Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.
There’s only one ever present in the Wrexham side this season, and the fact that it’s Joe Clarke reveals plenty about where both player and club are at the moment.
Clarke ought to be very proud of how things have gone over the last couple of years. He arrived at Wrexham as a triallist and in a pre-season blighted by fears we’d not be allowed to play in the Conference, he didn’t really grab the attention. The result was a late offer of a short term contract which smacked of Dean Saunders feeling that nothing better had turned up so he might as well use the remaining portion of his budget on bringing in a squad player for six months rather than just sit on the cash.
Clarke became something of a cult figure in his first year at the club, but I was never totally clear quite how to interpret that. Clearly it was delivered with affection, but sometimes according such status to a player can unwittingly be a back-handed compliment: a seasoned pro like Dean Keates wouldn’t receive such an accolade, merely admiration. The triumphs of Clarke, who was erratic but a whole-hearted trier, were seen as more of a bonus.
Of course, if that was the initial view of Clarke, he did plenty last season to change those perceptions. As the campaign progressed he developed from bit-part midfielder to a key component in our engine room. His solid presence in the middle of the pitch was reassuring, his development such that when I saw we’d not selected him in the starting eleven for the FA Trophy final, I was dismayed.
He came on and had a fine match at Wembley but the worry I felt when I saw he wasn’t starting brought home to me how my perception of his role at the club had shifted.
This season, with Keates injured and Harris often suspended, he’s been required to take more of a leading role in the middle of the park. His form hasn’t always been consistent, but he certainly hasn’t been alone in that, and the chopping and changing has perhaps meant he’s had to try to be all things to all men. For me he’s at his best sitting in front of the back four, breaking things up and keeping possession recirculating, although I admit his attacking surges can be highly productive.
While our constant defensive injuries have caught the attention, we’ve also suffered a good deal of disruption in the middle of the pitch. Throw in the fact that Kevin Thornton hasn’t been available since the seventh game of the season and it’s been difficult to field a settled midfield. We went into the campaign feeling our midfield is the best in the division, but it wasn’t until Keates returned to fitness that we’ve been able to select a full strength trio. The outcome? Form has improved and results are coming. Clarke has been the one constant in a season of upheaval, and he deserves credit for his hard work in trying to keep us on an even keel.