The Only Way is Sussex


It’s a long time since I’ve so excited about a game as far in advance as this!

In fact, to be honest, I’ve felt excited about the Brighton match from the moment the game came out of the bag! (If I’d been this guy, maybe I’d have even been excited before the draw was made!)

Of course, part of my excitement is because I’m eager to see the best Wrexham side for the almost a decade test itself against a genuinely strong team. If nothing else, we’ve a defence which has looked capable of withstanding terrific pressure all season; it was pretty untroubled at Brentford and now it will get one heck of an examination.

However, my sense of anticipation is mostly based around the fact that this tie means much more than that. Indeed, for me what happens on the pitch feels almost irrelevant.

The thrill of meeting Brighton again is immense. Here is a football club, and more importantly a set of fans, whose example is exemplary. They stand for much more than a team in Sussex.

I guess they are a product of an enlightened environment as the city enjoys a perfect storm of circumstances, close enough to London to absorb its cosmopolitan air, but like many coastal towns imbued with a healthy dose of ideas from elsewhere, creating a pervasive, well-informed, liberal counter-culture. The result is a set of fans who appreciate that being a football supporter goes far beyond backing their club. It also carries a responsibility to the shared experience of the football fan.

It’s a sensibility which explains why a real football fan’s heart breaks when we think of Hillsborough, Heysel or Valley Parade. Why we might relish rivalry, but appreciate that it’s a game and, like the soldiers in the trenches of Flanders if you don’t mind me pushing the metaphor as far as it’ll stretch, realise we’ve essentially got a lot more in common with our opponents than we do with anyone else. It’s why when we look at the travails of Darlington and Kettering we want to help, rather than look at the effect their demise would have on the table.

Brighton’s fans are uplifting. Indeed, it wouldn’t go too far to say they’re a force for good in the game. Just look at how there links were formed with us; they joined in the anti-Guterman protests which happened to coincide with their coming to The Racecourse, raised funds for us when most would be one-eyed and shovel any cash towards their own club, and most memorably, organised the Fans United day in November 2004 in an attempt to help save us.

It’s a relationship the likes of which I’m not aware of outside the Bundesliga, where a remarkable network of club firenships exists, reflecting the liberal society they’re based in.

And so we go back to the fans who gave us such support. Now they can see how we’ve grown. We might have gone backwards on the pitch, but we’ve taken giant steps forward off it, and can travel proudly to Brighton  as a wholly fan-owned club.

There’s More To Life Than Goals

In terms of usefulness the striker who doesn’t score many goals might seem to be right up there with the old chocolate fireplace. However, while many barren forwards are indeed pointless, it is possible for such a player to make a major contribution to his team. It’s in the latter category that Danny Wright fits.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, over the last few games, Wright has been as important a player for us as any other. That’s despite the fact that he’s certainly short of goals-four in half a season isn’t a great strike rate-and it isn’t as if the side’s not set up to provide him with the right sort of service because the two players with the most assists for us this season are our attacking full backs. In fact, if my memory serves me right, three of those goals were headers set up by Curtis Obeng, not to mention the glorious opportunity he had to claim three points in the last minute at Braintree.

However, to judge Wright on his strike rate is to ignore the massive contribution he makes to the side. He holds the ball up superbly, as was shown in his massive performance last Saturday against Gateshead, when he led the line in the first half and worked hard to retain possession as the game changed in the second. The working over he gives out to centre backs also wears them down, to the benefit of his team mates in the latter stages of the game, a point Dean Saunders made at Bath as we grabbed two late goals against a flagging back four. He occupies defenders like no Wrexham striker I’ve seen since Jim Steel, but unlike the redoubtable Scot, he’s deceptively quick, able to outpace defenders round the outside.

His direct, driving runs at the heart of the opposing back four have become one of my favourite features of this season, and he’s able to provide end product at the end of it, as his subtle lay-off to Obeng to tee up the equaliser against Darlington showed. Having drawn defenders to him with a headlong charge to the edge of the box, a cleverly disguised lay-off put the full back in a position to deliver for Adrian Cieslewicz’s valuable strike.

In fact, that match offered up another admirable quality in Wright’s play. In a bad day at the office for Wrexham, which looked like ending in defeat, he and Obeng, along with second half sub Glen Little, were just about the only creative players who were able to replicate their usual form in the face of adversity, and such fortitude was admirable; fill a side with players who stand up to be counted when the game’s going against them and you won’t go far wrong.

The goalless target man is certainly not unknown in the game, and can fulfil a very important role. The French side which won the World Cup in 1998 fielded Stephane Guivarc’h throughout, despite the fact that he didn’t score in the entire tournament and had a clumsy style of play which hardly blended seamlessly with the artistry of Youri Djorkaeff and Zinedine Zidane! Well, not in an aesthetic sense, but his ability to hold the ball up meant that, although he was toothless in the box, those creative geniuses were able to get involved with play much closer to the opposing goal. And anyway, the end justifies the means: when some twit at the Daily Mail derided Guivarc’h, he should have simply shown him his World Cup winner’s medal! (Although his description of the paper’s actually a pretty accurate riposte too!)

Likewise, Emile Heskey has been rather harshly maligned, a victim of the post-modern invasion of cynicism into the game, and the media in general. Heskey might be the easy target who launched a thousand lazy “list show” segments, but he always occupied defenders and worked ceaselessly for his team. Michael Owen was generally felt to have enjoyed the best England form of his life in tandem with Heskey, and anyway, how goals did Richard Bacon score away to Germany anyway?

Wrexham had their own highly successful version of Heskey, in terms of output at least, in the early 1990s. Steve Watkin might primarily be remembered for his winner against Arsenal, but he put in years of devoted service for Wrexham, often for the benefit of Gary Bennett. Bennett was always quick to credit the superb spade work Watkin put in for him, and although Watkin’s strike rate tailed off once we were promoted to the Third Division (it’s easy to forget that in the 1992-3 promotion season he top scored, comfortably outdoing Bennett) when you’re getting fifty goals from your front two it doesn’t really matter how they’re divided up!

Of course, it would be great if Wright could knock a few more in. There’s always going to be a temptation to leave out a striker if he isn’t getting on the scoresheet once he has a couple of quiet games, and although he ought to be more sympathetic than most to the plight of the striker, Andy Morrell won’t be immune to such sentiments. But as a striker he’ll also appreciate the many positive aspects of Wright’s contribution to his team. Not least when he’s sparing the old feller’s legs by doing some running for him!

Fowler, Little and the Creative Spark

Yesterday’s match gave me that weird, rare feeling that I was right about something! It illustrated perfectly the concern I’ve had about our creativity in midfield and what we can do to address the issue.

I wrote at length about this issue last Saturday in wrexhamfan’s tactical review of the Braintree game, that we were confrnted with a problem when Lee Fowler isn’t present in midfield, having blogged on that theme on the train down to Essex. In fact, considering the fact that Andy Morrell has only been able to select Fowler in his starting line-up three times, his side have done remarkably well. However, recently his absense has been felt more acutely. Recent games against Lincoln, Cambridge, Braintree and Newport have seen us look extremely solid, but lacking the creative spark Fowler provides. We’ve ground out two wins from those matches, and the other two ended in goalless draws, but in these games we suddenly looked more like a hard team to beat rather than a dominant side able to put opponents away comfortably.

The same was certainly true against Darlington. For the first half we huffed and puffed to no real effect, and although we got on top in the first fifteen minutes of the second half, it was reminiscent of the afore-mentioned games, where there wasn’t any real reason to feel that pressure would turn into goals.

And then the miracle happened.

I’m not saying that Glen Little’s performance was miraculous; I’m saying that, as there has seemed to be a marked reluctance to throw him on, even when a game has screamed out for more creativity or better ball retention, it’s remarkable he was turned to at all. Admittedly, the chance might have been forced on Billy Barr by the unfortunate injury to Clarke, but it was a match turner. All of a sudden it was a completely different game. Little played the Fowler role to perfection, prompting cleverly and carrying the ball well, offering at last an easy outlet when we needed to change phases of play. Having despaired of where the equaliser was coming from, once Adrian Cieslewicz had scored I was seized by a rare sense of certainty that we would get another!

I suggested that Little could play this role in October, inspired by his cameo at Southport, and yesterday he played it to perfection, showing that even if he hasn’t got the legs to start regularly, he clearly has a major role to play in our season, even if it’s only to come on and link play up in half hour bursts as he did yesterday.

Hate to say I told you so!

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