Ultimately there were few surprises in Wrexham’s retained list, and that’s how it should be. There was no need to rip the squad up and start again, even though there was a frustrated sense that we needed to do something to force some creativity into a stolid side. After all, we finished just five points off top, and a point short of being a home semi-final away from Wembley. A lot of the fundamentals are in place; the task is to complete the squad, not reinvent it.
This was the challenge which faced Sam Ricketts in the Summer, however, and the course of the season showed that he was unable to find a solution. Will Bryan Hughes fare any better?
He has one interesting advantage: Brian Flynn. Flynn’s most recent work has been in the areas of recruitment and talent development, and it is to be assumed that he has a broad knowledge of what’s out there and a fat book of contacts. Admittedly Hughes’ signings of Anthony Spyrou, Kemy Agustien and Jermaine McGlashan were unsuccessful, and at least two of those signings seemed to have Flynn’s imprint firmly upon them. However, it’s not fair to pre-judge our Summer dealings on the basis of those deals: by February the cupboard is bare and you aren’t likely to come across an available player who can transform your season.
In the Summer, of course, the problem is the reverse: a surfeit of riches, but also a lot of competition as clubs chase the players likely to make a difference. How Hughes and Flynn spot talent and sell the club will be crucial.
The wisdom of a retained list often lies not in who has been released, but in who is recruited to replace them. I was surprised when club captain Neil Salathiel was released by Flynn in 1990, after he’d battled to hold together a weak defence, ending the season by leading us out at the Cardiff Arms Park, playing as a makeshift centre back in the Welsh Cup Final. Yet Salathiel, admirably robust and wholehearted as he was, was not as polished as the right backs who succeeded him, Andy Thackeray and Barry Jones. That progression of quality led eventually to Jones being a key part of a side which rose to the Third Division and challenged for the play-offs. The hard-nosed decision to dispense with a fine servant of the club was justified by how he was replaced.
Players like Kevin Roberts, who was a key part of a defence which kept 48 clean sheets over the course of two seasons, will be missed if we don’t replace him with a better right back. But upgrades are out there, and Roberts’ form dipped in the latter part of the season, especially when he was exposed to fast wingers, a process which seemed to begin when Anthony Jeffrey came on as a substitute for Dover in January and tormented Roberts as part of a match-winning performance. The full back had just come back from a five-game injury lay-off and never quite looked himself again when isolated by a winger.
The other obvious player whose failure to earn a contract offer provokes sympathy is Chris Holroyd. The top scorer in a side which struggled to create chances in 2017-18, injuries hampered him at the start of the season, but more of an issue was that first Sam Ricketts and then Graham Barrow didn’t seem to fancy him.
He was available for 20 games under Ricketts and started 6. Under Barrow he started just one game, and that was an FA Trophy match against Boston in which we heavily rotated our side. However, he came from that match with a goal and an assist, and followed it up by scoring off the bench against Salford. As we slipped into that costly five-game run without a goal, perhaps he ought to have been given a chance, but Barrow’s omission of Ben Tollitt during that period suggests Holroyd wasn’t the only victim of his manager’s failure to see the wood for the trees at that time.
Holroyd did manage a run in the team under Hughes though, and played the full match in five of the last six games he was selected for. He is, perhaps, a victim of our failure to provide a consistent quality of service to the strikers: he was never a striker suited to battling centre backs constantly for long balls, and we struggled to offer incisive passing into the box from higher up the pitch which he could run onto. Holroyd’s release is a shame, but an understandable one. With Bobby Grant exercising his right to a contract extension, something had to give in the forward line to create space and slack in the wage bill so we could freshen things up.
Then there’s the regrettable failure to get the best from Nicky Deverdics, but there was a sense of inevitability about his departure.
So now we move on. Everyone knows what’s required this Summer: let’s hope Hughes and Flynn can provide it.