To say I’m deflated would be quite an understatement.
I felt invested in last season’s squad, but the process of dismantling it has begun. There’s no room for sentiment in football, and if the budget for next season is well spent, we’ll be tilting at the title.
Still, I’m sad to see the back of this side, which attacked with increasing brio as the season has continued, and showed terrific heart as they pulled off some wonderful comebacks.
The way the season’s hopes dissolved last Saturday is a big factor in my mood. When you look at it dispassionately, it was another gutsy fightback. We got an away draw against a side in outstanding form, who were motivated by a chance to give something back to their fans, admitted into the ground for the first time in over a year. We went down to ten men but still battled back, and even spurned a 3-on-1 break in added time, straight after Jordan Ponticelli’s goal.
That goal, by the way, maintained a remarkable record under Dean Keates: across his two spells as manager he’s seen 8 of his players sent off in league matches, but we never conceded a goal in the 222 minutes we played short-handed, even when we were down to 9 men at Maidstone in 2017. We even scored with ten men in 4 of those games!
In mid-season you’d be happy with that result, but last Saturday it was a crushing outcome. 78% of the permutations of Saturday’s results if we drew would see us into the play-offs, but sadly, the other results didn’t go our way, as they didn’t the week before, when a number of our direct rivals for a play-off spot scored late winners.
It was rotten, it was cruel, but that’s football. It meant things changed, rapidly and massively.
I’ve said all along that I backed Keates as the man to get us out of the division, and I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say I’ve changed my mind. I’m very sad to see him go, but now we must focus on what comes next.
All decisions have to be judged by their results, and if Keates’ successor takes us up, nobody will be looking backwards and asking questions. That’s the nature of the business we’re in: football is a dog eat dog environment.
It takes me back to 2002. One of the narratives of our relegation season under Denis Smith was the battle to keep hold of Craig Faulconbridge.
Faulconbridge was a tall, blond striker who was energetic and good in the air. He finished his first season off by scoring both goals in a 2-0 win over Cardiff City in the Welsh Premier Cup Final, and was a consistent goal getter, managing totals of 16, 15 and 14 in his three seasons with us, all in League One and all making him our top scorer for the campaign.
Only three players, Tommy Bamford, Bert Goode and Karl Connolly, have been our top league goalscorer in more seasons, and only Connolly bettered that feat in the last 85 years.
We looked in big trouble from the outset of that season, and speculation constantly swirled around that Faulconbridge would be poached.
Having courted him publicly for the best part of a year, it should have come as no surprise when Wycombe obtained his signature, but our failure to bring a new striker in that Summer was worrying. Did Denis know what he was doing, keeping faith in the forwards who had played second fiddle to Faulconbridge in a relegation season?
Well, you tell me: Andy Morrell stepped up and scored 39 goals as we went straight back up! Only Bamford has scored more league goals for us than Morrell did in a season, and even the legendary forward only managed it once!
A worrying Summer conundrum had turned into a year of glory. Just as Morrell stepped up to fill Faulconbridge’s boots, the new manager will have to justify this week’s decisions and construct a squad able to hit the ground running.
I suppose all changes have to be judged on the results they yield. There can be no question, though, that Keates departs as a club legend. He leaves 4 games short of becoming just the 4th person to both manage and play 150 games for Wrexham, after Arfon Griffiths, Dixie McNeil and Ken Barnes. Hopefully, we’ll replace him with someone who, in years to come, we’ll see as equally iconic.