There was plenty to enjoy last Saturday, not least the fact that Gloucester City had the spirit to turn up for the match at all. With ten of their players laid low by COVID, they had every right to ask for a postponement or withdraw from the competition altogether. Instead, they turned up with a half-strength side bolstered by youth players and did themselves proud.
We should be grateful to them for giving us a game to enjoy, especially as it featured a truly uplifting moment. There might have only been a couple of thousand fans present, but Kwame Thomas’ comeback goal still raised the roof, and quite rightly.
Thomas’ tentative return began the Saturday before, when he was an unused substitute. If merely seeing his name on the team sheet didn’t bring a smile to your face, you’re a cold-hearted so-and-so.
When he was finally unleashed, he looked good. Naturally he wasn’t as sharp as before he was struck down by injury, but he was robust, athletic and there were some typical Kwame moments to enjoy. Not least of those was a cool finish, after a chance had been created by his harrying of a defender. Plus we got 70 minutes out of him!
Before considering the impact he could make in the weeks to come, it’s important to acknowledge the human side of this story. Thomas is a class act, both on and off the pitch. He was a shrewd signing by Dean Keates, catching the eye from the moment he came in on trial with some strong showings in intra-squad matches, and was swiftly tied down to a contract.
He’s an enthusiastic, warm character who’s easy to like, so he earned plenty of goodwill from the start. When he started showing what he could do on the pitch, the embrace of the fans grew even fonder.
Thomas brings something a little different to the forward line. He’s prodigious in the air, and gave a number of typically physical lower division centre backs a hard time challenging for long balls forward.
He’s far more than just a target man, though. Although he’s good at attacking crosses with his head, most of his goals were scored came from attacking the six-yard box. He might have the attributes of an old-fashioned Number Nine, but he’s more versatile than that – he’s a fox-in-the-box too.
He can get a fair amount of pace going too, and even if the goals hadn’t started to flow last season, his work rate alone was enough to make him a crowd favourite. His natural fitness is clearly an important attribute, and he constantly put the wind up defenders, making 40-yard sprints in the closing moments of a game to chase down lost causes. Nothing endears you to the fans like that.
We have, on occasions, seen Phil Parkinson’s side adopt quite specific approaches to pressing. Thomas’ energy could be very useful in that regard.
We shouldn’t build our hopes up too quickly. Rupturing your Achilles tendon is no small thing; it’ll take a while for Thomas to get match sharp, and it won’t be easy to get minutes up front. Obviously, Paul Mullin has one spot nailed down, and there’s plenty of competition for the place alongside him.
We’ve used a 4-3-1-2 this season, with Mullin in the hole behind two strikers, but that is something Parkinson falls back on when we’re chasing a game in the closing stages: there’s no sign of him adopting that approach from the start of a game and, frankly, I also see it as an emergency measure. We’ve looked exciting when we play like that, but it’d be a risk to start a game with that set-up.
Once Thomas is firing on all cylinders, it’s easy to imagine him being a useful foil for Mullin. Jordan Ponticelli has done sterling work this season, making space for Mullin with his tireless running, and when we played a 4-2-3-1, Dior Angus did a similar job, his runs creating gaps for Mullin to attack from deep. Jake Hyde is more of a fixed point, but his ability to hold the ball up offers different possibilities.
So Parkinson should soon have a good range of strikers to choose from, with Thomas firmly in the mix to make an impact on the second half of the season. Of course, he might have some new faces to barge out of the way too: for a variety of reasons, it would be shockingly disappointing to find a Wrexham side lacking in attacking options by the end of January!