Wrexham go into the second leg of the play-offs faced with a quite simple task: to get to Wembley for the first time, they’ll have to do something they’ve never done before.
They’ve never overturned a two goal deficit in the second leg of a two-legged tie. Not that there are many examples of them facing that situation; it has only happened twice, bizarrely both in the same season, and the outcome in both cases was identical: heroic failure.
In the 1998-9 season The Dragons twice went into the second leg needing to overturn a 2-0 first leg score. In the first round of the League Cup they were hot favourites after drawing Halifax Town. After all, their opponents were from the division below them, and Wrexham were tipped to earn promotion from the third tier as they had just signed Ian Rush, who had starred in a 3-0 victory over Reading in his debut three days earlier.
The match went horribly wrong though. Rush was peripheral, the team never got going and the visitors emerged with a deserved 2-0 win. The following week saw Wrexham show genuine spirit as they looked to make amends. Neil Roberts scored after half an hour and Karl Connolly levelled the tie with a second half penalty. However, they were denied by a controversial decision as they looked to finish off the job, when Roberts’ header appeared to be pulled back from over the line by the Halifax keeper. The referee waved play on and the Shaymen went on to win the penalty shoot-out 4-2.
Later in the season Wrexham encountered the exact situation they face against Luton for the only previous time in their history, after losing an away leg 2-0. Indeed, the stakes were similar too, as the prize was a trip to Wembley.
Wigan came to The Racecourse having won 2-0 at Springfield Park in the LDV Vans Trophy Northern Final, and were given a real run for their money, but there was always a feeling that, brave as Wrexham were, they were always chasing an impossible dream.
They got off to the worst possible start when Welsh international striker Simon Haworth scored in the second minute of the return match to give Wigan a 3-0 aggregate lead. They equalised just before half time through Dave Brammer, who had been cruelly booed by his own fans in the first leg, but Wigan scored again just after the break.
The home side just wouldn’t give up though. Despite a terrible injury to Robin Gibson, who never really recovered his effervescence again, they pushed on and equalised through American striker Jake Edwards. What followed was a remarkable push for an unlikely victory as they played the last half hour with a formation reminiscent of the early days of football, with five players often left up the pitch. They were camped in the Wigan half, but inevitably were open to a goal on the break, and with two minutes left and the tie gone anyway, The Latics snatched an 88th minute goal to claim a 3-2 win.
Two legged ties caught on in the 1960s, although there was a bizarre dalliance with the format in the last season before football resumed after the Second World War, when the whole FA Cup was played over two legs. However, they didn’t operate as they do now. The aggregate score didn’t come into it, just the result, so if each side won one match each there’d be a replay irrespective of how decisive the victories were.
For example, in 1965 Wrexham lost the first leg of the Welsh Cup final 5-1 in Cardiff, but the tie went to a third game because they won the second match 1-0! They went back to Cardiff and were tonked 3-0 in the decisive match though, so they’d only earned a temporary reprieve!
In 1979 Wrexham faced the task of overhauling a deficit of more than one goal for the first time , but to be fair it’s hardly an equal comparison with the current situation. We went to Southampton, then one of the strongest sides in the country, in the second round of the League Cup and lost 5-0. There was no coming back from that, a fact the side seemed to have taken on board only too well as they lost the home game 6-0!
Similarly, they lost 5-0 at home to Everton in 1990 and crashed 6-0 at Goodison Park in the replay, although hard as it might be to believe, the first leg would have been much closer had it not been for a typically fine performance in The Toffees’ goal by Neville Southall!
There were also failed attempts to overturn heavy first leg defeats in the League Cup in 1984, when a 3-0 loss at Wigan was followed up by a 2-0 home defeat, and in 1996 when Huddersfield beat us 3-0 at the McAlpine and 2-1 in Wrexham.
More relevantly, in 1981 Wrexham lost by two goals, 3-1 to Burnley in the League Cup, and failed to overturn the deficit at The Racecourse, losing 2-1. They suffered an identical first leg reverse at Port Vale three years later, and again fell far short of overturning the deficit, crashing to a 5-1 home defeat.
Wrexham have played Luton over two legs twice before, and the score stands at one success each. Obviously the play-off last season went in The Hatters’ favour, but Wrexham sprung a surprise in 1981 when they drew them in the second round of the League Cup.
Luton were running away with the Championship while the North Walians were struggling at the bottom and destined to be relegated. They pulled off a massive shock when goals by Simon Hunt and Mick Vinter earned a 2-0 win at Kenilworth Road, and although Luton won at The Racecourse, 1-0 wasn’t enough to thwart them. The reward was a 2-0 defeat at Spurs which saw Joey Jones sent off.