Would you agree that John Rooney and Anthony Barry had their best Wrexham games at Chester yesterday? If so, an examination of the reasons for that coincidence offer a clear indication of what Dean Keates is getting so right this month.
There are a couple of possibilities. One, and it’s an alluring idea, is that they were motivated by a desire to perform against their old club.
That may well be the case – Paul Rutherford was impressive against his old employers too – and if so it speaks well of those players, who therefore clearly relish the big occasion. However, there’s a deeper underlying explanation which is highly encouraging.
A clear theme this month has been how the few good players Keates inherited have improved exponentially once they had better players to play off. Rooney and Barry are the greatest beneficiaries, but not the only ones. Robbie Evans was flying before he got injured, while the partnership between Izale McLeod and Jordan White has clearly helped the big man enormously.
It’s almost a collective version of what used to happen when Glen Little came off the bench for us, and the players around him were inspired to take their game to the next level in order to work with him. Russ Penn, James Jennings and McLeod have been more than just good players, they’ve been enablers for those around them.
There are other factors in our improvement. Is it a coincidence that under a much more demanding training regime, Barry and Martin Riley’s ability to get through matches, and to start consistently, has improved massively.
As I understand it, Barry wasn’t actually injured as such during Mills’ fifteen games in charge, but he only started six of them. He’s started ten of sixteen under Keates, including the last four, and looks more capable of sustaining his efforts.
Riley has started the last seven games and been in excellent form, having looked rusty and injury prone in the early part of the season. One wondered whether he was a judicious signing when he arrived, hoping he would be his old self but fearing the passage of time might have rendered that a distant prospect. With Keates’ backing, Riley is hitting the level he managed under Andy Morrell, and we suddenly look more robust at the back.
There are gambles in Keates’ slash and burn approach to January, of course. The squad is down to the bare bones at the moment – yesterday’s back four are our only defenders at the moment. But Keates was right to take a gamble in order to address the problems he inherited, and if that means a temporary risk as he shuffles his options, so be it. Congratulations to the board as well, for backing a greenhorn manager in his plans to completely restructure his squad in his first transfer window. They’ve kept their nerve and been rewarded in a remarkable three weeks.
Isn’t it astonishing to think that we’ve shed eleven players and brought in five, only three of whom have actually started matches so far, yet the squad looks massively improved!