The warm applause that greeted Wycombe Wanderers as they left the pitch was of little consolation for Gareth Ainsworth. The side from League Two had come agonisingly close to pulling off one of the great FA Cup upsets and causing severe embarrassment for Tottenham Hotspur in the process.
They led by two goals at half-time, then had one foot in the fifth round when Garry Thompson restored their lead with six minutes left, and it beggared belief that Ainsworth looked like he wanted the earth to swallow him at the end of an impossibly entertaining contest.
Wycombe’s manager looked inconsolable. He appeared to be on the verge of tears as he put his hand over his face and tried to make sense of how his heroic players had managed to lose. Tottenham were down to 10 men when Thompson made it 3-2, having lost Kieran Trippier to an injury after using up their three substitutions, and still there was time for Mauricio Pochettino’s side to subject them to the cruelty of defeat when Joe Jacobson turned in Heung-Min Son’s shot in the seventh minute of stoppage time.
Placing greater focus on Tottenham’s emerging title challenge, Pochettino made nine changes to the team that drew at Manchester City and handed opportunities to some of his younger players, raising Wycombe’s hopes of causing an unlikely shock. Given tremendous backing by their noisy travelling supporters, Wycombe sought to capitalise on Tottenham’s unfamiliarity with a fast start and the reward for their positivity came when they took a deserved lead in the 23rd minute.
By the time Paul Hayes walloped his meaty volley through a mass of bodies, the only surprise was that it had taken so long for Wycombe’s goal to arrive. They had underlined their attacking intent as early as the first minute, when Sido Jombati capitalised on indecision in Tottenham’s defence by charging down the right and lifting a deep cross towards Adebayo Akinfenwa, who rose unchallenged to head back across goal for Paul Hayes, who wastefully headed against the bar from close range. Wycombe’s captain would not allow that miss to affect him.
Instead Ainsworth’s admirable side continued to unnerve Tottenham with their endeavour and verve. Dominic Gape and Luke O’Nien performed with distinction in midfield and Wycombe often favoured a direct approach, sending long balls towards Akinfenwa and feeding off their big striker’s hold-up. Spreading anxiety with his physicality, Akinfenwa went close with a couple of headers, while Sam Wood almost caught out Spurs goalkeeper Michel Vorm with a clever lob.
The only thing missing for Wycombe was a goal. The longer they went without one, the more it felt as though Tottenham would discover their fluency and make them pay with one moment of ruthlessness. Yet when Heung-Min Son, a nimble threat in the middle of Tottenham’s front three, found himself with an open goal after a calamitous punch by Jamal Blackman, the South Korean screwed wide from a tight angle.
Wycombe breathed a huge sigh of relief; then they scored. Josh Onomah, otherwise anonymous, headed Joe Jacobson’s corner only as far as Hayes, who watched the ball drop before displaying wonderful technique and composure to hammer a left-footed shot past the stranded Vorm, a brilliant moment for a 33-year-old journeyman who has spent his entire career scrabbling arond the lower leagues.
Tottenham were stunned. They were all over the place, enraging Pochettino with their lack of cohesion. Passes went astray, crosses sailed behind for goal-kicks and when they did create chances to equalise, they were denied by determined Wycombe defending. Blackman pushed Son’s drive to safety, while Moussa Sissoko saw a shot bundled off the line by Hayes. Who else?
Yet Tottenham were playing in fits and starts. Back came Wycombe, refusing either to lie down or sit back. When Akinfenwa made a nuisance of himself, the ball ran for Wood to race into the area and wait for Cameron Carter-Vickers to let himself down with a clumsy challenge that betrayed the 19-year-old defender’s inexperience. Hayes squeezed his penalty past Vorm, sparking joyous scenes on the visiting bench.
Tottenham departed the field to boos at half-time and presumably faced worse from Pochettino in the dressing room. The Argentinian responded by replacing the speedy but aimless Georges-Kévin N’koudou with Vincent Janssen, a substitution that gave Tottenham a focal point in attack.
Wycombe will reflect on the moment when Harry Winks, tussling with O’Nien, rashly shoved his opponent to the ground and only received a booking early in the second half. Winks could easily have been sent off and Tottenham made the most of that reprieve by raising their quality and intensity, with the increasingly dangerous Son’s shoot-on-sight policy rewarded when his deflected shot beat Blackman at his near post just before the hour.
Pochettino immediately threw on Moussa Dembélé and Dele Alli and now it was Wycombe’s turn to wobble. Overwhelmed by Tottenham’s sudden burst of energy, their stubborn resistance wilted and the equaliser duly arrived when Roger East pointed to the spot after Aaron Pierre obstructed Janssen. Pierre looked aggrieved, but Janssen bundled his penalty underneath Blackman’s dive.
The drama was unrelenting, the pace frenetic. Having made their three substitutions, Tottenham were reduced to 10 men when Tripper limped off with an injury and Wycombe’s belief returned. On in place of the tiring Akinfenwa, Myles Weston produced one of the great cup dribbles, surging past Eric Dier on the left and speeding into the space vacated by Trippier.
Now Weston had a choice to make: whether to go for glory himself or seek support from his team-mates. He opted for the latter, pausing before whipping a beautiful cross into the middle, where Garry Thompson, another substitute, leapt majestically to direct a classic header past the despairing Vorm.
It was a goal worthy of winning any game, but Alli had other ideas. A poor kick from Blackman put Wycombe under pressure and Alli cleverly threaded a low finish into the left corner to spare Tottenham’s blushes.
Up went the fourth official’s board, showing six minutes of stoppage time. Wycombe thought that they had crawled over the line when Blackman redeemed himself by pushing Janssen’s header over, only for Son to break their hearts.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010