Wycombe Wanderers put in arguably their best performance of the season to date as striker Matt McClure came off the bench to fire home a succulent 86th minute as they stunned title chasing Gillingham with a thoroughly deserved 1-0 victory at the Priestfield Stadium.
In truth the Chairboys should have won by four or five goals but were profligate in their finishing. Had they not won it through McClure’s sublime piece of skill it would have been something of a travesty against Martin Allen’s rag-tag bunch of hoofers and long-throw merchants.
There were 17 league places separating the two sides at the start of the evening but the visitors made a mockery of the table as they showed their hosts how to play with both determination and skill. Although the Wanderers dominated the second 45 minutes, the first half was a far more even contest with the hosts shading the opening half hour.
Player-manager Gareth Ainsworth named an unchanged starting line-up, as did his counterpart Allen, and the only change was on the bench with new father McClure replacing Junior Morais, who has now gone out on loan. The Gills started the game on the front foot with ex-Blue Steven Gregory ballooning a second minute shot into the 87 away fans sat on the temporary seating in the Brian Moore stand.
Defender Anthony Stewart, who put in a faultless display, did well to prevent Deon Burton’s pull-back from reaching striker Cody McDonald. Winger Curtis Weston registered the first shot on target in the tenth minute but Blues goalkeeper Jordan Archer made a comfortable save. Full-back Matt Fish was unable to get any power in his shot shortly afterwards and midfielder Charlie Lee and striker Deon Burton both fired over the bar from long range.
The Gills almost found the breakthrough midway through the first half when midfielder Steven Gregory’s corner was headed downwards by Legge but Archer was equal to it as he dived to his right to push the ball away. Winger Sam Wood had a goal ruled out for offside two minutes later but most of the play was still at the Wanderers goal.
Weston blazed over from thirty yards and Burton was also unable to keep his shot down from a tight angle shortly afterwards. McDonald then got the better of Stewart out on the left but the defender stayed with him and the loan attacker could only shoot into the side-netting.
Wood was denied the opening goal by a incredible save from home goalkeeper Stuart Nelson in the 35th minute. He stretched every sinew to touch Wood’s vicious swerving drive over the bar. Lee’s long throw soon became ubiquitous and it almost worked in the 41st minute when Legge headed the ball on for McDonald who flicked his header just wide of the post.
Nelson, who was the hosts’ best player by some considerable distance, was called upon again just a minute later when winger Joel Grant was allowed to run from his own half before shooting from just inside the box. It took a slight nick off Fish and the goalkeeper did well to push the shot away for a corner. The first half finished goal-less but the visitors would have been encouraged by their strong finish.
Having earned the right to play, Wycombe Wanderers went on to dominate the second half but fail to take their chances. The first chance of the second half was created by the Gills from yet another Lee long throw and midfielder Stuart Lewis was forced to hack Burton’s header off his own goal-line in the midst of an almighty goalmouth scramble.
With 53 minutes played Wood slipped the ball through for Kuffour inside the box but his low shot was kept out by the feet of Nelson. Defender Dave Winfield then saw his header from the resulting corner taken by midfielder Josh Scowen cleared off the line by debutant loanee Anton Robinson. Weston and Burton were both unable to hit the target in sporadic attacks from the hosts.
Kuffour missed another gilt-edged chance on the hour mark when he met Scowen’s free-kick but shot straight at Nelson from just five yards. From the rebound Stewart appeared to have been bundled over by defender Joe Martin but Premier League referee Roger East waved play on.
Allen was forced to take off winger Myles Weston who spent the whole evening in loan defender Michael Harriman’s pocket. Soon afterwards leading goalscorer Danny Kedwell was thrown on in place of Burton but it made little difference with the Blues now in control of proceedings.
Despite that fact, a goal still proved elusive. With 71 minutes played, striker Dean Morgan, who put in yet another enigmatic performance, left Legge for dead as he raced into the penalty area only for Nelson to save with feet once more. Five minutes later Ainsworth brought on McClure in place of Kuffour.
McClure could have scored within two minutes of coming on when Grant robbed Lee of possession on the right and then ran into the box before squaring for the substitute striker, whose goal-bound effort was blocked by Fish inside the six-yard box.
It really did look like it wasn’t going to be the Chairboys’ evening when Lewis put McClure clear through on goal but he had too much time to think, admitting afterwards he must have changed his mind about four times, before side-footing the ball past Nelson and the wrong side of the right-hand upright.
Yet sixty seconds later he more than made up for it when Scowen picked Gregory’s pocket before playing the ball to McClure. It clipped the back of the strikers heel but he reacted superbly, flicking the ball over Fish with his left-foot and taking a touch before clinically firing past Nelson at his near post.
The Gills relied on their only weapon, the Lee long-throw, in an attempt to rescue a point with defender Adam Barrett flicking a header just wide and then in the 89th minute meeting Gregory’s left-wing corner with another header which Lewis had to head off the line.
The last chance came to substitute Chris Whelpdale in the second minute of injury-time but he headed wide at the far post. Both Morgan and Archer were booked for time wasting with the latter subsequently assaulted by a rotund Gillingham teenager as he attempted to take a goal-kick.
It was a minor distraction as the final whistle blew to signal a fabulous result. It has been a tough 125th anniversary season for the Chairboys but this performance was one to savour. It was one full of pride and passion and worthy of the shirts that represent each and every one of those 125 years.
There were many tough seasons during that time, as well as ones to enjoy as glory was won. In the warm afterglow of such a victory, it is difficult not to start dreaming that with this team, under the guidance of Gareth Ainsworth, there could just be some more glory around the corner.
Ratings: Archer 7, Harriman 7, Dunne 8, Stewart 9*, Winfield 9, Scowen 8, Lewis 8, Grant 6, Wood 8, Kuffour 6 (McClure 76 mins – 6), Morgan 6.