Any Wrexham fan worth their salt knows that last week was the anniversary of one of the greatest upsets of all time, and arguably the greatest day in the club’s history. A fabled FA Cup 3rd Round tie which saw a struggling side defeat one of the global game’s giants.
Oh, it was the anniversary of the Arsenal game last week too.
I’m referring to a game which occurred 10 years before the storied victory over The Gunners. When we drew Nottingham Forest away in 1982, nobody fancied our chances.
There was good reason for pessimism. After the glorious 1970s, the 1981-2 season marked an abrupt end to the golden age, and the start of a rapid descent.
The likes of Mickey Thomas, Dai Davies, Billy Ashcroft and Bobby Shinton had moved on, Graham Whittle and Mickey Evans’ injuries had got the better of them and Wales internationals Gareth Davies and Les Cartwright made just 17 appearances between them in the entire season as their playing careers ran down.
Mel Sutton wouldn’t play all season either, as he had taken over from Arfon Griffiths in the dug-out. Apart from Davies, only Dixie McNeil, Steve Buxton, Alan Hill and Eddie Niedzwiecki from the all-conquering squad of 4 years earlier managed to get to ten appearances.
We started the season horribly and things got worse from there. Griffiths’ departure had been intertwined with the brutal budget cuts the club had been forced into, and Sutton’s squad, beset by a catalogue of injuries which began even before the campaign kicked off when playmaker Ian Arkwright broke his leg in training, never looked likely to survive.
That momentum would be carried into the following season, when another relegation dumped us back in Division Four.
Our previous match, an encouraging win at fellow strugglers Cambridge, had dragged us up to 19th position and out of the relegation zone for the first time in the season. However, that match had taken place a full month earlier as the weather took at grip on the nation.
What would a rusty team need as a pick-me-up? How about visiting the team which had retained the European Cup a year and a half earlier!
Forest were beginning their own decline, although the curve would not be as steep as ours. Brian Clough was still at the peak of his powers and the likes of Peter Shilton, Viv Anderson, and John Robertson were still regulars.
So things looked pretty gloomy as we headed east: literally, as the match was initially scheduled for New Year’s Day, but the weather intervened again. Fortunately, the following day was a Saturday and the game was swiftly rearranged.
Dixie McNeil, that legend of the FA Cup, would have the ball in the back of the net after just two minutes. Things had changed though: it was his own net, as Mark Proctor’s free kick took a big deflection off the Wrexham skipper.
That set the tone for the first half, as Clough’s side dominated the game, but were held at bay by the typically excellent Niedzwiecki.
Wrexham started the second half more impressively, after Sutton told his side to get on the front foot and stop fearing Forest’s reputation.
Fifteen minutes into the second half, the game changed.
Steve Fox stood a cross into Forest’s box and Steve Dowman hurled himself at it, ending the longest scoring drought of his career and slammed an heroic header past Shilton. His first goal for us, his first for anyone in two years, and the signal for Wrexham to conjure up memories of the good old days for one last half hour.
Within ten minutes Mick Vinter gave us the lead with a long range shot, a rare goal for a striker who was the archytypal fox in the box.
The best was yet to come, though. With Forest still reeling and Wrexham rolling back the years, just one thing was missing: a Dixie thunderbolt. Three minutes after Vinter’s strike, McNeil obliged: a magnificent volley to conjure memories of St James’ Park. Shilton never saw it.
That was the final result, and we went on to take Chelsea to three games before collapsing against them. The collapse continued: our 4-0 home loss to the Londoners was the first of seven defeats in a row.
Of the 29 games that followed our victory at the County Ground, we won just 7; one of those was against Pontardawe in the Welsh Cup, and another was a meaningless game on the last day of the season, when relegation has already been confirmed.
Perhaps the anonymity of this great win is put in context by a contemporary editorial decision. After beating Forest, It would be another three and a half weeks before the winter relented and allowed us to play at The Racecourse again, and the programme barely mentioned the game. Just 145 words were devoted to it, yet there was a 5-column feature on Jimmy Greaves! Talk about a forgotten upset: within the same month even we couldn’t be bothered to mention it!