I kind of like Gareth Ainsworth. He’s a bit of an eccentric, which is good in football. Eccentrics are in desperately short supply, amongst managers especially. He has also always spoken positively about Sunderland, which is more than can be said for other EFL managers .I especially admire the way he tried to juggle the disparate careers of being a professional football manager and simultaneously being in numerous failing rock bands.
All this being said, I have no respect for the way in which Wycombe play and hope that in a decade’s time, I get to see Ainsworth as a pundit, leather jacket clad, sweating under Sky’s studio lights, hair dye dripping all over, anxiously discussing how his Wycombe side succumbed to a great Sunderland side in the League One play-offs many moons ago.
I feel this has got to be our year and in Wycombe, we are presented with the best opportunity to date to win in a play-off final. I mean no disrespect to Wycombe. Dealing with their particular brand of anti-football is often a soul crushing ordeal and they are where they are for a reason: because, after all, you can get to a League One play-off final without playing football. That sounds disrespectful, but it isn’t. After all, they win ugly and have actually escaped this division since we have been down here, albeit through spurious circumstances. In many ways if we were more like Wycombe in previous years, we might've been promoted another season.
Wycombe are, in a sense, the ultimate League One side. They epitomise everything we struggled to deal with in other seasons – a strong, physical side that frustrate you, who make themselves hard to break down whilst also making it easy for fans to break down through watching them. Watching them over the two legs against MK Dons, the neutral would have been dismayed at the standard of football. MK were good, but really struggled to break down the Wycombe wall.
An analogy: MK Dons were us under Lee Johnson, Wycombe were, well, Wycombe. I would've had no faith in playing Wycombe under Johnson in a final. Sure, we beat Wycombe at home comfortably, at the start of the season when we were excellent. In January, a late goal meant that we were denied victory at their ground. That was the beginning of our slip under Johnson. Despite having secured 4 points against Wycombe this season, I would not have fancied us in this final were we still managed by Johnson. MK Dons play great football and beat Wycombe in 4 of their 5 games this season. In their last game they had 29 shots to Wycombe’s 2. MK Dons are still not facing us in the final.
Despite this, there is reason for optimism. We are meaner than we were before. Last night, although we were deep at times our game management was excellent. Just like Wycombe are a frustrating side to play, at times we mastered their tactics. Based on how Alex Neil’s team has defended, we just don’t concede very often. The fact is we only concede more than 1 goal when ex-players score. Connor Wickham for MK Dons, Tom Flanagan for Shrewsbury. Surely not Josh Scowen for Wycombe...
Our defence of Danny Batth and Bailey Wright at the centre is solid and with Corry Evans and Luke O’Nien to complement this solid back three, or four, or five, we are arguably as tough to break down as Wycombe. Maybe this time we can match them for bastardry, because personnel wise, we are much better man for man.
Alex Neil seems to be the man for getting tactics right and I have no qualms about how he will set us up. He will research, research and research to get the team’s composition and tactics right as he has shown time and again. We’ve also got a penchant for scoring late goals as demonstrated yesterday, it's ideal for knockout football.
There’s a great feeling around the club at the moment and we are presented with the opportunity to make things even better a week on Saturday, to extend this buzz over the entire summer. Wycombe will be a tough game, an ugly game. But as we showed against Wednesday, we can control games, we can withstand pressure and we can go til the end.