Forgotten Grounds: The Imps and Loakes Park, Wycombe

A ground on which Lincoln City only played once in their long history was Loakes Park, the original home of Wycombe Wanderers, writes Malcolm Johnson.

Wycombe Wanderers FC was founded at a meeting held at the Steam Engine public house in Station Road, High Wycombe in 1887 by a group of young chair factory workers (hence the club’s nickname of The Chairboys) who had started a team to play matches. It is highly likely the club was named Wanderers after the winners of the first FA Cup in 1872.

The club initially played friendly matches on common land known as The Rye, before moving to a ground at Spring Meadow in 1893. In 1895, after Spring Meadow was sold in order to make way for a new railway line the club agreed the rental of open ground at Loakes Park with Lord Carrington, owner of the surrounding estate.

The ground was located next to Wycombe General Hospital in the centre of the town and the first match there took place on 7 September 1895 with Wycombe’s first ever game in the FA Cup against Park Grove.

In 1897 the club began work on levelling what was a stony, sloping pitch and while this was being done, they played at first at nearby Wycombe Abbey Park then a ground at Daws Hill Park before returning to their home after the two years it took to complete the work. Even then there was still a slope to the ground of over 11 feet.

In 1896 the club joined the Southern League and competed in the Second Division until 1908 when they decided to pursue amateur instead of professional football and joined the Great Western Suburban League.

Meanwhile the first stand to be built at the ground had been constructed in the 1903-1904 period with seats for 400 spectators.

The club joined the Spartan League in 1919, and after winning the championship two years in a row moved to the Isthmian League in 1921.

A new wooden main stand with around 1,000 seats was opened in 1923 along the south side of the ground at a cost of £1,500, but the two ends of the ground would remain as open terracing for the rest of its history.

 

For the next sixty years Wycombe sought to be the greatest amateur club in the country and reached the final of the FA Amateur Cup in 1931, winning it by beating Hayes 1-0 at Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium. The proceeds of this partly funded the covering of the shallow terracing opposite the main stand which was known as the Bottom Stand owing to the way the ground sloped down towards it. It was also affectionately called the “Cowshed.”

In 1947 a significant event occurred when former player Frank Adams, who had captained the club to its two Championship victories in the Spartan League, and who had now become a successful businessman bought Loakes Park from Lord Carrington and donated it to the club.

The record attendance for the ground was set on Saturday 25 February 1950, when 15,850 were present to see Wycombe beat St Albans City 4–1 in an FA Amateur Cup Fourth Round tie.

The Isthmian League championship was won in 1956 and again the following year when the final of the Amateur Cup was reached for the second time with a 3–1 defeat to Bishop Auckland at Wembley. Wycombe then dominated the Isthmian League in the late 1960s and early 70s, winning it four times and only once finishing lower than second place over an eight-year period. A comparative decline in the club’s fortunes then occurred following the abolition of amateur football by the FA in 1974 which left the club without a sense of purpose. Invitations to join the Alliance Premier League (now the National League) on its formation in 1979 and again in 1981 were rejected due to concern over the increased travelling costs.

A seventh Isthmian League title was won in 1983 but promotion to the Alliance Premier League was once again turned down.

The club finally decided to accept promotion to what was now known as the Gola League in 1985, having finished third in the Isthmian League Premier Division. Their first season in a national league ended in relegation on goal difference, but they bounced back straight away after winning an eighth Isthmian League title in 1987.

While Wycombe were racking up over 100 points and 100 goals to gain promotion back to what had now been renamed the GM Vauxhall Conference Lincoln City were in the process of becoming the first club ever to suffer automatic relegation from the Football League. The two clubs therefore met for the first time ever at Loakes Park on 7 November 1987.

 

As was often the case with City that season their visit brought Wycombe’s highest attendance of the season, 2,105 being present to see goals from Bob Cumming and Phil Brown in a 2-1 win move the Imps into third place in the league table. The Wycombe side included two later City players in Matt Carmichael and Graham Bressington with the latter in fact moving to Sincil Bank less than three weeks later for a fee of £20,000.

The most noticeable thing about Loakes Park, apart from the rather quaint 1920s-built main stand was the 11-foot side to side slope of the pitch, and I don’t think any of us visiting supporters – or players – had ever seen anything like it.

 

The Imps ended the season as champions to return to the Football League while Wycombe avoided relegation in 18th place. Much better times were ahead for them, though, starting with the appointment of 36-year-old former European Cup winner Martin O’Neill as manager in February 1990.

Meanwhile, the club had been searching for a site for a new ground ever since the early 1970s when the neighbouring Wycombe General Hospital first announced plans to expand onto the land that was occupied by Loakes Park. A compulsory purchase order had been placed on the ground in the 1980s, however the Wanderers had difficulty in obtaining planning permission for a new location as no less than 14 proposals at various locations were all dismissed. However, the initial rejection of a proposed ground at the end of Hillbottom Road in the Sands district of High Wycombe was overturned by the Home Secretary, and Wycombe Wanderers were able to begin work on their new ground in 1989. This was funded largely by the proceeds from the sale of Loakes Park to developers for £3.25 million and was named Adams Park in honour of the club’s benefactor Frank Adams.

The last league game at Loakes Park saw a 2-1 win against Stafford Rangers on 3 May 1990, while the last game of all was a friendly match against an all-star XI, including George Best, on 7 May 1990 in front of an attendance of almost 4,000.

 

The club moved to the new Adams Park in time for the start of the 1990/91 season and three years later under Martin O’Neill were promoted to the Football League, and have had several meetings with Lincoln City since then.

The site of Loakes Park was redeveloped, partly as extra car parking for the nearby hospital, and partly as new housing, with the only remaining part of it being the gates which were transferred to the new stadium.

PHOTO CREDITS

Loakes Park – the Final Day from Wikipedia By DipsyDave – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16985898
Main Stand after closure from  www.chairboys.co.uk
Cowshed in 1988 and Gasworks End from Twitter
Main Stand 1989 from the book ‘Lost Football League Grounds’
Hospital End from www.alchetron.com