Reading and Wycombe Wanderers are badly in need of points at the moment, but for very different reasons. While the Royals sit fifth in the Championship, five points clear of seventh, the Chairboys have had a pretty miserable season since beating Oxford United in the League One play-off, sitting rock bottom of the table and 11 points off safety.
So what does Tuesday night’s clash at Adams Park hold in store? We spoke to Tom Hancock from JJ’s Left Foot to find out about their new 4-1-4-1 set-up, how well the ex-Reading contingent is getting on in south Buckinghamshire, and what the future entails for Wycombe Wanderers.
How’s the season gone for you so far?
It’s gone slightly worse than I expected, but then I never expected us to stay up, only hoped that we would – which I think was the general outlook among the fans back in September. Injuries to key players, wastefulness in front of goal, Covid and, to an extent, some baffling officiating have hindered us pretty much all season, leaving us further adrift at the bottom than we might have been, but survival would have been a minor miracle even if everything had gone right for us.
Still, I’d say we’ve been competitive in the majority of games and we’re currently playing as well as we have at any stage of the campaign, so hopefully we put enough points in the final 16 games to finish higher than bottom.
Wycombe have four former Royals on the books: Uche Ikpeazu, Garath McCleary, Jordan Obita and Andre Burley. How have they all got on so far?
Well Burley hasn’t played a single minute as he was brought in as ‘one for the future’, so I can’t say anything about him. Ikpeazu has been an absolute revelation and is probably the most complete striker we’ve had under Ainsworth – it’s just such a shame he wasn’t fully fit until December – while McCleary has added class and still looks right at home at this level. Obita only recently arrived and took a few games to get up and running, but he looks like a very dependable alternative to Joe Jacobson (even if his left foot isn’t quite as wand-like…).
How do Wycombe set up tactically?
It’s taken a long time because of all the injuries, but we finally have an identity again. We’ve been playing a 4-1-4-1 with Josh Knight, a rock at the back for much of the campaign, shifted forward into a holding midfield role (although he will make the occasional surge up the field and won a penalty in last Tuesday’s defeat to Derby).
McCleary or Fred Onyedinma, David Wheeler, rising star Anis Mehmeti and Daryl Horgan have been the four behind lone striker Ikpeazu, who’s proved himself more than capable of leading alone and wins more fouls than any player in the top four divisions bar Jack Grealish. We’re still a very direct side, but there’s a better balance and structure to our play now.
What are your side’s main strengths and weaknesses?
We’re strong in the air, although Ikpeazu isn’t quite as much of an aerial threat as you might assume and our main danger men in that sense are Wheeler and towering centre-back Ryan Tafazolli, who both scored headers in our last home win against Cardiff in December. We’ll also comfortably match any team for work rate and were (I’ll admit I don’t have the data to see if this is still the case) creating among the most high turnovers in the division. We’ve finally become clinical in front of goal as well.
I actually don’t think we’re particularly weak in any one area anymore; we just lack quality simply because of our budget, which our chief financial officer has said is the lowest in Championship history. The only thing we might be lacking is a significant set-piece taker as Jacobson has missed the last couple of games injured – but fingers crossed he’s back for this one.
What have you made of Reading so far this season?
The numbers have you as a very clinical team and quite a creative one too, even if you’ve become less rock solid at the back as the season has gone on. Obviously, you’re on a bad run of form at the moment, but I think you’ve shown enough to be considered play-off contenders (I mean, you’re still fifth). This division tends to go a bit crazy at the business end of the season, though, so let’s see how the next couple of months pan out…
Wycombe look set for relegation at this point – do you hold out much hope of staying up? If you go down, how well placed are you to bounce back at the first time of asking?
Obviously the players and staff will keep believing until it’s mathematically impossible (see David Stockdale’s interview after Saturday’s goalless draw at Millwall), but I’m 99% sure we’re down. We’ve performed miracles before – just getting to the Championship was one – but this is a whole different kettle of fish and I expect us to be back in League One in 2021/22.
We should be very well set for a top six challenge, though – I really don’t think we’ll lose many key players at all this summer – and hopefully we can follow in the footsteps of Rotherham, who bounced straight back after being relegated with the second tier’s record low points total and look like they might finally make it stick this season after a few years of yo-yoing.
How will the game go, and what will the score be?
The relentless schedule is taking its toll on everyone, so I don’t think it will be a particularly intense affair, but I’m hoping it will be quite an attacking one with both sides needing wins for different reasons. It certainly won’t take much for it to better the game at your place entertainment. 2-1 Wycombe with a stoppage time winner from one of the ex-Reading boys