So, should Shrewsbury be worried right now?
They’ve just appointed a manager with 22 league games under his belt as a manager, all at non-league level. He’s got off to a good start, but quite apart from the obvious risks involved when you draw a conclusion from a tiny sample size, results don’t tell you everything.
I need to establish some context first, in case I come over as a bitter fan who’s suddenly dissatisfied with a manager he embraced five days ago. Anyone who has read my columns, or listened to my commentaries or broadcasts will have detected my unease. I’ve been battling all season to see the positives, and suppress the sense that we’re getting carried away with little cause.
Our elevated position this season is based on a rock-solid defence. We’ve struggled to score, but a string of clean sheets has kept us up there. 16 shut-outs in 26 games is a hell of a record, and must have caught Shrewsbury’s eye.
The problem is, the defence is essentially the part of the side Ricketts inherited. I accept he’s upgraded the goalkeeper, and Jake Lawlor has covered well for Manny Smith, but basically this is Dean Keates’ back four, admittedly shorn of some of the midfield cover it enjoyed last season. They’re an outstanding unit, but our different shape leaves them more exposed so, through no fault of their own, we are conceding more chances.
As a result, our clean sheets have had a different feel to them. Last season it often felt like the opposition wouldn’t be able to score if we kept playing for another 90 minutes. This season, we’ve been hugely indebted to Lainton’s reflexes and excellence in one-on-ones, and have enjoyed huge slices of fortune as teams have missed chances. Remember the two open goals Scott Rendell missed against us?
I can’t help but recall the euphoria after our win at Maidenhead. It was partly fuelled by Jordan Maguire-Drew’s superb goal, but it was also down to the home team’s awful quality in our box. That game could have turned out very differently, but United missed a string of close range chances and we emerged with a 2-0 away win.
If Shrewsbury have assumed Ricketts has assembled a formidable defence, he’s wrong on two counts. Our outstanding defensive record owes more to the excellence of the individuals in that unit, most of whom were Keates’ acquisitions, than to any organisation Ricketts has introduced.
Of course, leaving your defence more exposed is totally justified if you’ve solved your problems at the other end of the pitch. Sadly, we haven’t managed that yet. Clearly something had to be done to address the imbalance between attack and defence we experienced last season, but we haven’t cracked the attacking conundrum yet. We’ve scored 28 goals in 22 league games so far; we scored 26 in our last 22 games of last season.
So we haven’t improved much from the end of last season, when our campaign fell apart. Yet it gets even worse: I can’t help but point out, as Keates has been criticised for failing to correct our lack of goals, that in his last 22 league games we scored 30 goals!
After the win over Gateshead I griped about our inability to create chances. I felt guilty when I saw the widespread delighted reaction which greeted the performance, and asked myself if I’d been too harsh. But the same problems persisted in subsequent performances: we had to get into the second half to manage a breakthrough against a Weston Super Mare side which was in relegation trouble a division below us, and didn’t finish them off until the final ten minutes. We held on for dear life at Chesterfield, despite The Spireites’ dreadful form going into the fixture, and three days later followed a similar pattern against ten-man Hartlepool. Maidstone dominated us in the second half, and we only got a point from a massive deflection.
And then there was Orient: the top of the table clash, which continued a dismal run of form against promotion contenders.
We went to Sutton and were battered 3-0. We went to Solihull Moors and lost. Three away games against teams near the top of the table, and no goals scored, if you include the Harrogate match. Orient, being a home game, was an opportunity to put things right. But we didn’t score again, and were picked off at the end. We failed to score when we were on top; Orient soaked up the pressure, kept a clean sheet, and took their chances. To me, that’s the definition of the better team.
That’s a fairly big percentage of 22 matches in which you could argue we’d underperformed, and I’ve not even mentioned the Barrow game, which Ricketts considered our worst performance of the season. Take the Harrogate and Sutton games out, and what those matches do represent are our last seven games, or to put it another way, Ricketts’ recent form.
We have a chicken and egg situation here. Were we losing form because the early impact of a new manager was wearing off? That seems to be the normal pattern of things at Wrexham. Kevin Wilkin’s first start to a season as manager saw us win 8 of our first 13 games. Gary Mills began with 5 wins in his first 6 games. We all know what came next.
Or was there an external factor which affected us? Which leads us to the second reason Shrewsbury should feel a little edgy.
It’s feasible The Shrews will have to brace themselves for possible repercussions after Ricketts’ sister announced on Facebook that she’d known for some time he was going but had to keep quiet about it. Thursday appears to have been the point where contact was made with Wrexham, so her comments imply an illegal approach and breach of contract. It’ll be interesting to see what Wrexham’s board make of that.
Of course, there are those who will argue that when an opportunity comes along, you have to take it. Up to a point, I’d agree. Keates was offered his dream job, and went for it. I don’t hold that against him for a second, not least because he very nearly didn’t take it, despite his emotional attachment to Walsall.
If it isn’t your dream job though, most people would stop and think twice, especially if they’d made a great play on being in for the long term. Here’s a challenging thought. Dean Saunders is a pantomime villain for Wrexham fans now, as a consequence of his support of the Moss/Roberts regime. But bearing in mind his much higher profile in the game, impressive coaching CV prior to joining us and flying start to his managerial career, do you really think he had no offers from other clubs while he was our manager? He didn’t take them if he did; he had a greater sense of loyalty than he’s given credit for.
To return to the team though, despite my scepticism, I have faith in this squad, or at least in many aspects of it. While I’ve felt massively out of step with the enthusiasm which has surrounded the team this season, I have still felt that this could be the season when we finally go up. Obviously, I don’t see us as the finished article at the moment. However, all my past experiences of Wrexham promotion campaigns implies that the key is to stay in contention and hope to click in the second part of the season. That’s what we did in both 1993 and 2003. We’re in a good league position, and might be able to kick on with a couple of judicious additions to the starting eleven. Perhaps a new eye on things might be beneficial; certainly the players put in a more even performance last Saturday, when Graham Barrow was in charge.
So Shrewsbury will have to be on their best behaviour if they’re going to keep hold of Ricketts. He has a perfect record when it comes to job offers: offered one, accepted one. Clearly, no matter what point he reaches in the construction of the club’s brand new infrastructure, he’ll leave if a better offer comes along. He says he demands high standards from those around him, and likes to control the small details. There’d better be wifi on their bus, or he might be gone by Christmas.