Wycombe Wanderers are not just in a Play-Off Final - but the League One Play-Off Final, competing for a place in the Sky Bet Championship. Just how good an achievement is that?
I think it’s incredible. I’m finding it hard to find the words to explain what an achievement it is to even get to this stage. When you’ve been in football and you’ve played those hard games home and away in League One, it’s a really tough league to get out of. We tried it in my era for years and years, we had a dramatic rise up from the Conference to Division One and we came pretty close to going that one step further. We were a strong side, but we didn’t achieve it.
What Gareth Ainsworth has been able to do this season is incredible. It’s been well documented that he’s probably had one of the lower budgets in the league, but he’s cobbled together a team - a very good team - and they’ve been really diligent in the transfer market. They’ve certainly done their homework because you don’t just stumble across a side like that, so to achieve what they have this season which will culminate in Monday’s Final at Wembley is just incredible to see.
At the start of the season, predictions had Wycombe to finish near the bottom end of the table, some even predicted them to go down. You’ve worn the badge, you’ve been around the club - what is the success down to?
Football is a fantastic game, we all watch the top level, and the standards now compared to when I played have just gone through the roof - it’s almost perfect football. But when you drop down the leagues, you don’t have the money to sign players like that, so in any walk of life when you get a group of people who are willing to take instruction, work hard, put their selfishness to one side and work together as a group it’s incredible what you can achieve.
It was the same when I was at the club. We had success - yes with some ability - but really it was the togetherness that pulled us through and got us there, and I can see exactly the same happening with the modern-day Wycombe Wanderers team. From the outside, it looks like Gareth has got them on a piece of string. They want to work for him, they’re good players as well, but their whole heartedness and commitment is what Gareth is bringing out in them as a team.
Is it fair to call them underdogs?
I think when you look at the sides who competed in the Play-Offs, you’d have put Wycombe as the underdogs in that four-horse race. I don’t think anything has changed now, they’ve been underdogs since day one of the season. But that’s something that Wycombe Wanderers has thrived off for years and years. There have been a string of sides over the years that have succeeded on the underdogs name and I think that’s the way Gareth will like it going into the Final, they’ve got nothing to lose.
Wycombe is a small, close-knit community and a small town, it was never an original Football League club so I think it will always have that ‘tag’ so to speak.
You made over 500 appearances for Wycombe Wanderers, scoring 50 goals - just how much does this club mean to you?
I can’t express really how much it does mean to me. I was playing local football and didn’t really have too many hopes of playing professional football. I used to travel over to the club with my cousin Steve Whitby, who went on to play for Wycombe and I'd just watch the reserve games. There was a real buzz around the place at the time, they had a new stadium, Martin O’Neill was manager and it was a really exciting time. I got the opportunity to be signed by Martin and that’s where my journey began. There was a real buzz around the place and I think that’s something that Gareth is capturing now as well, which hopefully propels them to success on Monday.
During that period under Martin O'Neill you achieved a lot success. It’s an era that will always be remembered by Wycombe fans - what was he like to work under as a manager?
He was brilliant. For one, he gave me my opportunity and I’ll always be thankful for that. But he made the game so simple for me, I knew exactly what my job was, he gave me so much encouragement both on and off the pitch and yes, he upset people along the way, he was a hard task master but I put him right up there with some of the best managers in the game. He was certainly the best manager that I’ve ever had, he just had a way of inspiring people.
I loved the challenge he set us and I loved the journey that he took us on. I often hear people ask ‘what makes you a winner?’ I think you have to be given the opportunity to be a winner, and if Martin hadn’t insisted and assembled a team full of winners, then who knows. I certainly wouldn’t have won promotions or Play-Offs at Wembley. He allowed me the opportunity because of his drive and desire to become a winner.
You had some brilliant times for the club; you played in all three of the sides’ visits to Wembley in the 90s, you won promotion, you scored in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Liverpool - have you got a highlight from your time there as a player?
All of them! The Wembley visits were unbelievable, the first one in particular was so special, especially because I didn’t even think I’d become a professional footballer, it just sort of happened for me so that’s always going to be special. For my family to be there and watch us win at Wembley, it will never be forgotten.
The cup run that we had in 2001was also really special, it was a fantastic achievement back in the day and something that doesn't really happen much these days. And the fact that I was able to score in that as well, it’s the one moment in my football career that probably propelled Wycombe into the spotlight, playing against Liverpool and reaching the FA Cup Semi-Final. We had a fantastic run and beat some big sides along the way.
You played such a huge part in what was such a successful period for Wycombe, fans were almost spoilt with success in the 90s. You are known as a club legend amongst the Wycombe fans, even now after all these years - how does that make you feel?
It’s really nice. I live locally, so it’s nice to be recognised as that at times. In my every day live now I don’t even mention that I play football, but there’s no doubt about it, it’s nice to have the recognition at times and I am very proud of my achievements in football, so if people want to call me a legend I’ll take it!
After you finished playing you went on to manage the club for a short period - how did that come about?
It was at quite a difficult time for the club, to be honest. I was approached by the Chairman who asked if I could oversee things while they searched for a new manager, and I was more than happy to do it. I asked a friend of mine Gary Smith, who was working with the Youth Team, if he’d help me run things. The Chairman did ask if I wanted any help from anyone else but I said I’d prefer to do it my way with it only being for a short period of time, and I got a real buzz from it.
We’d been on a bit of a bad run and when I took over we went to Leyton Orient who were top of the league and won, which was a great achievement at the time. So it was a great opportunity for me and something I enjoyed. Time moves on and I’m no longer involved with football, but it’s a sport I love, Wycombe is a club I love and I always look out for results.
And just how much of an influence has Gareth Ainsworth had on the football club and how key has he been to recent success?
You’ve only got to look at where they are now. I think at one point it was probably a toss up between whether he’d keep the job or not, if you think back to the Torquay game years ago. But I think Wycombe and Gareth Ainsworth is a really good advert for Chairmen and clubs that give a manager some time, and if you do that then things might just turn around as they have done at Wycombe.
It’s a very stable club and Gareth has been given the time to implement his morals, his ethos and everything that comes with him and what he stands for. It’s clear that he’s been able to put that in place and it’s also clear that every one of his players works their socks off for him and that’s outstanding.
Obviously this time around will be different with no fans in the ground. But as someone who’s experienced a Wembley Final and knows what it’s like to play for promotion, how do you approach the game?
It’s going to be difficult for the players and the manager. These occasions are made ever more special by fans, we all play for the fans. There’s no doubt that sometimes these pressure games are stressful, but the minute the whistle goes, the enjoyment you share with your But it definitely shouldn’t diminish the achievement of getting to Wembley, they’ll have coped with the situation throughout the Semi-Final process, so hopefully they can go to Wembley and have no distractions. They’ll have a hard task but if they can manage that then maybe there’ll be a point soon where they can celebrate with the fans, even if it’s not at Wembley on Monday.
I would just enjoy it. I enjoyed playing in the big games. You go through some worrying and nervous times when you play in the league and there’s a worry about losing some of the smaller games, so in the big games I think you’ve got to enjoy it. The side will have to play with their head and not their heart, but these occasions don’t come around often so I really hope they enjoy it because they’ve earned it.
Watch the full interview with Keith Ryan below: