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) www.leaderlive.co.uk.

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.

Hankering for Gateshead

Everyone eagerly awaits the publication of the fixture list in the Summer. It marks the symbolic start of the season, the point where you discover when the derby will be played, who you’ll face on Boxing Day and when you can start planning for those exotic away trips to your favourite destinations. Mmmm, Welling.

However, the fixture list can be a cruel mistress. Sometimes it fails to provide what you desperately desire. That’s been true the last couple of seasons, because it has denied me the opportunity to enjoy one of my favourite away days. This is the third season in a row when we’ve been sent to Gateshead in midweek, and it’s driving me mad. I miss the trip to Gateshead in all its idiosyncratic glory.

The reason I look forward to a trip to the north east is down to two factors: the people and the stadium. The former element is easy to explain. There are plenty of non-league clubs that give you a fantastically warm welcome, but it’s hard to beat the reception you get at Gateshead. I’ve had elderly stewards going out of their way to show me to my seat so we can continue our nice chat about how bad our form is, press officers who just can’t do enough to help, and fans who are keen to come across and ask my opinion of the game at half time.

But that last example, lovely though it was, was on a day when I was commentating from the benches in front of the press box. That’s fine, but the real treat of the stadium is the press box. Commentating in there is a heck of an experience!

The reason Gateshead boasts a gloriously unnecessary press facility lies in the peculiar nature of their ground. The clue’s in the name: the Gateshead International Stadium wasn’t built to house National League football.

One of the most pleasing memories of my childhood is a nostalgic recollection of the golden days of British athletics. It seems to me that when I was a kid, every Friday night there’d be live coverage of either Seb Coe or Steve Ovett setting a world mile record from Oslo or Zurich. Or, most pleasingly, Gateshead. The stadium was Britain’s top athletics venue when we had some of the greatest names in middle distance running, and these guys were box office. Gateshead was their domain, a place I’d never been to but which seemed fascinating to a starry-eyed ten year old learning how to fall in love with sport.

Of course, the stadium, with its cavernous main stand, isn’t necessary a great fit for the football club. The running track separates you from the pitch and everything seems on a slightly too large scale. Yet that’s what makes it more interesting than the modern identical stadia which seem to be designed out of the same blueprint give or take the odd subtle variation.

And then there’s the press box. An immense, dusty series of airy rooms it once housed the elite of the world’s broadcasters. Now it hosts Conference commentators enjoying a rare opportunity to stretch out and enjoy some space in contrast to the usual experience. (One club which I’d better not name has a press box which essentially consists of a plank nailed across a row of seats to perch your equipment on; plenty of conference press boxes are so tight that once you’re in you’re not going to be able to leave without asking ten people to leave their seats too, which is hardly ideal if your bladder’s on the small side!)

The last time I went there I ended up in a huge booth all on my own, no doubt because my biased raving would disturb the more reasonable members of the press corps. It was amazing, and the closest I’ll get to having an executive box to myself at a match!

I loved every second of it, but then that’s not an unusual feeling when I pay a visit to The Heed.

The Perfect Goal

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.

What I’m about to write will make absolutely no sense to anyone involved in the professional game of football. I accept that, accept my naïveté, and admit that in a way I’m on their side. However, there is a difference between how football is played and how it is perceived by supporters, and what happened last Saturday made me want to explore it.

To a fan, the goal Dom Vose scored at Gateshead is as good as it gets. An aesthetic delight, a symbolic representation of your superiority over the opponent, a moment of fantasy.

To a manager, it’s just another goal. It’s worth the same as a tap-in from a yard out. In fact, if that tap-in came about from something you’ve been working on in training, it’s massively more satisfying than a moment of extemporised genius which doesn’t really reflect the hard work you and your squad have put in over the last week.


Then there’s the imbalance between how players see the game and how we view it from the crowd. Vose’s first goal was amazing, thrilling to watch as he embarked on that eccentric zigzag through the Gateshead defence, dumping a lunging centre back on his backside (and sending the whole Glyndwr University Stand the wrong way in the process!) before finishing. We’re never going to win the Premier League; moments of brilliance like that sustain us.

But when asked after the game Vose talked more about his second goal. On the face of it, that second strike was much less spectacular, but by some measures you might argue it was a better goal: as the ball skipped up across Vose off the slippery surface he did brilliantly to keep his knee over the ball and deposit a volley on the run into the top corner rather than into the crowd.

For the fan though, the sheer beauty and imagination of Vose’s first goal was perfection.

Ali-vs-Liston[1]

Indeed, the desire for something aesthetically perfect meant I actually felt slightly disappointed when I first saw the video footage. I’d seen it live from the opposite side of the ground, where the actual finish looked clean: Hemingway would have devoted pages to what I thought I’d seen if it was a matador applying the kill. But from the other side of the ground you could see that Vose didn’t quite get the finish right: it wasn’t into the corner and the keeper thrust out a despairing leg, deflecting the ball into the bottom corner. If felt a little deflated: the perfect goal had been slightly sullied in my mind by the slightly unsatisfactory conclusion. Like Norman Mailer said about the iconic picture of Muhammad Ali holds the pose above Sonny Liston after he knocked him out: there was something perfect about the moment which would have been spoiled if Liston had staggered to his feet.

And that sums up the difference between football people and football fans. I wanted the goal to be a thing of beauty; Gary Mills just wanted it to go in.

PREVIEW: Wrexham AFC v Gateshead FC

It’s a big day for Gary Mills tomorrow as he faces his old side.
Mills spent two seasons at Gateshead, taking charge of 103 games, and he had a variable record in this fixture.
Two seasons ago his encounters with Wrexham turned out to be a wash out. When we met at the Gateshead International Stadium in September 2013 the visitors took a decisive grip of the game in the second half. Brett Ormerod opened the scoring ten minutes after the break, Steve Tomassen got the first goal of his senior career to make it 2-0, and Andy Bishop started a prolific run against The Heed to round off a 3-0 win.
The return match in November was a classic. Mills’ possession-based game was well embedded by then and they monopolised the ball, but it was Bishop that opened the scoring. However, an error by Joslain Mayebi let them back in the lead and they were 2-1 ahead at the break.
However, a late Bishop penalty pulled us level and he rounded off his hat trick – the last one by a Wrexham player – to clinch a magnificent 3-2 win.
We had four clashes with Gateshead last season, and although we failed to register a win we still managed to have the last laugh in the FA Trophy.
The Heed had the upper hand in the league as Mills enjoyed a double over his future employers. The sides clashes at The Racecourse for our first home match of the season and the visitors registered an emphatic 3-0 win. The return fixture, three days after the long trek down to Torquay and the excitement of clinching a place at Wembley, was always bound to be taxing, especially when Kevin Wilkin failed to rotate his squad despite the hours they’d spent on the road. The outcome was a 3-1 defeat.
In the FA Trophy it was a different matter though. Andy Bishop’s goal earned a 1-1 draw and the replay would be a dramatic affair. Despite going behind to a spectacular third minute strike we equalised early in the second half through a superb Connor Jennings volley.
When Wes York scored with a rare header in the last ten minutes it looked like we’d earned a deserved victory, but three minutes from the end Gateshead too the game into extra time.
Although we enjoyed the better of things, a penalty shoot-out was required, in which Dan Bachmann excelled, allowing Louis Moult to score the winner.
Two previous occupants of Mills’ job celebrate anniversaries on Sunday.
57 years ago Arfon Griffiths made his debut for the club: by the time he’d retired he’d hold the club’s appearances record and be the manager who’d taken us to our highest ever league position.
The second manager had a less auspicious career in North Wales. Eight years ago Brian Little was appointed manager of Wrexham, but his career was the opposite of Griffiths’. He’d depart in less than a year, having taken us out of the Football League. Indeed, only two managers have had a shorter reign at The Racecourse.

It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay

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

So how is the team shaping up after pre-season? In the words of Whitney Houston: it’s not right, but it’s okay.

Of course, drawing conclusions from pre-season is a mug’s game. For reasons I’ll reveal in a bit, this year that’s truer than ever.

You should watch friendlies with a completely different perspective, if indeed you have to watch them at all. The result and, to a great extent, the performance are essentially irrelevant. The sole purpose of these games is to get to the first day of the season in top condition.

Well, we’ve reached that point now, and it’s nearly time to draw a conclusion. But not quite. Give me another month and I’ll tell you exactly how pre-season went. If we start the season well then it was brilliant; if we start badly, it was awful.

At least that’s usually the case, but this summer has been different from any I’ve previously seen. Gary Mills has not only been gelling together a brand new squad but he’s also introduced them to a very specific way of playing.

I’m thrilled to see that Mills is our manager. The football and results Gateshead and York achieved under him were impressive, but his possession-based style of football takes time to bed in. That’s why at the moment we’re not right but we’re okay: it will take time for the squad to fully assimilate to such a demanding approach.

That’s why he’s selected a remarkably settled eleven throughout pre-season. He’s had to familiarise his first choice players with the system, so they’ve already got quite a few miles on the clock.

The necessity to inculcate an understanding of this different way of playing is reflected in Mills’ results at his previous clubs. When he’s started afresh in a new place he has tended to begin slowly but once the team settles it flies.

He was appointed boss at York in October 2010 with the club sixteenth and managed just one win in his first five matches. Then they clicked, winning four in a row and finishing eighth, two wins short of the play-offs, having lost just once at home under Mills, conceding 10 in 16 home games. The next season they were promoted and won the FA Trophy

Two seasons ago at Gateshead he started his first season by losing his first four games, and it wasn’t until the sixth that he registered his first win. Over the course of the first nine games of the season he managed just seven points, at an average of 0.78 per match. Yet by the end of the campaign they were third in the table, having earned 1.93 points per game in the remainder of the season. That would have earned them ninety points if they’d sustained it throughout the campaign.

That’s why we need to be patient as we overcome our final teething problems and understand that any early hitches are just part of a process.

After all, in Mills we trust.

Gary Mills: at last!

gary_mills

I’m excited! Gary Mills is the one coach I’ve seen in the Conference that I’ve coveted. And now he’s ours, all ours!

Our games against Mills’ sides have always been intriguing tactical battles. I particularly recall a game at Bootham Crescent when he was manager of York City. It was the best goalless draw I’ve seen as both sides probed and adjusted in an attempt to force a breakthrough. A York fan sitting in front of me complimented me on my commentary after the match, but it was misplaced praise: the quality of the match made describing it a simple pleasure.

Our clashes with Gateshead have been equally fascinating. I’ve anticipated them eagerly over the last couple of seasons as they have produced some intriguing football. It always fascinated me that Gateshead, with crowds which often failed to reach four figures, could produce such sophisticated football, an impressive take on Pep Guardiola-era tiki-taka.

The only possible explanation for such a stunning feat is good coaching. Mills has taken Conference players and moulded them into sides capable of playing with extreme tactical flexibility. That’s what excites me most about his arrival.

By the sound of Dean Keates’ post-match interview on Saturday it is also something which ought to excite the players. His claims that training under Kevin Wilkin was out of date and failed to stimulate the squad was alarming but not surprising as it confirmed what many had suggested as the season wore on. Mills’ regime will surely be the antithesis of this.

Indeed, the problem for a coach with such a radical outlook is usually the opposite: there’s a danger he might fail to take his players with him if he doesn’t sell the concept to them successfully. Marcelo Bielsa, the high priest of tiki-taka, has experienced this issue in the past, but Mills’ track record shows that he seems to inspire genuine loyalty in his players. Furthermore, he’ll inherit a squad which responded well to Carl Darlington’s coaching and are hungry for more.

Speaking of Keates, I’d love to think that Mills will give him an opportunity to end his career at the heart of Wrexham’s rise back to the Football League. It has become apparent that Wilkin didn’t have the faith in Keates that he ought to have had, and ultimately his failure to properly utilise such an experienced player cost him his job.

Wilkin clearly saw Keates’ 36 years as an issue; Gary Mills installed John Oster, who is 36 himself, as Gateshead’s totemic figure. Perhaps Mills will see Keates as his team’s regulator, controlling the tempo of their passing game. If so, a great servant of the club might have his greatest years ahead of him.

Mills has got clubs to play intelligent football on a shoestring, and now he’s moving to a club which should have a superior budget. Furthermore, he will inherit players who can move the ball around just as he likes it; I can’t wait to see what he does with them.

I can’t wait to see what he does with my club either. After eagerly wanting the season to come to an end, all of a sudden I can’t wait for next season to start!