It is 10.30am on Thursday, the morning after Manchester City put six goals past RB Leipzig, but at Wycombe Wanderers’ training ground the focus is not on their upcoming glamour trip to the Etihad Stadium but their next League One opponents. Downstairs the kit man, Steve Vaux, is applying the Carabao Cup logo to the sleeves of the away kits but upstairs Gareth Ainsworth has the attention of his players as he runs through some clips of Charlton Athletic.
An hour later Ainsworth drags a goal into place in preparation for an XI v XI game, which he occasionally halts to make a point. “If you let him turn on the ball there, bloody hell we’ll be in all sorts,” he says, urging the centre-backs Anthony Stewart and Ryan Tafazoli to get tight when on halfway. Making mental notes from the sidelines is Dr Misia Gervis, the sports psychologist, while the analyst Josh Hart films from a scaffold tower. Gone are the days of Hart and David Wates, the head of sports science, making up the numbers as defenders in practice matches, as they did on the eve of promotion to the Championship.
Training begins with a passing exercise and an attack v defence drill, which is a couple of minutes old when Curtis Thompson rifles in a shot. Ainsworth encourages his players “to get in the boiling pot” adding: “We can’t hang out on the edge of the box waiting to hit a worldie.” Garath McCleary whips in a delicious ball – “early crosses will kill teams” – before Brandon Hanlan slips in Daryl Horgan with a neat reverse pass. “Superb,” his manager says. The bulk of the squad head in after the practice game but the assistant manager, Richard Dobson, leads a shooting drill for the forwards.
Thompson played at Notts County alongside an 18-year-old Jack Grealish, who helped the club avoid relegation to League Two on the final day. “He would go past one, two, three players, slow down and then go past another,” Thompson recalls. “He would come in off the left and do his bits, as he does now. Jack especially did a lot for us that season of the ‘Great Escape’.” Did Grealish wear petite shin pads then too? “Yes, and he still had the massive calves.”
As the players decide whether to have chicken or a vegan tart for lunch, outside a net bulges. “That’s our CFO,” says Ainsworth, as the chief financial officer, Pete Couhig, in jeans and trainers, leathers in a volley from a cross by the B team head coach, Sam Grace. The end of training is the cue for eight coaches, and Couhig, nephew of the chairman, Rob, to have some fun. “Let’s have a bit of ‘Quadrant’,” says Ainsworth. They play this game of, in effect, foot golf – “par 24, it should be three shots a hole,” Wates says, deadpan – every day after training, with the aim of kicking the ball into each corner. Ben Sayers, the GPS analyst, and Couhig contest a play-off to decide the loser or, in other words, who has to get teas and coffees in.
Getting the drinks in is easy since a coffee machine replaced a kettle in the canteen, one of the smaller improvements at the training base, with new pitches and changing rooms part of a summer facelift. “We joked with Rob [Couhig], the owner, in pre-season and said: ‘We’d love a coffee machine,’” the goalkeeper David Stockdale says. “He said: ‘Right, beat Accrington first game, we’ll get you one.’ Me being me, I emailed him and said: ‘When’s it coming, Rob?’” Stockdale breaks into laughter. “When you have a squad spirit like us, everyone is involved.”
Stockdale is speaking as Lisa Bowker, a volunteer, strims the bushes. Rob Couhig, who completed his takeover in February 2020, arrived from New Orleans a few hours earlier. He is paying for a coach load of office staff to travel to the game on Tuesday and all injured players will attend. Wycombe took Tottenham to the wire in the FA Cup in January, when José Mourinho resorted to introducing the cavalry from the bench, but given Wycombe were 21st in League Two the last time City lost a League Cup match, in October 2016, they are hardly expecting a picnic.
“We’re going to have to score a couple at half-time,” Stockdale says, laughing. “You still never know. Records are meant to be broken.”
Wycombe continue to make impressive strides under Ainsworth but the gulf to City remains huge, even if both teams boast a “tunnel club”. In the gym, Tjay de Barr, nicknamed “the Gibraltar Tevez” by teammates, is among those doing strength rehabilitation work. De Barr equalised on his debut against Stevenage in the previous round to set up a shootout, in which he scored the decisive penalty, before celebrating with Pete Couhig who, standing among fans on the terraces, embraced the striker. For now, De Barr drives a Toyota plastered with the Wycombe crest and lives with Will, the stadium chef.
If anything reinforces the humility, it is Ainsworth and his staff counting the balls in before heading inside. Ten minutes later Matt Bloomfield, a player-coach, returns from the stinging nettles with the missing ball and the marks to prove it before a meeting with Gervis, Dobson and three players.
“I think counting the balls in is something I will always do,” Ainsworth says. “They are £40 or £50 a pop, so if I’m asking the chairman to help me out financially with the budget, I’m going to do my best on the other side. We’re never, ever going to be too big for our boots.”
Stockdale did not see City demolish Leipzig – “sometimes it is better not to watch them put six past somebody else and then worry” – but his son, Billy, took in the third-round draw. “It came out that Man City [would play at home] and he was like: ‘Oooh, wouldn’t that be good?’ It came on that it would be us. He ran around the room, gave me a list of players’ shirts to get and how many autographs he wanted. I said: ‘I’m not sure I can do that for you, son, you need to be realistic here.’ He was like: ‘All right then, just win then.’ I was like: ‘Right, which shirts do you want?’”
It is 4pm and time for Ainsworth and Hart to study training. In Ainsworth’s office is his bass guitar and on the wall a record of The Wanderer, which his band the Cold Blooded Hearts, of which he is the lead singer, released a cover of in 2019. They are due to release their first album next spring, produced by Geoff Downes, who wrote Video Killed the Radio Star and, Ainsworth says, is one of the greatest keyboard players of all time. “This is not Waddle-Hoddle or an England anthem,” he says. “I came out of the studio and he said, ‘You sound a bit Neil Diamond-ish’ and that was good enough for me, although I’d have preferred Jim Morrison.”
Paying the Premier League champions and Pep Guardiola a visit is an occasion not lost on Ainsworth, who acknowledges “everyone in the world expects Man City to pummel Wycombe”. On Tuesday he will swap the Nike Premiers for cowboy boots and concedes the first touchline battle will be in the fashion stakes.
“I would love to get a little conversation at the end with Pep. I can speak a little bit of broken Spanish so I’m hoping I can impress him with that,” says Ainsworth, whose partner, Donna, is Venezuelan.
“I would love to be able to just take one snippet away from who I consider to be one of the top five managers of all time. It is going to be awesome.”