It’s been a great season, but I don’t think there’s been a performance to beat that one. Facing the side in the best form in the history of the Conference-if they’d won Mansfield would have set a competition record of 13 consecutive wins-and outplaying them was an achievement of note. Showing the character to come back from the opening ten minutes of the second half, when The Stags put us through the toughest spell of pressure I’ve seen us suffer since we entered the Conference, was even more impressive. And I’ll bet they’ll look back on the last twenty minutes and wonder whether anyone has put them through such a torrid spell since they dropped down to the Conference as we did last night. Yes, we were that good.
The tone was set from the outset. Before the game Paul Cox, the Mansfield manager, was next to me in the press box doing an interview for local radio, and talked about how his team only knew one way to play: to get into the other side’s faces. It turned out to be an accurate description of exactly what we did to his team in the opening half hour.
We set off as if it was a cup tie; or perhaps more appropriately, we played as we did in the second half of the first leg of our play-off with Luton last season, chasing a near impossible target and, by throwing the kitchen sink at The Hatters, nearly achieving it.
Our tempo was terrific, the pressing unified and fierce. There was no hiding place for the Mansfield players, and no attempt to hide by any Wrexham player as each played his part in setting the tone.
In the opening moments Danny Wright roughed up the defenders, Stephen Wright won an excellent challenge high up in the opposing half, and Chris Westwood made the first of what would be a flurry of excellent interceptions despite his short time on the pitch. Mansfield were struggling to hold onto the ball, well and truly on the back foot.
The only negatives from that opening spell were the fact that we didn’t really carve any good chances out to go with our domination, and Westwood’s injury: how fortunate that a late switch meant Declan Walker was on the bench!
Mansfield’s wide men were forced deep and, whether that adjustment from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-1-1 was deliberate or not, it enabled them to get a foothold in midfield as the half wore on. They managed to end the half with the satisfaction not only of surviving our onslaught but of enjoying some level of parity. It was something they were able to build on at the restart.
The terrific onslaught they mustered after the break showed just why they’ve taken a grip of the title race. Walker was attacked ferociously, their midfield managed to push us back for the first time, and we had Chris Maxwell and the generosity of the linesman who disallowed Dempster’s header to thank for only conceding one goal in that period: having seen the incident on the club’s DVD, I can’t see much wrong with it.
The resolve we showed to fight back from that spell was as impressive as any of the football we played. It took a while for us to fully recover our equilibrium and start putting our passing together, evacuating midfield a little too eagerly as we resorted to too many long balls, but in hindsight that spell at least got us back on the front foot: crucially we kicked on from there and, having gained a foothold in the Mansfield half, began to exploit it.
Some key moments turned our gutsy fight-back into something more concrete. Dean Keates’ goal owed something to good fortune as Alan Marriott followed up his goal scoring feat against us the last time we met with something rather less impressive. Also, we reaped the benefit of two judicious substitutions. Brett Ormerod had put in a good stint up front and judging by the ferocity with which he ripped off his shirt he was either very frustrated to be withdrawn or had tucked it very deep into his pants! However, his replacement Dele Adebola did a good job of holding the ball up and combined well with Danny Wright.
And then there was the introduction of Glen Little. Twenty-seven seconds after he set foot on the pitch the ball was in the Mansfield net, Little having won the ball in midfield with the help of Joe Clarke, slithered between two men and delivered a pass so inviting to Danny Wright that it would have been downright rude of the big striker if he hadn’t given it the finish it deserved.
Pleasingly, we didn’t retreat into our own half in response to going ahead and look to defend it. Instead, we pushed on and Mansfield never got close to building up a head of steam in the closing ten minutes. With the forwards threatening, Little putting inn his best cameo of the season and Joe Clarke driving the midfield strongly, the three points never really looked in doubt. It might have come just too late, but this was a performance of champions.
Wrexham (4-3-3): Maxwell; S Wright, Westwood (Walker 22), Riley, Hunt; Clarke, Keates, Harris; D Wright, Ormerod (Adebola 66), Cieslewicz (Little 77) Unused subs: Thornton, Rushton
Miscellaneous: Wrexham’s biggest home crowd of the season; Adrian Cieslewciz’s 125th league appearance; Chris Westwood’s 50th Wrexham league game.