity, and we're in a much better place off the field. Keeping Gaz will be imperative, but things are looking very bright indeed at the moment.