One of my favourite moments of the season so far came in the second half of the Chorley match on Boxing Day.
An excellent move released Devonte Redmond on the right flank, and he drilled a great cross into the goalmouth. JJ Hooper, hunting for a hat trick, attacked it at the near post, knowing that all it would take to beat the keeper from that position would be to steer the ball on target. However, he’d dropped off to feed Redmond in the first case, and arrived a fraction too late to make contact.
The ball flew across the goalmouth to Bobby Grant, arriving at close range but unsighted by Hooper until the ball arrived. It hit him and, having no time to adjust, he could do no more than bundle it towards goal, where the Chorley keeper blocked it.
The memorable moment came next.
As a defender came back to desperately hack the ball clear, Grant lunged like a goalkeeper, arms outstretched, straining to somehow stop the ball from leaving the danger area. It was instinctive, it was wild and, frankly, it was daft! The only possible outcome if he’d made contact would have been a yellow card for handball. But in that moment, Grant encapsulated the attitude Wrexham need to dig themselves out of trouble. It was a portrait of total commitment. For that split second, an experienced player forgot himself, forgot what he has learned over the best part of three decades, and forgot the rules of the game. He was only thinking one thing: the ball must go in. Grant’s instinct was to throw his body on the line for the club and his team mates.
This isn’t the only example of Grant sacrificing himself for the team. He’s been asked to do exactly that all season, in the absence through injury of JJ Hooper. Our unfortunate Summer recruitment meant there is no obvious alternative to Hooper up front, meaning Grant has been pressed into service in a role which doesn’t play to his strengths.
Grant wants to be able to run at defenders, but instead he’s asked to scrap in the air for long balls with centre backs. He’s not bad in the air, and his strength means he can cause his markers problems by backing in as the ball makes its way towards them. However, the odds are stacked against him.
This tactic can be successful even if the striker can’t win the ball or hold it up, but whether it does or not is essentially out of Grant’s hands. If the attacking midfielders can get close enough to him, they can profit from the second balls Grant’s backing-in creates. If they can’t he’s merely indulging in Sisyphean toil, undertaking a pointless, laborious task for no real purpose.
He never complains about having to fulfil this tiresome task, though, which is why it really irks me that he gets more grief from fans than any other player. That’s possibly because he’s willing to give it back, and frankly, I’m on his side with that one. If fans want to argue that they’ve paid their money and are therefore entitled to shout abuse at players, then they shouldn’t be so precious when the player responds. People in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones.
Grant’s reaction to a volley of abuse came after Wrexham had scored in a home win, and when the issue blew up into the latest storm in a social media teacup, the reaction of supporters was notable. The silent majority found a voice and started singing in tribute to the striker, reminding us all that, while voices of dissent carry a long way, that doesn’t mean they represent the whole by any means.
It seems odd to me that Grant has been singled out by some, because he brings exactly what fans demand to the table. One of my football bugbears is when people say players aren’t trying. It’s usually not true, and is essentially shorthand for “I don’t know why we’re playing badly, so in the absence of an explanation I’ll just say that the players aren’t trying.”
I’m not saying all footballers are constantly in a heightened state of motivation: a most obvious example came in the first two games of Dean Keates’ first spell as our manager. A certain senior player clearly phoned it in for those matches, and never played for us again!
That’s because Keates is the man who broke his arm playing for us against Newport, so he stuck it into a makeshift sling and carried on because we’d already used all our subs. I think it’s reasonable to say that if you don’t meet his extremely high threshold for effort, you’ll be out on your ear.
That’s part of the reason why Grant has started every game Keates has taken seriously since he returned: he’s only missed our Scottish Challenge Cup and FA Trophy matches. It’s not the only reason, though. He has carved out a career at a higher level than this with his driving runs towards goal, and it was seen as something of a coup when he arrived last season. When he has been deployed in wide positions this season, or dropping off a pacy striker, he has been able to offer glimpses of that ability. Nobody has hit the runs of Omari Patrick as effectively as Grant.
At Chorley, Grant was given a chance to play in what is ostensibly his best position, behind two strikers. He created very little, and didn’t trouble the opposing goalkeeper, but his performance deserved a great deal of credit. His workrate was terrific. Often, despite playing off the strikers, he’d sit deep during an attack, aware that someone needed to cover the forward runs of others. He battled in midfield and won a lot of challenges. It wasn’t pretty, but it was important.
When I first went to Wrexham matches, it was constantly stated that Mel Sutton was a player the fans give enough respect to, but the players and coaches relied upon. His selfless work off the ball, plugging gaps and putting in miles of running, was appreciated by those who saw that to balance a side bulging with talent, someone had to put in the legwork. Grant is not exactly that player – he’s still our top scorer, after all. However, he certainly fulfilled that role on New Year’s Day, and the last accusation you could throw at him is that he isn’t trying
Grant’s desperate lunge to block the ball against Chorley was one of my favourite moments of the year, but how the majority of fans rose up to drown his critics was actually more of a highlight. Fans demand 100% effort from players, and anyone who can’t see that Grant offers exactly that is watching a different game from most of us.