The Battle of Eastleigh

In November 1955, a packed Racecourse hosted the most notorious game in its long history. On Tuesday, behind closed doors, we staged a remake.

The pitch-side altercation between Wrexham and Eastleigh in midweek was remarkable. It certainly wasn’t the clichéd “handbags” that sexist commentators like to describe with a blithe lack of awareness.

It brought back memories of that brutal Welsh international, played 66 years ago. “The Battle of Wrexham” was a fearsome clash between Wales and Austria. The scene had been set in a violent match between the sides in Vienna a year earlier, and the rematch would prove to be more explosive than the first.

An Austrian player suffered a broken leg, and matters really got out of hand when a wild challenge on Mel Charles left him badly injured. His brother, the “Gentle Giant”, was John Charles of course, and he lost his temper, gripping the assailant by the throat and lifting him off the ground like a Swansea Darth Vadar,

It was a proper bundle from start to finish – the Pathe News footage is quite an eye-opener – and it felt like the two sides were paying belated homage to it on Tuesday!

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a no-holds-barred brawl in the flesh before. It was like an ice hockey match! Players were pouring down from the seats to get involved, it flowed down the passageway alongside the dug-out at one point, and was genuinely out of hand.

I enjoyed how the referee and linesmen decided to retire to the centre circle and let it play out, leaving the poor fourth official in the midst of it all to try and sort things out!

There was no obvious consultation with the fourth official, who surely was the most important person to confer with as he was in the middle of the whole affair, and although the official are connected by ear-pieces, Dean Keates claimed the referee didn’t ask the key witness for an account of what happened.

There’s no coincidence that the game spilled over; it shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. Eastleigh’s approach in both games we’ve played against them this season has left a bad taste in the mouth, and there’s no question that our clash at The Silverlake six weeks ago set the tone for round two.

Even watching the live stream, which was the worst we’ve had to suffer this season, it was clear that a key part of the Hampshire side’s culture is intimidation of the officials. It was difficult to see what was happening, but what you could hear was clear as day.

Constantly the Spitfires were screaming when they were tackled, shouting at the referee for even the most trivial of decisions to be accompanied by a harsh punishment, and generally winding the Wrexham players up.

It worked, too. We were the better side and deservedly ahead in the second half, but the referee capitulated under the pressure and gave a truly farcical penalty to the home side which enabled them to get away with a draw.

That wasn’t all though. As the match wore on, the official increasingly lost control, until a flashpoint in the closing stages of the game.

An Eastleigh player dived under pressure from Jordan Davies, and a free kick was given. Wrexham, having been provoked all game, were incensed and a pushing match ensued – nothing as serious as what happened on Tuesday, but it would certainly have consequences for Tyler French.

The young defender, making his debut that night, rushed into the fray and received a rather harsh second yellow card. Perhaps he was a little naïve to put himself into a situation where his fate was in the referee’s hands, but the bigger picture was Eastleigh had belatedly achieved what they’d set out to do: provoke until a Wrexham player fell into their trap.

On Tuesday, it was clear from the outset that the previous clash hadn’t been forgotten. As the Spitfires’ first goal flew in, Jay Harris and Danny Hollands were standing toe-to-toe on the half way line, oblivious to the game going on around them, arguing over a challenge the Eastleigh player had made.

From there the game continued its niggly way to the inevitable conclusion of the referee losing control. We suffered another harsh sending off, while Eastleigh were not punished often enough for a series of tactical fouls which riled the Dragons.

Once more the referee lost control, and once more we were on the rough end of a series of massive decisions. Still, every mass brawl has a silver lining: you can’t doubt the heart, desire or commitment of this Wrexham side.

Down to ten men, trailing and infuriated by the behaviour of Eastleigh and the referee’s decision-making, we dug in to repel our opponents and, having survived, turned the tables by ripping into them despite being a man down.

We were unfortunate not to pick up a victory which would have been quite remarkable, but the point we salvaged is still precious. Tested in the heat of battle, this Wrexham side stuck together and came through it. That’s the sort of tenacity that makes you a side nobody wants to face in a play-off.

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