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Relegation for Wanderers from Gola League
Sunday 4th May 1986
(Research and memories by Paul Lewis - First published May 2016)
Wanderers’ debut season in the national Gola League culminated in one of the low points in the history of the Club - relegation back to the Isthmian League after just one season competing against the elite of non-League football.

It was a shock and disappointment for Wanderers fans at the time, not least because for the majority of the season the team looked comfortably placed in the league, had beaten Football League opposition in the FA Cup for the first time in 11 years, reached the Quarter-Finals of the FA Trophy and progressed to the Final of Berks & Bucks Senior Cup. League form had been erratic but Wanderers had still managed to beat Champions Enfield home and away during a season where the North London side has lost just five Gola League games all season.

However, the mass of games (62 competitive First Team fixtures throughout the season) eventually took its toll on the limited resources being afforded to the Management team. Paul Bence had begun the season as Manager but quit in January 1986 due to work commitments. The Managerial reigns were handed to previous Assistant Alan Gane, with former Wanderers goalkeeper John Maskell bought in by Gane as his Assistant.

As the season reached its climax, Wanderers needed a single win from their remaining two games of the season – both at home – to secure safety in what had obviously become the absolute minimum level of football that Wanderers and the town of High Wycombe should be competing at.

On the Wednesday before the final Saturday of the season, Wanderers contrived to lose 1-0 at home to an Altrincham side with a clear eye on an FA Trophy Final tie at Wembley just over two weeks later. The recollection of the winning goal will still pain those who were amongst the 544 at Loakes Park to see it – a spectacular 79th minute 30 yard lobbed own goal from defender Graham Pearce.

The following Saturday, Kettering Town were the visitors to Buckinghamshire. They were mid-table, had little to play for and bought a scoring record of just 18 goals away from home all season. They didn’t add to that record but on a frustrating afternoon for the 700 or so Wycombe faithful, Wanderers failed to score too (popular skipper Anton Vircavs came closet with a second-half header) and the game ended as a frustrating 0-0 draw.

Even then, the point gained from the meeting with Kettering could have been enough for survival if any of Wanderers three closest relegation rivals had lost. Maidstone United had played already relegated Dartford, Nuneaton were away to Telford United, while Dagenham (three points behind Wycombe at the start of the day) were away to Northwich before moving on to Runcorn the following day.

Finding out these results was not straight forward. The results were not always on the national BBC radio or TV coverage, there was no local radio coverage in the Wycombe area at the time and the internet was still a distant dream. The solution for those desperate for the news was to phone up the clubs direct.

So three phone calls later. Maidstone, as expected, had won 3-0 and were safe. Nuneaton had scored a late equaliser versus Telford and moved ahead of Wanderers on goal difference. Last hope was Northwich but amazingly they conceded a last minute goal to lose to Dagenham and help the Essex side close the gap to Wycombe to just one point. The Daggers superior goal difference would now mean that a point in their final game of the season at Runcorn would condemn Wanderers to relegation and see them safe.

What seemed a natural thing to do at the time was to immediately organise a trip to Runcorn for the following day. The trip’s ‘up north’ had started to become the norm that season. Driving to Altrincham on the first real away trip of the season the previous August had seemed like travelling to the other end of the world – and all for the sake of a League match. Eight months later we had become hardened travellers – able to negotiate the M1/M6 past Birmingham and even begin to understand the complexities of group rail bookings. Driving the 200 or so miles to Runcorn on a Sunday morning would be no problem.

Let’s not dress this up. Runcorn is not a pretty place. The football ground sat close to the banks of The River Mersey. The football ground was a not glamorous place either but it did have character, as did the locals. On Wanderers' first ever trip to Runcorn – a 1977 FA Trophy meeting – their skipper, former Tranmere Rovers legend Alan King, was caught in conversation with Wycombe’s gentleman and slightly bearded defender Keith Mead. Mead, jostling for position was told: ‘F**k off Rolf Harris’ – an insult that has grown out of proportion in the intervening years.

Wycombe had travelled to their first ever League game at Canal Street just a month previous. A hardy bunch of supporters making the midweek journey to see Alan Gane’s team go down 2-1 to a side that had recently booked their place in the FA Trophy Final at Wembley. Could they now do Wycombe a favour by beating Runcorn?

What was said at the time:
This was what Simon Burrage said in his Season Review for the Wycombe Wanderers Handbook published at the start of the following season:

It felt quite unreal to be getting up on a Sunday morning and travelling to Runcorn to see a match which, though not involving us directly, would indirectly affect our immediate future so drastically.

About a dozen people made the trip from Wycombe; not many, perhaps, but it appeared to be about a dozen more than the number of Dagenham supporters present. Our hopes were still high, however, knowing that Runcorn were obviously quite capable of winning comfortably. The first blow to our hopes came before the game even started, when it was announced that Peter Eales was to appear in goal for Runcorn again. “He retired years ago” laughed a group of Runcorn supporters, clearly unconcerned with the relatively trivial matter of a league match with their Wembley visit just a fortnight away. And the second blow to our hopes came just 40 seconds after kick-off when the Dagenham ‘keepers punt upfield was helped by the breeze towards the Runcorn penalty area where our friend Mr. Eales watched the ball bounce over his head, leaned backwards and tipped the ball into the net. This was not exactly the start we were looking for! That clearance-cum-shot turned out to be Dagenham’s only real attempt on goal during the entire 90 minutes, but it was enough.

Runcorn equalised early in the second half, but two quite brilliant saves by John Jacobs in the Dagenham goal kept the scores level, and a dozen shattered “Blues” fans drove back down the M6, and back down to the land of the Isthmians. 24 hours later, we had to face Aylesbury again at Slough in the Berks and Bucks Final replay. Not surprisingly, we lost that as well, 1-0.

Still, it’s a funny old game, isn’t it?

If it was possible to increase the pain more for Wanderers followers, the Gola League operated an experimental points system where two points were awarded for home wins while three points were awarded for away wins. Draws were worth a point whether home or away. You guessed it, under the regular point scoring system, Wanderers would have survived with 43 points, in front of both Dagenham and Northwich Victoria, who would have both accumulated 42 points.

The other frustration were the limited resources that the Wanderers Managerial were expected to operate with. Many of the custodians of the Club at the time were still wrapped up in their amateur ideals. The Club had been forced to turn semi-professional some ten years earlier but despite boasting one of the largest followings in non-League football, player wages were just a small percentage of turnover and match receipts. Accounts for the 1985/86 season show a total playing squad wage bill for the season of £7,631 – splitting this up between the then matchday squad of 13 over the 62 games of the season, equates to less than £10 per player per game. It seemed unbelievable at the time. 30 years later the figure seems incomprehensible compared to the multi-billion pound TV deals of the Premier League. In comparison, Wanderers' match receipts for the 1985/86 season, boosted by the run to the Third Round of the FA Cup and the Quarter-Final of the FA Trophy, reached close to £40,000 within a total turnover of £105,000 and resulting small profit of just over £7,000.

In a change of a policy the following season, the first as a Limited Company, the player wage bill increased over four fold to £30,910 (about £50 per player per game). However, despite the average League attendance rising from 775 to 1,130, total match receipts for the season dropped to £32,187 as result of the limited cup success during an otherwise hugely memorable 1986/87 season. Elsewhere, turnover increased to £170,000, with the profit declared as around £32,000.

Fast forward 30 years to the 2015/16 season and total player wage bill at Wanderers can be estimated at around £1m. Based on a matchday squad of 18, playing 52 games per season, that equates to £1,068 per player per game. Meanwhile, gate receipts for 2015/16 are expected to reach around £1.3m from a turnover of around £3.5m, while a profit in the order of £30,000 is expected for the second season running.

For what it’s worth, Runcorn lost the 1986 Trophy Final 1-0. Seven years later Wanderers would extract the ultimate revenge as the two sides met at Wembley in the 1993 Final. In one of the most one sided Trophy Finals seen, Martin O’Neill’s Wycombe team wiped away the Cheshire side by 4 goals to 1. Some of those hardened by the events seven years previous, requested they 'cry their eyes out'.

Also see:
National League debut for Wanderers - August 1985
Wanderers beat League opposition in the FA Cup - November 1985
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