It took me a few moments to recognise that old friend last Saturday. There was fog on the Tyne that morning as I crossed it on the Metro, but that’s not why I failed to realise what was right before me. It was just the shock of seeing those familiar features in a new context. But after an incredulous few seconds I realised I wasn’t imagining it. I really could believe my eyes.
Brian Flynn’s lop-sided 4-3-3 was back!
Before the Gateshead game there were a few witty comments about Gary Bennett or Karl Connolly being the next to return to The Racecourse after Brian Flynn was added to Bryan Hughes’ coaching team. I was even asked if Flynn would bring his unusual trademark formation back to the club, a question I dismissed as mere whimsy. But in the last twelve minutes of the game it returned, and earned us a point!
We’d dominated the second half – indeed, we were the better side for a good 70 minutes of the match – but were struggling to make chances. And then came the boldest of strokes. A double change: two strikers coming on for a winger and a full back. And that lop-sided shape was suddenly there.
It was a subtly different iteration of the shape; a perfect marriage of Flynn’s idea with Hughes’ youthful risk-taking and desire to gamble in order to get something out of the game. Brad Walker was closer to the centre backs than we would have seen in the 1990s, allowing Paul Rutherford to push a lot higher up the pitch from right back than Barry Jones would ever have been told to do. But Stockton and Jason Oswell were definitely twin strikers, Chris Holroyd was on the wing, and on the other flank Rutherford was looking to break into the gap.
It was a bold response to the situation and it worked a treat: suddenly we were making chances, our irregular formation pulling Gateshead’s defence equally out of shape as they tried to work out just what we were doing, and how to counteract it. And eventually it bore fruit, the last of a series of late chances being bundled in by Cole Stockton to earn the sort of point that feels like three, that often feels like a turning point at the end of the season. The sort of late goal we just haven’t been scoring lately.
I’ve felt for a long time that we haven’t been scoring those late goals which promotion-chasing sides pull out of the bag late on, and when I checked my facts after the game I was amazed to realise the extent to which that is true.
Stockton’s goal was the first we’d scored in injury time to change the outcome of a game since a Dagenham own goal earned us a 1-0 win in October 2017, 71 games ago. Furthermore, in our last 96 games, we’ve scored a goal in the last quarter of an hour which earned at least one point just 5 times!
I’m not saying the adapted 4-3-3 is the sole, magical cause of that, but Saturday felt like something important. The tactical flexibility and that refusal to accept defeat created a sense of burgeoning momentum.
I’m not saying Flynn’s return is the sole cause of this either, but it has certainly added to the positive atmosphere around the club. His appointment, quite apart from any impact he’ll make in the job, is also a crucial statement of intent. Concerned about Bryan Hughes’ lack of managerial experience? Well, he has the man who spent 726 games on the Wrexham bench to back him up (Well, in the Yale Stand actually, but you know what I mean!)
After the criticism of the board following Graham Barrow’s departure, this represents a message to the supporters. Admittedly, events will determine how smart these appointments are, but I’d be surprised if there are many Wrexham supporters who currently hold the sincere belief that a management team of Barrow and Mike Newell would be preferable to one of Hughes and Flynn.
I don’t think Flynn has brought back the lop-sided 4-3-3 as a starting formation, and make no mistake: Bryan Hughes is the manager and the buck stops with him. But Flynn was always willing to listen to wise voices when making decisions, and now his is an opinion which Hughes can call upon. It all feels reassuringly familiar.