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 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) www.leaderlive.co.uk.

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 Barrow AFC

Wrexham need to get back to winning ways in the league after seeing their interest in the FA Cup end so disappointingly last Saturday.

The defeat to Gainsborough Trinity ended a run of seven unbeaten cup ties at The Racecourse, and that last defeat was to a Football League club: Oxford United beat us 2-1 in December 2013 in the FA Cup despite Joe Clarke giving us a half time lead.

To give the rarity of Saturday’s defeat further context, the loss to Oxford was the only time we’ve lost a home cup tie in fourteen games before the Gainsborough match. Furthermore, it was the first time we’ve lost at home to a lower division side since December 2011, when Andy Morrell responded to the danger of a fixture back log by selecting a reserve team for an FA Trophy match and saw them lose 2-1 to Hinckley Town.

The result also meant that, having started the season with five consecutive home wins, since then we’ve had a run of five home games without a win.

In fact, it’s the longest we’ve gone without a win at The Racecourse since April 2009, as our first season in the Conference petered out badly, when we suffered six home games without success.

At least we have good recent home form against The Blue Birds. The last two times Barrow have come to North Wales we’ve enjoyed comfortable victories. Jay Harris’ spectacular strike was the highlight of their last visit, in September 2012, as Andy Bishop and Rob Ogleby also struck in a 3-0 win, and six months earlier Danny Wright and Jake Speight scored in a 2-0 win.


Barrow have only won four times at The Racecourse, the most recent instance coming eighteen matches ago in December 1953, when we lost 2-1 despite Ron Hewitt’s goal. Our worst home defeat came in August 1951 when we crashed to a 4-2 loss.

On the other hand, we’ve beaten Barrow 5-0 three times at home, and on each occasion a home player went home with the match ball. In September 1956 Hewitt scored a hat trick with Gren Jones and Thompson also chipping in, Albert Mays got four in January 1929 with Gordon Gunson rounding off the scoring, and the season before it was Gunson who stole the headlines as he grabbed three with Roland Woodhouse and Archie Longmuir getting the others.

A fourth Wrexham player has also scored a hat trick against the Blue Birds. Brian Whitehouse got one in an FA Cup tie in November 1962 with Arfon Griffiths and Ron Barnes securing a 5-2 scoreline.

None of the hat trick heroes are our most prolific scorers in this fixture as Tommy Bamford got nine goals against Barrow.

Scoring is the norm in Wrexham-Barrow games. There were four goalless draws between the sides in their first ten meetings, but only two in the subsequent sixty-four.

Sean Newton plays his three hundredth career league match against Barrow, while Mark Carrington makes his seventy-fifth league appearance for Wrexham tomorrow.

 

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
gray_disallowed_welling
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 GUIVARCHE
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.

TACTICAL REPORT: Bromley FC 3 Wrexham FC 1

So, what went wrong?

This was certainly a stark defeat, if only because its nature was startling. For the opening quarter of the game, Wrexham’s game plan worked a treat, then a salvo of three goals turned everything on its head and the second half saw Gary Mills’ team dominate possession without looking penetrative. So how did this state of affairs come to pass?

First and foremost is the fact that Mills’ concoction is not quite ready to be taken out of the oven yet. As I suggested on the morning of the game, there are elements of his gameplan which have come together, while others are showing promise, but we’re still some way from being what Mills would want us to be. It takes time to bed in such an extreme possession-based approach, and what we saw on Saturday is a consequence of that. The opening twenty two minutes were a better reflection of the Mills model than anything I saw in pre-season, but there are still shortcomings, and they were spectacularly apparent for the rest of the game.

line ups

Racecourse legend Waynne Phillips suggested in the press box after the final whistle that the problem lies with the standard of players at Conference level: it’s hard for fifth division players to sustain such a technical style of play for a whole match.

I’d agree with him up to a point, and it’s certainly alluring to point at the three goals conceded, each of which came about through individual errors, and suggest that they came about through a lack of concentration and technique. Yet Mills fashioned sides which could keep their focus and play this way very effectively at York and Gateshead and he certainly didn’t have the scope to bring in technical players on the latter club’s budget. I’d suggest that it was the need to continue bedding in the system which led to those errors more than a fundamental flaw in the philosophy.

Indeed, for the opening period Wrexham certainly looked like they could play the way Mills had hoped. The system was fluid and possession was protected carefully. Dominic Vose, using his position on the left of the attack as a nominal starting point, drifted deep and narrow, finding pockets of space with regularity, especially in the hole behind the striker. Connor Jennings, initially playing to the left of the midfield three, and James Gray would constantly make darting runs into the space Vose vacated and Bromley were asked awkward questions as they tried to avoid their defence being stretched fatally out of shape.

Furthermore, Sean Newton was highly progressive – certainly more than Mason Watkins-Clark on the other side, and regularly drove past Vose into crossing positions. Indeed, although the caught the eye with his progressive approach, one might argue that he ought to have delivered more dangerous balls into the box considering the regularity with which he got into dangerous areas.

In midfield Adriano Moke, a surprising selection in the centre of the three, was eager and looked to carry the ball forward and inject tempo into attacks, although the fact that he is neither a ball winner nor a player with a wide range of passing made him look more suited to a role working in one of the positions either side of a deep-lying playmaker.

Jennings offered similar qualities and worked tirelessly and tenaciously, while Wes York replicated his pre-season habit of looking very bright early on, pining the Bromley left back Joe Anderson back and causing him some anxiety. Unfortunately, he also maintained his pre-season habit of fading as the game wore on.

He got the opening goal though, an uncanny replication of one of his goals on the opening day of the season at Dartford last season as he made an excellent run across the box to the near post, losing his man and meeting an excellent, incisive ball in from Vose with a deft touch.

There was an air of inevitability about the goal, although it has to be said that for all the attractive passing Wrexham exhibited, clear chances were few and far between. Still, when the goal went in defeat seemed to be a highly unlikely prospect. Wrexham looked a class or two above their hosts, and surely their control of possession would make it difficult for Bromley to claw their way back into the game. The game plan from here was simple: indeed, the possession-based game ought to be a highly effective approach once you’ve taken a lead. All you do is anaesthetise your opponents, protecting your lead by keeping the ball in their half, and wait for their patience to break or tiredness to creep in and capitalise on their inevitable errors.

Instead, the errors came at the other end.

Before looking at them, it’s perhaps worth considering an unexpected parallel between this approach and that of Andy Morrell in the second half of that phenomenal 98-point season. Something Morrell did very well, which he hasn’t enjoyed any praise for, was the way he pragmatically changed the way we played to adapt to our changing circumstances. We’d begun the season playing a similar game to the one Mills hopes to introduce, with Lee Fowler a deep-lying quarterback, splitting the central defenders and building patiently. However, the loss of Fowler at Christmas and the horrible deterioration in the Racecourse pitch meant a short-passing game was no longer the best way to go about things, so Morrell changed to a more direct approach, using himself or Danny Wright as a battering ram to rough up and tire out the opposing defence. This led to a series of games in which we didn’t look terrifically creative, but still won because we wore the opposition down and were able to score goals late on. Fifteen of our last twenty four goals that season were scored after the break: four of our nine first half goals were scored in the five minutes before the break. That’s 80% of our goals scored in the last 55% of the game. Attritional football indeed.

We’re looking to replicate that approach in outcome if not style this season: teams might repel us early on, but gradually they’ll be ground down by their lack of the ball and the constant strain of defending against us and trying to cover the gaps our movement creates. The problem is, that approach is reliant on us not giving anything away at the other end. Morrell’s side set a club record for least goals conceded in a league season. On Saturday, we were horribly incapable of keeping it tight at the back.

The opening goal was in some ways the most orthodox, and therefore the most forgiveable. Mills complained afterwards that the free kick on the flank was cheaply conceded and of course, he had a point. However, Manny Smith’s clumsy barge wasn’t in the top drawer of impetuous challenges, and it was in how we failed to deal with an uninspired long ball into the box from wide in midfield that the problem lay. The ball carried further across the crowd at the edge of the area than it ought to have done, and when the bulk of Alex Wall led to both he and Blaine Hudson falling near the ball, Smith found the easy path to safety blocked by their bodies. His hesitation was understandable but fatal and centre back Sean Francis showed impressive alertness and technique to slam the ball home.

The second goal came soon afterwards and was down to a combination of poor technique and sloppiness. It’s tempting to lay the blame for Mason Watkins-Clark’s loss on the ball on the half way line on the desire to pass the ball around at the back. However, it would be more pertinent to point out that the youngster hesitated too long in receiving the ball, inviting pressure on himself, and in such a position ought to have made the decision to release it with more alacrity. As it was he dallied, took a poor touch and was dispossessed.

Still, we ought to have got away with it: the ball into the area of slightly overhit and Hudson ought to have dealt with it, but was guilty of hesitation, possibly because he wasn’t aware of the close proximity of Wall. He certainly was when the striker lunged in to poke home.

Understandably, Wrexham did not respond well to this double blow. They needed to get into the changing room and have Mills press the reset button as their faith in the possession game seemed to waver. Instead, rocking in the path of a buoyant Bromley, they conceded a goal which had its genesis in poor decision-making.

As I alluded to earlier, in a central role Moke is always liable to carry the ball to a team mate rather than pass it to him over any distance. On this occasion he was played into trouble by Watkins-Clark and did well to extricate himself with a sharp turn. He was on the half way line and we had a lot of players committed forwards, including Smith who had stayed up in support of an attack for a surprising length of time. Apparently experiencing a burst of adrenaline after his skilful piece of play, Moke burst forwards into the congested heart of the Bromley midfield, carrying it to the edge of their box where he ran out of steam and into trouble.

Ali Fuseini, the impressive Bromley holding midfielder, took the ball off him and immediately showed what he ought to have done, surging through the centre and then playing the ball at the correct time rather than over-egg the pudding, to set up a three-on-three break. It’s a situation sides practice for regularly and Bromley were clinical in their execution of the opportunity, but although media reports have rightly praised their clinical finishing in comparison to Wrexham’s, there was another, more tactical factor at play for this goal.

In the early stages Bromley had pressed deep into Wrexham’s half in search of the ball, leaving what would have been fatal gaps at the back. Indeed, as early as the second minute they were fortunate to survive as Wrexham passed their way around the press and got into the inviting gaps which had appeared behind the home defence. York was unable to beat the keeper from a tight angle, and Bromley clearly reassessed their approach.

From then on they didn’t pursue Wrexham into their own half, opting instead to keep their shape in the own half and allow Wrexham to pass the ball around in front of them. However, they were bold enough to start pressing soon after the ball had passed the halfway line, and to allow their attacking quartet to remain in that advanced position. This meant that when Moke lost the ball, and with Smith stranded, the three-on-three break was on.

Dominic Vose regularly dropped deep from his wide left position and found lots of space in the hole (red circle), but look at the block of four Bromley players staying up the pitch, facilitating a break away.
Dominic Vose regularly dropped deep from his wide left position and found lots of space in the hole (red circle), but look at the block of four Bromley players staying up the pitch, facilitating a break away.
Adriano Moke (red circle) turns away from trouble but his subsequent run would lead to the third goal. Bromley's attacking block (white circles) would remain high u the pitch and the three Wrexham players in defensive positions (red circles) would be left exposed.
Adriano Moke (red circle) turns away from trouble but his subsequent run would lead to the third goal. Bromley’s attacking block (white circles) would remain high u the pitch and the three Wrexham players in defensive positions (red circles) would be left exposed.

The goal would not have come as a surprise to anyone who has been watching the pre-season friendlies. An alarming constant in those games was how open Wrexham have been to the counter-attack once the ball is lost. They would get plenty of players into attacking positions as a consequence of their short-passing, the long periods of possession and deep-lying defensive block adopted by the other side inviting us to camp in the opposing half, and then be wide open when we lost the ball, even if the turnover took place deep in the opposing half.

The Stoke match was the most spectacular illustration of this, of course, but one ought not to worry too deeply when a Premier League side is able to punish you clinically on the break. However, the situation occurred too often to be attributed to a gulf in quality between the two sides: this issue of shape is no doubt something Mills is working on diligently.

Wrexham emerged from the break with Joel Logan on for the unhappy Watkins-Clark and Javan Vidal, whose struggle to tame the ball when it was played into him as he made a series of runs to the edge of the box had led to a frustrating first half, back at right back.

Logan would impress, offering pace and directness down the left, and he clearly had the beating of Emmanuel Udoji, who had impressed in the first period with no direct winger to deal with as Vose drifted deep. Vose himself was now playing in the midfield three and continued to probe, going close with a fine 25 yard strike which, in terms of second half efforts, was bettered only by a late, clean strike from Logan which was acrobatically saved.

However, Vose appeared to tire as the game wore on and found it difficult to create an opening as the game settled into a turgid pattern with Wrexham passing without pace or tempo and Bromley maintaining excellent shape to deter progressive passing.

It was disappointing to see Vose go off, but perhaps understandable as Wrexham began to go more direct in the hope of breaking Bromley down. That change of approach occurred in phases, as first Jamal Fyfield was introduced as a holding midfielder in place of Gray, who had struggle to obtain service in the box. Fyfield, like Logan, impressed. His forthright play won the ball on a number of occasions and he injected a little more pace into Wrexham’s passing with his more vertical use of the ball. The 4-2-3-1 adopted on his arrival might have profited from Vose sitting deeper alongside him, but instead he featured in the hole and struggled to make an impact, while Moke in the deeper midfield role was notable to make play from deep.

As a consequence, and as Jennings, now up front, was suffering from the same lack of service which had frustrated Gray, Mills made another radical change, switching to 4-4-2 with Kayden Jackson and York up front and Jennings and Logan on the flanks.

The passing now became much more direct, indeed perhaps too direct as straight balls often carried straight through to the keeper. Both strikers lacked the physical strength to trouble the centre backs, especially the outstanding Rob Swaine, but the change of shape did cause problems for Bromley as Wrexham created overloads on the right through Vidal’s adventurous running – he and Jennings were able to combine to get behind the defence with surprising ease – while Logan continued to stretch the defence on the other flank.

However, it was too little too late. At half time ex-Charlton keeper Nicky Johns, who was doing the PA statistics and was a neutral observer, told me how massively impressed he was with Wrexham. Indeed, he was on the horns of a dilemma – he had to submit half time ratings for each player and was struggling with the fact that he wanted to award five out of ten to half a side which was leading 3-1! His admiration for Wrexham’s style and quality on the ball was manifest, but there are serious lessons to be learned from a game in which we can look so clearly superior yet emerge badly beaten. Until the slack errors which led to Bromley’s goals are eradicated, there will be a lot of work to be done at Collier’s Park to bed in the Mills project.

PREVIEW: AFC Telford United v Wrexham 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.

joe_clarke_jay_harris_Telford

It seems strange to face Telford on the last day of the season as they are our most festive foes. Every league game we’ve ever played against them has been on either Boxing Day or New Year’s Day!

Admittedly, there’s good reason for that as despite the fact that this doesn’t quite feel like a derby, they’ve been our nearest neighbours in each of the previous two Conference campaigns we’ve been in the same division as them.

danny_wright_3

The last time we went to the New Buck’s Head one of our players managed a feat which will surely come up as a pub quiz question one day: which Wrexham player scored the first goal anywhere in the world in 2013? The answer is Danny Wright and the circumstances around his becoming statistically the most deadly striker on the planet are peculiar.

The game took place on New Year’s Day, of course, and most of the rest of Europe was on their winter break. There were no earlier kick-offs anywhere else in the world and our game started at noon, before any other professional match in the UK, so there was a window of opportunity for a scorer in the first half to achieve that unusual milestone.

Wright obliged, of course, running down the left channel in the twenty fourth minute and opening the scoring with a shot from a tight angle which lacked venom but was fortunately met with the first goalkeeping error of the year as the ball rolled gently inside the near post!

adrian_cieslewicz

Telford made us work for the result though, and it wasn’t until five minutes before the end of the game that Adrian Cieslewicz wrapped up a 2-0 win with the only headed goal of the twenty one he managed in his Wrexham career.

Our only other trip to Telford came the season before and it ended with exactly the same outcome. Joe Clarke scored an early goal to settle our nerves but once more Telford were stubborn opposition, roared on by an impressive crowd of 4,591.

jake_speight_1

Jake Speight would play the decisive role in the second half though, putting in a typically feisty display and hardly endearing himself to the home fans with his tackling but then seeming to feed off their ire. His strike halfway through the second period secured the points.

Not only do we have a perfect record at Telford, but we also have good recent form on the last day of the season. We’ve lost just one of our last nine final matches, winning six, and there were extenuating circumstances surrounding that lone defeat as well.

It came two years ago at Mansfield as Andy Morrell selected a second string side, with Glen Little making his only start of the season and Mark Creighton thrown on for the first time since his injury seven months earlier. Taking all that into consideration, losing 1-0 to a disputed penalty against a side which won the title as a result was no mean feat!

PREVIEW: Wrexham FC v Braintree Town

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.

neil_ashton_jay_harris_celebration_stockport

We need to buck a trend tomorrow as our home results against Braintree have steadily deteriorated. We won our first clash emphatically, drew the next one and suffered our first loss to them at The Racecourse last season.

That initial win saw five different players get onto the scoresheet in a 5-1 victory. Andy Morrell, Adrian Cieslewicz, Mathias Pogba and Danny Wright all helped themselves, but the happiest scorer must have been Neil Ashton, whose injury time penalty was his first for Wrexham.

The following season we again welcomed The Iron to North Wales as we prepared for a play-off campaign, but this time the game failed to offer us the perfect preparation for the post-season. Things started well with Morrell opening the scoring with a sublime chip in the fourth minute, but they soon went sour.

Up until that point Wright had enjoyed himself against Braintree, and remains the only Wrexham player to have put more goals past them than Morrell. However, soon after his manager’s goal he fell awkwardly and injured his elbow, ruling him out of the play-offs and ending his Wrexham career prematurely.

Last season was also an unhappy experience. We started horribly and were 2-0 down after twenty minutes but a spirited fight back saw us level through goals from Johnny Hunt and Jay Harris. However, we were denied in controversial circumstances as Steve Tomassen put the ball into his own net as Wrexham protested that a striker was offside and interfering with play.

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As the season draws to a close, tomorrow’s game falls on the anniversary of one of our most successful run-ins. In 1970 we drew 1-1 with Oldham to secure promotion under John Neal to the old Third Division.

It was an edgy affair though, perhaps because there was such a weight of expectation on Wrexham’s shoulders going into the match. Although we needed a draw to go up, nobody expected an Oldham side which had won one and drawn six of its last eighteen away games to stop put up much resistance against a side on such a roll as Wrexham were.

We’d lost just two games from late February with Albert Kinsey having hit eleven goals in twelve games. At home we’d scored eighteen goals in the last five matches at The Racecourse so it was understandable that a crowd in excess of eleven thousand arrived expecting to witness an historic victory over a side which needed a win to ensure that they did not have to apply for re-election into Division Four.

However, Athletic proved to be stubborn and the first half was scoreless. Worse still, Reg Blore, a Welshman ironically, opened the scoring with a speculative shot just after the hour.

Eddie May
Eddie May

Wrexham pressed on but struggled to create and were lucky to survive a penalty shout after a tackle by Steve Ingle, before inspirational skipper Eddie May stepped up to the plate in injury time, connecting with our fifteenth corner of the match to plant home a header which finally secured that precious point.

Andy Coughlin makes his 75th Wrexham appearance tomorrow.

PREVIEW: Wrexham FC v Alfreton Town

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.

chris_westwood_alfreton

A Wrexham side in turmoil at least has a chance to set things straight tomorrow against a side which has enjoyed its visits to The Racecourse.

Our record against Alfreton is rather bizarre. We’ve been to their patch four times and enjoyed three wins. However, in five games in North Wales we’ve lost three, drawn one and enjoyed just one victory, in an FA Cup tie.

Alfreton fist visited us in April 2012 as we were locked in the closing stages of a titanic title struggle with Fleetwood Town. Shortly before the break Anthony Wilson scored the only goal of the match before an impressive crowd of 4,673, which comfortably remains the biggest attendance at this fixture.

Seven months later we hosted them in an FA Cup tie which would see us capitulate in the most horrible manner. We appeared to be in command after an impressive opening half hour which saw us take a second minute lead through a Neil Ashton penalty.
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However, Joslain Mayebi was to have a bad day at the office. He fumbled a free kick to gift Alfreton an equaliser, then inexplicably caught a corner then elbowed a striker in retaliation to a challenge when the ball was in the air. The referee pointed to the spot and sent Mayebi off, exposing Anthony Coughlin to a torrid last half hour.

Alfreton scored from the spot and exploited our desperation as we pushed forward with ten men. Soon afterwards it was 3-1, and although Danny Wright pulled one back, we were caught on the break in the final minute and went down to a 4-2 defeat.

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Later that season Alfreton returned in the league. With Dele Adebola and David Artell making their debuts for us you could hardly argue we lacked the muscle for the job but apart from an early strike from Kevin Thornton in his first league start for us we lacked guile. Alfreton grabbed an equaliser early in the second half and held on for the draw with ex-Wrexham centre back Darran Kempson outstanding.

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Another ex-Wrexham defender would be decisive in the league the following season. Chris Westwood scored a last minute winner to condemn us to a 3-2 defeat on Boxing Day after Mark Carrington had given us the lead and Leon Clowes had scored his only Wrexham goal with five minutes left to apparently earn a draw.

At least we gained some measure of revenge in the FA Cup, managing our only home win over Alfreton with a 3-1 win courtesy of two goals from Andy Bishop and a third from Jay Harris.

Our struggles against Alfreton are reflected by the fact that we go into our tenth match against them tomorrow looking for our first clean sheet in the fixture.

Hopefully we’ll get a helping hand at the other end from their defenders. Two of Alfreton’s current side have recently scored own goals for Wrexham: Luke Graham in the first minute of Wrexham’s 2-0 win over Hereford at The Racecourse last season, and Duane Courtney the season before in a 1-0 win at Tamworth.

How A Month of Progress Allowed Wrexham To Beat Torquay

kevin_wilkin_3The semi-final victory over Torquay might feel like the key point in our season, but if you really want to see where things turned round, have a look at the goalless draw we played out with The Gulls a month ago. Since that match, everything has changed for the better.
That was a moribund match. We played with a stodgy midfield diamond which made us hard to break down but lacking flair going forward. It was only once we abandoned it late on that we threatened, and indeed ought to have snatched a win. Since then we’ve abandoned the diamond and found a much better formation to suit our current squad snugly. Consequently we’ve suddenly looked like a coherent, purposeful side.
The ironic thing is that it’s been by reverting to a 4-3-3 which Kevin Wilkin suggested he was uncomfortable with last season that we’ve rediscovered our form. Plus ça change!
The 4-3-3 we’ve shifted to has been highly effective. It features two elements which set it apart from the similar system which brought Wrexham terrific success under Dean Saunders and Andy Morrell.

Firstly, the central three are set up with more depth. We play with a holding midfielder and two men ether side higher up the pitch, whereas the Saunders/Morrell model was flatter. This shape suits the players we have: Dean Keates and Kyle Storer are adept at holding, protecting the back four and using the ball intelligently, while the likes of Robbie Evans, Joe Clarke, Jay Harris and Mark Carrington have the legs to press in front of them.
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Want evidence of how effective the reassinged roles are? Have you noticed how regularly the holding midfielder is our best player, or at least among the outstanding performers? That was certainly true of both games last week.
An interesting feature of the system is the rotation of the midfield trio. I’m not sure that it’s totally pre-conceived: injuries, the need to use Keates judiciously and the unavailability of Storer for FA Trophy matches – meaning he has to spend every other Saturday either shopping with his wife or watching his beloved Arsenal – may well have made chopping and changing a necessity. However, the mass influx of central midfielders into an already flooded part of the squad during January suggests there might be a deliberate policy in play.
What’s fascinating is how easily the players have adapted to rotation. Large scale changes in personnel have not led to a diminution in effectiveness. In fact, quite the reverse: there’s a freshness to the midfield while the players clearly understand their assigned roles. When we don’t have the ball, the opposition struggle to find space, smothered by energetic pressing from the players in advance of the deep-lying pivot.
The one time this shape hasn’t particularly worked was last Tuesday against Forest Green Rovers, but there were extenuating circumstances. Firstly, it was a massively rotated line-up: only three of the outfield players who started that game also started at Torquay, and the whole midfield was different.
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The injury Mark Carrington picked up which necessitated his substitution at the break, plus a testing debut for Sam Finley, meant Kevin Wilkin wisely jettisoned the shape at the break and switched to a 4-4-2 which opened the game up more and led to us becoming more threatening. However, it also led to us becoming more vulnerable, and it was only a string of good stops by Andy Coughlin which ultimately earned a point.
In this sense the way the game went harked back to the last time our 4-3-3, then in the early stages of development, failed us. That was at Gateshead when a bold half time switch opened the game up and, with a full strength eleven on the pitch, allowed us to claw our way back into the tie.
The second interesting feature of the formation concerns the forward line. Kevin Wilkin told me at the start of January that he was keen to add left-sided width to the side and stretch opposing defences.
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Whether Kieron Morris was what he had in mind would be an interesting question to find out the answer to: he certainly plays on the left, but the way we deploy him and Connor Jennings in our new shape is not quite the wingerfest we might have anticipated.
Both wide men actually start five yards in from the touchline, tucking in behind the sole striker and looking to offer him support in a similar way to Liverpool’s recent much-lauded set-up, where Coutinho and Adam Lallana tucked in behind Raheem Sterling.
Sometimes the effect can be a slightly congested feel around the edge of the area when we attack, but it can also pay spectacular dividends. The win at Torquay is the clearest example of this, as Morris got close to Moult in the second half, heading a good close range chence wide before scoring twice, all from good service from the lone striker.
However, the benefits of this approach might have turned the tie in our favour in the first leg. After Morris had been replaced by Wes York, Jennings switched to the left and twice cut inside onto his stronger foot to fashion good shooting opportunities on the edge of the box. He will have been disappointed that he didn’t catch hold of either chance properly, but the threat was clear: thankfully Torquay failed to pay heed to the warning at Plainmoor.
The emphasis of that front three is different to what Saunders and Morrell constructed. The focus is clearly on the central striker to provide the goals: we’ve played the formation six times so far this season; Louis Moult was the central striker on four of those occasions and scored four times in those games. (The fact that in the other two games Andy Bishop didn’t hit the net illustrates what we saw last season and earlier in this one – Bishop is better suited to a 4-4-2)
The Saunders/Morrell set-up didn’t rely on the central striker. In fact the two most prolific seasons enjoyed by Wrexham strikers in the Conference were achieved by players who attacked from the wide positions of a 4-3-3: Jake Speight and Danny Wright.
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Getting the wide men to come closer to the central striker might address this issue and offer a wider spread of scorers: Morris’ goals were the first scored by Wrexham wide men in a 4-3-3 this season.
With the back four looking well protected by this system, we have a foundation to build on. Hopefully the midfield rotation will help us to remain fresh and suddenly our squad looks deep: my stab at a first choice line-up could field a bench of Blaine Hudson, Wes York, Andy Bishop and two from our phalanx of midfielders if the whole squad was fit. Hopefully that’s a factor that will help us cope with the fixture congestion to come and allow us to finish the season with a late run up the table.

PREVIEW: Gateshead FC v Wrexham 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.

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Gateshead away might be a tough match to negotiate if we want to keep our dreams of Wembley alive, but in recent years we’ve enjoyed the trip north east. In fact, we’re enjoying our best run of results away to The Heed in a rivalry which stretches back to 1928.

We’ve won our last four games at The Gateshead International Stadium, doubling our total number of wins at Gateshead in the process.

Our two biggest winning margins in Gateshead have been achieved in the course of those wins too. Last season second half goals from Brett Ormerod, who had scored the only goal the season before, Steve Tomassen and Andy Bishop brought up a 3-0 victory, while two seasons previously we ran out 4-1 winners. Dean Keates, Danny Wright and Joe Clarke all hit the net on that occasion, as did an unfortunate Heed defender.

We’ve only won by three goals on one other occasion at Gateshead, back in February 1934, when Tommy Bamford got all the goals in a 3-0 win.

Keates also scored the only goal in April 2011 to start off this sequence of wins, and perhaps that was the most satisfying win as it brought a measure of revenge for the remarkable clash at The Racecourse just two months earlier when Gateshead ran out 7-2 winners, inflicting the biggest home defeat in Wrexham’s history in the process.


Since that thrashing we’ve certainly had the upper hand against The Heed, both home and away. They’ve beaten us just once in nine subsequent clashes, with Wrexham victorious six times. However, that one win, accomplished in the second match of this season, did maintain their record of winning emphatically against us as they triumphed 3-0.

We also have an ace up our sleeve in Andy Bishop, whose five goals in three starts against Gateshead put him third in the list of Wrexham’s top scorers against them. The afore-mentioned Bamford stands top of the pile, having scored fifteen times past them in just ten games.

This purple patch of form in Gateshead has come after something of a barren spell. Before Keates’ winner, the last time we’d won there was in April 1955, when a Tommy Bannan goal earned a 1-0 win. That statistic is skewed by the fact that we didn’t play them often in the intervening years, of course, as Gateshead dropped out of the Football League in 1960, but our recent wins has certainly given a much-needed boost to our record there. Overall we’ve now won eight, drawn nine and lost thirteen.

Our record at Gateshead in cup competitions is mixed. We’ve twice played FA Cup first round ties there: in November 1929 Albert Mays scored twice in a 4-2 victory with Bamford inevitably chipping in with one of the others; but two years later, despite Bamford scoring again, we lost 3-2.

Connor Jennings will be available again tomorrow after serving his suspension for the red card he picked up against AFC Telford United, and if he’s selected he’ll make the hundredth appearance of his career.

Andy Bishop: Wrexham FC’s History Man

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So who’s the most significant figure in recent Wrexham history? Kevin Wilkin? Dean Keates? Neil Ashton? How about Andy Bishop? His fortunes have perhaps shaped the last couple of years more than anyone else’s.

At the start of last season Bishop’s signature represented more than just the completion of a transfer deal. He was the signing on whom Andy Morrell unwittingly staked his job. The previous three campaigns had seen us reach the play-offs but fall short of the Holy Grail: a return to the Football League. However, on each occasion we were fuelled by a consistent scorer up front: Andy Mangan got 16 goals in 2010-11; Jake Speight managed 20 the following year; and in 2012-13 Danny Wright hit 18. Only one of those 54 goals wasn’t in the league as we mounted three consecutive tilts at promotion.

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Bishop didn’t just arrive as a striker: he arrived as the inheritor of that responsibility. His career stats, Morrell’s knowledge of him as a team mate at Bury and a promising if truncated loan spell the previous season gave the manager every reason to think he’d drafted in the next leader of a promotion push.

But the goals didn’t come.

Bishop managed nine goals in the forty two appearances that season, plus five assists. It wasn’t the return Morrell expected, and the problem was exacerbated by the lack of another player to step up and take over the scoring responsibility – in the previous campaigns Morrell had chipped in usefully, and in 2011-12 Mathias Pogba got into double figures as well. This time Morrell didn’t have the legs to contribute and Johnny Hunt, hardly a player expected to lead the line, was the only reliable scorer: the next highest scorer was Brett Ormerod with just five, and the last of those came in mid-November.

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But there was more to it than just a misfiring forward. Morrell had put his budgetary eggs in one basket, committing a lot of the wage budget in the pursuit of a proven scorer. In doing so, he was forced to take a gamble in other areas, and crucially that meant hoping that Mark Creighton would recover from injury and Stephen Wright would stay fit. Neither of these moves were percentage choices and neither came to pass: Creighton completed the ninety minutes just once before retiring and Wright missed numerous games through both injury and suspension. Throw in the susceptibility to injury of one of Morrell’s young stand-ins, Leon Clowes, and you had a threadbare back four. In total that trio missed seventy games in the season through injury and a hole was blown below the waterline of Morrell’s ship.

It ought perhaps to be pointed out that Morrell did manage to find the solution when he drafted in a solid centre back in Danny Livesey, who stayed fit for the last seventeen matches of the season and made a late run for player of the season, admittedly against little competition. However, the manager would not reap the benefit of Livesey’s reliability: the centre back’s third game for Wrexham was Morrell’s last.

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This season began with Bishop, whose confidence in the penalty area dissolved in the second half of 2013-14, seeming surplus to requirements. He couldn’t force his way into the starting line-up and Wilkin’s public pronouncements made it clear that he was looking to move him on, which made sense if he was looking to maximise his budget. Yet the move didn’t materialise and once he got into the side his form suddenly reappeared.

He’s currently second top scorer, having already overtaken last season’s total, and second best provider with 7 assists. Considering he’s only made 21 starts this season, that’s a useful return. In terms of goals per minute this is his most prolific season since 2007-8.

Hope you’re not sick of stats because there’s no better way to emphasise his upturn in form than throwing some more out there. This season he’s scoring every 152 minutes on average, while last season he waited 326 minutes between each goal – more than twice as long. Last season he either set up a goal or scores one every 209 minutes; this season his combined goal and assist rate is one every 84 minutes – he is at the sharp end of a goal roughly once a game on average. In comparison, Danny Wright managed a goal every 208 minutes and his combined rate was 129 minutes in his most prolific Wrexham season, by the way.

So the current form of Bishop, who goes in search of his 150th career goal today, is standing comparison with any striker Wrexham have fielded in the Conference. Which begs the question: how might last season have panned out if Bishop had hit this form a year earlier? The cracks at the back might have been papered over if we’d been scoring at the other end; a push towards the play-offs might have been mounted, if probably not achieved; Morrell might have been given a new contract. We’d be in a very different universe right now. It’s amazing how the fortune of one player can have such an effect.

PREVIEW: Wrexham FC v AFC Telford United

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.

joe_clarke_jay_harris_Telford

We have a perfect record against Telford, having met them five times and won on each occasion.

Considering our close proximity it’s perhaps surprising to find that we’ve clashed so few times, and it wasn’t until 2011 that we encountered them for the first time in a league match. Before then the only time the two sides had met was in an FA Cup tie which was more significant for its consequences than its content.

The tie, in the second round of the competition in December 1991, was hard fought as United battled away in the hope of causing an upset. It was until nineteen minutes from the end of the match that their resistance was finally breached when Steve Watkin popped up to score the only goal of the match and that strike would prove to be remarkably significant not only for the club but also for the locally born striker.

In the next round we were given a home tie against league champions Arsenal and Watkin, who scored the historic winner, was certainly glad he’d put paid to Telford in the round before!

Our two home league matches against Telford, which were both played in 2012, each saw us score four goals past them.

On New Year’s Day, in front of a bumper crowd of 5,812, we were made to wait for our breakthrough thanks to a spirited rearguard action from the visitors. However, their resistance was broken in the most frustrating manner in the 34th minute when Shane Killock put the ball past his own goalkeeper.

That calamity opened the floodgates and a minute later United were two goals down as Mark Creighton came up for a set piece to slam the ball home.

To their credit, Telford continued to battle away though, and it wasn’t until the final quarter of an hour that they fully caved in. Jake Speight made it 3-0 and then Adrian Cieslewicz popped up to complete the scoring four minutes from the end.

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Telford seemed to be opposition perfectly suited to Cieslewicz’s speciality of making a late impact as he scored two goals past them in total, and both came in the last five minutes of matches.

In Boxing Day that year Telford arrived again. Wrexham weren’t quite as strong a side as they’d been the previous season, but were still pressing for a play-off spot and settled their nerves with an early strike as Brett Ormerod opened the scoring in the second minute.

However, once more the pattern of stubborn Telford resistance was repeated and again it wasn’t until the late stages of the game that Wrexham were able to cash in on their domination.

nick rushton

Nick Rushton added a second on the hour before a flurry of goals saw Danny Wright and Ormerod each strike within three minutes of each other, only to see Telford go straight down the other end and score a consolation goal a minute later to complete a 4-1 scoreline.

Jay Harris makes his 275th career league appearance tomorrow.

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