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'We had no fit strikers so we got one from a Ceefax ad'

 

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Memory lane: Former Wycombe Wanderers manager Lawrie Sanchez is pursuing a career in football administration these days. Photo: Getty Images

Memory lane: Former Wycombe Wanderers manager Lawrie Sanchez is pursuing a career in football administration these days. Photo: Getty Images

Memory lane: Former Wycombe Wanderers manager Lawrie Sanchez is pursuing a career in football administration these days. Photo: Getty Images

It is an article of faith among Tottenham fans that a year that ends in '1' is good for their FA Cup ambitions. But as they take on Gareth Ainsworth's Wycombe Wanderers in the fourth round tonight, they are facing a side whose most substantial moment in the competition also came in a year ending in '1'.

In 2001, the Chairboys, then in League One, made it to the semi-finals, losing only by the odd goal to eventual winners Liverpool. And 20 years on from engineering what remains one of the finest cup runs by a lower-league team, the then-manager, Lawrie Sanchez, still shakes his head in amazement at the memory.

"It became a snowball that took over the whole town, never mind the club," he says. "The only thing that mattered was the cup. It inverted every managerial norm: we were resting people in league games. We had a 20-penalty shoot-out that went on all night to decide an earlier round.

"I became convinced we were destined to win the thing. I remember coming off the pitch against Liverpool really disappointed. This was a Liverpool side that won five trophies that year and I thought we were going to beat them. It was that surreal an experience."

And if anyone knows what a seismic cup shock entails, it is Sanchez. After all, he scored the winner for Wimbledon in the 1988 final. In fact, from the moment he took over at Adams Park the previous season, he was never embarrassed about alluding to his 'Crazy Gang' success.

Character

"Oh yeah, I used it in team talks," he says. "Not so much as an example of tactics but as character. I'd say things like, 'Vinnie Jones was a hod carrier from Willesden who's ended up in Hollywood, it just shows what belief in yourself can do'."

Wycombe's cup run that year was a long haul, consisting, including replays, of 10 matches. It began in the first round with a win over non-league Harrow Borough. From then on, at each stage the team they faced were higher up the pyramid.

By the fifth round, it was Wimbledon, then in the Championship. "Gareth (Ainsworth) was playing for Wimbledon in that game, so he'll remember how mad that tie was," Sanchez says. "We took them to a replay, then there was extra-time with both sides down to 10 men, then we had a 20-penalty shootout and our goalkeeper scores the winning spot-kick. After that, you really do think it's your year."

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Roy Essandoh celebrates after his goal knocked out Leicester City in the quarter-final of the FA Cup in 2001. Photo: Getty Images

Roy Essandoh celebrates after his goal knocked out Leicester City in the quarter-final of the FA Cup in 2001. Photo: Getty Images

Roy Essandoh celebrates after his goal knocked out Leicester City in the quarter-final of the FA Cup in 2001. Photo: Getty Images

 

But it was in the sixth round, away at Leicester City, then fifth in the Premier League, that the narrative turned properly comic book. Wycombe's winning goal was scored by Roy Essandoh, who Sanchez had recruited only a few days earlier via Teletext.

"That story encapsulated our cup run," he says. "It wasn't made up. All true. We had all three centre-forwards with cruciate injuries. We were sat around ahead of that Leicester game discussing where we could get someone who could do us a job, wasn't cup-tied and was a free agent."

Among the many forwards Sanchez approached were Ian Wright and Gianluca Vialli. But Wright was reluctant to steal someone else's cup thunder, while Vialli's financial demands were well beyond Wycombe's reach.

"Then someone said, 'Why don't we advertise on Ceefax?' I said, 'Why not?' And we got a call the following morning from Roy's agent. Roy came in and trained. He wasn't great, but he did OK. So I said we'll play him in the league on Saturday.

"Imagine giving a trial to someone in a league game: that's how mad it was. Again, he did OK. So we take him and put him on the bench. And then he only goes and scores the winner. Not only that it was a fantastic header, a classic old-school jack-knife, like something from the Fifties."

Not that Sanchez saw the goal in the flesh. He had been sent off after berating the linesman for missing what Var would have spotted was a blatant penalty.

"Embarrassing," says Sanchez of his dismissal. "You know ranting and raving does you no good. Doesn't mean you can stop yourself. It's a passionate game and that game was passionate."

Footage of him watching the goal on a tiny television set under the stands at Filbert Street, celebrating in a mackintosh still soaked by an incessant downpour, became symbolic of the Cup's delights.

"After the game, I told the chairman that we'd have to sign Essandoh," Sanchez says. "He asked me why and I pointed out he'd just got us the goal to take us to the semi-final. So, we signed him to the end of the season. And that was the only goal he ever scored for us. Looking back, you think: that's ridiculous."

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But it was not just Sanchez's unorthodox recruitment that fuelled the run. Both Wycombe's quarter-final goals came from set-pieces. Which was no coincidence.

"It's the one thing as a lower-league manager you can get right in cup ties," he says. "The majority of our goals came from set plays. We worked hard in training practising delivery, practising movement in the box. It came from my time at Wimbledon. I knew it was a way we could bridge any gap in ability."

Ultimately, however, it was not a tactic that allowed them to progress to the final.

Instead, they were beaten by Gerard Houllier's treble-chasing Liverpool.

"The one thing I do remember about coming up against Houllier is the linesman called him Gerard and me Sanchez. Sums it up, really."

Numbing as the semi-final defeat was, the cup run more than enhanced Sanchez's managerial reputation.

He left Wycombe to lead Northern Ireland from 124th-ranked team in the world to 27th, beating England, Spain, Denmark and Sweden in the process.

These days, after completing an MBA at Salford University to complement the BSc in management science he undertook when a young player at Swindon, he is looking to move into football administration. But wherever he goes, those memories of 2001 will remain prominent.

"It was the season after Man United didn't enter the cup, even though they were the holders," he recalls.

"A lot of people said that was the start of the competition's decline. But I think we showed that magic is still possible."

Tottenham, be warned.

© Telegraph Media Group Limited, 2021

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]


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