So who’s the most significant figure in recent Wrexham history? Kevin Wilkin? Dean Keates? Neil Ashton? How about Andy Bishop? His fortunes have perhaps shaped the last couple of years more than anyone else’s.
At the start of last season Bishop’s signature represented more than just the completion of a transfer deal. He was the signing on whom Andy Morrell unwittingly staked his job. The previous three campaigns had seen us reach the play-offs but fall short of the Holy Grail: a return to the Football League. However, on each occasion we were fuelled by a consistent scorer up front: Andy Mangan got 16 goals in 2010-11; Jake Speight managed 20 the following year; and in 2012-13 Danny Wright hit 18. Only one of those 54 goals wasn’t in the league as we mounted three consecutive tilts at promotion.
Bishop didn’t just arrive as a striker: he arrived as the inheritor of that responsibility. His career stats, Morrell’s knowledge of him as a team mate at Bury and a promising if truncated loan spell the previous season gave the manager every reason to think he’d drafted in the next leader of a promotion push.
But the goals didn’t come.
Bishop managed nine goals in the forty two appearances that season, plus five assists. It wasn’t the return Morrell expected, and the problem was exacerbated by the lack of another player to step up and take over the scoring responsibility – in the previous campaigns Morrell had chipped in usefully, and in 2011-12 Mathias Pogba got into double figures as well. This time Morrell didn’t have the legs to contribute and Johnny Hunt, hardly a player expected to lead the line, was the only reliable scorer: the next highest scorer was Brett Ormerod with just five, and the last of those came in mid-November.
But there was more to it than just a misfiring forward. Morrell had put his budgetary eggs in one basket, committing a lot of the wage budget in the pursuit of a proven scorer. In doing so, he was forced to take a gamble in other areas, and crucially that meant hoping that Mark Creighton would recover from injury and Stephen Wright would stay fit. Neither of these moves were percentage choices and neither came to pass: Creighton completed the ninety minutes just once before retiring and Wright missed numerous games through both injury and suspension. Throw in the susceptibility to injury of one of Morrell’s young stand-ins, Leon Clowes, and you had a threadbare back four. In total that trio missed seventy games in the season through injury and a hole was blown below the waterline of Morrell’s ship.
It ought perhaps to be pointed out that Morrell did manage to find the solution when he drafted in a solid centre back in Danny Livesey, who stayed fit for the last seventeen matches of the season and made a late run for player of the season, admittedly against little competition. However, the manager would not reap the benefit of Livesey’s reliability: the centre back’s third game for Wrexham was Morrell’s last.
This season began with Bishop, whose confidence in the penalty area dissolved in the second half of 2013-14, seeming surplus to requirements. He couldn’t force his way into the starting line-up and Wilkin’s public pronouncements made it clear that he was looking to move him on, which made sense if he was looking to maximise his budget. Yet the move didn’t materialise and once he got into the side his form suddenly reappeared.
He’s currently second top scorer, having already overtaken last season’s total, and second best provider with 7 assists. Considering he’s only made 21 starts this season, that’s a useful return. In terms of goals per minute this is his most prolific season since 2007-8.
Hope you’re not sick of stats because there’s no better way to emphasise his upturn in form than throwing some more out there. This season he’s scoring every 152 minutes on average, while last season he waited 326 minutes between each goal – more than twice as long. Last season he either set up a goal or scores one every 209 minutes; this season his combined goal and assist rate is one every 84 minutes – he is at the sharp end of a goal roughly once a game on average. In comparison, Danny Wright managed a goal every 208 minutes and his combined rate was 129 minutes in his most prolific Wrexham season, by the way.
So the current form of Bishop, who goes in search of his 150th career goal today, is standing comparison with any striker Wrexham have fielded in the Conference. Which begs the question: how might last season have panned out if Bishop had hit this form a year earlier? The cracks at the back might have been papered over if we’d been scoring at the other end; a push towards the play-offs might have been mounted, if probably not achieved; Morrell might have been given a new contract. We’d be in a very different universe right now. It’s amazing how the fortune of one player can have such an effect.