Hoop Dreams: How JJ is Crucial to Wrexham AFC

When we consider Bryan Hughes’ time as manager of Wrexham, it’s impossible not to acknowledge his misfortune with injuries. Manny Smith was never fit enough to play for him, player of the season Rob Lainton has yet to take the pitch this time around and, having missed half the season, JJ Hooper became available for selection two days after Hughes had departed.

Hooper’s absence has been a massive blow, and hopefully he’ll be fit enough to put in 90 minutes today, having built himself up with 20 minutes on Saturday and 33 on Tuesday.

The goals are certainly not flowing as freely with Hooper out of the picture. With him on the pitch this season we’ve scored every 62 minutes; without him, it’s taking 20 minutes longer to score – every 82 minutes.

The goals have dried up for the other forwards since Hooper’s injury. Mark Harris, who hit the net in three consecutive matches at the start of the season, hasn’t scored since Hooper pulled up at Hartlepool, and while Bobby Grant has got three goals since then, two were penalties. His other goal came on Tuesday, after Hooper came on. Neither Grant nor Harris have scored in open play this season when Hooper wasn’t on the pitch.

Or, to use a rather more telling statistic, before Hartlepool we played 6 games, all of which Hooper started, and won 9 points. Our only defeat came when we were leading at Dover but were reduced to ten men before half time. While he was injured we played 6 league games and accumulated just 2 points.

Hooper has chipped in with a couple himself, of course, but his movement is equally important to our attacking play. He spins off and attacks the space behind defences, stretching them and offering a passing option.

That movement has been crucial in the way Wrexham were trying to attack this season. Our support strikers would come narrow and break into the spaces Hooper vacated to sniff out chances. Two of Harris’ goals came that way, while Grant did the same at Borehamwood and headed home against Barrow by attacking the six yard box while Hooper went wide and delivered a cross.

In Hooper’s absence Jason Oswell has played well, but he’s a very different type of striker. More of a fixed point of reference, he battles with centre backs and creates knock-downs for the likes of Grant and Harris to feed off. The problem is he then stays in that central position, blocking the runs which were made so profitably into the space Hooper creates.

That’s not a criticism of Oswell by any means; he just isn’t that type of player and we ought to have adapted our strategy to take that into account.

It was telling to see what happened against Ebbsfleet in that context. Oswell renewed the scrap he had with Fleet skipper Jack King last season and won it comprehensively. He beat the centre back regularly in the air, and when he didn’t, his presence forced King into mistakes and poor clearances. Yet we didn’t really look like profiting from his work until Hooper came on and started running beyond him.

Our attacking players all profit from Hooper’s movement. Let’s hope he stays fit for the new manager!

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