That was a big result. In fact, I was more desperate to see us get a win than usual going into it. The frenzy around Andy Morrell’s future had got out of hand, and we needed a result to quell it.
Of course, Morrell’s first ever run of disappointing results, coming a full two years into his management career, was no reason to speculate about his suitability for the job. However, the board’s calls for support from the fans had conspicuously failed to call for support for the manager: while there were no grounds to consider Morrell’s position, one gets the impression that online hysteria might influence decisions at the club.
But Morrell responded to his first managerial crisis sure-footedly. He’s been talking in the last couple of weeks about players forgetting the fundamentals which had brought us such success over the last three seasons and his actions this week addressed that issue. An extra day of training reinforced those principles and the team he selected looked reassuringly closer to his usual eleven.
Johnny Hunt talked after the game about the importance of the return of the big characters to the team. How right he was. All of a sudden, the side’s character was back, and Wrexham looked like the side which jumped Mansfield at The Racecourse last April rather than the unrecognisable mess they’d been for the last three matches. I suggested after the Chester game that if you rip the experienced spine out of any team it would struggle. That certainly turned out to be true over the last fortnight, but against Luton Jay Harris restored heart to the middle of the pitch while David Artell and, for half the game, Stephen Wright brought organisation and wisdom to the back.
Hunt’s first midfield start of the season was a key factor as well. Rather than the freeform improvisations of Kevin Thornton, Hunt brought order and energy to midfield and its shape was improved. I hankered after that change before the Lincoln game, feeling we’d be tested in midfield by a strong side on their own patch, but before I claim to be some kind of tactical mastermind I have to admit that the final piece of the jigsaw against Luton was something I absolutely didn’t see coming!
Morrell’s real stroke of genius was to back his hunch over Theo Bailey-Jones. Perhaps calling it a hunch is to undersell his managerial approach though: he offered a fascinating insight after the match into the process which led to him taking a match-winning punt on the youngster. Up until the side was named on Friday night I’d happily held court on Bailey-Jones, telling all who’d listen my theory: that we hadn’t named him in a matchday squad yet because we’d brought him into first team training on a six-month contract and immediately realised on closer inspection that we’d made a mistake. How wrong I was! Carefully nurtured and brought into the side at exactly the right time, Bailey-Jones was a thrilling addition. Let’s not get carried away as sustaining such form won’t come immediately and the element of surprise is now gone, but this was a performance to bring out the childish enthusiasm of any Wrexham fan.
A proper out-and-out winger, he used his pace well, delivered an high percentage of good crosses and most impressively terrified an experienced full back in Ronnie Henry. Henry has been around the block and few Conference sides would turn their nose up at him but Luton’s 4-2-3-1 left him exposed to Bailey-Jones. Clearly this isn’t usually a problem for John Still, who has introduced an admirable defensive solidity to his team. However, on this occasion Henry simply couldn’t get out of his shell: he was pinned back by Bailey-Jones, aware that if he ventured forwards and the ball was played behind him he’d never get back to him. Shaun Whalley was neither use nor ornament when it came to offering him defensive cover, so it was a choice of either pulling one of the midfield two across to help or leave Henry exposed.
Henry’s problems were further compounded by the fact that Wrexham have constantly created best down the left in recent years. A small part of this is Jay Harris’ liking for the sweeping switch to the left from his station on the right of the midfield three, but the real key is the movement of the players down that side. Neil Ashton is an astute overlapping full back, of course, and I’ve campaigned for a long time on behalf of Hunt’s intelligent movement down the flank which opens up space for others.
Wrexham’s Twittermeister TIm Edwards remarked after the game that Luton had been remiss in allowing Bailey-Jones so much room to cross for Hunt’s goal. He was right, of course, but on examining the highlights I realised why it happened. Never mind the facile graphics on Match of the Day which track a run without actually making a point: have a look at Hunt’s movement and see how it dragged Henry inside, opening up the space for Bailey-Jones to cross.
With the team’s shape sorted and the inspired selection of Bailey-Jones working a treat, Luton found themselves up against a side which had clicked. It was striking just how many players looked comfortable in their own skins, playing in familiar roles with square pegs in the square holes around them. For my money Brett Ormerod, Andy Bishop, Jay Harris, Joe Clarke, Hunt and Ashton all had their best games of the season. It was no coincidence: Andy Morrell had pressed the reset button to excellent effect.