Wrexham’s defence look to equal a club record today, a fact which speaks volumes about the solid foundations Dean Keates left behind. It also reflects well on Bryan Hughes if he is to be the man to get the record over the line.
Keates constructed a formidable defensive unit, which set a club record for most league clean sheets last season. Today we can match the outright record for most shut-outs in a campaign. When you consider the number of injuries our defenders have had this season, you realise how well we’ve improvised, and just how solid Keates’ foundations are.
The seven players in our squad that you’d consider to be defenders have missed a total of 68 matches through injury this season, and that’s not counting Rob Lainton’s one match lay-off or Shaun Pearson being suspended for a game.
When your defence misses an average of nine games each, you ought to have a crisis on your hands. Incredibly, the defensive unit have missed just over a quarter of all the games they could have been available for through injury. However, the solid defensive principles which are in place, allied to the fact that Pearson’s leadership has generally been available to lean on, has allowed us to continue to be remarkably mean at the back.
The smooth introduction of Kieran Kennedy to the back four has been the latest contributory factor to our defensive success. There was a danger he’d slip into a category of player we’ve specialised in accumulating lately: the talented loan player who was never given a proper chance to show what he can do.
Bryan Hughes seems to have a better eye than his predecessors for talent if his treatment of such players is taken into consideration: he inherited both Kennedy and Ben Tollitt and has given them an opportunity to perform.
Finally given a chance, Kennedy stepped in at centre back and put in three strong performances in away games. His schooling at Manchester City is obvious in his comfort on the ball; he passes the ball out from the back well and is comfortable bringing it forwards. Defensively he’s sound too, and dealt with the aerial threat Borehamwood pose well.
Injuries have forced a defensive reshuffle onto Hughes, and Kennedy has had to shift across to right back. He doesn’t look as comfortable there, his passing less accurate, although he has still shown his defensive qualities, not least in the superb early tackle to deny Marc-Antoine Fortune in the Chesterfield game. If he hadn’t covered Jake Lawlor so well after the veteran striker had turned him, that match might have turned out very differently. Last Saturday he looked more comfortable in that position going forwards.
Hughes’ judicious use of Kennedy is a promising early sign of his managerial capabilities. Kennedy’s performances also illustrate what a remarkable defensive unit we’ve assembled. With Pearson, Kennedy and Lawlor available, the remarkable thought is that a fit Manny Smith would actually have to fight for a place in this team! To put it another way, at the start of the season we were perfectly happy that Doug Tharme was our third choice centre back. Now he’s fifth in line.
It’s interesting to contemplate just where that strength in depth has come from. While Sam Ricketts and Graham Barrow brought in most of the creative and attacking players in our current squad, the defensive unit was predominantly assembled by Dean Keates.
Pearson, Smith, Roberts, Christian Dibble and James Jennings all came in under his watch, and he also integrated Tharme into the first team squad. With Mark Carrington an Andy Morrell purchase, it’s only Rob Lainton, Lawlor and Kennedy who have arrived since. Keates deserves credit for assembling the section of the side which is functioning best; Hughes deserves a pat on the back for using all the resources available to him.