Wycombe Wanderers ended the 2012/13 season with a point after holding League One bound Port Vale to a 1-1 draw at Adams Park.
In what has been a tumultuous 125th anniversary season for the Chairboys, the stalemate was just about right as Dean Morgan’s first half penalty was cancelled out by Lee Hughes close range header.
A crowd of 7,120, the highest of the entire campaign, swelled by 2,828 Vale fans, paid homage to the Blues’ player-manager Gareth Ainsworth, who signed off the first part of that job title with his 600th and last appearance of his playing career.
The second part of that job title has been in place for just over seven months and in that time he has pulled off something of a minor miracle to ensure the side never became embroiled in a relegation battle and secured our much-cherished Football League status for a 21st season.
Even an experienced manager might have been put off by the bleakness of the situation he faced back in September following the sacking of Gary Waddock. Ainsworth, a rookie boss with only a couple of caretaker stints in the madhouse at QPR, has embraced the task with all the courage he has shown in those 600 appearances.
Less than a month into his reign the team were thrashed 4-1 by the Valiants at Vale Park, but on this occasion it was difficult to tell the teams apart as the Wanderers gave their promoted visitors a good game.
Both managers made several changes to their respective starting line-ups with Ainsworth recalling Captain Dave Winfield for his 100th appearance in the Oxford and Cambridge Blue of Wycombe.
Marvin McCoy and Kortney Hause were both recalled, whilst Bruno Andrade was given one last run out. That saw Joel Grant pushed up front alongside Dean Morgan, who made a very welcome return after missing the abject defeat to Barnet with a hamstring strain.
Both the pitch and the weather weren’t conducive to good football and it was the Valiants who created the first chance of the game when Ashley Vincent found space inside the box but sliced his shot wide.
The hosts’ first chance of note fell to Dave Winfield but he couldn’t keep his header down whilst Matt Spring and Morgan both blazed well wide of the target. A half-chance then fell to Tom Pope, but he ballooned his shot over the bar.
The breakthrough came on the half hour when a neat move down the right saw Andrade cross for Morgan at the far post. He leapt to challenge Chris Neal and when the ball broke loose the Vale goalkeeper pulled him to the turf to concede a penalty. It was Morgan himself who stepped up to coolly send Neal the wrong way from the spot.
Matt Ingram showed a safe pair of hands to hold onto Chris Birchall’s snap-shot from the edge of the box although there was a hairy moment when the young keeper did his best superman impression as he missed a cross and was grateful to claim the loose ball on the edge of his six-yard box.
The Blues took a narrow but deserved lead into the break and the second half started slowly with the visitors enjoying slightly the better of the possession. Vale boss Micky Adams made all three substitutions as they searched for an equaliser.
Ingram was called upon to flick Doug Loft’s shot over the bar with just over a quarter of an hour remaining, before the whole of Adams Park stood to greet the arrival of Ainsworth for his last appearance, with Andrade the man replaced.
It was one of Vale’s subs who made the difference as they drew level with eleven minutes to play. Chris Shuker’s right-wing corner was headed goalwards by Pope and Lee Hughes flicked a header into the roof of the net from inside the six yard box. A rather feeble pitch invasion ensued.
The last ten minutes were rather stretched as the Chairboys looked to snatch the points on the break. Ainsworth almost poked home Sam Wood’s low cross with five minutes left and Wood then nutmegged Loft only to shoot straight at Neal.
McCoy made a vital block to deny Hughes in the final minute before Pope failed to get any power in his shot when left unmarked just six yards from goal and Ingram made a comfortable save.
Jennison Myrie-Williams almost won it for Vale in injury-time when he was allowed to run past a trio of half-hearted challenges and his shot was heading towards the top corner before Kortney Hause made a crucial block.
The script looked to have been written when in the second minute of injury-time a counter attack saw Morgan slip in Ainsworth on the left side of the penalty area but he fired straight into the arms of Neal.
The final whistle blew moments later to signal the end of the contest and the 2012/13 campaign. Whilst Port Vale celebrated their promotion, Wycombe Wanderers end the season in 15th place in the League Two table with 60 points on the board.
There has not been another season in the 20 years since the Chairboys were promoted to the Football League that has presented so many challenges and whilst the achievements of this season might seen modest, they have only been possible by a monumental effort from the Trust, manager, players and staff.
This has been a season of consolidation and with it comes real hope for the future. We have seen glimpses of just how good the side could become under Gareth Ainsworth and if his playing career is any guide, we are all in for a rollercoaster ride in the next two years.
Ratings: Ingram 6, McCoy 6, Winfield 7, Hause 7*, Dunne 6, Andrade 6 (Ainsworth N/A), Spring 6, Lewis 6, Wood 6, Morgan 6, Grant 6