After his last match in charge of Wrexham, it was put to Sam Ricketts that his side’s poor performance could be attributed in part to Barrow’s disciplined performance.
“I always look at myself first”, was his reply.
Well, he should be having a good hard look at himself right now, then.
Only one of Wrexham’s thirty managers had a shorter stint at The Racecourse than Ricketts, and Arthur Cowell had a rather better reason for departing than Ricketts: the outbreak of the Second World War.
Ricketts’ reasons for leaving the club are rather less noble.
He isn’t the first football manager to leave his club to take a job in a higher division. He isn’t even the first Wrexham manager to do that this year. However, that’s where the similarity between Ricketts and his predecessor, Dean Keates, ends.
A childhood Walsall fan, Keates received what might well have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take his dream job, and still came extremely close to turning it down. In his time at The Racecourse he’d established a coaching structure from absolutely nothing, inheriting scorched earth from Gary Mills and turning things around. Our promotion push – surely we’d have ended up in the play-offs – was killed off by the timing of his decision, but I still have no issue with him following his heart, especially as he’d clearly wrestled with the dilemma.
None of the above can be said of Ricketts, who was given his first opportunity to manage last May and jumped ship at the earliest possible opportunity, to a club whose attraction is their higher league status.
For him to claim that “when a club like Shrewsbury ask to speak to you, I don’t think you can turn that down”, smacks of self-justification. Their average home attendance is only 989 higher than Wrexham’s, despite being two divisions higher, and remember that figure will be boosted by away support from the likes of Sunderland, Portsmouth and Bradford City.
Sunderland brought 1,640 fans to Shrewsbury last October; in total, 1,582 away fans have attended league games at The Racecourse this season.
Perhaps Ricketts’ famed attention to detail let him down when he researched the gulf in size between the sides. It ought to be said though, that his meticulous reputation seems to be based on his own proclamations of his professionalism. I’ve had a growing feeling we were suffering from “emperor’s new clothes” syndrome this season.
A major cause of this has been the way Ricketts has consistently taken credit for installing a professional structure at the club.
Sure, he has a data analyst, sports scientist and goalkeeping coach. However, Keates also had a data analyst, sports scientist and goalkeeping coach. Keates and his team scouted upcoming opposition thoroughly, and used video analysis before games and at half time to prepare the players. Keates introduced GPS tracking in training and matches, having fought tooth and nail to get the funding put in place. Keates designed a training ground to suit his specifications. A couple of weeks ago Ricketts was talking about the lack of a training ground at the club and how he’d like to design one from scratch.
The one difference I can see in Ricketts’ set-up is the arrangement of his scouting staff, and even that seems superficial. The practise of asking friends within the game to attend a match and provide feedback is as old as the hills, yet Rob Ogleby’s unveiling as a scout in the south east has been welcomed as a modernising move. I’d love someone to talk me through the difference.
I’ve had doubts over our performances on the pitch, too. I can’t deny that earning 21 points from his first ten games is impressive – the best start for a Wrexham manager since Andy Morrell’s 23 and Dean Saunders’ 25. But then the fixtures got tougher, and the form hasn’t been sustained. We’ve taken 2 points out of 12 against the current top six, 5 out of 18 against the top eight. Five of the nine points dropped in those opening ten games were against our promotion rivals.
Our last few matches have seen a worrying dip in form, and a failure to maintain a performance over the course of ninety minutes. In the last seven games, the only exception was last Saturday, when Ricketts was absent, through his own behaviour, as his team performed admirably against Newport.
Shrewsbury might be pleased with themselves now, but poaching a manager with fewer than 25 non-league games under his belt, who has made some peculiar errors in the transfer market – Scott Burgess and Freddie Hinds both arrived with impressive credentials, but managed 30 minutes between them this season – and seen his side’s form slip, is a heck of a gamble.
But there’s another reason why they ought to be feeling a little uneasy. His smooth unveiling to the press last Monday saw him say all the things you’d want to hear from a new manager. He set out a thrilling vision for a successful future. It sounded unnervingly familiar.
Of course, I might have misheard Ricketts’ post-match comment at Barrow. Did he actually say “I always look after myself first”? That would explain a lot.