Reading can divert their focus away from the Championship on Tuesday night - cup football is back. The Royals make the short trip north into Buckinghamshire to face Wycombe Wanderers, a side we’ve not faced in competitive football since February 2002.
How would you describe Wycombe’s status at the moment? Are you still trying to establish yourselves in League One, or do you have loftier ambitions?
I wouldn’t describe our status at the moment as anything more than ‘a League One club’. That might sound very simplistic, but it’s true. Despite strengthening to the point that we could be a solid mid-table team, our primary aim remains survival - and that’s unlikely to change unless we get to around Christmas and find that we’re in a position to reasonably set our sights higher.
New investor Rob Couhig - who could become the majority owner in the not-too-distant future - has stated his ambition to get us to the Championship, although I can’t find a timescale that he’s put on that. It’s an admirable ambition, if an unrealistic one in my opinion, but if we’re to even come close to reaching those dizzy heights, we’re going to need to consolidate in this division - and that starts with surviving again, hopefully by more than the three points we did last season.
Promotion from League Two in 2017/18 was the penultimate step of the club’s five-year plan, the end goal of which was to be sustainable in League One. As far as the club are concerned, we achieved that last season, but I disagree. I don’t think we can be classed as sustainable in League One yet; hard as it is to make any club profitable, we’ve been running at a significant loss.
For now, we remain a small fish in a big pond and still have one of the smallest budgets in the bottom two divisions. We’re still punching above our weight, thanks in no small part to the phenomenal leadership of Gareth Ainsworth.
Who’s your player to watch out for?
I would say Paul Smyth, but I’m not sure if he’ll be allowed to play by his parent club, QPR.
So, of those I’m certain are eligible and who I reckon will play, I’m going to say Fred Onyedinma. Effectively frozen out Millwall, you’d think he was the worst player of all time if you looked at their fans’ general Twitter reaction to his departure. We know that’s a load of rubbish, having previously had him on two loan spells in which he excelled - one in our League Two play-off final season of 2014/15, one in the first half of last season in League One.
A blisteringly quick winger (or number 10 or even striker should the situation require), he’s an ‘edge of your seat’ player capable of scoring some stunning goals. Right-footed, he’s fast enough to beat players on the outside when playing from the right, and skilful enough to get the better of them on the inside when lining up on the left.
It’s anyone’s call as to which side he’ll operate from in this game - chances are he’ll switch partway through - but I really hope he starts and shows what he can do against higher level opposition. He’s already scored once since returning - on his third debut for us - but that was a close-range header; we want something special like his goal against Scunthorpe last year!
How important has Gareth Ainsworth been for you?
Nothing I write is really going to do this justice, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we’d be in the National League or worse without Gaz and dedicated assistant Richard ‘Dobbo’ Dobson, who’s been at the club 12 years. As player-manager, Ainsworth guided us to our great escape in 2014, when we stayed up by three goals on the final day - with Sir Colin Daniel of Mansfield Town scoring to send Bristol Rovers down instead.
The following season, we came within seconds of reaching League One, only to concede an agonising 122nd-minute equaliser and lose on penalties to Southend at Wembley. A couple of unspectacular League Two seasons followed, which were more memorable for cup runs than how we did in the league, before we finally returned to the third tier after seven years away. Throughout it all, we’ve barely had a pot to p*** in - it’s often been said that had we done, Ainsworth would have been sacked during a poor run of form - and mostly had to play what has been described as a brutal brand of football.
Gareth and Dobbo have taken us to League One and kept us there against the odds, all with almost exclusively free and loan signings - even of those in the current squad, only Onyedinma cost anything, and that deal was effectively a swap for Jason McCarthy. They’ve developed an excellent reputation for developing young players - be they cast-offs or loanees - and polishing diamonds in the rough that no one else spotted. As a result, young and unsettled/unwanted players want to come to Wycombe now, and we’ve made some more very encouraging acquisitions this summer.
I think I spotted two calls for Ainsworth to go when we endured a horrible 12-match winless run last season - two. That speaks volumes about how instrumental he’s been to Wycombe Wanderers, as does the panic that began to ensue when most of us were convinced he was off to QPR back in May. Our legendary dugout duo are the most important people at the club.
How does he like to set Wycombe up?
To get under the opposition’s skin is the simple answer, but there’s more to it than that. Formation-wise, we’ll probably go with our usual 4-3-3 - either that or a good old 4-4-2. If Adebayo Akinfenwa plays, then it’s primarily a case of long balls up to him with two mobile wide forwards playing off him and feeding off his knockdowns - although the Beast is equally adept at holding play up on the deck.
In our first two games, the same three players have made up our top three in terms of touches: Akinfenwa and full-backs Jack Grimmer and Joe Jacobson. I think that tells you a lot about what you can expect to see should the big man be involved.
How do you see the game going, and what will the score be?
The last time we played a Championship or Premier League team, it was a 4-3 thriller with Norwich City in round three of the Carabao Cup last season. Our old nemesis Jordan Rhodes helped the Canaries to the win, but we gave it a right good go and should have taken it to penalties. So expect us to play completely without fear, whatever side we put out - expect a few changes but nothing wholesale - and whoever we come up against.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see another high-scoring encounter - something which I think the lack of extra time helps facilitate. I notice that you’ve not gone out at the first round of this competition since 2013, but have no doubts that we’ll do our best to try and change that.
Score? I’m going to stick my neck out and say 2-2 with Wycombe winning it on spot-kicks...