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Loakes Park- The Final Goodbye
Monday 7th May 1990
Wycombe Wanderers XI 4
Martin O'Neill's International XI 8
(First published 7th May 2015)
On Monday 7th May 1990 the final goodbyes were said to Loakes Park - the then home of Wycombe Wanderers. The move to Adams Park was set for the following week with the first game scheduled for August 1990. Before then it was an emotional day for Wycombe followers as a specialy arranged match pitted a Wycombe Wanderers XI against a Martin O'Neill assembled International XI. An attendance of close to 4,000 gathered to pay their last respects to the home that High Wycombe's premier sporting side had graced since 1895.
Reporting for the Bucks Free Press, Peter Lansley wrote: THE lure of a glamorous international line up brought a crowd of nearly 4,000 to Loakes Park on Monday for a fitting finale to Wycombe Wanderers’ 95 year stay at the ground. Bathed in Bank Holiday sunshine, the pitch, sloping away and in bumpy end of season condition, was honoured by the presence of household names from the past.
The occasion lived up to everyone’s hopes, even if the match itself was played at a true end-of-season, testimonial pace. A carnival atmosphere unfurled itself around the quaint old ground as early as 2 O’clock, when it was announced that George Best had indeed arrived. It was the news everyone wanted to hear. It was heart-warming watching the fans swell the terraces to catch a glimpse of Georgie. Martin O’Neill’s International XI was introduced to the crowd just before the kick off, with the biggest cheer undoubtedly reserved for the master, George Best. He strutted the Loakes Park stage with the calm decisiveness which marked his playing days before mesmerised crowds at Manchester United. He waved to an adoring crowd of nearly 4,000 and clearly enjoyed lapping up the emotional atmosphere. Witnessing this spectacle was a joy. With so many players of international pedigree showing their skills it could have been Wembley. They may have lost vital yards in pace, but the international side gave us a stirring glimpse of how they use to captivate soccer crowds.
The tone of the match was signalled even before the Internationals could kick-off All ten Wycombe outfield players, wearing their special light and dark blue quartered shirts, lined up across the park, like athletes ready for the gun to fire. It soon became apparent that centre halves Andy Kerr, newly elected Player of the Year, and Paul Franklin were playing up front. And centre forward Martin Lambert played in a withdrawn role in defence! With much expected of him, Best played anxiously in the first few minutes, but soon began to play with the surest of touches. The Wycombe players reverently stood off Best when he had the ball, and his influence started the goal flow:
• CRACK! 0-1 on five minutes: Alan McDonald arrows home a beautiful 25-yard volley, after Best had attempted a right-foot curler from Robert Thorpe’s return pass...
• SMASH! 0-2 on eight minutes: Gerry Armstrong hammers home from the right hand edge of the six yard box after the deftest of flicks from Thorpe...
• SWISH! 1-2 on ten minutes: Martin Blackler fires home with a first time right footer from the edge of the area after a neat through ball from Mark West...
• STAB! 1-3 on 1 minutes: Thorpe prods home after Armstrong’s shot is parried by John Granville...
• THUD! 2-3 on 24 minutes: Andy Kerr flies in to score with his thigh from West’s right wing corner...
Within a minute, the most memorable flash of magic from Best set the ground alight. In a dribble reminiscent of his Manchester United days, Best, swerving in from the left wing, nutmegged the bewildered Matt Crossley, and took the ball across Granville and the six yard line. With Granville floundering on the ground, Best beat him again and chipped the ball into the corner.
For all the goals, the match was competed in an extremely light-hearted manner. Granville came out of his goal after 29 minutes as Armstrong chased a long clearance. The Wycombe keeper juggled the ball over the Irish forward’s head back into the safety of his area and his hands. With Wycombe 4-2 down, Franklin reverted to the defence. From his own area four minutes before the interval, the stylish centre back drib bled past four international opponents to the half way line. As he reached level with the dug-out, he shouted out “see that, boss!” before releasing a telling ball.
Thorpe scored again just on half time, easily heading home a cross from McDonald after brilliant wing play and a back heel from Best. We were treated to 12 more minutes of the Best magic before he left the park to rapturous applause in the second half. During this time, Wycombe’s Simon Stapleton reduced the arrears to 3-5. Then a streaker came on to dangle all he had, even shaking hands with George. Kevin Durham also got a shake, before the gentleman, using his cap to cover up, was led away by two Wpcs. With Best’s departure, a gentle game relaxed to geriatric pace.
Lambert withdrew even further, taking over between the sticks and pulling off a couple of decent saves. Several substitutions complicated the referee so much that both teams managed to play out the final 23 minutes with 12 players each! Amongst the substitute internationals were a couple of maturing gentlemen whose connection with the international playing arena is somewhat dubious.
Warren Clark, the chairman in Channel Four’s The Manageress, put in a portly performance up front. With 12 minutes remaining, Clark’s plodding jink down the right gave manager O’Neill, who was another substitute, a goal. Twice within minutes of this goal, another ageing enthusiast to the International squad had taken the score onto 8-3. Chugging up and down the right flank, in a sort of Ray Houghton role, director Alan Parry provided the cross for Lambert to drop into Thorpe’s way inches from goal. Then apprentice Wycombe player Steve Whitby dived in onto Parry’s cross to score in spectacular style.
The final few minutes saw Martin O’Neill mesmerise his opponents and the crowd with ball juggling genius in the middle of the park. Kevin Durham scored the last ever goal at Loakes Park to complete the scoring with a minute remaining, although Alan Parry must have thought he was in for that honour in injury time. Lambert, endeavouring to show his boss that he is not a goalkeeper, dribbled the ball to the half way line, lost it, and was on a loser racing back to his area as the ball came to Parry out on the right touchline. From a gentle angle, Parry rolled the ball goalwards... and into the side netting!
So, with the requested pitch invasion, signing of autographs and the traditional cutting up of the turf, the last ball has been kicked at Loakes Park. But there was still a feeling of stunned disbelief that Wycombe are leaving Loakes Park. Watching the turf being cut up by eager fans it was hard to suppress one’s emotions. But at least Loakes Park had witnessed a party any club would have been proud of.
Speaking after the game, Martin O'Neill said: “It was a great occasion. When you think players like Mark Lawrenson, John McClelland, Alan McDonald, John Robertson, Danny Wilson, and Gerry Armstrong gave up their own time to come and help us out with no benefit to themselves, it’s tremendous."
O’Neill also talked of some of the players’ distractions which could easily have seen lesser men cry off. John Robertson, due to play another game at Corby that evening, had to borrow a car after his broke down at his Nottingham home! Gerry Armstrong played at late notice despite being booked up for the Corby game, and also being due in Brighton at 6.30pm to present prizes! Alan McDonald had his own testimonial to organise (being played on May 11th 1990), and Danny Wilson left a Luton Town public celebration early to help out.
O’Neill was also pleased that another old friend had played. “We were delighted George [Best] turned up. He did very well for us. The day was really about the fans, and on the last day a game was played at Loakes Park, they had a world class player to watch.”
George Best said: ”I’ve known Martin for quite a while, from playing in the Irish squad together. I never even thought about it. As soon as he asked me, I agreed to play. If I’m free to play, it’s no problem. I only play around a hundred of these games a year!” Best was mildly annoyed that his appearance was such a widespread relief. “The only problem is whenever I miss the one (game), they never stop talking about it. They never talk about the other 99. It’s terrific, when you think that a little club like this can pull in a crowd of 4,000 for a fun game.” And he admiited “I don’t know much about Wycombe Wanderers. I didn’t even know where Loakes Park was!”
Best spoke of his old mate O'Neill’s start in management. “It’s the other side of the line, isn’t it? He’s a grafter, I know that, and if enthusiasm’s anything to go by, he’ll do well.”
O’Neill also reminded the crowd that he was not a bad player himself either. "I came on, just to milk the applause,” he joked. “What about the trick when I caught the ball on the back of my neck, eh?”
As well as being the Loakes Park finale, this match was also held to raise money for Wycombe General Hospital’s Scannappeal, and O’Neill said he was very pleased with the funds they would receive.
The cast for the big day was varied. Actor Warren Clarke, a friend of Alan Parry, took time off from being belittled in Channel Four’s The Manageress. - “I did enjoy today. The next pitch is flat, isn’t it, so that’s got to be better?" O’Neill’s former team mate John Robertson combined well with Best in the match, and said he thought it was an “Excellent game and a brilliant turn up from the crowd. Magnificent.” The accomplished Mark Lawrenson, now manager at Peterborough United agreed. “Very good. Obviously it was a great turn out attendance wise on what was a historic game for Wycombe. Like all ex-players, you like to play, especially charity games. Obviously I know Martin from playing him many times, from kicking each other in Forest/Liverpool games. If you can help someone in game you help them don’t you?”
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