“Big As Signing Mullin”: FIFA give Wrexham a huge boost

My son told me about the FIFA ruling which lifted our adherence to transfer windows this season by saying it was as big as when we signed Mullin.

An hour later I was at The Racecourse, talking to Phil Parkinson, and he said the news was as important as making a big signing.

It looks like we’re unanimous: this is a big moment.

To operate under different rules than the rest of the division is utterly nonsensical, but we’ve had to make the best of this bad situation. At last, we’ve got an even playing field, and at exactly the opportune moment too! It was a difficult handicap to handle when we didn’t have much money to spend, but when there was serious cash burning a hole in our pocket, it was incredibly galling.

To understand the impact of the removal of transfer windows for everyone but us, consider the first season of each of Dean Keates’ spells as manager.

Both times he inherited a dysfunctional squad which was in desperate need of reshaping mid-season.

He came in to replace Gary Mills after 15 league games in October 2016, following a disastrous Summer which saw the manager dismantle his team from the previous season and recruit poorly.

Keates found himself with a lot of dead wood at his disposal, and the restriction of only being able to make transfers during the January window, in theory. In practice though, a work-around had been introduced, allowing us to make use of emergency loans between windows, and to strike deals which permitted us to make converting loans out into permanent moves compulsory once the window re-opened. In other words, we were essentially operating without transfer windows in all but name.

The result was an extremely successful reshaping of the squad. The departure of Callum Powell 18 league games later meant 13 players had been shipped out, and 6 new recruits were embedded in the squad. Throw in 3 youth players who had been given debuts, along with 2 Mills signings who hadn’t made it onto the pitch before his departure, and you had a real revolution.

Wrexham were 15th, and spiralling downwards when Mills left, having won just 4 of the previous 18 points available, and before Keates had a chance to get his feet properly under the manager’s desk we’d suffered perhaps the most humiliating cup defeat in our history, losing at home to Stamford. The loopholes which had been introduced for our benefit allowed him to strip the squad down and rebuild with few restrictions, and we ended the season comfortably in mid-table.

Fast forward three years and Keates returned to inherit a near-identical situation. Again, we’d played 15 league games, but this time the tailspin was more advanced. We were in 20th place, hovering just above the drop zone, with 4 fewer points than Mills’ side had accumulated.

There was a crucial difference: the dispensation which had allowed Keates to make wholesale changes had been rescinded. Wrexham were now stuck in virtually the situation which prevailed until FIFA’s verdict yesterday: we couldn’t buy or sell players until the transfer window reopened.

There was one small difference: we could use the emergency loan system to bring players in. That meant Keates was able to recruit four players before January – Kieran Kennedy, James Horsfield, Tyler Reid and Omari Patrick – but his ability to ship players out was severely restricted. In contrast to the fire sale at the start of his previous spell as manager, this time he couldn’t shift any players on until January.

Kieran Kennedy

By the end of his first season as Wrexham manager, Keates had moved on 11 of his predecessor’s players; by the time COVID-19 curtailed his second attempt to strip a squad down, the new transfer window restrictions mean he’d only got rid of three of Bryan Hughes’ players.

After that, of course, the emergency loan loop-hole was closed, meaning Phil Parkinson arrived to find himself in a position even he’d never encountered in his lengthy and varied managerial career.

Every other side in the division could make signings up to March, but we were restricted to the two transfer windows. Did it make a difference? Hell, yes!

That restriction wasn’t the only unique challenge Parkinson faced. He also had to convince players who ought to be operating at League One level that they should step down non-league football in order to join the exciting project he’d been employed to orchestrate.

SONY DSC

Parkinson had the budget to lure players down to the fifth tier, but convincing players to take a risk while ensuring they were hungry for success rather than merely money-grabbing was a challenge, and it was naturally a slow process.

Transfers were slow to come in, and pre-season started with the squad nowhere near complete. Parkinson’s appointment quite late in the Summer certainly didn’t help in that respect.

The arrival of Paul Mullin was crucial as Parkinson stuck to his guns and refused to make signings for the sake of it. Bringing in the Player of the Season winner and top scorer from the division above, a player who had just clinched promotion and assured himself of cult hero status at Cambridge, was a remarkable coup and sent a clear message to other potential targets: the Wrexham project was a serious proposition.

However, it was clear that, as the transfer window closed, Parkinson had not had enough time to complete his squad-building project. His line-up for the opening match of the season featured a back three of Aaron Hayden, Tyler French and league debutant Max Cleworth. Jamie Reckord was at left back – Parkinson would allow him to leave in the next transfer window – while David Jones made his one and only start in a Wrexham shirt. Six of the players in Parkinson’s first 16 would not be in his squad a year later.

David Jones

Between that match and the window slamming shut, Parkinson was able to bring in Ben Tozer and James Jones, but it was clear there were still areas of the squad which needed improvement. Parkinson had to wait until January to make those alterations though, and while he suffered criticism during that first half of the season, it’s fair to say with hindsight that he did well to keep the team within sight of the top of the table, especially as the talismanic Mullin was suffering with a restricting injury in the latter stages of the year.

One point out of 6 in front of the new owners in late October saw Wrexham slip to 13th place, but results picked up dramatically at that point, and the January window opened on a side in 3rd place, having won 8 of the last 10 matches. The recruitment of Callum McFadzean, Tom O’Connor and Ollie Palmer were the final pieces of the first eleven, and from that point there is no doubt that Wrexham were the best team in the division.

The FA Trophy match against Borehamwood was the first time all three new men were able to take the field, and even at the time it felt like a watershed moment. The Wood were in magnificent form and fielded a full strength team, but we thumped them 3-0 and looked like a complete team. The final pieces of the jigsaw had been slotted into place.

The stats support the idea that this was a significant moment. Over the remainder of the season we would go on to win more points than any other side in the division, and we looked sensational in the process. We had a tough run-in too, but beat Stockport twice, with an aggregate score of 5-0, and enjoyed equally eye-catching results against the other promotion challengers: we won 2-0 at Chesterfield and 2-1 at Notts County; Halifax were massively flattered by a 3-1 scoreline. The only sides in the top 7 we didn’t beat in that period were Solihull Moors, who were the only side to keep up with the hot pace we set but were lucky the referee took a generous view of a few contentious incidents in a 1-1 draw, and Grimsby Town, who we’d already played twice. Ollie Palmer had scored the winner past them on his debut anyway.

The gulf between our form and that of Stockport only widened as the season wore on. Over the last 10 games of the season we averaged 0.33 points more than them per game. Extrapolate that form out across the whole season and we’d have finished 15 points ahead of them.

I know football isn’t as simple as that, but the truth is that, once we had our deals done, we were the best team in the division. Imagine what would have happened if Parkinson had been allowed to complete his squad-building in September.

Stockport were able to replenish their squad as the season went on, addressing fluctuations of form and injury problems as they occurred. The value of being able to refresh a squad mid-season was illustrated pretty plainly when Gavan Holohan, a player we’d been linked with in the media, moved to Grimsby in March. They were hovering on the fringes of the play-offs at the time, with the teams around them holding games in hand over them.

Holohan would make a massive difference: they ended up five points above the play-off cut-off point, and Holohan would be one of the stars of post-season. He scored the injury time equaliser at Notts County which kept their season alive, and then was fundamental in their wins at The Racecourse and at West Ham as Grimsby clinched the second promotion place.

Phil Parkinson’s signings this Summer have illustrated how hampered he has been by having to assemble his roster in instalments. Even if he was able to put together a side which was too good for the National League by February, he has needed another window to add squad depth. A couple of key injuries at the decisive point of the season revealed how stretched his resources were, and the season fell away.

Parkinson lacked game changers on the bench at Wembley at in the play-off against Grimsby: The Mariners, by contrast, had a number of key players carrying injuries into the post-season but had enough on the bench to cleverly manage their resources and nurse key men like Holohan and John McAtee through. Substitutes scored in each of their three play-offs, including the winners at Notts County and in the final.

Now we finally have a level playing field, a manager with a good strike rate in the transfer market, and more spending freedom than any of our opponents. Oh, and the best side in the division.

This is, like the signing of Mullin a year ago, a symbolic moment. A massive leap forward which sends a message to everyone that our ambitions lie far beyond the National League, That we are a serious proposition. From our fans to transfer targets to opposing managers, everyone in the game knows that we have things lined up as we want them to be. There’s nothing for this side to hide behind this season, and they wouldn’t want it any other way.

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