BACK IN THE DARK AGES, the UK kept up-to-date with the latest news, weather, entertainment, and sports with the help of a somewhat irksome teletext service from the BBC, named Ceefax. The service died of natural causes in October of 2012 and, for the most part, the people of Britain weren’t particularly moved by its passing.
A select few let nostalgia get the better of them and felt the need to vocalise their fondness for the simplicity of Ceefax. Others sent tweets expressing ironic outrage at its removal at the hands of the digital switchover; a process which helped to inform many who were under the impression that the service had already met its maker many years before. But, all in all, the inevitable expiration of Ceefax was a fairly underwhelming conclusion for everybody involved. That is, everybody except supporters of Wycombe Wanderers Football Club for whom the sight of the iconic pixel-block text never fails to conjure up memories of their club’s greatest FA Cup fairy tale.
The year was 2000. The nation, having witnessed the turn of a new millennium, was uncharacteristically jolly. Parties reverberated incessantly to the sound of Atomic Kitten, S Club 7 and Shaggy. The London Eye opened to acclaim along the Southbank of the country’s capital, and cinemagoers gushed at Tom Hanks’ touching portrayal of Cast Away Chuck Noland.
In the world of football, France followed their 1998 World Cup win with an all-conquering performance on the European stage, defeating Italy in the final of Euro 2000 thanks to an extra-time Golden Goal from David Trezeguet. Real Madrid notched their eighth Champions League title, defeating compatriots Valencia in the final; Arsenal lost out on penalties to Galatasaray in their pursuit of the UEFA Cup; and Luís Figo earned himself a host of new fans, as well as plenty of enemies, by crossing the ever-hostile Barcelona-Madrid divide for a then-world record fee of £37 million.
Down in the third-tier of English football, particularly for Buckinghamshire-side Wycombe Wanderers, there wasn’t a great deal to write home about. Finishing 13th out of 24 teams, in what was then known as the Football League Second Division, Wycombe were just two goals short of ending the season a place higher, in 12th; a position that guarantees the lamentable title of being officially the most average team in the league.
However, nothing about Wycombe’s showings in the FA Cup that season were average, and their performances in the early rounds saw them on their way to rewriting the club’s history on a near-weekly basis, en route to creating for themselves one of the most wonderfully absurd stories English football has to offer.
Wycombe began their FA Cup adventure at home in Adams Park, in the first round proper, where they made light work of Harrow Borough, vanquishing the London minnows 3-0. This earned them asecond round away tie at fellow Second Division club Millwall. A drab 0-0 followed, but in the replay, back at home, Wycombe were able to muster a 2-1 victory, and they made their way towards the next round.
As ever, the third round signalled the arrival of the traditional giants of English football, so you’d forgive Wycombe Wanderers’ supporters for being disappointed when their hopes of landing a favourable tie against one of the heavyweights – potentially setting up a money-spinning home game or a name-making giant-killing – were dashed as they were drawn at home to second-tier Grimsby Town. At Adams Park, where Wycombe disposed of Harrow Borough and Millwall, the Chairboys were unable to get the better of Grimsby, as the sides played out a 1-1 draw. However, 10 days later, on 16 January, the teams met again at Blundell Park and this time Wycombe were able to do the business, putting three goals past Grimsby goalkeeper Danny Coyle, sending them into the FA Cup fourth round for the very first time.
Managing to avoid a top Premier League side again, Wycombe were handed the task of defeating Wolverhampton Wanderers, in the (unofficially named) battle of the Double-Double-Us, for a place in the FA Cup fifth round. The game commenced on 27 January in front of a record crowd at Adams Park, where over 9,617 supporters witnessed another remarkable cup fixture. Having taken a deserved lead, Wycombe were pegged back by a Carl Robinson goal around the hour mark. But, failing to be enamoured by the thought of having their FA Cup adventure ended at this stage, striker Sam Parkin fired in the winner with just five minutes to go, sending the Wycombe faithful into raptures at the prospect of yet another progression.
The footballing Gods looked kindly upon Wycombe once more in the draw for the fifth round, allowing them to duck the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, or Liverpool, instead granting them a home-tie versus First Division Wimbledon. The club again set a new club record attendance at Adams Park, with the people of High Wycombe desperate to witness their club make history.
The journey looked to be coming to a premature end as Wimbledon made seemingly light work of their opponents, sitting comfortably on a 2-0 lead at half-time. But Wycombe manager Lawrie Sanchez had other ideas and, following an inspired triple-substitution just 10 minutes after the break, his side battled back against a complacent Wimbledon team, with goals in the 72nd and 80th minutes, to earn a 2-2 draw, and a replay three days later at Selhurst Park.
Though the tie required no superfluous narrative, Lawrie Sanchez was particularly desperate to progress as doing so would mean defeating the team with whom he had helped complete one of the all-time great FA Cup upsets, when his goal in the 1988 final was enough to see Wimbledon team upset the odds against English champions Liverpool.
Another tight affair followed and the sides remained level, at a goal apiece, for much of the replay. Once more Wycombe had people believing they had a feline-like quantity of lives, as a penalty awarded to Wimbledon in the fourth minute of stoppage time was saved by Wycombe’s Martin Taylor at the expense of Wimbledon substitute Wayne Gray. The game entered extra time and two more goals followed, first by a relieved Gray, who atoned for his penalty miss just a minute after the restart, and the latter with barely seconds left, as Wycombe centre back Paul McCarthy gratefully snatched his fourth FA Cup goal of the season to save his side – who had been down to 10-men since the 69th minute courtesy of Michael Simpsons’ second yellow – and send the game into a penalty shootout.
Their luck seemed to have finally run out, as Jamie Bates’ penalty was saved by Dons’ goalie Kelvin Davis, meaning Wimbledon only needed Mark Williams to find the net to send them through. But further glory was destined for Wycombe’s courageous custodian as Martin Taylor not only saved Williams’ effort but followed it up with a successful penalty himself, booking Wycombe’s place in the FA Cup quarter-finals.
Having masterminded successes against Harrow Borough, Millwall, Grimsby Town, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Wimbledon, the time had finally come for Wycombe to lock horns with a Premier League side. Their on-field indomitability alone had guaranteed that the season would live long in the minds of Wycombe fans but, off the field, further drama would ensure that nobody would be forgetting Wycombe’s early-millennial FA Cup run any time soon.
Not content with just a 43-place disparity between them and their quarter-final opponents, Wycombe were aiming to topple their Premier League adversaries with as many as five injured strikers, meaning the club were left to explore all possible methods of finding a man capable of leading their front line, ahead of their historic cup tie. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and so, with few other ideas to call upon, Lawrie Sanchez instructed the club to advertise their desperate need for a non-cup-tied striker, available as soon as possible. On Ceefax.
* * * *
The plan, labelled madness by some, worked
* * * *
Cue the swift response of an eagle-eyed agent, who had spotted the advert – presumably while perusing the previous evening’s lottery numbers or while indulging in a quick game of Bamboozled! – who had a client in mind that could just do a job for the Chairboys if called upon. His client: Roy Kabina Gina Essandoh, a 25-year-old Northern Irish footballer of Ghanaian descent, fresh from a handful of relatively uninspiring spells in Scotland, Finland, and Rushden & Diamonds, no less.
In Essandoh’s own words, “My agent saw the Wycombe site on Ceefax and, obviously, with the injuries and everything, and me not being cup-tied, he got on the phone to Lawrie Sanchez and they had a chat and he asked me to come down so I could play a couple reserve games.” But it wasn’t only a couple reserve games he featured in.
At Filbert Street, on 10 March, Leicester City awaited the smallest club left in the competition, and even greater history beckoned for Wycombe. Fearlessness was now part and parcel of the FA Cup ethos for Wycombe and it showed as they scored the game’s opener early in the second half, having limited Robbie Savage and co. to precious few chances in the first half. However, the lead lasted little more than twenty minutes, when a pass squared across the face of Taylor’s goal found a willing Muzzy Izzet who brought the Foxes back level.
But this wasn’t to be the end of the line for Wycombe, who had come too far not to jot down one last thrilling entry in the history books. As the watch on the referee’s wrist ticked towards the final quarter of the game, Lawrie Sanchez decided to throw caution to the wind. Gazing far beyond the noble feat of a well-fought draw that stood before him, he made eyes at the busty, blonde apparition that is the giant killing, and made his move: a double substitution. Clegg and Ryan departed; Castledine and new-boy Essandoh, who had been granted a rolling two-week contract by the gaffer, based on little more than the benefit of the doubt, entered the fray.
In the 93rd minute, with seconds remaining, midfielder Dannie Bulman received the ball in an advanced position, on the near side of the pitch. With clear instructions still ringing in his ears from his manager – who was now watching the game on a modestly-sized TV in the tunnel, having been sent from pitch-side by the referee following the denial of what Sanchez believed to be a clear penalty – Bulman gave any thoughts of heading towards the corner flag the boot, before affording the ball the same treatment, lofting it towards the far-side of Leicester’s penalty area. Jamie Bates leapt highest, heading it back towards the penalty spot, and there, ready to send the ball past a helpless Simon Royce, and send third-tier Wycombe into the FA Cup semi-finals, was none other than Roy Essandoh.
Not even Wycombe midfielder Steve Brown’s second yellow card, which bordered on the calamitous, following the removal of his shirt during Wycombe’s hysterical goal celebrations, was enough to dampen the spirit of Sanchez or his men as they saw out the last few seconds without issue and booked their place alongside Arsenal, Liverpool, and Tottenham in the last four of the cup.
For many of the Wycombe-inclined involved in that day at Filbert Street, that was as good as it got. The Blues met Liverpool at Villa Park in the semi-finals and, despite shutting them out for almost 80 minutes, succumbed to a 2-1 loss, denying Wycombe their first ever FA Cup final appearance. Essandoh no doubt turned down many leading roles in Hollywood – none of which could’ve eclipsed the story that made him a household name in Wycombe – to stick with the club that had given him his FA Cup berth, but was released at the end of the season and spent the next decade representing teams littered throughout the slightly less glamorous end of the English football pyramid, as well as the odd Northern Irish club, before retiring to become a personal trainer in 2012.
The adventure may not have ended the way some Wycombe fans dreamed it would, and Roy Essandoh may have wished for his moment in the spotlight to last a little longer. But as Lord Tennyson once put it, “Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” And, boy, do Wycombe Wanderers love an FA Cup run.
By Will Sharp. Follow @shillwarp