Rooney Meets His Youthful Nemesis

I was left conflicted after Saturday’s game with North Ferriby. It was good that we dominated the game, but bad that we failed to score more than once against a side which looked weaker than any other we’ve faced this season. The cause of my internal conflict was a goalkeeper who looked like he’s seven years old but played with the swagger of a Schmeichel.

Rory Walker, on loan from Hull City, is the child prodigy in question, and his heroics were jaw-dropping. The best save he made came in the closing minutes, an outrageous palm onto the post which denied Ntumba Massanka a debut goal. However, most of his day was spent denying John Rooney, who on another day might have walked away with the match ball.

Rooney was denied shortly before we scored when he showed good technique to steer a half volley towards the bottom right corner, only for the unsighted Walker to pounce and push the ball round the post at full stretch. He continued to deny the poor bloke until the death, when he stood up well to parry a powerful Rooney strike as his back four dissolved in front of him. In all I counted six notable saves Walker made from Rooney, while at the other end Chriis Dunn wondered if his morals would force him to return his wage for the day as he felt guilty about getting paid for watching a game of football unfold somewhere in the distance.

But back to that save from Massanka, because it really summed up how inspired Walker was. Once again, Walker was unsighted as the striker struck a powerful shot from a mere eight yards out, but it seems that seeing the ball late was no obstacle to the youngster on Saturday. His save was out of the top drawer, but for me it was what happened directly afterwards which encapsulated his near-invincibility.

The ball ricocheted at speed off the post and swiftly fell to a Wrexham player on the far side of the box who was in a position to take a snap shot. Inevitably, that player was Rooney.

Rooney opted to rip his shot towards the far post, surely reasoning that if he was ever going to beat this wretched keeper his best chance was to send it back in the direction he was moving from. Surely, with his balance shifted the other way, he’d not be able to get back across to cover the shot? Rooney got his bearings slightly wrong and the ball scraped the outside of the post on its way wide, but the thing is this: Walker managed to cover it anyway! Sometimes as a goalkeeper you just get into the zone and want as many shots as possible to come raining in on you; clearly Walker was slap-bang in the middle of that zone at that moment. He’d just made a world class save, and immediately he was up on his toes again, bouncing across his goal full of adrenaline and then hurling himself back the other way, praying that Rooney’s shot was onside so he could deny him once more. I was actually glad Rooney didn’t score from that rebound: Walker didn’t deserve to be punished from the rebound of such a good save.

I might have seen it differently if the score was still 0-0 though. It was a good job Izale McLeod came up with a contender for goal of the season: only a shot nailed into the top left corner would have beaten Walker on his special day.

Still, ultimately the story of the match was that Walker had a magnificent game and therefore a huge impact on the ultimate scoreline. If he’s this good when he’s seven, wait until he’s eight!

Keates Gathers Pieces of the Jigsaw

Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.

I know it was only one game, but last Saturday felt like it might have been the start of something.

It’s natural to wonder if a manager in his first job will be any good in the transfer market, and Dean Keates has inherited a massive job as he must overhaul his squad by the end of the month. Thankfully, the impact of his first two signings made a massive difference to the team and suggested we should be excited about the prospect of the other players he brings in.

Their success can be explained quite simply. Keates has looked at his squad and decided what type of players would knit in well with those he already has. It’s an obvious approach, made remarkable by what has been happening at The Racecourse over the last two seasons.

Gary Mills’ approach to recruitment seems to have been the exact opposite to Keates’. Players were brought in it seems it was only then that he started trying to work out what he’d do with them. Why else would Lee Fowler be signed amidst great fanfare, made club captain, and not selected? He didn’t fit in with the manager’s tactical strategy, which wasn’t his fault as it appears his manager hadn’t actually devised that strategy when he signed him.

Keates is much more methodical. We’ve a good target man in Jordan White, so Keates brings in an experienced striker who makes runs which White can reward; we’ve looked vulnerable down the flanks as a midfield diamond leaves full backs exposed, so he brings in a high quality left back. It’s not rocket science, but it’s extremely pleasing when a couple of judicious signings are able to elevate a team as they did last Saturday.

james_jennings_1

Signing James Jennings at left back is a major coup. Last season he was in the National League team of the year, and he immediately showed his qualities against Woking, both in terms of how he tightened the defence up and how comfortable he was going forward.

He deserved massive credit for a piece of composure on the half way line which might not have seemed crucial at the time, but lead to our first goal. Put under terrific pressure by two Woking players, facing his own goal and gradually losing his balance, the easy option was to thrash the ball blindly clear and concede possession. Instead, he kept his composure and played the ball the way he was facing. The reward for retaining the ball came swiftly, as Curtis Tilt drilled an accurate ball forward to White, whose clever lay-off allowed John Rooney to score.

Izale McLeod was the new man up front, and while he had a more mixed time of it than Jennings, there was real potential in how he shaped up. We’ve got to remember that he hasn’t played much this season, and he’ll surely look increasingly assured as his match fitness grows, but while he might need some time to get fully into the swing of things, his intelligence and compatibility with White were already clear.

His willingness to peel off and search for space behind the defensive line once White received the ball allowed the big man to flick accurate passes into his path. Give him a bit more game time and he’ll hopefully be banging those chances in.

I said a couple of weeks ago that we were embarking on a crucial run of games which would shape the nature of our season. Five games out of six against sides below us in the table, four of those at home, offer us a chance to pull ourselves clear of the relegation scrap and use the rest of the season to start planning for next season. So far we’ve won two home games and carelessly lost an away match which should have been at least a draw.

It’s crucial tomorrow that we maintain the momentum generated by those two home victories. If we win, it’s three home successes in a row, and three wins out of four overall, all against sides in the bottom four. Let’s hope that performance against Woking was indeed the start of something.

Kai and Jordan’s departures send message to the Wrexham AFC squad

No Wrexham player could be surprised to see the departures begin to mount up this week, but the identities of a couple of the players who have gone might give them pause for thought. When Kai Edwards and Jordan Evans left yesterday, any doubt that Dean Keates will make the necessary tough choices to reshape his squad were removed.

There were plenty of players in the squad who were clearly candidates for the chop, and there can be little surprise in most of the departures. Tyler Harvey and Nortei Nortey had been shipped out on loan having simply not looked up to the job, and while I quite liked the work rate of  Shaun Harrad and suspected he was hampered by a lack of supply, the fact is that two goals in fourteen league starts simply wasn’t good enough for an out-and-out striker.

It would seem that Jordan Evans and Gerry McDonagh left because the terms of proposed new deals were beyond what we were willing to pay. In both cases I’m inclined to see it how Keates must do. McDonagh was showing encouraging signs of improvement, but he’s still a young lad who would probably be used as back-up if Keates was able to successfully repopulate his front line. If he could stay on the existing terms, I’d be very happy to keep him, but if his parent club don’t think that will help his development and put a higher price on him, I’d look elsewhere. The whole idea of a “favour” to a pal is the sort of culture we’re looking to get away from since Keates took over, after all.

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Jordan Evans

Likewise Evans clearly has something, and I’d have liked to see him continue at the club, not least because he stated he’d like to stay. The sticking point appears to be the wage he was offered – in essence a small wage reduction which would translate as a pay rise in real terms across the course of his contract because he’d be paid over the Summer months.

Once he decided to push for more, Keates was right to look elsewhere. He was worth keeping, but had he done enough to earn an improved contract? Admittedly, he’s played a lot out of position at left back, but still, he’s had a rough ride there, not least at Southport last weekend. With limited wriggle room financially, Keates wisely chose to see if he could redeploy the cash elsewhere.

Edwards’ departure, along with Evans’, shows that Keates will make swift, ruthless decisions to move things on. Edwards has started every match under Keates apart from last Sunday’s when he was unfit, but he’s gone. Admittedly, that was partly because he wanted to play at centre back, a position he was badly exposed in at Tranmere. Keates was right to refuse that request, and was ruthless in his consideration of what to do next. He could have insisted he stayed on until his contract expired, but Edwards has drawbacks at right back despite his enthusiasm. He’s uncomfortable when exposed to direct-running wingers, and bringing the ball forwards is not his natural game, which is an issue when a side plays with a diamond as the full-backs have to push on.

So Keates took the ruthless decision, and that will surely resonate in the squad. Players who have been regulars under him – the only match Evans didn’t start under Keates was the Stamford replay, when he came off the bench and had his best game for us – have been allowed to leave. Perhaps others who might feel secure in their place might look at that and realise that Keates wasn’t kidding when he said only 100% commitment will earn a contract from him.

If only Nottingham Forest put McDonagh’s progress first!

Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.

So the necessary reshuffle in our squad has begun. The fact that Dean Keates first moved to free up space in his forward line told us that he’s looking to remedy our lack of firepower with the utmost urgency.

There’s a statistic which sums up our situation neatly. Under Gary Mills we scored a dismal average of 0.7 goals per game this season; under Keates we’ve managed 1.1. It’s better, but not still good enough.

Still, the fact that Keates is squeezing almost twice as many goals per game out of the poorly-assembled squad Mills bequeathed him tells you a couple of things: that Keates is a genuine upgrade from his predecessor; and that even so, you can’t expect him to be a miracle worker.

This side has failed all season to provide much of a goal threat. In thirty matches we’ve scored three goals just twice, but have failed to score at all 14 times. That’s a damning indictment of our lack of creativity and firepower, and Gary Mills knew it.

Having failed to recruit effectively in the Summer, Mills was fully aware that the sides he was fielding didn’t have goals in them. Hence, in away games he’d regularly rip things up once we went behind, switching to what was essentially a 4-2-4, because he knew we weren’t likely to score unless we took wild risks. The outcome, inevitably, was that we were left wide open and conceded more, of course.

The situation has improved under Keates, but not enough to convince him he should persevere with the players he inherited. It seems he was open to the idea of extending Gerry McDonagh’s loan spell, but the discussion floundered because the initial move was a personal favour to Mills’ assistant Darren Caskey. If that’s the case, it’s a remarkably short-sighted stance for his parent club, Nottingham Forest, as the striker was surely benefitting from playing in such a competitive league. No doubt he was being stretched by our relentless schedule, but he wasn’t showing signs of being worn down by the strain of battling in the face of our poor form.

Gary Mills and Darren Caskey recreate an 80s pop video.
Gary Mills and Darren Caskey recreate an 80s pop video.

Furthermore, the Southport double-header suggested his pairing with Jordan White was an unlikely smart move. On paper, a partnership of two big strikers seems unpromising. It wasn’t a Chris Armstrong-Andy Preece style marriage; they were two powerfully explosive big men who had pace. White and McDonagh appear, on the surface, to both  be in more of a traditional target man mould, and you’d think that such a duo would struggle to gel, making the same runs and lacking the acceleration to run in behind.

Yet it worked, because appearances can be deceptive. McDonagh is happy dropping wide to run at men, and is quicker than a bloke his size ought to be once he gets a head of steam going. White is also fairly fleet of foot, but he also has an extra aspect to his play that made the partnership work. He’s adept at laying the ball off accurately, and makes quick decisions when he’s bringing others into play, which is essential when you get close to the box and space is short.

I’m not at all convinced, despite his scoring record, that he’s the 30-goal-a-season man fans are hankering after; instead, I suspect that he’s a good target man who will show his worth in his ability to bring others into play. Let’s hope Keates can bring in a genuine predator to feed off him, because he won’t have the chance to explore his partnership with McDonagh any further.

PREVIEW: Wrexham AFC v Woking FC

Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.

Our home record against Woking isn’t too clever, as we’ve lost our last two league encounters at The Racecourse.

Admittedly, there was a home win sandwiched between those matches as we beat them 3-0 in an FA Cup tie in November 2013. The game, and all the scoring, was over by half time as Neil Ashton, Wes York and Andy Bishop grabbed the goals, getting us started on a cup run which ended famously at Stoke City.

Last season we crashed to a 3-1 defeat despite a spectacular early free kick by Dom Vose. An unusual line-up from Gary Mills, which saw us play with a back three and a midfield diamond, turned out to be as dysfunctional as it was experimental. With hindsight it offered us a taste of what was to come for the remainder of Mills’ time at The Racecourse.

The previous season saw Kevin Wilkin fail to get the better of cunning Woking supremo Gary Hill as we lost 2-1 at The Racecourse despite Louis Moult’s first half goal.

Our home record against The Cards is won three, drawn one and lost two, but for our last league win at The Racecourse you have to go back to October 2013 when Dean Keates opened the scoring and Joe Clarke completed a 2-0 win in the last minute.

Bishop and Keates, who have each scored twice in this fixture, are the only Wrexham players to have put more than one goal past Woking.

The Pies Have It!

Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.

I’ve seen the future and it’s pie-shaped.

It’s not just that I enjoyed the new club pie on Saturday; it’s the symbolism behind it which I found particularly appetising.

For me, being a fan-owned club is far more than just being able to claim you’re a part-owner on your social media bio. It’s an opportunity to carve out an identity for the club. To mark yourself out as special. To show you’re “Més que un club” without resorting to spelling it out on the seats of a stand.

Everyone thinks their club is different, special, better than the others. Of course, they’re wrong. How many fans have you heard singing they support “by far the greatest team the world has ever seen”? And how many of them have any claim to that actually being true?

Yet when the fans take control, they can mould a club’s identity and make it feel like it’s more than just another local club with values which essentially match everybody else’s.

That’s why the choice of a club pie, while apparently trivial, is actually very important.

The club has already stated their hope that our chilli pie, chosen by the fans, can rival the famous “Killie Pie” which Kilmarnock have sold for years. Simply in saying that we separate ourselves from the anonymous corporate identities of most clubs: that’s the sort of thing which fans, steeped in tradition and experienced in long away trips, would say. You come away from matches with memories of goals, pies and chants, not an awareness of the opponents’ successful compliance with their client engagement goals.

It’s something I took away from Brighton after that epic FA Cup tie, when fans of both sides gathered in the concourses after the game to talk it through over the local pies and beer the Albion sold, rather than the frozen food and watery nonsense most clubs offer.

It’s something you can’t help but take away from Kidderminster as well, obviously. What is there which stops the Harriers from being a nondescript non-league side? The soup.

And that’s what it’s all about. Creating goodwill both in a wider sense as football fans take note of us as something beyond the average, and in a smaller sense. The more we rally fans and the local community to see Wrexham AFC as something to cherish, something special, something which contributes to the area, the more support we’ll have when the going gets tough. Right now, that seems very pertinent.

And apart from all that, it was a very good pie too!

PREVIEW: Southport FC v Wrexham AFC

Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.

If it’s January, it must be Southport. With a startling lack of originality, the fixture list churns out festive clashes between Wrexham and Southport with monotonous regularity. Indeed, nine out of the last eleven matches between the sides have been in either December or January!

We travelled to Haig Avenue on the second of January last season, and suffered an unnecessary defeat. In a dramatic encounter we took an early lead through Wes York and looked in control until The Sandgrounders suddenly clicked, scoring either side of the break.

However, the introduction of Dom Vose and James Grey after 70 minutes proved to be an inspiration as within a minute the former had whipped in a corner which the latter bundled home. Our other substitute, Kayden Jackson, then appeared to have won a late penalty but the referee waved play on and moments later pointed to the spot at the other end after a poor challenge from Jamal Fyfield. The spot kick was converted to clinch a 3-2 home win.

That result ended a superb run of results for Wrexham at Southport. We hadn’t lost there for fifty years, our previous defeat being a 1-0 reverse in 1966. Our subsequent eight match unbeaten run at Haig Avenue saw us rack up six wins, including our biggest victory there.

That came in November 2012, despite being behind at the break. Andy Morrell’s side stormed back in the second period though. Jay Harris equalised and Southport collapsed in the final twelve minutes after an own goal put us ahead. Rob Ogleby made it three, and Chris Westwood wrapped up a 4-1 win with a rare goal.

The sides have regularly played back-to-back fixtures over the Christmas period since the days when they were both in the Third Division North, often on consecutive days, and history tells us we shouldn’t assume that we’re favourites at Haig Avenue just because we won on Boxing Day. For proof of how a double header can swing dramatically, look back to 1927. On Boxing Day Wrexham lost 4-1 at Southport, but the very next day they got their revenge, winning 3-1 at The Racecourse.

If he has recovered from the injury he picked up at Sutton, Mark Carrington will make his 125th Wrexham league appearance tomorrow.

Wrexham AFC Needs You. NOW!

Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.

It’s time to stand up and be counted, and I don’t mean the team: it’s our turn to step up and make a difference again, beginning on Boxing Day. We’re heading into a run of three home games which are as massive as any we’ve played for years.

The importance of what Wrexham’s fans do next hasn’t been so important since we faced the last of our ownership crises, and decided to meet the possibility of disaster by taking control ourselves. Now the crisis doesn’t threaten the actual existence of the club, but it does threaten the form it is likely to take over the coming years. When we were first relegated from the Football League, I wrote a column expressing my fear that if we stayed at this level for a while, we could shrink into being a non-league club. This is the point where we’ve got to step up to ensure that doesn’t happen.

All fans think that they are the club; that while disloyal players come and go, the fans remain as the one constant. No fans can make that claim with more authenticity than us, as we are also the owners of the club, and that means we can genuinely make a difference. We won’t do that by being silent partners though. Passive ownership is all very well when times are good; now times are bad, and we need to rally around the team, with all its imperfections, rather than gripe about it.

Plenty of fans are convinced the season is heading for disaster, but that’s not a good enough reason to turn on the club or the team; instead, it’s cause to step up and do something about it. If you’re concerned about the situation, act to solve it.

The need for action is obvious. We’re in trouble. I wouldn’t say we’re in a relegation scrap yet, but when you get into a losing tailspin like we’re in, there’s a clear danger that we will be fighting for our lives in a couple of weeks. This is a poor squad, no matter which way you cut it, and while it responded to a new manager who is a massive upgrade from his predecessor, recent results have shown there’s only so much can be done with better preparation and organisation.

I’m not criticising the critics, the people who went into melt-down across social media after the Sutton defeat. Their comments come from a deep love for the club; if they didn’t care, they’d just shrug their shoulders and see what’s on TV.

However, the time has come to rally behind the team and Dean Keates, rather than vent at a keyboard.

The problem is that complaining about us being sucked into a relegation battle turns into a self-fulfilling prophesy. It diminishes the encouragement from the stands, eating away at the attendances, and consequentially the playing budget for next season, merely sustaining the cycle of decline.

Six of the nine teams below us have yet to come to The Racecourse and we need to make those matches count. If we can rack up some wins against the sides who are already in the relegation scrap, then we’ll avoid getting dragged into it ourselves.

Southport, North Ferriby and Guiseley are our next three opponents at The Racecourse, and they make up three of the bottom five. It’s crunch time already. It’s time to ditch squabbles about what’s gone wrong and how it could be put right, and show whole-hearted support for a team which desperately needs to dig in and arrest this worrying slump. They aren’t going to do it without our backing.

I know it’s always pleasing to have the last word, to be proven right, but surely it would be better to be proven wrong and see us stay up than watch us slide into unimaginably deep waters.

The usual pattern when Racecourse crowds diminish is that the support from the terraces becomes more unconditional. When the numbers are whittled away it’s the hard core who remain, and they’re more inclined to roar their support than attack the players.

However, we need to have the best of both worlds: a big Boxing Day crowd which is committed to ninety minutes of noisy, wide-eyed red passion. So come on, get to The Racecourse on Boxing Day – there’s only Tom Hanks films on TV anyway, honest – and jump into the satisfying experience of sheer bloody-minded blind support of a team which, given encouragement, is surely more likely to raise its game.

It’s time for us, the supporters, to do what we do best. Support. Continue reading “Wrexham AFC Needs You. NOW!”

PREVIEW: Aldershot Town v Wrexham AFC

Gary Mills’ loan signings tend to be like Donald Trump’s sense of humility: seldom seen, to the point where you begin to wonder if they ever existed in the first place.

Gerry McDonagh might be the man to buck that trend. Certainly, his crucial intervention on Tuesday offered hope that he might be the man to spearhead our attack in the absence of the unfortunate Jordan White.

The word was that McDonagh was big, strong and mobile. All the key boxes for a target man were ticked, then, but there was still a question mark. With only ten minutes of first team experience, would he have the ability to put those qualities together into something useful in a competitive environment? A further twelve minutes into his professional career, he gave us the answer.

His fine header, and indeed the neat build-up play which preceded it, gave hope that here was a player who could augment a stretched front line. There were still rough edges on show – he allowed centre backs to get in front of him a little too often as he waited for the ball to arrive, and looked for a free kick a little too often, but those can be easily addressed as he picks up more pitch time. The key thing is that he looks like he can contribute to our cause, and that sets him aside from so many of our recent temporary signings.

The suspicion last season was that Mills’ loanees were cheap squad fillers. Young lads, generally very wet behind the ears, who were sent out to toughen them up. With their parent clubs in the Football League carrying the financial burden, there was no risk for us, but equally they were never going to become key members of Mills’ plans.

On paper, McDonagh looked to fit into that profile neatly, but his performance at Guiseley suggested that there’s more to him than his predecessors.

If you take Rhys Taylor out of the equation, as he was clearly a very different type of signing, then last season’s other loan players didn’t get much of a look in. In fact, of the other nine loanees, only four actually got a start, and six played less than ninety minutes in total!

Rhys Taylor: wonder what he's up to now.
Rhys Taylor: wonder what he’s up to now.

It looks like the timing of McDonagh’s ascent to the side is serendipitous, so hopefully he won’t suffer the same fate. He’s already played more minutes for us than Ryan O’Reilly and Taylor McKenzie did, after all! However, there’s a second worrying category he could fall into. Last season we also had a habit of returning loan players, only to see them thrive given more responsibility at a different club.

Jon Nolan is the obvious example, winning Grimsby’s Young Player of the Year award and getting promoted, while Daniel O’Brien and James Caton impressed at Chester and Lincoln, and Joe Quigley scored seven in fifteen starts at Woking.

With McDonagh on a one month loan, let’s hope something can be done to enable him to play a bigger part in the coming season!

That should start tomorrow, of course, as he’s surely in line to start at Aldershot. We’ve an impressive record against The Shots to maintain in recent years, with four wins in our last five clashes.

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Wes York celebrates his winner at Aldershot.

Last season we did the double over them, with Wes York getting the ball rolling on each occasion. He scored the opener on the second Saturday of the season as we beat them 3-0 at The Racecourse, with James Grey and Dom Vose getting the others, and then snatched the only goal when we travelled to Hampshire in November.

The season before saw us return from The Recreation Ground with a point in the penultimate game of the season, Louis Moult opening the scoring after ten minutes only for us to concede on the stroke of half time.

For the last time we lost at Aldershot you have to go back to September 2013, when we succumbed to a tame 2-0 defeat.

We haven’t tended to put Aldershot to the sword on their own patch though. We’ve won there four times in twenty visits, and only once did we triumph by more than one goal. That came in September 1969, when Albert Kinsey got the opener and Arfon Griffiths scored a penalty in a 2-0 win.

Dave Smallman
Dave Smallman

Our other wins there came in successive seasons in the mid-1970s. In September 1974 we were trailing for an hour, but Mickey Thomas equalised with a quarter of an hour left, and Dave Smallman got a late winner.

Then, in April 1976 we triumphed in a thrilling match. Mel Sutton gave us an early lead, which we lost just before the break, but Brian Tinnion and Graham Whittle each struck within two minutes with a quarter of an hour left to put us in control. However, The Shots pulled one back with ten minutes remaining to ensure a tense conclusion before we could claim the two points.