Up For The Cup!

We might enjoy a rarity today: a full-strength Wrexham side in a cup tie!

Of course, it’s not easy to put your finger on exactly what a full-strength Wrexham team is this season. Sam Ricketts’ policy of rotation has rather done away with the conventional notion of having a strongest eleven which the rest of the squad must fight to get into, and we ought to see one of the benefits of that approach today.

Having kept his squad relatively fresh through giving key players occasional rests, he ought to be able to select a stronger side to face Harrogate than we’ve become accustomed to in recent cup ties.

We made four changes at the same stage last season, with half our back four and our goalkeeper among the alterations. Furthermore, we rested Shaun Pearson, which was just asking for trouble, and perhaps unsurprisingly we lost at AFC Fylde.

Generally Keates tended to prioritise the league, as shown when he changed half his outfield players for our FA Trophy defeat to Tranmere two seasons ago.

Our focus on returning to the Football League has put a significant dent in our historical reputation as a side which performs well in the cups. Since beating Maidstone United in December 2014 to earn a  third round tie with Stoke City, we’ve not won a game in the FA Cup, going out in the preliminary round phase of the competition in each of the last three seasons.

Indeed, we’ve lost our last four games in all cup competitions, our last win coming seven ties ago when Gary Mills’ side won 4-2 at Tranmere in December 2015. That’s the only FA Trophy game we’ve won since our Wembley defeat to North Ferriby.

Although an away match at Harrogate looks like the sort of game which could see us continuing that unsuccessful run, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Harrogate are a good side, but we saw last month that we’re capable of going to their patch and taking control. There’s no reason why we can’t pick up where we left off, and of course if they decide to rotate their side and we don’t, so much the better!

The playing surface shouldn’t be an issue. Every time we play on artificial turf, questions are raised about our ability to adapt. These days there’s not a great deal to worry about such surfaces: they’re a far cry from the “Plastic Pitch” abominations which blighted the 1980s, when QPR, Luton and Preston played on bone hard synthetic pitches.

Naturally, all surfaces are different, and when Akil Wright went down off the ball at Wetherby Road it looked worryingly like he’d picked up the sort of injury American Footballers receive when they catch their cleats on the man-made fibres. Thankfully he was okay, and the only real problems players tend to have in such matches is in their heads, when they listen to the talk of how difficult these pitches can be.

I remember Curtis Tilt approaching a game at Maidstone like the pitch was covered in snakes, and ultimately his tentative approach led to a catastrophically under-hit back pass which cost us a win.

TIlt: feared the carpet

The only worry I could see at Harrogate last month was one of maintenance: I couldn’t help noticing that the ball was bobbling surprisingly at the end the Wrexham fans were at when gentle back passes were played to the goalkeeper, a phenomenon which clearly startled Rob Lainton at one point. My lad, who understands such matters far better than I do, explained that it would be because Harrogate’s groundstaff hadn’t raked the pitch, so those little rubber balls that sit amongst the blades of fake grass had accumulated in drifts, giving making the surface slightly uneven.

He knows these things because his generation play on these pitches. Modern players are used to them too, academy players are raised on them. so if we don’t rotate, we’ve no excuse for not going there and reigniting our proud cup tradition.

Our record against Harrogate is rather limited and somewhat unsuccessful. We’ve only played them twice, and are yet to score.

Of course, we played our first game at Wetherby Road last month, and after surviving an early onslaught had the better of a goalless draw. If Mike Fondop’s finishing had matched his approach play, we certainly would have emerged with three points.
Rather less successful was our first meeting, in the opening round of the FA Trophy last season. There were extenuating circumstances, to be fair, as Dean Keates fielded a heavily-rotated squad in acknowledgment of the fact that promotion was his priority. He made seven changes from our previous match, giving debuts to four players: Ryan Williams and Doug Tharme made up half the back four, and Ferdinand Takyi and Cameron McGregor came off the bench.

His youthful side were unable to match the nous of a Harrogate side which was in the middle of a successful promotion push. Ex-Wrexham target man Mark Beck opened the scoring five minutes before the break, and he added a second with twenty minutes left.

If the statistics are anything to go by, then we definitely don’t want to give Stuart Beavon a rest today! The veteran striker has a terrific scoring record in the FA Cup, with six goals in eleven starts.

Interestingly, this pattern extends across all knock-out matches. In his entire league career he averages a goal every 453 minutes, but in knock-out games he strikes every 222 minutes. Perhaps the high stakes matches suit him better?

This is my column from this 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.

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