By the time Gareth Ainsworth lifted the trophy aloft, his open-neck navy shirt was soaked through, saturated from the champagne his Wycombe players showered over him in delirium. They had every reason, too, for Joe Jacobson had scored the winning goal from the penalty spot with 11 minutes remaining to elevate a team tipped for relegation into the second tier for the first time in the club’s 133-year history.
Last week Ainsworth could not help but smile in disbelief as he said the words aloud but Wycombe will be playing in the Championship next season after a gutsy performance edged out Oxford.
For a team confined to non-league until 1993 and one that started the season with nine players, two of whom were trialists, it is a remarkable achievement. If ever there was an image that underlined the spirit running through a tight-knit squad it was the sight of Cameron Yates, the third-choice goalkeeper and yet to make a league appearance, in floods of tears half an hour after the final whistle, his chin resting on his knuckles.
Another striking scene was during the first drinks break, when backroom staff and every substitute joined the huddle to hang on the every word of Ainsworth, their rock-star, scraggly-haired manager in red cowboy boots. It was worth him canning band practice after all.
“I will have to call next Monday’s off as well but the Cold Blooded Hearts will be back soon,” he said. “I belted out the national anthem so I’m hoping that got noticed. This is a Wycombe Wanderers’ greatest hit by a million miles. It’s rock ’n’ roll time.”
Ainsworth prepared his side for the occasion by widening their pitch at training to replicate the surface here and they appeared the more comfortable side during an entertaining first half. There were nail-biting moments, with Anthony Stewart, who opened the scoring with a towering header, marvelling in defence, twice denying Mark Sykes with last-ditch interventions. But Sykes found an equaliser midway through the second half when his overcooked cross looped in, catching the Wycombe goalkeeper Ryan Allsop cold.
Ainsworth puffed out his cheeks but his team’s belief did not die despite Oxford going close to taking the lead with Allsop twice denying Rob Dickie.
The drama continued when Simon Eastwood, the Oxford goalkeeper, flattened an onrushing Fred Onyedinma. Jacobson dispatched the spot-kick to complete a truly heartwarming tale and hoist Wycombe into the Championship against all odds.
“We probed and pushed for 95% of the game, but didn’t take full advantage,” said Karl Robinson, the Oxford manager. “The game sometimes isn’t fair as all the things that were out of our control today, didn’t fall for us.
“Take nothing away from Wycombe, they full deserve the victory and to go up. But it’s two errors from us that will cause us nightmares for weeks to come. The penalty incident almost seemed to happen in slow motion. Right now, it feels like one of the lowest moments in my career.”