How to replace a legend? This club appointed another one

Matt Bloomfield and Gareth Ainsworth celebrate Wycombe’s historic promotion to the Championship in 2020  (Getty Images)
Matt Bloomfield and Gareth Ainsworth celebrate Wycombe’s historic promotion to the Championship in 2020 (Getty Images)

On Monday morning, Matt Bloomfield was in his office unpicking Colchester United’s weekend defeat to Carlisle when his phone buzzed. It was Rob Couhig, the American owner of Wycombe Wanderers, calling to ask Mr Wycombe himself if he was ready to come home.

Bloomfield was only five months into his first managerial job at Colchester, whom he’d steered out of the League Two relegation zone, but the lure of a club he had represented for his entire 19-year playing career was strong. The next morning he drove to meet Couhig at a hotel in Marlow, Buckinghamshire where Wycombe’s owner stays when he’s in town. The car is Bloomfield’s peaceful place where he likes to think, and he spent the two-hour journey round the M25 mulling his decision before their meeting.

By 10:30am, while Gareth Ainsworth was saying an emotional goodbye to his Wycombe players after a decade in charge, Couhig and Bloomfield had come to an agreement. Forty minutes later, Bloomfield arrived at the training ground where he was introduced to many of his former teammates as their new manager.

And so the longest managerial spell in the English game was over in a matter of hours, with Ainsworth finally departing for QPR, and a new reign had begun. Most clubs would spin into existential crisis at the loss of a figurehead like Ainsworth after 23 years as player, captain and manager, who lifted the club from their deepest despair and led them to their greatest glories. But at Wycombe they simply replaced one legend with another.

It helps that it is the kind of club where people tend to stick around, not because of money or even potential success on the field, but because Wycombe wraps you up and makes you feel part of something: call it a project, a movement, even a family, and it is only possible to create a family atmosphere with a parental figure at the helm.

Ainsworth is famous for his rockstar looks, memorably wearing red snakeskin cowboy boots for the League One play-off final, but his leadership of Wycombe was more nuanced. He would turn on the sprinklers in the morning and turn out the floodlights at night. He took time to know every club employee, celebrating their birthdays and consoling their bereavements.

His work can be measured by the 668 games he was involved in (around 10% of Wycombe’s 135-year existence) and the three promotions he helped achieve, leading them to the Championship for the first time in the club’s history. But his greatest impact was more deep-rooted: reviving a dying entity in financial ruin, galvanising the community, and instilling the kind of belief that can only be fostered by a man of great persuasion.

“He has a real knack of making you believe in what he’s telling you,” then-captain Bloomfield told The Independent in 2020. “Before the [League One] play-off games, it got to the point where it felt like no matter who we were playing, he convinced us … by the time he finished his meeting, there was nothing and no one that was going to stand in our way. We were going out there to win.”

There is a story of Ainsworth’s stirring teamtalk on the morning of the play-off final, in a hotel room near Wembley. The manager showed his players moving video messages from friends and family, and even a few celebrities, wishing them luck before the biggest game of their lives. Amongst them was a message from the daughter of a lifelong Wycombe fan who had died of a heart attack a few months earlier, whose funeral Ainsworth attended. “Dad would have been so proud to see Wycombe at Wembley,” she said. “I’m starting to see why he was so devoted.”

Then Ainsworth told the players to close their eyes and imagine Bloomfield lifting the trophy in a few hours’ time. “I had hairs stand up on the back of my neck,” Bloomfield remembers. “I was emotional, I had to get out of the room.”

Many of the players were happy to reach League One, the pinnacle of their careers; Ainsworth had made them understand that there was more, that a place in the Championship was not only possible but waiting for them. That afternoon they went out and beat Oxford United to claim it.

Gareth Ainsworth leads Wycombe’s celebrations in the League One play-offs (Getty Images)
Gareth Ainsworth leads Wycombe’s celebrations in the League One play-offs (Getty Images)

So perhaps Bloomfield’s biggest task is to follow Ainsworth while carving his own path: emulation without imitation. Three and a half years after that play-off final and one relegation later, he picks up the reins in a good place. Wycombe are seventh in League One on a five-game winning streak, and their only two defeats since the start of December have come against the league’s outstanding two teams, Sheffield Wednesday and Plymouth Argyle. They have games in hand over those above them and there is real optimism about reaching the play-offs once more.

Bloomfield will receive a rousing reception in the dugout at Adams Park next week, though his focus is on the immediate challenge of Saturday’s trip to Shrewsbury Town one place behind Wycombe in the table. In time he will put his own stamp on the team with a more possession-based philosophy, but continuity is key right now.

What will Bloomfield take from Ainsworth into the job? “That the power of being one is always so much more powerful than a group of individuals,” he told The Independent this week. “That’s the biggest takeaway that I took to Colchester and the biggest one that I will bring back. Nothing can persuade me away from the team ethic, the team being number one, everyone pulling together, the whole football club, supporters, staff, players, management: that power of being together and driving a football club forward.

“It would be naive to start ripping up all the good work the gaffer’s done,” he added. “He’s the most successful manager in Wycombe’s history. His impact on the club and the people, it’s a long-lasting legacy that he’s left. I have so much respect and love for him and Dobbo [assistant Richard Dobson], I wish them really well.”

It was telling that Bloomfield referred to Ainsworth as “the gaffer” throughout. There can’t be many managerial changes where a successor speaks about his predecessor with such admiration. But then this is no ordinary replacement, either: Wycombe have the rare luxury of replacing a legend with a legend.