We live in remarkable times. Off we head today to Scotland, to represent England against Rangers. But it’s their youth team. Still, we get to play at one of the world’s great football grounds, even if we choose not to give our first team the opportunity.
Attitudes towards cup competitions have become increasingly ambivalent in recent years. From the highlight of the season, cup competitions have become an uncalled-for intrusion into the prioritised of the league programme. The landscape of football has shifted: we yearn for the international breaks to end and the Premier League to resume; we wonder whether we should pick the kids and reserves for the cups and get out of them quickly.
Yet drawing Rangers, and the game eventually confirmed for Ibrox on a Saturday, has suddenly made an undesirable competition interesting.
Its drawbacks are obvious. We miss out on league fixtures, falling behind the rest of the National League and sliding down the table. Playing in front of tiny crowds rather than having normal attendances, which will be smaller when we rearrange matches for midweek, comes at a financial price. Now we make the long trek north which we’d manage to avoid so far.
Yet, perhaps, the circumstances of the match make it all seem worthwhile. There’ll even be a good following from North Wales and a decent home support, it seems.
Also, we’ve what must be a one-off shot at doing something memorable. Wrexham’s reputation is built on cup exploits. Knocking Arsenal out of the FA Cup, eliminating Porto from Europe, walloping Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest at their own patch. Going back to Micky Metcalf’s hat trick against Blackburn in the 1960s, we’ve developed an incredible record in knock-out competitions.
We’ve won the Welsh Cup more often than any other team, despite not playing in the competition for over two decades, and reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup three times, plus similar runs in the League Cup and European Cup Winners Cup. For a club of our stature to achieve half of that would be astonishing.
So cup success is in our DNA, a crucial part of our identity. This bizarre Scottish confection has suddenly become an opportunity to add to that, even if it is called the Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Scottish Challenge Cup (I think – I might have left a couple of words out!)
It’s already another tournament we’ve reached the last eight in, which frankly is a comment on the level of Scottish lower division football more than anything else. Unlike the bigger competitions I mentioned earlier, though, this is different. We’ve actually got a realistic shot at winning this thing. Heck, Connah’s Quay Nomads got to the final last season!
Obviously, we can’t afford to be distracted from the pressing matter of our league position in the relegation zone. We can’t sleepwalk our way into a catastrophe of historic proportions, focusing on a competition we’d never really heard of before the Summer.
The draw against Rochdale might condition our approach today anyway. Having a replay in three days’ time will surely discourage Dean Keates from selecting a full strength side, as a navigable path will open up to the lucrative FA Cup third round if we can pull off a shock at Spotland. However, this isn’t the Rangers first team we’re facing. It’s their youth side, and although they’ve done magnificently and clearly feature some fine players, including senior pros who have made a significant contribution to their run, they will also be missing players through international call-ups.
A mixture of reserves and youth players has been good enough to get us this far. If they can overcome a partisan crowd and some technically promising youngsters, more cup glory, of sorts, could be on the agenda.