Gareth Ainsworth makes Wycombe unlikely Wembley headliners

Ben Fisher on 13 July 2020

When nine players pitched up for the first day of pre-season last summer, there was little expectation that Wycombe Wanderers would reach the League One play-off final. Then again, how many other managers have had to cancel band practice because they have a date at Wembley?

Gareth Ainsworth, the country’s longest-serving manager and part-time frontman, is the inspirational leader who has taken a team tipped for relegation to the verge of an extraordinary promotion. “When your gaffer drives into training in a Mustang, wearing a leather jacket, and plays rock‘n’roll while working out in the gym, how can that not be contagious?” says the defender Darius Charles.

Wycombe’s rise is nothing short of incredible but Charles’s personal tale takes some beating. Last year, before being released after playing only a handful of games owing to injury, he was told to retire in order to prevent the prospect of a hip replacement before the age of 40. But Charles had other ideas, which is why there were tears when he returned to the starting line-up in August. Without setting foot on Wembley turf, the centre-back believes he has won his biggest battle.

“I didn’t think I’d ever be able to play again,” he says. “If by the grace of God we do win and we come out triumphant and get promotion, I will be 100% be crying. I’m not ashamed to say it. I walk out on to the pitch and say a prayer every game. I look up the sky and just say ‘thank you’ because I’ve been afforded another opportunity to get on that green stuff.”

The play-off semi-finals against Fleetwood were a rarity for Charles in the sense that they were three days apart – a tight turnaround for any player, let alone one suffering from osteoarthritisas he has no cartilage in one of his hips. “It has taken a toll on me but if ever there was a time to suck it up and get on with it, it’s now, because the rewards are definitely worth it.”

He required pain-relief injections and, during the week, he is micro-managed, his training tapered in terms of time and distances. Cycling helps maintain fitness but he has had to tailor his game to compensate for his ailment and says turning vegan has helped him become leaner and improve his agility.

Darius Charles thought his career was over last summer.
Darius Charles thought his career was over last summer. Photograph: Simon Dael/BPI/Shutterstock

“Listen, every time I partake in any physical exercise, I’m putting myself at risk, even if that is playing football in the garden with my son,” says Charles. “Any time I jog, run, jump, or bend down to pick something up, I’m putting myself at risk. Every time, any action – even walking – it’s bone on bone, so it’s extremely important for me to do my exercises, which I have been doing since I was diagnosed and told not to carry on that I will continue to do until the day I die to give myself the best possible chance to be as mobile as I possibly can. It’s not just about what I’m doing right here, right now. I’d like to think I’ve got a long life ahead of me once I finish my football career.”

Ainsworth is fast approaching eight years in the job and has cultivated a priceless team spirit. He is a Wanderer and a dreamer. And who can blame him, given this season was supposed to be another fight for survival? Matt Bloomfield and Anthony Stewart, who were part of the team that dodged dropping into non-league on the final day of the season at Torquay six years ago, will likely start on Monday against Oxford United, while Joe Jacobson, Adebayo Akinfenwa and Dom Gape complete a gang of “generals” who have almost 2,000 appearances between them.

Akinfenwa led the post-match debrief at Adams Park last Monday, urging focus in a team huddle. “Once you’re in Wycombe, you seem to stay there a long time and I think that’s part of our strength,” says Ainsworth. “We have a real sense of belonging and I’m looking forward to taking that family we have to Wembley.”

Last year Ainsworth’s band, the Cold Blooded Hearts, released a cover of Dion’s The Wanderer and when Wycombe sealed their passage to Wembley a flag that read: “Wild Thing … I Think I Love You” was draped behind the home dugout, but the red cowboy boots and rock star image are not a gimmick; he has forged a reputation as one of the brightest managers outside the Premier League.

An endearing character with an insatiable work ethic – be it sanitising the cones, collecting balls from the bushes or dragging the sprinklers out before training – he has guided the club to the biggest game in their 133-year history and, with his assistant Richard Dobson, he has created a culture in which players at both ends of their career thrive, from Akinfenwa and Charles to Ebere Eze, the QPR midfielder who excelled on loan as a teenager. This season the Bournemouth loanee Nnamdi Ofoborh, released by Millwall at 16, has blossomed on Ainsworth’s watch.

“Ebere’s loan gave me a lot of confidence,” says Ofoborh. “If he didn’t go on loan to Wycombe, I don’t think he would be the player he is today, and I’m sure he would say the same thing. I know Ebere so when I saw him on loan, saw what he was doing, playing off Akinfenwa, scoring, that made me happy. I’ve known Fred [Onyedinma, the Wycombe striker formerly of Millwall] for a while and seeing Fred doing his thing, it showed me that the gaffer is for young players and he lets players express themselves. He’s a really good man-manager. If he wants you to improve, he’s not the type to do the hairdryer. At Wycombe they allow you to be free and do what you do best.”

Before the lockdown Ofoborh was living with Bloomfield, whose family home is in Ipswich, keen to pick up good habits by studying his diet, as well as the captain’s conduct. The 20-year-old paved the way to Wembley by scoring in the first leg against Fleetwood with a thumping shot, prompting Eddie Howe to send a congratulatory message.

“For him to reach out means a lot to me and going into Monday it gives me a lot of confidence,” he says. “It’s my first real season in professional football, so it’s all a bit mad but I feel like I’ve gone from a boy to a man since arriving; I’m a lot stronger mentally and physically. The same way people doubt Wycombe is the same way people doubt Bournemouth, but I feel like both of us have a lot of people to prove wrong.”

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