As the search of a new manager goes into its second week, the importance of getting this decision right and exploring all possibilities is obvious. We have suffered such upheaval since dropping out of the Football League – 9 managers in 11 years – that we desperately need to select someone who will not only do a good job, but will stick around to build something. That’s why, unless a remarkable candidate throws their hat into the ring, the right choice feels obvious. It has to be Keates.
There’s resistance amongst some areas of our support to Keates’ return, but I don’t get it. Firstly, he is a club legend: captain of the first Wrexham side to play at Wembley, lifting the FA Trophy, a whole-hearted battler who pushed his body to the limit as his career came to an end, and a manager who rescued us from disaster and created the basis of a promotion-chasing side.
I understand that fans are unhappy he left when he did, and that was certainly unfortunate: I’m certain we’d have got into the play-offs if he’d stayed, where we’d have been very difficult to eliminate. After all, how do you beat a side that doesn’t concede goals?
I don’t blame him for going though. He was offered the opportunity of a lifetime, and still came incredibly close to staying. I am inclined to view that as a sign of loyalty, not betrayal: Sam Ricketts threw us under the bus; Keates nearly turned down his dream job.
I’m very cautious of using the internet to gauge public opinion anyway. I’ve seen comments on social media which oppose Keates’ return, and polls that purport to prove that’s the majority view. Neither are a representative sample. I’ve found, since he left, that pretty much everyone I’ve asked has said they didn’t blame Keates for leaving: that’s not a representative sample either, but it’s as legitimate as disaffected fans jumping onto a poll.
Appointing Keates makes sense if we want to address our continuity issues. Keates constructed the foundations of this side, or to put it another way, the part of the team that works. He can’t pick up exactly where he left off, but he’s better placed than anyone else to reinstate the solidity we’ve lacked this season and steady the ship. Also, he was burnt by his Walsall experience so he’s highly unlikely to jump ship again. His dream job won’t come again anyway, so that danger is off the agenda.
Of course, some fans complain of Keates’ football being boring. This argument is fatally flawed on two fronts. Firstly, it’s daft to complain about “dull” football when our more attacking style drew us into the bottom four a week and a half ago. Stop me if I’m stating the obvious, but I’d rather grind out 1-0 wins and get into the play-offs than get relegated! Shaun Pearson explained this point at greater length this week, and he was quite right.
Secondly, Keates didn’t want to construct a defensive side; instead, by building a side from the back first, he got his priorities right. The problem was, his key attacking signings didn’t deliver, and he left before he could complete the job of constructing a title-winning side.
Our lack of attacking quality was partly rooted in misfortune too: on paper Jack Mackreth was a fine signing, but he never delivered. Also, Scott Boden failed to threaten up front, despite his credentials. Perhaps Keates ought to have played him as the most advanced forward rather than as the second striker. That’s seemed to be his intention in the opening game of the season when he played Chris Holroyd behind Boden, but Holroyd picked up an early injury, we drafted in Alex Reid who started well, and Boden’s role was altered.
He acknowledged the balance was wrong and tried to address it, switching Marcus Kelly inside to make the centre of midfield more creative, and introducing Nicky Deverdics. Neither of those moves altered the balance enough, and he admitted he’d have rejuvenated his forward line had he remained. As I understand it, the deal was essentially already done to bring in the sort of striker who would have been prolific at our level, but Keates’ departure put an end to that. On his return, he could look to fix that.
Unlike last season, Keates’ first season saw him pick up good quality players despite there being slim pickings in the market. While the end of the 2018-19 season saw a mixture of kids and experienced players who had been released arrive, Keates looked for experienced, strong characters and unearthed James Jennings, Russ Penn, Mitchell Lund and Izale McLeod. The young players he loaned in were generally ready to make a contribution too: Ollie Shenton, Ntumba Massanka and Luke Coddington were good additions to the squad, and while Rekeil Pyke wasn’t, he remained profitably on our radar. He was also willing to give youth a chance: Leo Smith made his debut in Keates’ first league game.
He was remarkably successful at weeding out the dead wood too. Michael Bakare, Nortey Nortei, Callum Powell, Sean Newton, Khaellem Bailey-Nicholls and Tyler Harvey started 9 games between them under Keates, and 12 players were shipped out before the end of the season. There’s fewer weak players in today’s squad, but a couple of squad positions could definitely be opened up to allow Keates to draft in some quality.
The truth is that Keates would inherit a very similar position to what he found when he was appointed manager of Wrexham in 2016, except the squad at his disposal is better, he has more attacking options, and he won’t be tied down by those crazy clauses Gary Mills gave many players, guaranteeing them contract extensions after a set number of appearances.
It was remarkable that he was able to create such a good side after one summer, and I feel sure he’d have finished the job if he’d remained. He has unfinished business. I hope he gets the chance to complete what he started.