Wrexham AFC and the long road back

IT’S HARD to believe, but Wrexham have been in non-league football for 14 years and although they are chasing a play-off place, it seems a lifetime since the club reached the last eight of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup and playing in English football’s second tier.

The size of the Racecourse Ground tells you Wrexham is a club that has played at a higher level. It is also the oldest existing international venue as it hosted Wales versus Scotland in March 1877. 

Wrexham, founded in 1864 at the Turf Hotel attached to the ground, are the sixth oldest club in the world after such names as Sheffield, Notts County and Stoke City. It wasn’t until 1921 that they became a Football League club and their membership ended in 2008 when they were relegated to what is now the National League.

The first thing that hits you when you arrive at Wrexham General station is the old-school floodlights, towering over the neighbourhood like alien structures from a sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells. They’re a dying breed and the Racecourse Ground lights may one day become redundant. Nevertheless, there’s something very comforting about seeing those pylons, hanging in the winter sky, beckoning you to the match.

The club does not own the stadium, though, but if Wrexham’s owners, the actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, get their way, the freehold of the Racecourse will be secured from Wrexham Glyndwr University.

Reynolds and McElhenney (one’s Canadian, one’s American) acquired the club a year ago, a rather curious transaction but one that could make them heroes in North Wales and forever part of folklore. There was no great logic in the duo becoming football club owners, but their arrival gave long-suffering Dragons fans fresh hope after a rather grim period in their history. 

They have made the right noises, talking of “dreaming big” and “emotional investment” and buying 365 drinks for fans at the Turf to celebrate one year in charge would undoubtedly enhanced their image.

They also paid out £ 300,000 for giant bearded striker Ollie Palmer in January 2022 when Wrexham persuaded the 30 year-old to drop down to National League level from AFC Wimbledon.

The pandemic has hit them hard at Wrexham; in 2019-20 the club made a loss of £ 740,000 compared to a profit in 2018-19 of £ 755,000 which was, admittedly, boosted by a one-off transfer fee. This underlines the challenge the new regime has in restoring Wrexham’s fortunes. 

The club is not the only entity to suffer over the past two years, the local economy lost around £ 40 million in the first year of the pandemic and local tourism plummeted by 60%. They are fighting back and the town recently launched its bid to be the UK City of Culture for 2025. Firstly, Wrexham have to secure much-coveted city status. In October 2021, Wrexham was placed on a long list for the next British cities to be upgraded from town status. 

Just to be back in the Football League would be a good start for the club and they are hanging on in seventh place, but it is a tough field – no less than 12 clubs in the National League top division have Football League heritage of some sort. You only need to look at some of the names – Grimsby, Stockport, Notts County, Chesterfield and Southend – to realise history counts for nothing if you flirt with the trapdoor too often. 

Non-league football has had its compensations, though, for Wrexham won the FA Trophy in 2013 and were runners-up two years later, in two Wembley finals. The FA Trophy is what attracted Game of the People to the Racecourse and the tie with Boreham Wood, who had made national headlines in giant-killing Bournemouth in the FA Cup a week earlier. They will meet Everton in the fifth round at Goodison Park.

The Racecourse Ground was empty at two ends and only partly used along one side. The famous Kop terrace is now crumbling and mossy and has been decommissioned, but Reynolds and McElhenney are committed to redevelopment.

Boreham Wood, one of the best managed clubs in non-league, are not well supported, so their small band of fans were perched in one corner of the upper tier of the stand, claiming they were the “Wood Army”. The home crowd seemed to have a slight Scouse accent and it was obvious some Liverpool fans were present as their team was playing on Sunday at Burnley.

Wrexham played very well, opening the scoring with a powerful header from Palmer and then Jordan Davies hit a super left-foot drive on the run past the Wood keeper to give the Dragons a 2-0 half-time lead. The game was finished off in the final seconds with a glancing header from Aaron Hayden. Boreham Wood, who had lost just twice in the league before travelling to Wrexham, may have had their minds on other things. 

As for Wrexham AFC, returning to the Football League is important to put the club back on the map, but a trip to Wembley could act as the springboard. Understandably, the priority is not the FA Trophy, because it is so easy to be forgotten when you’re no longer part of the 92 and 14 years is long enough. The club’s upbeat owners won’t be anticipating prolonged life in non-league football, so Wrexham will surely be back – perhaps very soon.

National League beckons for Southend and Grimsby… but there’s a way back

SOUTHEND UNITED have rehired Phil Brown as their manager with six games to go this season, but whether he fancies a stint in the National League remains to be seen. Southend would appear to have one foot in the non-league structure. They have hordes of unhappy fans, an unpopular target of a chairman and they are unloved by the tax man. In these troubled times, a club with so many problems could find itself victims of a train wreck.

There has been talk of a new stadium for some years, and in November 2020, the club announced a new home would be built at Fossetts Farm with the Roots Hall site developed for housing. They’re still waiting for things to become clearer on when the project will move forward. The last thing they will want is to open up a new era with the club residing outside the Football League. Southend is a town with almost 200,000 people, it should be able to accommodate football at a reasonably high level.

Grimsby Town, another coastal club, are also in the mire and although they currently have a game in hand on Southend, they are still bottom of League Two. They are in the process of being taken over by a consortium, although some doubt was cast on the deal as one of the key members recently resigned. Grimsby have been in the National League before, but they are now approaching the end of their fifth season back in the Football League after winning promotion in 2016.

The other main relegation candidates are Colchester United, Barrow and Walsall. Colchester have hit a bad run at the wrong time, but there are increasing rumours they are about to go into administration, which may affect the relegation battle. The club have denied they are in trouble.

Relegation to the National League does not have to be a death knell, indeed it can act as a springboard for revival and a chance to reset. Clubs who have not been accustomed to winning can suddenly acquire a new habit, crowds can regain their enthusiasm and off the pitch, a club can regroup. However, if the club in question is on a downward spiral and has deep-rooted problems, it can be the start of an extended lost weekend. 

There have been a number of clubs who failed to recover from the psychological blow of losing Football League status: Boston United, Halifax Town, Darlington, Chester, Hereford United, Macclesfield and York City. Some have gone to the wall, reforming as phoenix clubs, Macclesfield Town being the latest victim. 

It certainly can take time to acclimatise, both on and off the field of play. Since 2000, only four clubs have won promotion at the first attempt: Shrewsbury Town (2004), Carlisle United (2005), Bristol Rovers (2015) and Cheltenham (2016).

There’s been a lot of churn between the EFL and National League over the past 20 years. Of the current League Two constitution, 17 have seen step one of the non-league pyramid and 11 of the National League have tasted life in the Football League in some shape or form. And of the 92 Premier/EFL clubs, 29 have modern non-league experience. 

On average, the teams that have won promotion after relegation do it between three to four years. But some find it hard to get back to where they once belonged. A classic case is Wrexham, who have now, surpriisngly, been in the National League for 13 years. 

To some, Wrexham are simply too big to be playing outside the EFL. In 2018-19, their average gate at the Racecourse ground was 5,077 – that’s higher than when they were last in the EFL. But go back 40 years and they were drawing over 10,000 – which shows you the potential of the club.

Wrexham were taken over by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney earlier this year and the duo have invested £ 2 million into the club under the terms of the deal. They tried to incentivise the players by promising bonuses if the team wins promotion in 2020-21, but that may be beyond them now. Needless to say, Wrexham may be installed as favourites for 2021-22.

Who will go up this season? Sutton United are currently top, a club that has a rich non-league history, but would be unlikely EFL members. However, it is often a club on a roll that can emerge as surprise winners. Hartlepool, Stockport, Notts County, Chesterfield, Halifax and Wrexham are all in with a shout at the top end. Sutton is the only town with no Football League heritage among the pack, but its population runs to 200,000. Close proximity to London clubs may be something of a disadvantage.

Sutton have an artificial pitch at their Gander Green Lane home, so if they do win promotion, they will have to take it up and replace it with a natural surface. The question is, can they sustain EFL football and stay solvent? If they win a place but refuse to take it, they will be penalised, but where will the logic be in ripping-up a facility that has clearly played its part in revitalising the club if Sutton United are relegated in season one? A difficult situation, especially in 2021.

Two promotion places (and relegation places) have shown there can be a two-way flow that works reasonably well. It may not be an enjoyable experience for those that fall through the trapdoor, but at least it should make clubs conservatively provision for failure, rather than assuming the status quo will never be challenged. Clubs like Luton Town, Leyton Orient and Cheltenham have all shown it can be done. As the fans of Southend, Grimsby and Colchester make their journeys for the final run-in, they may wish to take some consolation in knowing they can get back. The wheels may come loose, but it is important to ensure they don’t come off the wagon if and when relegation is confirmed. In the uncertain post-covid football environment, prudence and pragmatism will never be more important, as well as calm heads.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: Alamy

John Neal’s reign underlined the value of patience

john-neal-aston-villa-1960John Neal came across as a decent man. Honest, earnest and an old-fashioned, no-nonsense football person. But in the modern era, Neal would never have got the chance to change Chelsea’s fortunes. Two lack lustre campaigns and he would have been out of the Stamford Bridge revolving door. But in his third season in charge at Chelsea, he created a team that ended a dismal period for the club playing an exciting brand of football that revived an ailing giant.

Neal, cigarette perpetually screwed into his craggy features, led Chelsea to promotion from the old second division and back into the top six of the first. After a period of steep decline, which threatened the very existence of the club, Neal gave Chelsea fans something to cheer about once more. The Chelsea of Dixon-Speedie-Nevin evoked memories of the Blues side of Osgood-Hutchinson-Hudson-Cooke.

Ken Bates will brush away a tear as he remembers Neal. It was Bates who demonstrated great faith in the former Wrexham and Middlesbrough manager after a string of managers had failed to rescusitate Chelsea . Bates didn’t appoint Neal, he inherited him when he bought the club for a quid in 1982. The straight-talking and equally no-nonsense Bates gave Neal a chance to prove himself. The 1981-82 season, Neal’s first, was an up and down affair, but the FA Cup run that included victory against eventual champions and European Cup holders Liverpool, suggested that Neal may have something in his kitbag that could change Chelsea’s fortunes. But the following campaign was near-catastrophic, with relegation to the third tier only just avoided.

Neal could well have been sent on his way, but Bates wanted to give him the resources to build a new Chelsea. It was clear that the club’s too-comfortable young players were never going to amount to much, so Bates and Neal went shopping in football’s bargain basement. Bates gave him the money – significant in the club’s austerity years, but still modest – to sign some promising and untapped talent. Players like Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin, Eddie Niedzwiecki, Nigel Spackman and Joe McLaughlin arrived to build a new-look Chelsea side. It was a masterstroke and Chelsea, playing some of the most progressive football seen since the glory days of 1970, won the second division in dramatic fashion.

But while the celebrations at Grimsby, the 1-0 win that clinched the title, were in full flow, Neal was suffering with his heart. He was forced to take a back seat over the next two seasons, the second of which saw John Hollins take over as manager. Hollins, a popular player and all-round “nice guy” was not a good manager, though, and the team Neal had crafted, along with his assistant Ian McNeill, crumbled in disarray and relegation. Chelsea quickly bounced back, although they were never able to recapture the verve of the 1983-1986 period, until a decade later when Chelsea effectively “went continental”.

Neal’s earlier career deserves mention, however. Born in 1932 in Seaham, County Durham, he was a jobbing footballer with Hull City, Kings Lynn and Swindon Town before joining Aston Villa in 1959. He won the inaugural Football League Cup with Villa in 1961 but ended his playing career with Southend United in 1965. As a manager, he spent nine years with Wrexham and took the Welsh club to the last eight of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1976. He joined Middlesbrough in 1977 and four years on, was hired by Chelsea.

John Neal’s style and mannerisms belong to a different age. He couldn’t be more removed from the black-suited “mafia-managers” of the current globalised game. Not for him the “mind games” of the current profile or the petulance of the dugout. A man of integrity and endeavour. The team he built at Chelsea ended a dark, depressing decade for the club and that is how he will be remembered in South West London this week.

John Neal , 1932-2014.