Flisher, Bodkin and York sounds like a Dickensian firm of lawyers to me (WARNING: a list of three footballers’ names always sounds like a Dickensian law firm to me. Except Sakho, Obeng and Ugarte.) However, Alex Flisher, Matt Bodkin and Wes York were actually the decisive players in this superbly well-contested second round cup tie.
So often a cup tie is determined by the superior finishing ability of the team from a higher division, and there can be no doubt that The Stones missed some glorious opportunities. Yet they remained in the tie because Wrexham missed a considerably higher number. That led to a fine match which hung in the balance until Andy Bishop made it 3-1 in the 87th minute; Wrexham could have scored six or seven, but by the same token a magnificently resilient Maidstone could have snatched a replay or better.
I have to admit to a mixture of smug pride and concern as I watched the opening quarter of an hour: pride because it panned out exactly as I’d predicted before the game; concern because my prediction was a negative one.
I’d suspected that Wrexham would dominate the opening stages and how the game developed would depend on whether they capitalised on their early superiority. The pattern of the season so far suggested they wouldn’t, and that was exactly how it panned out. They spurned a series of glorious opportunities in a terrifically fast-paced start, and a fine double save by Jon Flatt in the fifteenth minute sent a familiar message: if you don’t take advantage of a game when you’re on top you’re liable to be punished.
The reason why Wrexham created so much in that frantic start introduces us to the main figures in the drama. Maidstone lined up in more of a 4-2-3-1 than a 4-4-2, a bold move for which they ought to be applauded: a bold desire to take the game to Wrexham rather than park the bus was characteristic of their approach.
However, the failure of the wide men in the second line, Flisher and Bodkin, to track back properly led to serious structural problems in their defence. Wrexham enjoyed numerical superiority on both flanks when they went forward, a feature of the game which would continue, albeit for differing reasons, as it wore on. They were particularly able to capitalise on this down the left, where Neil Ashton naturally pushes on more than Ross White, and seventeen-year-old right back Aaron Simpson found himself exposed to an overlapping full back and a dangerous forward in Connor Jennings, who drifted inside and left the youngster with an impossible dilemma while Bodkin watched on from higher up the pitch.
To be fair to Simpson, who had looked edgy in the previous round against Stevenage, his problem lay in the overload he was facing rather than being due to any fault in his own performance: to an extent the same happened on the other flank, as White whipped in a couple of threatening crosses, won two corners by hitting the goal line unchallenged, and nearly scored with a header as he attacked the far post.
Maidstone’s problem was that, outnumbered in their own half, their two central midfielders simply had to sit deep as a double pivot, screening the area in front of their central defenders and ceding the flanks to Wrexham. That also meant that the Wrexham midfield could operate in space until they got within thirty yards of the opposing goal, and Jay Harris, Mark Carrington and Joe Clarke revelled in that room. Each of them would feed at least one through ball which would pierce the Maidstone defence in the course of the match, an indiction of the freedom and time they were allowed to pick their passes.
Of course, they needed a willing target to pass to, and this was where York came into play. His pace was crucial as he ran in behind the Maidstone defence, especially after Manny Smith had opened the scoring, and he was constantly put into a one-on-one situations as a result. Yet he was not only decisive because he was able to get into such dangerous positions; the fact that apart from the penalty he won he failed to capitalise upon the positions he worked himself into meant that Maidstone, despite allowing so many opportunities, were allowed to remain in the match.
As a result Flisher and Bodkin were able to remain important figures in an attacking sense. Wrexham had failed to capitalise on the space they left behind them so whenever they broke forwards there was something at stake: Wrexham were only two goals to the good for eight minutes of the match. Perhaps I ought to have added a fourth name to the list of decisive players, as Flatt’s work in denying the opportunities Flisher and Bodkin created was crucial in denying the visitors. Apart from that double save I mentioned earlier he made another sharp save shortly after Smith scored and made a fine stop from a one-on-one with Flisher shortly after the break. Throw in two second half chances to Jack Parkinson, one of which hit the bar while the other scraped the post late on, and you could argue that the gamble of leaving the wide men up the pitch was vindicated: it might have relied on the fact that Wrexham were profligate in front of goal, but nonetheless if one of those chances had gone in the game might have followed a very different path.
Perhaps the highest praise Maidstone deserve-and they’re due a huge amount of credit for how they went about their task-should be directed at how they approached the challenge of going down to ten men. After Simpson’s dismissal for pulling York down and the subsequent penalty one might have thought the game was over. Instead, I’d be made to regret facetiously suggesting that we’d never squander a two goal lead against ten men!
Instead, The Stones enjoyed their best spell of the game. Bodkin was tucked in behind two strikers as they adapted to a 4-2-1-2 formation and he immediately found space between the lines. The presence of this out-ball allowed Maidstone to gain comfortable possession in Wrexham’s half despite their numerical advantage-indeed, they began to pull the home side about as if they had the spare man. The fact that Bodkin was enjoying secure possession in the Wrexham half not only ensured the forwards could be fed the ball: it also allowed the central midfielders Parkinson and James Rogers to get higher up the pitch than they previously had been able to, and all these factors fitted neatly together when Maidstone pulled one back: Carrington was forced to tuck inside to cover the spare man in front of the defence, White had to do likewise because there were two forwards to cover in central positions in the box, so Rogers was able to pull wide into space to deliver the decisive cross.
To be fair to Wrexham, they responded appropriately. Once again they established their overload on the flanks, which was only accentuated by the narrowness of the Maidstone formation. Possession was kept easily as a consequence as they could comfortably switch the ball from flank to flank in the knowledge that they had spare men and simple passes to them available to either side, and Maidstone became starved of possession. This state of affairs was made worse by the bizarre withdrawal of Bodkin, who not only looked to be a genuine threat but was certainly not taken off through tiredness: his last act was to receive the ball in a central position and make a sprightly run wide to receive a return pass and deliver it into the box: hardly the actions of a tired man!
By this time York had also been withdrawn: Wilkin had finally decided that the threat of a runner in behind was negated by the lack of end product, and as the game’s nature changed and Wrexham looked to exert some control his replacement with Louis Moult made sense: the striker’s intelligent movement off Bishop into space in front of the back four made him an easily accessible target and his good hold up play and tidy retention and distribution of the ball aided Wrexham’s tactic of working the ball into the space they enjoyed on the flanks.
So, by the end of the game all was calm, all was bright as far as Wrexham were concerned. But that hadn’t been the case until Bishop’s header made it 3-1: until then Maidstone and their superb fans had shown why they are a club engaged in an inexorable raise back to the level they ought to be at.