After reaching the League One Play-off Final last season, Wycombe Wanderers have not had exactly the start that they had hoped for this time around.
The Chairboys are sitting 10th in the third tier having spent much of the campaign to date in the bottom half.
It was a summer of modest recruitment, aside from the high-profile return of defender Alfie Mawson, with a lot of faith being placed in the recently formed B Team, which has produced stars like Anis Mehmeti and Chris Forino in the last two seasons.
Some would say that has backfired slightly however, with significant injury problems in the midfield ranks in particular.
Added to that, key veterans like Joe Jacobson, Garath McCleary and Sam Vokes have dropped off rather than maintaining prior levels.
And yet, Wanderers are only three points off the top six, having played one game more than most competitors, so all is not lost if the injuries ease up and the right January additions can be made.
“It’s been a rocky start, with a few excellent results mixed with a few very disappointing ones for a side with promotion ambitions,” says George from The Wycombe Way.
“The injury ‘crisis’ hasn’t been kind to us by any means, but I’m not so sure if that can be used as an excuse – I’ll change my mind if we win ten in a row with a fully fit squad.
“We’ve seen some of the best and worst football this club has seen in the past few years – every week the mood changes because the fans know how good this squad is and can be, but they aren’t performing as well as they should be.
“All-in-all, it’s not been a horrendous start, but we want more. I’m hoping that when several key players return, we can go on a good run of form, and will be back up near the top six in no time.”
With performances not quite at the desired level, George discusses Gareth Ainsworth, either the club’s greatest ever manager or second only to Martin O’Neill: some feel this could be his last season at the helm.
“I will never say it should be, but you have a debate on whether it could be. I fully believe that he deserves to decide his own fate, barring a calamitous rest of the season that leaves the ownership with no choice, but even then, I think they’d be reluctant.
“I’ve always said there’s no ceiling for Wycombe under Ainsworth, as long as some sort of external investment is there.
“The only obstacle he faces is the quality of players available on a shoestring budget majorly decreases the higher up the league system you go, especially for a club of our size.
“If his heart is in the job, we’ll get another ten years minimum from him.”
Ainsworth hasn’t been helped by the absence of three midfielders: stalwarts Dom Gape and Curtis Thompson along with terrier Josh Scowen, before the latter returned to the starting line-up for Saturday’s 2-0 victory at Forest Green.
The volume of injuries is one thing, but the distribution of them has forced Ainsworth to operate without a combative midfield presence, with the makeshift combination at times being Lewis Wing and converted wide man Nick Freeman.
“Wing has been excellent this season, playing in an unfamiliar position,” George says, though neither he nor Freeman would be considered tough-tacklers, which can be a problem when considering how important tenacity is to Ainsworth’s sides.
“The injuries are quite clearly a key factor, but it’s not an excuse anyone should be using.
“Josh Scowen is the first name on the team sheet when he’s fit, but his absence (or anyone else) is not the reason for the uninspiring style of football.
“We’ve conceded sloppy goals from set-pieces, so I’m not sure that Scowen being on the pitch would suddenly fix all our defensive problems, although he did made a difference at Forest Green on Saturday.
“I can’t wait to have the other two back, and the level of performance can only improve with any one of them in the side, but their absence is not an excuse.”
One factor that has made the injuries more problematic than usual, however, is that just two senior first-team signings have been made: goalkeeper Max Stryjek and defender Mawson.
Another 10 joined up with the B Team, although Ainsworth often refers in interviews to the absence of the injured D’Mani Mellor, which suggests the Manchester United recruit would come into his selection thinking too.
The 21-year-old has so far started on only one occasion in the league and come off the bench seven times.
“Whether more ‘could’ have been done in the window, I’m not so sure,” says George.
“Again, it comes down to budget. The B-Team is one of the ways that Rob Couhig is building that sustainable future, but it’s clear as day that the first team squad has been hindered to achieve that.
“Mawson & Stryjek are both excellent signings and could be upgrades on Anthony Stewart and David Stockdale respectively, but in truth we need an awful lot more, especially depth wise.
“There were a few players as well who were lucky to be given new deals, so it was a quiet summer compared to expectations. We could see some additions in January, assuming we can sort a few loan deals for the B-Team lads.”
A big positive of the season so far though is the form of Mehmeti, who George jokes is “not that good – don’t think anyone should be interested in January!”
“He’s excellent,” George admits. “He’s probably on course to receive the Player of the Season award if he keeps it up.
“I’ve been following Wycombe properly for eight or nine years now and he’s the best I’ve seen at Adams Park in that time and for me he eclipses Ebere Eze when he was here.
“His raw ability is unmatched in this division, the scouting and signing process with him was something we’d never seen at Wycombe either, which makes it even sweeter!”
George also heaps praises on Stryjek, who he says has made him eat his words.
“I was critical of his signing when it was on the grapevine,” he admits, “but he’s rapidly turning into one of the best ‘keepers we’ve had.”
George said back in July that an eighth or ninth placed finish looks realistic for the Chairboys, and he’s “not backing down from my pre-season prediction”.
“Anywhere in the top half will still signal a good season. I hope Ainsworth is correct in saying that we should be very excited for the second half of it!”
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