Few EFL fans and pundits would have predicted before the start of the campaign that Wycombe Wanderers would be seriously discussed in 2020 as possible promotion candidates, despite their recent poor form and leaky backline.
Most people, including I, believed that they were relegation certainties along with Bolton Wanderers and Bury, and even with the latter’s eventual expulsion after the season kicked off, I didn’t change my mind.
However, Gareth Ainsworth, the long-time charismatic and distinguished manager of the Chairboys, had other ideas. It appeared at one point that he would have to cut an already small squad relative to other League One clubs, but American investor Rob Couhig first gained shareholder status and then subsequently became the majority owner of the previously fan-owned outfit.
That extra much-needed financial stability facilitated the captures of players in both their prime and coming towards that. None turned heads in quite the way the loan signing of winger Rolando Aarons from Newcastle United, but in truth, his impact on the pitch was overshadowed by the free-scoring of left-back Joe Jacobson (including an incredible hat-trick against Lincoln City) and the unique and extremely effective style of a certain Adebayo Akinfenwa.
As a result of their quality and many others in the ranks, they reached the summit. Yes, other more fancied teams have faltered, but Ainsworth steered his charges to the summit on merit, losing just once before the 21st of December.
Since then, things have dropped off - five defeats in seven (with three of those shipping 12 goals combined) have eroded both the healthy goal difference and some of the defiance and bullishness they’d been able to enjoy previously.
However, Ainsworth isn’t a man to panic over a clutch of small setbacks. He further endeared himself to the Buckinghamshire supporters during that superb climb up the ladder by rebuffing interest from Lincoln and elsewhere.
He has experimented with shapes other than the go-to 4-3-3, partly out of necessity (where injuries have occurred) and partly to keep the opposition guessing.
Despite their poor form, Wycombe remain bang in the hunt for promotion
There have been other mitigating factors in their drop-off - two costly red cards and moreover, coming up against a tranche of resurgent, strong opposition whilst without the likes of Fred Onyedinma and Jack Grimmer have all contributed. Having to shuffle the deck without strength in numbers will almost always have a knock-on effect.
The January transfer window thus far has been on the quieter side, and it’s unlikely there’ll be much of a clamour from within the fanbase for that to change.
Aarons has been recalled by his parent club whilst Jason McCarthy has been brought in to lessen the impact of Grimmer’s continued absence. The aforementioned Onyedinma should be back before too long, which could help to alter the outcome of tightly fought contests with his pace and trickery back in their favour once more.
The level of expectations on Ainsworth are still comparatively small to all of the other likely promotion and play-off contenders, as in many ways are the resources available. That might actually count in his favour - with just over a week to go to move around personnel, there could be longer periods of adjustment for them to bed in and more immediate pressure to quickly succeed.
Wycombe as a club are not set up for Championship football. Much like Burton Albion before them, if they were to achieve it, Couhig and the rest of the board are unlikely to change tack, and the legendary rock-and-roll manager just as unlikely to press for significant investment.
The run of fixtures in February appear much kinder than they’ve endured so far this year; Ainsworth will not treat any of them as a given, but if they can cut out the costly dismissals and avoid lengthy spells on the sidelines to key men, they stand every chance of at least cementing their place in the top six.
The more pragmatic line to take is that if they were to ‘fail’ in their quest to do that, it would still be a season far and away above what most would’ve realistically hoped for.
Trust in the manager is absolute, and when you have that reassurance, it normally leads to success of one sort or another. It certainly feels as though the Chairboys are still on an upward trajectory.