Dean Keates’ Enablers Lift Wrexham AFC’s Game

Would you agree that John Rooney and Anthony Barry had their best Wrexham games at Chester yesterday? If so, an examination of the reasons for that coincidence offer a clear indication of what Dean Keates is getting so right this month.

There are a couple of possibilities. One, and it’s an alluring idea, is that they were motivated by a desire to perform against their old club.

That may well be the case – Paul Rutherford was impressive against his old employers too – and if so it speaks well of those players, who therefore clearly relish the big occasion. However, there’s a deeper underlying explanation which is highly encouraging.

A clear theme this month has been how the few good players Keates inherited have improved exponentially once they had better players to play off. Rooney and Barry are the greatest beneficiaries, but not the only ones. Robbie Evans was flying before he got injured, while the partnership between Izale McLeod and Jordan White has clearly helped the big man enormously.

It’s almost a collective version of what used to happen when Glen Little came off the bench for us, and the players around him were inspired to take their game to the next level in order to work with him. Russ Penn, James Jennings and McLeod have been more than just good players, they’ve been enablers for those around them.

There are other factors in our improvement. Is it a coincidence that under a much more demanding training regime, Barry and Martin Riley’s ability to get through matches, and to start consistently, has improved massively.

As I understand it, Barry wasn’t actually injured as such during Mills’ fifteen games in charge, but he only started six of them. He’s started ten of sixteen under Keates, including the last four, and looks more capable of sustaining his efforts.

Riley has started the last seven games and been in excellent form, having looked rusty and injury prone in the early part of the season. One wondered whether he was a judicious signing when he arrived, hoping he would be his old self but fearing the passage of time might have rendered that a distant prospect. With Keates’ backing, Riley is hitting the level he managed under Andy Morrell, and we suddenly look more robust at the back.

There are gambles in Keates’ slash and burn approach to January, of course. The squad is down to the bare bones at the moment – yesterday’s back four are our only defenders at the moment. But Keates was right to take a gamble in order to address the problems he inherited, and if that means a temporary risk as he shuffles his options, so be it. Congratulations to the board as well, for backing a greenhorn manager in his plans to completely restructure his squad in his first transfer window. They’ve kept their nerve and been rewarded in a remarkable three weeks.

Isn’t it astonishing to think that we’ve shed eleven players and brought in five, only three of whom have actually started matches so far, yet the squad looks massively improved!

PREVIEW Wrexham AFC v Braintree Town

Last season saw us stop the rot against Braintree, as our home results against them had got gradually worse after a promising start.
Their first trip to The Racecourse certainly went according to plan. Andy Morrell, Adrian Cieslewicz, Mathias Pogba, Danny Wright and Neil Ashton all scored in a spectacular 5-1 win, Ashton’s injury time penalty being his first goal for Wrexham.
The Iron next ventured to North Wales at the conclusion of the following season, and the pattern of disappointment set in. We were preparing ourselves for the play-offs and things certainly got off to a perfect start. As early as the fourth minute player-manager Andy Morrell scored a contender for goal of the season with a brilliant chip from the edge of the area, but within minutes his plans had been left in disarray.
Top scorer Danny Wright fell as he chased the ball into the Braintree penalty area and seriously injured his elbow. It was the end of his season and without him we failed to get through to the Football League
September 2013 saw things go from bad to worse. Braintree arrived without much fanfare, but were to get a helping hand from a grim opening period by the home side. A freak own goal by Mark Carrington in the third minute set the tone, and by the twentieth minute we were 2-0 down.
Still, Morrell’s side showed heart and hauled themselves back into the game as Johnny Hunt and Jay Harris struck the goals to level the match.
However, there was one final twist to come. In the 70th minute Steve Tomassen put the ball into his own net in controversial circumstances as Wrexham complained that who had run into a clear offside position behind the defender was and interfering with play. After a lengthy spell of consultation with his linesman the referee correctly chose to allow the goal, although since then the rules have been changed, and if the incident was repeated tomorrow the goal would be chalked off.
Thankfully, last season we got back to winning ways. Like tomorrow’s fixture, it was our last home match of the campaign, and caretaker manager Carl Darlington’s side certainly thanked the Racecourse faithful in style.
Darlington selected a boldly attacking side, with Louis Moult at the attacking end of a diamond, playing behind Connor Jennings and Andy Bishop, and although the tactic failed to produce a breakthrough in a goalless first half, after the break the visitors’ rearguard finally cracked.
Moult opened the scoring just after the hour and grabbed another with twelve minutes left. In the first minute of injury time Bishop snatched his final goal for Wrexham, bidding farewell to the fans in style, as did Joe Clarke and Jay Harris, who each came off the bench for their final home appearances for the club and contributed assists.
In total eleven of Darlington’s sixteen were not around by the start of the next season. It will be interesting to see if Gary Mills can manage a greater level of stability over the Summer.

PREVIEW: Forest Green Rovers 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)

We travel to title-chasing Forest Green tomorrow hopeful that we can maintain our new-found habit of beating the strongest sides in the league!

The victory over Cheltenham Town last Monday ended a remarkable wait for success against one of our fellow promotion hopefuls. We’re currently eighth in the table, and remarkably that was the first time we’ve beaten any of the seven teams above us in a league match!

Before Wes York’s injury time winner our rather miserable record against the top seven stood at four draws and five losses from nine games. To put it another way, that’s four points from a possible twenty seven!

The closest we came to winning one of those games was when Forest Green visited The Racecourse last February though. It took a ninety fourth minute equaliser to deny us victory after two Blaine Hudson goals had seen us come from behind to dominate Rovers, who also had a man sent off.

We can take further encouragement from our recent record against Forest Green as we’re unbeaten in seven matches against them, winning three and drawing four. We haven’t lost at The New Lawn since January 2012, and even then we ought to have evaded defeat. A 1-0 loss could have been turned around, but Dean Keates saw an injury time penalty saved by former Racecourse keeper Sam Russell, who had conceded the spot kick in the first place by fouling Andy Morrell.

Our last win at Forest Green came last season, courtesy of a rather special strike by Louis Moult, who hit the net with a brilliant long range free kick to score the only goal of the game.

We’ve won in Gloucestershire on three other occasions, and only lost there twice. Our first win came when Forest Green were known by their previous name of Stroud. A Welsh Cup fifth round tie in February 1991 ended 2-1 to a youthful Wrexham side as Chris Armstrong and Gareth Owen hit the net.

Our next game against them was also Dean Saunders’ first match as our manager of Wrexham, and it ended in an epic 3-2. Marc Williams, recalled by the new boss after failing to impress Brian Little, scored twice and looked to have got a last minute winner and completed his hat trick, but Jeff Louis cheekily nipped in to tap the ball home as it was rolling over the line to steal the glory!

The following season Saunders pulled off another crafty tactical stroke, selecting Wes Baynes for his first start of the season and playing him as a striker for the first time. His reward was two goals from Baynes as we strolled to a 2-0 victory.

Our only other loss there was a rather ugly affair as we crashed to a deserved 3-0 defeat in August 2010. Four days later we travelled to Eastbourne Borough and conceded a further four, but we tightened our defence up considerably after that, and ended up reaching the Conference play-offs for the first time with the tenth best defensive record in our history!

PREVIEW: Grimsby Town 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)

Gary Mills’ men head east in search of history tomorrow.

If they can keep another clean sheet, their seventh in a row, they would equal the club record for the most consecutive shut-outs. Going all the way back to our first competitive matches 129 years ago, we’ve managed the feat only once in the past. We finished the 1999-2000 season in miserly form, shutting the opposition out for our last seven games.

Not all those matches were in the league though, as interspersed amongst them were a Welsh Premier Cup final against Barry Town and a 2-0 victory in the final against Cardiff City.

A clean sheet tomorrow would also equal the club record for most back to back clean sheets in the league. That mark was set between October and November 2011, as Andy Morrell’s side made a bid for the Conference title.

Even if we don’t set the clean sheet record, we could still establish a club record for the longest time we’ve gone without conceding a goal. If we get to the twentieth minute with our clean sheet intact we’ll have kept the opposition at bay for 639 minutes for the first time in our history. If Grimsby still haven’t scored by the 75th minute we’ll have set a club record in the league too.

If history counts for anything we’ve a chance of achieving these targets too, as matches with Grimsby tend to be low scoring affairs. In fact, we go into the match on the back of two consecutive clean sheets against The Mariners.

Indeed, in the last eight clashes between Wrexham and Grimsby more than one goal has only been scored by either side once, five games ago in March 2014 when Town won 3-1.

Last season we registered a fine 1-0 victory at Grimsby under caretaker manager Carl Darlington thanks to a seventeenth minute strike from Joe Clarke, but in general we find it difficult to come away from Blundell Park with a positive result. Our last eight trips there have ended in two victories and six defeats. Overall we’ve won eight times at Grimsby, losing eighteen and drawing seven.

Encouragingly, Gary Mills has an excellent record at Blundell Park, and an impressive head to head against Grimsby at any venue. He’s unbeaten in six matches on the east coast as during his time at Gateshead he went there four times, drawing on each occasion, and in his previous job he took York City to Grimsby twice and returned victorious both times.

In fact, he won his first five games against Grimsby as manager of Tamworth and then York, and in total his record against the Mariners stands as seven wins, five draws and two defeats. Admittedly, one of those defeats was a spectacular 6-1 home loss with Gateshead, but on the other hand he took The Heed to the play-off final in 2014 with a 4-2 aggregate win over Grimsby.

Sean Newton makes his 275th career appearance tomorrow, while Wes York will play his 75th game for Wrexham.

Mills Makes Sense

“An experiment is a failure only when it also fails adequately to test the hypothesis in question, when the data it produces don’t prove anything one way or another.”

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

Gary Mills has been experimenting, he’s been forced to. His actions have been logical, measured and not lead by the jerking of knees. The plan for the season makes sense, and he has modified it very adeptly to match events. It’s pretty stupid to have a plan and not keep it under constant review.

The initial Mills plan had Lee Fowler pulling the strings, and a small squad. In the test bed of pre-season he concluded that he’d got it wrong, this was a huge issue. How could he play passing football without a pass master? With fearfully little time left he remoulded a team capable of competing, gaining points and being thoroughly pleasant on the eye. The hurried change had consequences, not all good. Its taking a very long time to resolve the consequences.

Wes York’s role is a positive and a negative. Moke was the planned wide man on the right, but having to switch him to the middle gave York the chance to blossom, but also to fade in and out of games. We’ve missed the more defensively astute Moke on that flank. The Vose/York combo on the wings is exciting on a flat dry pitch, but a tad delicate in winter. Mills has moved to resolve these issues, and he won’t be deterred by the Braintree result. That game needed the analysis of a wise man. We’ve got one.

Simon Heslop, Louis Briscoe and Mark Beck have all been signed from perception of events: Heslop passes in a more timely manner than Moke and is wiser in the protective role. Briscoe is the perfect addition to a three man attack. Morrell, Pogba and Mangan worked because they had a bit of everything. York, Gray and Vose lack beef and it really shows on unforgiving surfaces.

Anybody thinking that our new signings will run contrary to the Mills plan is wrong. The Mills plan is based on experimentation, flexibility and fearlessness in decision making. He has read recent games wisely. The Braintree game will have given him confidence in his hypotheses, not fearful that the result indicates we’re on a slippery slope.  All of his experiments have moved us from a creative, delicate, unreliable team to one with purpose, reliability and creativity. The results will come. Long may Mills experiment wisely.

Keeper Taylor’s Quite A Catch

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)

We’re struggling to keep clean sheets, but sometimes the stats lie. The man between the posts has been one of Gary Mills’ best pieces of transfer business this season.

So often signing a player from the Football League leads to disappointment. You assume you’re getting someone from a higher standard of football who will bring greater quality to the squad. Technically that might be the case, but so often they also bring baggage with them.

Despite the clear rise in standard in the National League since the good old days when even Brian Little could take a team straight back up at the first attempt, there’s still a stigma attached in the minds of many players when they contemplate the drop down into what is still called non-league football, despite that phrase surely having lost its original meaning.


Players sometimes arrive thinking they’ve hit an unplanned low point in their career and fail to live up to their billing. Sure, there are players like Mark Carrington who, having held off from signing for Andy Morrell in order to see if another Football League team would come knocking, certainly committed to us in every sense of the word, offering not only a desire to succeed but also the ability to perform well no matter which position he was asked to fulfil. However, for each Carrington there are plenty of Lamine Sakhos!

So it’s a gamble bringing in a player from a higher league, but Mills was clearly on safe ground with the acquisition of Rhys Taylor. Perhaps it helped that he’d made his recent reputation excelling for local rivals Macclesfield Town. He also arrived armed not with a frustration that his move to the Football League with Newport County had gone sour, but with a burning desire to show them that he remained the fine keeper he was at Moss Rose. We’ve seen quite clearly that he certainly is!

Taylor is the genuine article when it comes to shot-stopping. He pulled off the ultimate moment of pointless genius an hour into last Saturday’s game when he made an unbelievably good save, only to find the ref had already blown for a foul. Actually it wasn’t unbelievable for anyone who saw him at Tranmere when he pulled off a point blank save that would have made Manuel Neuer blush.

Manuel Neuer wishes he was Rhys Taylor
In his dreams, Manuel Neuer is Rhys Taylor

His speed off his line is terrific. Admittedly, it contributed to the goal we conceded against Lincoln as he tore out to meet The Imps’ winger Jack Muldoon but arrived a fraction too late, upending him, but even in a situation like that exploiting his strengths is still playing the percentages. The number of times he has made excellent one-on-one saves because he hurries strikers into shooting far outweighs the rare times when he doesn’t make it.

He seems to love being here too. He eagerly interact with fans on Twitter, returning the favour when they express gratitude for his performances. Hopefully Mills will also show his gratitude by offering him a permanent contract.

Recruitment The Key for 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)

Four defeats in a row, for only the second time since we dropped into the Conference? No wonder the mood dipped dramatically as the Woking match went on, even if that was in some ways the defeat out of the four which it was the least easiest to draw conclusions from.

The sodden state of the pitch, our desperation in chasing the game and a couple of key refereeing decisions made a big difference to the outcome. How ironic that Wrexham’s hopes might have hinged on a red card for Joey Jones! The Woking defender trod the disciplinary tightrope which was so familiar to our cult hero, and when he was booked for pulling Wes York to the ground after half an hour it really ought to have been his second yellow having already committed the same offence a few yards closer to goal, leading to Dom Vose’s spectacular opener.

But there’s no point in crying over spilt milk, spoilt pitches or refereeing timidity. What we need to do is take a step back and ask ourselves why things have gone so wrong so quickly.

It doesn’t take a genius to put a finger on the key issue. We’ve let in nine goals in these four defeats, and by my reckoning there were clear problems in how we defended all of them. Clearly Gary Mills recognised there’s an issue at the back in switching between a back four and a back five and signing a defensive midfielder to go with the new keeper he drafted in before Christmas. At the moment we look a long way from the defensive solidity which would underpin our more attacking instincts.

There’s a bigger picture to consider too. We certainly aren’t as good player-for-player as the side Dean Saunders assembled and Andy Morrell guided to ninety eight points. However, it’s fair to say that squad was assembled in a very different financial climate to Mills’.

A root cause of our financial problems was the boardroom decision, for whatever reason, to allow Saunders to spend freely in putting that squad together. Before we judge the current team we must understand that Mills is not in a position to recruit like that.

That’s not to say that we’re financial minnows in this division. Even in our current, poor run of form we attracted over four thousand to the Woking game with very few away supporters. That’s something few clubs at our level can manage, and while it would be simplistic to suggest that such pulling power should make us eight times more wealthy than clubs in our division which attract crowds of five hundred, it would be misleading to portray us as paupers.

However, we’re in an era of financial realism, which any fan who recalls the traumas of recent years surely embraces. Good recruitment is key, and not just among the players. We brought in an experienced managed this Summer, and in a season which has seen dramatic peaks and troughs already, we must trust he can steer us through.

Character in Defeat

So Blaine Hudson was subbed again on Saturday. To be withdrawn is unusual for a centre back; to be subbed three games in a row is highly irregular. Yet his performance at Southport marked a turning point for him, Sometimes there’s more to the story than the bare statistics imply.

I can’t deny that he made a costly mistake at Halifax. I equally can’t deny that it’s happened before: the second goal at Bromley was oddly similar, with Hudson allowing the ball to run across him in the box, apparently unaware a player was coming up behind him, and the resulting goal coming from something which was more of a lunging tackle than a shot. However, I refuse to accept that those facts constitute a reason to make him our scapegoat.

There seems to have been quite a lot of criticism of Hudson in the last week. I understand that: criticism and mistakes come with the territory when you’re a defender. To single Hudson out is unfair though.

I think we need to remind ourselves of exactly what Hudson is and what he brings to the squad. I’d be inclined to see Jamal Fyfield and Manny Smith as our first choice central defensive pair, and if that’s the case, Hudson is a very handy player to have in reserve. He’s especially useful if we ensure that he plays to his strengths.

Hudson has put in a number of very good performances this season, but I accept that they are governed by the way the game plays out and how well he manages his expectations of himself.

In essence, I’d say the higher our defensive line is, the less happy Hudson is. When we find ourselves defending our penalty area, he comes into his own. His best performance was an excellent display of centre back play at Borehamwood, which showcased exactly what he’s good at. If you pile the ball into our penalty area, Hudson will attack it all day.

Leon Clowes
Leon Clowes

I recall Andy Morrell explaining that what he liked about Leon Clowes was that he did the ugly bits of a centre back’s game well. He headed the ball, tackled and hacked it out of the danger area. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective, and Hudson excels in those rudimentary but crucial defensive tasks. We need to make sure his mind is clear and he focusses on doing those things, rather than let the ball drop behind him and try to do something less clear cut, as he did at Halifax and Bromley.

Let’s be clear here: categorising Hudson’s strengths like that is not meant to be an insult. Quite the contrary. How many times do we hear that you need a big, strong, nasty centre back to get out of the Conference? Well, that’s what Hudson is!

Furthermore, Hudson showed real character at Southport. His performance represented a gutsy turnabout after his experiences in the previous two games, and for what it’s worth I wouldn’t have withdrawn him. This time his substitution was for tactical reasons as we switched from three at the back to a 4-2-4 to chase the game. Yet he’d been the best of our three centre backs, and I’d have also retained him for the threat he poses from set pieces.

Hudson has always looked less happy when the defensive line is high and the ball is played in behind him. I have to be honest and say that at the start of last season I was genuinely alarmed by that weakness, and feared he’d struggle to meet our standards. However, he has improved massively in that respect and although dealing with the ball behind him is still an issue, he has clearly worked on it. And anyway, which defender likes to be turned? And which one doesn’t have a weakness?

So I won’t be joining the complaints about Hudson, Yes, he has limitations, but that’s why he’s in the Conference and not playing for Barcelona. He’s an honest, hard-working servant of the club with the attributes to contribute to a promotion push, and should be judged in context. All I am saying is give Blaine a chance.

PREVIEW Braintree Town 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)

We need to turn things around tonight because our trips to Braintree have become progressively more depressing as time has passed!

Our first trip to the Amlin Stadium, in November 2011, ended in a goalless draw with Danny Wright missing a simple late chance to clinch the victory.

The following year we enjoyed a fine 5-1 victory, with Wright making amends with two goals, Brett Ormerod and Nick Rushton each scoring with a fine solo effort and Adrian Cieslewicz rounding off the scoring. Since then, things have gone pear-shaped.

In March 2014 we collapsed to a 3-0 defeat under caretaker manager Billy Barr in a match notable for the debut f sixteen year old Danny Reynolds.

We also lost there last season in worrying circumstances. The only goal, which came half way through the first one, was an odd one as Charlie Strutton struck a free kick into the wall but the rebound bounced back to him and he thrashed it in from outside the box. The tame nature of the performance was the real concern as we failed to rally against a side which was in awful form: Strutton’s goal was their first in over nine hours!

Blaine Hudson’s late red card was harsh, but it made no real effect on the final outcome as we had shown little side of rallying when we had all eleven players on the sodden pitch.

We go into tonight’s match in rare away form, seeking our fifth consecutive away win.

We won our first three away games last season but to find the last time we’ve won enjoyed four consecutive successes on enemy territory you have to go back to September 2011 when Andy Morrell won his first four away games as Wrexham manager at Grimsby, Gateshead, Hayes and Luton.

If we win tonight we will record our best run of away wins since 2003, when we cantered to promotion from League Two by winning the final five away matches of the 2002-3 season.

Just to put our current run into further context, it’s worth considering that two seasons ago we didn’t manage to win consecutive away games once!

Furthermore, it’s over two months since we let in a league goal away from The Racecourse. Dover’s Toby Ajala scored the winner on October 10th and we’ve gone 349 minutes without conceding in the league since.

At the other end the goals are flowing this season and a number of players are already enjoying the best form of their careers. Wes York’s goal at Tranmere means he has already scored more goals this season than he has in any other season, while Dom Vose’s fine strike at Prenton Park both took him into double figures and doubled his previous best season’s total.

Apart from his ten goals, Vose also has an impressive eight assists to his credit, but those figures are rivalled by Jennings’ nine goals and twelve assists, which mean he’s had a decisive hand in a remarkable forty four percent of our goals this season.

Mark Carrington will play his hundredth game for Wrexham tonight.

PREVIEW: Wrexham AFC v Tranmere Rovers

Tomorrow’s game represents an unwanted piece of club history for Tranmere Rovers as they line up for their first match in a competition no-one with a pedigree in the Football League wants to take part in. In Wrexham they’ll face a side which has a good pedigree in the FA Trophy.

With a win in the trophy in 2013 and another visit to Wembley last season, plus an appearance in the quarter finals in 2009, we regularly go deep into the competition, and with a manager who tasted victory in the Trophy at York, we’re likely to take it seriously again.

We haven’t lost an FA Trophy match since we crashed out rather embarrassingly at Luton in December 2013 in our first defence of the trophy. The loss was humiliating because The Hatters selected a second string side, while we played a full strength side but were still comprehensively outplayed. However, there are some circumstances of that game which we wouldn’t mind seeing repeated: Jay Harris was sent off for a second yellow card, and we’d be quite happy if he repeated that disciplinary transgression on Saturday!

jay-harris-02-43207-336386_478x359[1]Since then we’ve enjoyed a run of five unbeaten games away from The Racecourse in the competition.

There are some patterns around this fixture that you wouldn’t want to see repeated though. Our visit to Prenton Park in September 2001 was one of the more disastrous evenings the club has known. Staggering along in dreadful form at the wrong end of League One, we managed to hold out until half time, but with Dennis Lawrence having a particularly rough time we collapsed after the break and conceded five times! That 5-0 loss cost Brian Flynn, our longest-serving manager, his job.

Our two subsequent trips there have gone rather better though: we won there two years later, thanks to a Lee Jones goal and a spectacular Shaun Holmes strike, and the following season Chris Armstrong earned us a 1-1 draw.


We haven’t beaten Rovers in any of our last of our last four clashes, our most recent win being that victory in 2003, so if we fail to win at Prenton Park tomorrow we will have suffered our longest run in this fixture without victory.

Having already been knocked out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle, we will be hoping to avoid making some unwanted history tomorrow. We’ve never been knocked out of both cup competitions at the first attempt since we dropped out of the Football League.

In fact, to find the last time we’ve only played two cup games in a season you have to go all the way back to the 1928-9 campaign. Ironically, we were drawn at home in both the FA Cup and the Welsh Cup that season, but lost 1-0 to Carlisle and then 4-2 to Rhyl.

Ironically, after the cup heroics of last season, when we racked up 61 games, if we lose tomorrow we’ll play just 48 matches this season, the least since we took to the pitch just 45 times in 1948-9.

Is Three at the Back the Answer?

I’m surprised to be thinking this, but three at the back might be the answer Gary Mills is looking for.
The second half fightback against Eastleigh with such a formation encouraged many to see it as an option, but that was an aberration which didn’t convince me we should pursue that shape further. It was kitchen sink tactics: two down after a poor first half, Gary Mills took a gamble and shook everything up, changing to a risky formation to pull us back into the game.
It worked superbly as we drew level, but that didn’t make it a viable long-term option. It was an emergency approach predicated by the match situation, a fact which was emphasised when we relented after getting to 2-2 and therefore left gaps at the back which led to the concession of a decisive late goal.
The same shape with a different philosophy at Woking looked more sustainable though. It allowed us to field two strikers who created a lot of chances, while our three centre backs were well equipped to cope with late pressure.
We’ve had success playing 3-5-2 before. When we were relegated to League Two in 2002 we looked bedraggled. Denis Smith switched to three at the back in a very bold iteration of the formation. The wing-backs were essentially wingers, and with Carlos Edwards on the right and Paul Edwards on the left we tore into sides with pace and verve.
It didn’t hurt that in midfield we had Darren Ferguson creating, and Andy Morrell up front, feasting on plentiful service to become the country’s top scorer.
It was a specific response to a particular problem from an experienced coach: Smith judged that the division wasn’t strong and backed his attacking players to score more goals than an open formation would concede. He also had the benefit of quality at the back, even if he didn’t have numbers: Andy Dibble, Brian Carey and Dennis Lawrence were outstanding.
Could a similar approach work again? I really don’t think the division we find ourselves in is particularly strong: when we were tilting at the title we came up against clubs like Fleetwood and Crawley who’d bought sides capable of rising up the divisions, but since we’ve slipped from that level the top teams haven’t been so strong. This may be a division you could dominate by putting your eggs into the attacking basket.
But would this formation suit our squad? Smith’s side faltered after promotion because he lost the Edwardses and Morrell. Morrell was the lesser loss as a team that creates lots of chances will still score goals, but the wing-backs’ departures tipped the balance. We replaced them with Jim Whitley and Shaun Holmes, both good players but less attack-minded so we lost our thrust down the wings.
We don’t have flyers in their mould, but Javan Vidal and Sean Newton enjoy getting forward, so perhaps we could replicate Smith’s gung-ho approach. Certainly we have a play-maker to play the Ferguson role in Dominic Vose, albeit from slightly higher up the pitch.
Perhaps three is the magic number.

PREVIEW: Wrexham AFC v Altrincham 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)

Prepare yourself for action tomorrow as Altrincham’s recent visits to The Racecourse have been characterised by a series of red cards.

Last season ended nine against ten as the match turned dramatically just before the break.

Wrexham were coasting at that point. Elliott Durrell and Louis Moult had put us ahead and Altrincham were down to ten men after Scott Leather had been dismissed for a wild tackle.

However, a controversial straight red card shown to Moult in the second minute of added time at the end of the first half, turned the match on its head.

Ten minutes into the second period Andy Bishop followed Moult down the tunnel and Kevin Wilkin opted to park the bus. Under constant pressure, Wrexham finally cracked and conceded three goals in nine minutes as Altrincham managed to grab a memorable win.

Tom Kearney
Tom Kearney

We also paid the price after a sending off in March 2010 when The Robins arrived for a league match. We’d gone ahead early on through Wes Baynes but the game took on a fractious air as we failed to capitalise on our initial superiority.  The match turned in Altrincham’s favour when Frank Sinclair was dismissed for a wild challenge which broke the leg of ex-Wrexham captain Tom Kearney.

We failed to recover from the loss of the centre back and were punished with eight minutes left when Greg Young struck to earn Altrincham a draw.

As you might have deduced, our home record against Altrincham isn’t great. In fact, it’s considerably better on their patch, where we’ve run up a couple of convincing victories.

The last time we beat them at The Racecourse was in February 2011. It was a tight scrap though, as Altrincham put late pressure on us to earn a draw. Andy Morrell gave us the lead just before the break and we looked home and dry when Adrian Cieslewicz put us 2-0 up with five minutes left. However, Alty immediately pulled one back and we had to dig in to clinch the points.

Our only other home win over Altrincham came back in November 1963, when we clashed in the first round of the FA Cup. We’d had to work hard to avoid an upset in at Moss Lane initially, emerging with a goalless draw, but were more comfortable in the replay. Mickey Metcalf scored two and Tecwyn Jones got the other in a 3-0 win.

Sunday marks a notable anniversary in Wrexham’s history, as it is will be 43 years to the day since our first match in Europe. Such continental adventures might seem a distant notion now, but in 1972 we travelled to Switzerland to line up against FC Zurich in the European Cup Winners Cup. We fell behind shortly after the break, but Albert Kinsey equalised a minute later to earn a 1-1 draw.

Wrexham and Zurich take the field.
Wrexham and Zurich take the field.

Back at The Racecourse a fortnight later John Neal’s side finished the job, coming from behind once more to win 2-1 through second half goals from Billy Ashcroft and Mel Sutton.

That Whole James Gray – Zinedine Zidane Thing

It looks like James Gray has unwittingly sparked one of the more unexpected debates at the start of this season.

I can’t say it occurred to me to question his role in the current side until it was publicly doubted, and to be honest I can’t see why a perceived lack of goals is an issue. After all, he has a strike rate of a goal every three games at the moment, which would extrapolate to an impressive 15 league goals if maintained all season, and furthermore he’s been unlucky it’s not twice that total.

As has been rightly pointed out on Red Passion, he’s had two goals disallowed by tight decisions. In the process of editing the Wrexham PlayerHD videos, I’ve looked at the them both and come to the conclusion that, while they were both close calls, both ought to have been allowed to stand: against Aldershot he looked onside when the cross he headed home was played; last Saturday it really doesn’t look like the ball had crossed the line before Javan Vidal crossed for him.

A tight offside call against Aldershot
A tight offside call against Aldershot
Javan Vidal crosses the ball – is it over the line?

That’s two classic six-yard box striker’s finishes unluckily chalked off, and you can see when you go through our GoPro footage of games how hungry he is in the box: constantly attacks the goalmouth when the ball is wide and his body language when a chance goes begging or he doesn’t receive a pass is frustration personified. Gray shapes up like a striker on the verge of a scoring run.

But anyone who thinks the individual is what matters in football hasn’t really been paying attention. A player might provide a moment of genius, admittedly, but it”s their place in the unit which actually matters.carl_darlington_2

All teams are a collective, and successful ones require a pattern of play, Gary Mills’ sides more than most. As proof, look at the difference in the Wrexham team last season when Carl Darlington brought purpose to a group of players who had ability but lacked structure.

Consider Gray’s performances this season in that context and it’s hard to fault him. He’s part of an attacking unit which is clearly delivering. Ten of our fourteen goals so far this season have come from the front three positions. If 71% of your goals emanate from your forwards, then your attack must be functioning, mustn’t it?

Okay, Gray has scored less than the men either side of him, and conventional wisdom argues that the central striker carries the main goal scoring burden, but that’s an argument which quite simply ignores the history and evolution of football. Try telling Cristiano Ronaldo or Thierry Henry that the guy in the centre is the main man!

Steve Watkin - the power behind the throne.
Steve Watkin – the power behind the throne.

Indeed, you need only to look at the successful Wrexham side of the 1990s to find an example. Steve Watkin scored his fair share of goals, but was outshone statistically by Gary Bennett. Did that make his outstanding hold-up play and ability to bring others into the game redundant? And would Bennett have prospered so spectacularly without him?

I would accept that the man Gray replaced, Louis Moult, was more of an all-round striker, happier dropping and facing goal, while roughly Gray’s equal with his back to goal and therefore liable to pose a threat in a greater range of areas on the pitch.

However, two conditions scream out if we are going to make that comparison. The first one is merely a matter of decency and context: comparisons are odious. Obviously Moult was going to be hard to replace because he was too good for the Conference – indeed, I’d argue he was comfortably the best striker in the league last season.

Secondly, would Moult have been such a good fit for the way this team is set up? The way the pieces have slotted into place as the season has developed has been fascinating: the front three has an unorthodox lop-sided look with Wes York a traditional wide greyhound on the right and Dom Vose playing an unusual wide play-making role on the left.

Vose likes to drop deep to link play up, and although York wants to take men on high up the pitch, out of necessity he often receives the ball deep and drives at his full back from way out. It seems to me that the balance up front requires a striker who is going to stay up at the sharp end and work the back four, not least because an advanced forward forces them back, making the pitch bigger and creating space for York and Vose to break into.

That isn’t Moult’s natural game – he’d want to drop off and join in more, so would we have the pleasing attacking fluency we’re enjoying at the moment, I wonder, if he was still at the club.?

My Wrexham PlayerHD co-commentator Alex Taylor hit the nail on the head in a pre-season broadcast when he suggested that Gray’s style is reminiscent of Andy Morrell. The main attributes Gray brings to the team are exactly those Morrell provided – his energy and movement wore defenders down, opened up the space between defence and midfield, and created opportunities for others.The FA Carlsburg Trophy Final

I recall a match at Bath with illustrated this perfectly. Morrell, Danny Wright and Jake Speight ground the back four down with 65 minutes of tireless work, then Dean Saunders brought on Mathias Pogba and Adrian Cieslewicz for the latter duo, and each provided assists as their fresh legs profited from the hard work which had already been done. Is it a coincidence that Kayden Jackson and Adam Smith look similarly lively off the bench? Obviously a big part of that is their own performance levels, but Gray has softened defenders up nicely by the time they come on.

For what it’s worth, I thought yesterday’s match was Gray’s best in a Wrexham shirt so far: an exemplification of the front-running qualities which wear centre backs down.

Ask a central defender what he doesn’t want the man he’s marking to do: drag him around into areas he doesn’t want to be, or force him to make constant decisions about whether to pass him on to a fellow marker will be high up his list.

Ask Graham Hutchinson, the centre back Halifax withdrew at half time, if he enjoyed chasing his tail for forty five minutes before being put out of his misery.

Stephane Guivarc’h. Very much maligned and misunderstood.

To return to my earlier point, centre forwards don’t have to score goals to be invaluable. The 1998 World Cup winning side featured a centre forward who was widely derided for his perceived ungainliness and lack of goal threat: Stéphane Guivarc’h was a big, strong target man who offered none of the fleet-footedness we expect from a top international striker. But he occupied the central defenders, retained the ball well and created the conditions in which others could flourish, including a certain attacking midfielder who played an incredibly effective role drifting around from a wide starting position. If James Gray is Stéphane Guivarc’h, allowing Dom Vose to be Zinedine Zidane, I reckon his place in the team is crucial.

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