English National League – 9th April 2016
Racecourse Ground, Wrexham, Wrexham Borough Council
- Attendance: 4931
- Entrance: £19.00
- Programme: £3.00
- Car Parking: £3.00
- Pin Badge: £3.00
- Hotdog: £2.50
After the near washout of the previous weekend that saw many of my groundhopping choices fall to the relentless wet weather, I was hoping for some more luck with fixtures in the second weekend of April. Despite the heavy April showers, I was able to head to Halkyn United to revisit a ground I had not been to in many years [the Halkyn United blog can be found here]. For this upcoming weekend, I had planned to head to Halkyn Road to watch my team Holywell Town take on another team I had seen recently in Portmadog. Alas the April Showers would strike again and cause havoc with my groundhopping plans….very frustrating!!
Just as I was looking at other fixtures, my usual groundhopping accomplice Greg informed me about a match he was eager to see. He wanted to watch Wrexham take on Dover Athletic in the National League (previously the Conference) as it would be a very important match for Wrexham’s season and playoff ambitions. If Wrexham were to get a spot in the playoffs and a chance of promotion, they needed to beat their opponents, and as a result the game was naturally getting a wave of local media attention. With the Holywell game being postponed early on, the trip to the Racecourse Ground would be an excellent choice for a groundhop, and it would be good to see some top level non-league football.
This wouldn’t be the first time I have visited the Racecourse Ground, with my last visit coming a few years ago during a massive stadium tour that was done for charity. In the summer of 2013, a group of us went around northern England visiting the stadia of all original members of the Football League as well as visiting other stadiums of significant historical value. Named ‘The 1888 Challenge’, the aim was to visit 18 stadia in 88 hours – still one of the best things I have done. On this list was Wrexham and the Racecourse Ground because of the significance of the ground in terms of international football history (more of this later on). During the tour, the club were very kind enough to allow us entry on a non-match day to have a look around the stadium and take pictures as evidence of our visit before we ventured off towards Stoke City’s ground and the other 11 “originals”.
Anyway it would be good to revisit the ground but on this occasion for a football match of huge significance for Wrexham’s promotion aspirations. It would also be roughly a year since I had last seen them play, watching them grab a late equaliser at Moss Rose when they played Macclesfield Town in the Conference. With huge anticipation and the knowledge that the game would certainly be played despite the weather, I was eagerly anticipating to heading back to Wrexham and seeing a decent game of football between the league’s two in-form sides.
Wrexham (Welsh: Wrecsam) is a historic town located in North-East Wales, sandwiched between the Welsh mountains and lower River Dee Valley, and close to the Welsh-English border. Situated in the historic Welsh cantref of Maelor and currently within the centre of a county borough bearing its name, it is 13 miles south-east of Chester, 14,5 miles north of Oswestry, and 12 miles south-east of Mold. The town is the largest settlement in North and Mid Wales, with a population of under 62,000 people, and as such is the major centre of the region’s administrative, commercial, retail and educational infrastructure.
Unlike many other major towns and cities, Wrexham was not established on a major river, but on a relatively flat plateau between the lower Dee Valley and easternmost mountains of North Wales. This position enabled it to grow as an ideal market town as Wrexham was a natural crossroads between England and Wales, and later as an industrial hub – due to its rich natural reserves of iron ore and coal in the localities (such as Gresford and Llay). But three small rivers flow through parts of the town: the Clywedog, Gwenfro and Alyn, all of them tributaries of the greater River Dee.
It is believed people have lived in the Wrexham area since the Mesolithic Era (about 8,000 years ago) although there is tangible evidence of settlement from the Neolithic Era (4300 to 2300 BC). The Romans were certainly in the area when they attacked the local Celtic Deceangli tribe who had settled in the area, with numerous coins and pottery from that period found in the local area.
The area was often fought over between the ancient Welsh kingdom of Powys and the emerging Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. After the crucial victory in the Battle of Chester in the early 7th Century when an Anglo-Saxon army defeated the combined forces of Gwynedd and Powys, Mercia took advantage of the weakness of Powys to deeply advance into Powys territory. It is during this period when the foundations of Wrexham were likely laid when Mercian colonists settled in the area. The name of the town is likely to originate from this period, being derived from a Saxon personal name “Wryhtel” and “hamm” meaning water meadow or enclosure within the bend of a river. Therefore Wrexham could have come from the Old English Wryhtelhamm or ‘Wryhtel’s meadow’.
Wrexham was back into Powys’ hands by the 11th Century although the area would continually be involved in a dispute between the Welsh lords and the Norman Marcher lords. Many English forays into the area proved to be temporary as the Princes of Powys Fadog would reconquer the area or skilfully deal with any belligerency from England (and Gwynedd also). This allowed Wrexham to develop as a market town and administrative centre under the auspices of the Lords of Dinas Brân. The town would eventually fall into English occupation when Wales lost its independence in 1282, with Edward Longshanks staying in the town before heading into Wales to deal with the insurrection led by Madoc ap Llewellyn.
In the early-to-mid 18th century, Wrexham was a centre for the leather industry with many skinners and tanners located in the town. However by the late 18th century, the fortunes of the town started to improve during the Industrial Revolution when ‘Iron Mad’ John Wilkinson opened Bersham Ironworks in 1762, and a smelting works in nearby Brymbo in 1793.
As the 19th Century progressed, and the population of the town increased, many other industries established themselves in the town with brewing becoming one of the main sources of employment. Brewing became prevalent in Wrexham due to the town benefitting from good underground water supplies which was essential for brewing good quality beers. So much so that by the end of the 19th Century, there were 19 breweries in operation either in or around Wrexham. The most famous of these was the Wrexham Lager brewery which was built between 1881 and 1882, and was the first brewery in the United Kingdom built to purposely produce lager beer. Founded by German immigrants, the beer was exported throughout the British Empire and sold on the railway and shipping routes. Most famously, Wrexham Lager was the beer that was sold on the ill-fated Titanic (a fact often quoted by Lostboyos in their many fantastic blogs).
Brickworks were also prevalent in the area, but coal mining was an important industry in the area and provided employment for large numbers of Wrexham residents. Wrexham’s coal field was part of the larger North East Wales field, with a number of deep mines being constructed throughout the area including Llay (see the Llay blog) and Gresford (as mentioned in the Gresford blog). To accommodate the influx of miners coming to work at the mines, a number of new settlements were built on the edge of the town further increasing the town’s size and population.
As with many Northern industrial town and cities in the latter half of the 20th century, Wrexham would fall on hard times as many of the key industries closed down. The coal mines were shut during Margaret Thatcher’s leadership in the 1980’s, with the brickworks and steelworks also closing in the 1980’s resulting in unemployment being incredibly high in the area. In addition, the famous Wrexham Lager brewery was shut down at the turn of the millennium when production of the lager was switched to Leeds, and subsequently demolished. The production of Wrexham Lager was also ceased in 2002 by owners Carlsberg-Tetley.
However in recent times, the current fortunes of Wrexham has picked up from the nadir of the 1980’s. Financial investment in the area allowed the A483 dual carriageway to be constructed which connected the town with the major English conurbations of Liverpool and Manchester, as well as Chester and Shrewsbury. This in turn helped the Wrexham Industrial Estate to be constructed to the north of the town. The fifth biggest industrial estate in Europe has encouraged big businesses such as Kellogg’s, JCB, Duracell and Pirelli, as well as over 250 other businesses to set up in the estate and create jobs for local residents. In addition, the town centre was also regenerated which attracted a number of high street chain stores to appear in the town.
Today Wrexham has one of the lowest percentages of unemployment in the area as a result of the Industrial Estate, as well as nearby industrial estates and the Airbus factory situated up the A483 in Broughton. Also, a former symbol of the town has been revived as Wrexham Lager has reappeared in the town’s local pubs since 2011. Demand for the resurrected beer has meant that production has expanded with the aim of producing and selling 13 million pints within the next 5 years.
Wrexham has also attempted on a couple of occasions to be granted city status, most particularly in 2002 and 2012. Its status of being the largest town in North Wales, as well as being its centre of educational, cultural, religious and industrial centre of the region, meant that had all the criteria to become a newly proclaimed city. However on both occasions, the town would miss out to Newport in 2002 and St. Asaph in 2012 (the latter formally being a city due to its cathedral even though it only has a population of just over 3100 people).
As mentioned previously, Wrexham has great infrastructural links with the A483 dual carriageway bypassing the town on its western flank. The key road linking the town with the big north-western English cities, as well as the rest of North Wales via the A55-A483 junction. The town also has two railway stations, Wrexham General and Wrexham Central. Wrexham General (located very near to the Racecourse Ground) is the main station of the town and allows passengers to travel to Holyhead, Birmingham International, Cardiff Central and London Euston. Wrexham Central (located in the Island Green shopping centre) is the southern terminus of the Bideston-Wrexham Borderlands railline, which links north-east Wales to Merseyside.
Higher level education in the town comes in the form of Glyndŵr University, which is the only university in north-east Wales. Named after Owain Glyndŵr, it was formed when the North East Wales Institute (NEWI) was granted full university status in 2008. There is also Coleg Cambria – Yale Campus which is main provider for adult education in Wrexham. Originally Yale College, it was named after local entrepreneur Elihu Yale, who also the main benefactor of the more world famous American Yale University. In 2013 it merged with Deeside College, Northop College and Llysfasi College to create the super college of Coleg Cambria which educates a large number of students in the North East Wales area.
Wrexham is also a major centre for religion, with the town having one of the three Roman Catholic cathedrals in Wales. Built in 1857 in the Decorated Gothic style, the cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Wrexham and the mother church for the RC Diocese of Wrexham which covers the whole of North Wales. However it’s most recognisable landmark is St. Giles’ Church located in the centre of the town. Built in the 14th century and remodelled in the 15th Century, it is considered as one of the Seven Wonders of Wales (along with St. Winefride’s Well) and is also the home of Elihu Yale’s grave. At 180-feet long, it is the largest mediaeval Parish Church in Wales.
- 23 x Welsh Cup Winners
- 5 x FAW Premier Cup Winners
- 2 x Welsh Senior League Winners
- 1 x English Football League Third Division Winners
- 1 x English Football League Trophy Winners
- 1 x English FA Trophy Winners
- 4 x English Combination League Winners
- 1 x English Football League Cup (North) Winners
- 1 x European Cup Winners’ Cup Quarter Finalist
Wrexham Association Football Club (Welsh: Clwb Pêl-droed Wrecsam) were formed in 1864 by members of the Wrexham Cricket Club who wanted to compete at a sport during the winter months. They currently play at the Racecourse Ground (or the Glyndwr University Racecourse Ground to give it its full title), and have played there since their foundation (albeit a brief 2 year period in the 1880’s). The Racecourse Ground is acknowledged as the oldest international football venue in the world by Guinness World Records with the very first Welsh international home fixture being played at the Racecourse in 1877.
Wrexham are nicknamed both ‘The Robins’, named after former manager Ted Robinson, as well as “The Red Dragons” due to the Welsh link and a dragon appearing on their club crest. Their home strip is traditionally red shirts, with white shorts and red socks. The club’s fiercest rivals are Chester, with derby matches between the two being one of the fieriest clashes in British football. There are also traditional local rivalries with Shrewsbury, Tranmere and Macclesfield, as well as the national rivalries between the other Welsh teams competing in the English football pyramid i.e. Cardiff, Swansea and Newport
Being established in the Turf Hotel (which is still exists and is still next to the Racecourse Ground), they are the oldest existing Welsh club, the sixth oldest established football club in the world, and also the third oldest professional football team in the football world. Their first game being played in 22 October 1864, at the Denbighshire County Cricket Ground (now The Racecourse Ground) against the Prince of Wales Fire Brigade.
Wrexham were established 12 years before the creation of the Football Association of Wales, and as such were crucial to the national organisation’s success during those fledgling years (the FAW being founded in Wrexham of course) and established the North East as the heartland of Welsh football. For Wales’ first international game against Scotland in 1876, Wrexham provided two players to the new team, the first of many Wrexham plays who would be selected to compete for their country over the years. Wrexham were also involved in the very first Welsh Cup Final that was held way back in 1878. On that day, they managed to beat Druids FC (who would evolve to form Cefn Druids in the 1990’s) 1-0 to claim their first of 23 Welsh Cup victories. The inaugural win was also achieved on relatively home soil, with the final being held at Acton Park, Wrexham.
1883 would be an important year for Wrexham as they won their second Welsh Cup, and also competed in the English FA Cup for the very first time. Receiving a bye into the second round of the famous cup competition, they were squared up with local rivals Oswestry for a home fixture. However their first appearance did not go well as Wrexham ended up losing the tie 3-4, much to the annoyance of home fans who caused some crowd trouble afterwards. 1883 would also see the club return back to the Racecourse Ground after a two year hiatus away at Rhosddu Recreation Ground. They left the Racecourse in 1881 after a dispute with the landlords after they raised the rent on the ground to £10 a year. However they would return back to their original home, and have played there ever since.
Wrexham would join The Combination league in 1890 and would compete there for four seasons before a rapid increase in travelling costs resulted in the club switching to the more travel-friendly Welsh League. Despite winning the Welsh League the two seasons they competed in it and making savings on travelling expenses, the reduction in gate receipts and revenue they were experiencing were so significant that the club quickly returned back to the more established Midlands-based league in 1898.
The club would play in The Combination until 1905, by which time they had achieved four league championships, before moving to the Birmingham and District League for the 1905-06 season. During their time in this Midlands league, they would achieve great success in the Welsh Cup by winning the cup on six occasions (which included three cup titles in a row between the seasons of 1908-09 to 1910-11), and they would also reach the First Round of the FA Cup in the 1908-09 season (before losing to Exeter City 1-2 after extra time on a replay). They would remain in the Birmingham and District League until 1921, until they were finally elected to join the newly formed Third Division North of the English Football League.
During this pre-war period in the Third Division North, their best league finish they achieved was second place when they finished runners-up to Hull City in the 1932-33 season. During that successful season, Wrexham managed to win 18 out of 21 games played at the Racecourse and it was also the first season they competed in their familiar red and white home strip. During this period, they also managed to reach the fourth round of the FA Cup in the 1927-28 season before being defeated by Birmingham City 0-1. It was also the time of Wrexham’s record goalscorer Tommy Bamford, who went on to score 201 League and Cup goals for the club.
The first fifteen years after the conclusion of the Second World War would see Wrexham achieve some impressive performances and results. Another high league finish was achieved right after the war when they finished third in the Third Division North, and they would make their first ever overseas tour in 1949 when they played three games against the occupying British Army in West Germany. In the 1956-57 season, Wrexham would again reach the fourth round of the FA Cup but this time came up against the Busby Babes of Manchester United. A club record attendance of 34,445 people crammed into the Racecourse to see their team get defeated by Matt Busby’s young team 0-5. Even though their journey in one cup was sadly ended, they would achieve cup glory in the Welsh Cup that very season, when they won their first Welsh Cup in 26 years.
The 1960’s would start with Wrexham experiencing relegation for the first time in their history when they dropped into the newly created Fourth Division. However under the management of player-manager Ken Barnes, he would lead them to promotion back to the Third Division, with the season’s highlight being a 10-1 hammering of Hartlepools United (still the club’s record victory). Alas their stay in the third tier would only last for two years and they would return back to Division Four, eventually finishing bottom of the entire Football League in 1966.
The 1970’s would be the most successful period in the club’s history, which would coincided with Welsh clubs being able to qualify for the European Cup Winners’ Cup whey they won the Welsh Cup. Wrexham’s inaugural European campaign into the ECWC in the 1972-73 season (as Welsh Cup holders) would start against Swiss side FC Zurich. A 1-1 draw away in Switzerland followed by a 2-1 victory back in Wrexham ensured they progressed to the second round. They would then face the illustrious Yugoslav (now Croatian) side of Hajduk Split. Despite comfortably matching them over the two legged contest, with the aggregate score finishing at 3-3, they would be knocked out of the competition on the away goals rule.
Wrexham would enjoy momentous and historic FA Cup campaigns during the 1970’s when they reached the quarter-finals of the competition on two separate occasions (1973-74 and 1977-78 – the furthest they have ever been in the competition). However it would be in Europe where the North Wales side would create history when they shocked the footballing world by reaching the quarter-finals of the 1975-76 European Cup Winners’ Cup. They managed to defeat Swedish team Djurgårdens IF 3-2 on aggregate, and Polish side Stal Rzeszow 3-1 before coming up against the mighty Belgian side of Anderlecht in the last eight of the competition. Despite being a Third Division side at the time, they competed well over the two legs and only lost 1-2 to the eventual winners of the tournament.
After several seasons of near misses and failed opportunities, Wrexham finally achieved their goal of getting promoted to the Second Division of the Football League. Under the management of player-manager Arfon Griffiths (appointed that season), they managed to win the 1977-78 Third Division Championship to ensure they would play second-tier football for the first time in their illustrious history. They would continue to play in the Second Division, achieving a highest league position of 15th in the 1978-79 season, before they were eventually relegated back to Division Three at the end of the 1981-82 season.
The early eighties would see Wrexham fall from grace dramatically as dire financial problems, resulting in star players being sold to balance the books, caused the club (now led by Bobby Roberts) to suffer two consecutive relegations to end up plying their trade back down to the Fourth Division. The slide was so severe that only goal difference prevented Wrexham from finishing bottom of the 1983-84 Football League once again, and avoiding the ignominy of being forced to reapply for re-election to the League.
Despite huge problems with their league form, European competition continued to be a welcome distraction for the Robins. The 1984-85 season saw Wrexham take on another European giant in the form of FC Porto in the first round of the ECWC. Wrexham managed to clinch a 1-0 victory at the Racecourse in the first leg, but soon found themselves 0-3 down in the return leg after just 38 minutes. The Portuguese cup holders showing their superior quality over the Fourth Division side. However an incredible spirited comeback from the Welsh Cup holders saw them lose 3-4 but progress to the second round on the away goals rule after drawing the tie 4-4 on aggregate. Despite the heroics of the first round, they would be knocked out in the following round of the competition. Wrexham would lose a respectable 0-3 on aggregate to the defending Coppa Italia champions, AS Roma (who were managed by Sven-Göran Eriksson at the time).
Bobby Roberts was replaced by former Wrexham favourite Dixie McNeil in 1985 who stated at the club for the next four years. He took over a club that was rock bottom of the Football League but managed to turn things around despite a lack of funds available. Such steady progress resulted in them reaching the Division Four playoff final in 1989, but lost to Leyton Orient 1-2 in the final. McNeil’s reign would also see another Welsh Cup victory and subsequent European adventure in the ECWC. Again Wrexham would reach the second round of the tournament and perform admirably against top flight opposition, but would be eliminated by Spanish side Real Zaragoza on away goals after drawing 2-2 on aggregate.
McNeil would be replaced by former Burnley and Wales winger Bryan Flynn, and he would manage the club for the next 12 years. Early on in his management career, he too would suffer the same financial limitations as his predecessor had encountered, which would result in the team finishing bottom of the Football League at the end of the 1990-91 season. Luckily for the Robins, relegation to the Conference was avoided that season due to Maidstone United going out of business. The following season however would see Wrexham achieve their greatest cup victory to date and produce one of the greatest FA Cup shocks in its illustrious history. The defending Division 1 champions Arsenal turned up at last season’s bottom club thinking they were going to get an easy win, especially when they went 1-0 ahead. However with the Racecourse packed to the rafters, a thunderous Mickey Thomas free kick (“…the magic little man at the venerable age of 37…”) levelled things up before a Steve Watkin winner ensured Wrexham would achieve FA Cup history immortality.
The fortunes of the club would dramatically improve the following season for the 1992-93 campaign as Wrexham got involved in the Division 3 (renamed due to the creation of the Premier League) promotion race. The shrewd signing of striker Gary Bennett proved to be inspired as his goals helped propel the Reds to promotion and back into the third tier of English league football, where they would stay until 2005.
The mid-to-late 1990’s would see Wrexham continually finish in a higher mid-table position in Division 2 but achieve magical performances in the cup competitions. Another European adventure took place in 1995-96 when they faced Romanian team Petrolul Ploiesti, but a 0-1 defeat in Romania meant their campaign would come to an abrupt end in the first round. It would be the last time the Robins would compete in Europe as UEFA closed the loophole that allowed Welsh-based English league teams to compete in European competitions by claiming the European spot allocated for the winner of the Welsh Cup.
However it would be the FA Cup where Wrexham would achieve some of its best results of the mid-to-late 90’s. In the 1994-95 season, they reached the fourth round after beating Premier League side Ipswich Town 2-1 at the Racecourse in the third round. This set up a glamour tie against Manchester United at Old Trafford, which saw the visitors take the lead but ultimately saw Wrexham lose the tie 2-5. However the 1996-97 FA Cup campaign would provide great entertainment for Reds fans as Wrexham managed to get to the quarter finals of the competition. Defeating fellow North Walian side Colwyn Bay in the first round proper, they managed another giant-killing when beat West Ham United 1-0 at home after a replay, with Kevin Russell grabbing the winner. They would eventually reach the last 8 where they came up against fellow Division 2 team Chesterfield (themselves on a historic cup run and with former Bolton striker Kevin Davies leading the line). In a tight affair, it would be the Spireites that would set up a famous semi-final tie against Middlesbrough by winning the quarter final by just the solitary goal.
After the glory days of the 1990’s, the new millennium would prove to be hugely problematic for Wrexham as they started to suffer from “off-field” activities which threatened the very future of the club. The then owner and chairman of Wrexham Alex Hamilton attempted to evict the club from the Racecourse so he could sell the land for development purposes. In order to do this, Hamilton put the Racecourse Ground under the ownership of a separate company owned by himself and not the club itself. As a result, in the summer of 2004, Hamilton gave the club a year’s notice to vacate the ground.
To make matter worse for the Dragons, the club was placed into administration by the High Court in December 2004 as the club owed £2.6 million, with £800k of that being owed to the Inland Revenue in unpaid taxes. With them going into administration, Wrexham would become the first club to be affected by the FA’s new rule of punishing clubs who suffer administration. Therefore Wrexham would become the first club to suffer a 10 point deduction, dropping them from relatively mid-table security into the depths of the relegation zone and certain relegation to League Two (Division 3 / Division 4). They would get relegated with 43 points compared to 20th-placed Milton Keynes Dons’ total of 51. Had the points deduction not been applied, they would have survived the drop!
Despite continuous financial problems and uncertainties about the potential future of the club, there was a brief moment of success for Wrexham, when they reached the final of the 2004-05 Football League Trophy. Denis Smith’s team would face an upwardly mobile Southend United (who would eventually reach the Championship under Steve Tilson, with future Welsh international Freddie Eastwood scoring the goals) at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, due to Wembley’s regeneration from the Two Towers to the current Arch design. In a very tight affair against the Shrimpers which would go into extra time, the Dragons would eventually take control and win the tie 2-0 with goals coming from club captain Darren Ferguson and cult hero Juan Ugarte. It would be Wrexham’s first cup victory in the English football system, and they would achieve it on Welsh turf in front of 20,000 travelling Wrexham fans.
In October 2005, the High Court decreed that Alex Hamilton’s company had improperly acquired the freehold of the ground, and that must remain in the hands of the administrators meaning the club would not be stripped of their stadium. This decision allowed a local consortium, fronted by Neville Dickens, to purchase the club in March 2006 and bring the club out of administration ending the involvement of the hugely unpopular Hamilton in the club.
With the club’s financial future secured, there were hopes for the 2006-07 season and a return back to League 1. However their stay in League 2 would be anything but easy as the club surprisingly struggled as Wrexham’s form dipped massively. The popular manager Denis Smith was dismissed in January 2007 to be replaced by former captain and player-coach Brian Carey. The change initially gave a boost to the club as they won 4 of their last 5 games, including a famous 3-1 home victory over Boston United (which condemned the Pilgrims to relegation and future financial problems) to secure their place in the Football League.
The euphoria of staying in the Football League would not last long as Wrexham once again struggled in League 2, and found themselves at the bottom of the table. Brian Carey was sacked in November 2007 after a heavy defeat against Peterborough United in the first round of the FA Cup, and was replaced by former Aston Villa manager Brian Little. After a promising start to his career, Little could do little to halt the slide and was not helped through key defeats to relegation rivals and a large number of the January transfers had gotten injured throughout the season. The inevitable finally came for Wrexham when a 0-2 away defeat at Hereford United meant the club was finally relegated to the Conference, and ended their 87-year hiatus in the Football League.
Wrexham first season in the Conference did not as planned as the Robins finished in a disappointing 10th position despite being one of the pre-season favourites for the title. Throughout the season the management structure was changed again when Brian Little left Wrexham by mutual consent after a 0-3 defeat to former Football League club Rushden and Diamonds. He was replaced by former Liverpool, Aston Villa and Welsh international striker Dean Saunders. In Saunders’ first full season in charge of Wrexham, performances did not improve in the Conference and they finished in 11th position and well off the promotion battle.
The ownership of the club would change once again when Wrexham Supporters’ Club (WSC) bought the club from Neville Dickens and Geoff Moss, making Wrexham one of the first professional clubs in Britain to be owned by a supporters’ trust. With the future finally secured under the ownership of the supporters, the fortunes of the playing staff improved as Wrexham started to fulfil their potential and finished the 2010-11 season in 4th place, thus earning a playoff spot for potential promotion back to the Football League. Despite initial anticipation and excitement, their promotion dream would be ended by Luton Town as the Hatters would crucially win the first leg 3-0 and eventually be victorious in the two-legged tie, winning 5-1 on aggregate.
Another change in management occurred in the 2011-12 season when Racecourse favourite Andy Morrell became player-manager of the club after Dean Saunders had left the Dragons to become the manager of League 1 team Doncaster Rovers. It would prove to be an inspired managerial change as Wrexham encountered one of their most successful seasons in years. Another FA Cup giant-killing occurred when they defeated then League 1 team Brentford 1-0 in the second round of the competition before taking Championship side Brighton & Hove Albion to a replay in the third round and just losing 4-5 on a penalty shootout at the Falmouth Stadium. In the league, Morrell would guide Wrexham to a record points’ tally of 98 points which would have seen them promoted as champions any other season. However this season they ended the season 5 points adrift of runaway leaders Fleetwood Town and had to encounter the playoffs once again. Again it would be the Hatters of Luton who would knock the Robins out at the playoff semi-final stage.
The 2012-13 season continue in the same vein of form as the previous season as Andy Morrell’s side visited Wembley Stadium in the space of five weeks of each other – the first two appearances at the famous stadium in the club’s history. The first visit was for the FA Trophy final when they managed to claim the non-league equivalent of the FA Cup by beating fellow ex-Football League team, Grimsby Town, 4-1 on penalties after the game had ended 1-1 after the allotted 120 minutes. Their second trip to Wembley was for the all-Welsh Conference playoff final where they faced Newport County. Despite the Robins going into the tie as the strong favourites, it would be the Exiles who would be the third Welsh team to ascend to ‘The 92’, winning the all-Cambrian Clash 2-0.
2013-14 proved to be a frustrating season for Wrexham, and a season where they were very clearly still feeling the huge malaise from not gaining promotion in the playoff final. Inconsistency and poor performances plagued the club’s results all season, resulting in Andy Morrell stepping aside in February 2014 and eventually being replaced by Nuneaton Town’s highly-rated manager Kevin Wilkin. The inconsistency would cumulate into Wrexham’s worst league performance in their history when they finished in a dismal 17th position in the Conference.
Last season would continue to frustrate the Wrexham faithful as a lack of consistency would again be a bane to everyone involved at the club, as Kevin Wilkin struggled to make an impact at the Racecourse. They would reach the final of the FA Trophy for the second time in three seasons, but Wembley would again provide the misery encountered in the playoff final defeat rather than joyous celebration of the first FA Trophy final. Taking on North Ferriby United of the Conference North, Wrexham were massive favourites going into the final and asserted their superior league position by going into a 2-0 lead with 15 minutes left. However a spirited fightback from their Hull-based opposition brought the game back to 2-2 and sent the game into extra time where the game eventually finished 3-3. Wrexham would eventually lose on penalties 4-5 to North Ferriby – the club famed for producing giant killings over the years had been the victim of a massive giant-killing themselves.
As a result of the humiliating defeat in the FA Trophy final, as well as disappointing league form, Wilkin would get the bullet and ultimately got sacked by the Wrexham board. He would be replaced by former Nottingham Forest European Cup winner and manager of Conference rivals Gateshead, Gary Mills. Wrexham would improve on their dire league position of the previous season by finishing in 11th position but a disappointing 13 points adrift of the playoff positions. However they would crucially finish one position and three points ahead of bitter rivals Chester FC.
Under Gary Mills’ management, Wrexham’s performances have improved this season with the team challenging for a playoff spot. Wrexham had a great start to the season by winning six of their first seven games of the season and by December were positioned in a great position and firmly in the playoff spots. However a hugely disappointing Christmas and New Year period when they lost four matches against teams at the bottom of the table resulted in the Robins falling out of the playoff spots and in mid-table. An unbeaten February where they won three and drew three games ensured they could claw their way back into contention, and ensured Wrexham would be one of the inform teams going into March.
Their last four games before this upcoming match was impressive for Wrexham and catapulted them into playoff contention. A conclusive 3-0 home victory over Chester in front of 6,459 supporters (a huge amount for fifth-tier football), was followed by an impressive if losing performance against high-flying Grimsby Town. However a superb victory against league leaders Cheltenham Town was a huge confidence boost for Gary Mills’ side. An injury time winner from Wes York ensured they would grab all three points from the fixture at the Racecourse. In their previous match to this match, they faced the other promotion challengers in Forest Green Rovers at the New Lawn, and again got a superb result. Going down to nine men for the final 15 minutes of the game, the visitors put in a herculean performance to keep a clean sheet and claim a 0-0 draw.
After two fantastic performances against the top two teams in the league, Wrexham were confident of getting a third decent result going into the game. With just three points separating themselves in 8th place from a playoff spot, and with a game in hand over Tranmere Rovers in 5th, the home supporters would come out in force for this game. However their opponents would be no pushovers…
Dover Athletic were having an incredible season in the National League finding themselves in fourth position going into the game having accumulated 74 points throughout the season. Last season they exceeded expectations in their first season back in the top level of non-league when the part-time side finished in a superb 8th position. However this season, Chris Kinnear’s side has massive bettered the performances of the 2014-15 season by firming establishing themselves in the playoff positions.
They too were going into the game on superb form as they had lost only one of the previous nine fixtures and winning seven of them. In their previous home fixture against in-form Halifax Town an early Nicky Deverdics goal was the decider between the two evenly matched teams. In their previous match prior to the Wrexham game, they encountered another trip to the north-west when they took on relegation-threatened Altrincham on a cold Tuesday night. Despite being 0-1 down to the hosts at Moss Lane, second half goals from Ricky Miller and Stefan Payne (both players having scored over twenty goals this season) ensured the Whites came away from Greater Manchester with all three points and a 2-1 victory to maintain their playoff credentials.
THE RACECOURSE GROUND GROUNDHOP
The car journey from 94th Minute HQ to Wrexham (via Flint to pick up Greg) took just over 50 minutes to cover the 28,5 mile distance between the two locations. Taking the A55 Expressway eastwards before taking the Wrexham-Chester roundabout section and heading south onto the A483 towards Wrexham, we arrived at the Racecourse just before 2pm and a good hour before the 3pm scheduled kick off time. Conditions on the way down were dry but overcast with ominous dark clouds floating in the direction of Wrexham.
The Racecourse Ground is located to the north-west of the town, and only a 5 to 10 minute walk from the main high street, as well as a number of supermarkets. It has the grounds of Glyndŵr University located to the north and west of the ground, whilst the Mold Road runs along the south of the stadium, with Crispin Lane and the railway line to the east.
The reason for my early arrival was to allow enough time to find appropriate parking in the town, however I need not have been concerned. For the cost of £3, I was able to park the car up in the front car park of the adjacent Glyndŵr University, meaning it was a very short walk to the stadium. As stated above, the university is right next to the ground and (as of a few weeks ago) they used to own the ground also, so it is worth the money to park in car park if you’re going to a Wrexham game (and you arrive early enough as there is limited spaces). If you decide to travel by public transport, Wrexham General is right next to the stadium and there are bus stops outside of the ground if you decide to take the bus to the ground.
With the car parked up in the very familiar settings of Glyndŵr University (being an alumni of the university an all), it was off to purchase the match tickets before heading for some pre-match refreshments. Greg had stated that the tickets could be bought from the Turf Pub, just a short stroll from the university grounds along the Mold Road, and also outside of the stand bearing the road’s name. It was also the Mold Road Stand where we were hoping to watch the game from.
It was on route to the Turf Pub where I also managed to purchase the programme for the game from the seller situated just by the bus stop – an ideal place as he could and would dive under the shelter’s cover when the rain cascaded rapidly down later in the hour. Costing a fairly hefty £3 (bear in mind, I am used to buying programmes for half the price in the Welsh leagues), the ‘Red Dragon’ programme is well produced and all colour printed with plenty of information on both teams, as well plenty of colour photographs and match reports on previous Wrexham games.
With match programme secured, we continued our short journey to the Turf to purchase the match tickets. The Wrexham Supporters Trust occupies a small section of the pub from where it can sell tickets and club merchandise from. It was from this small room where we bought tickets for the Mold Road Stand for a cost of £19 per ticket. Now I understand the Mold Road is probably the more “desirable” stand of the three available, but £19 to watch National League football seems very steep to me. I realise that this price is probably the going rate for match tickets in the top level of non-league football in England, but surely those prices are preposterous for essentially fifth-tier football! In my opinion £10 to £12 should be the default price for all standard Conference football match tickets – perhaps the National League clubs might encourage more supporters to attend if prices were limited to £12 maximum…
Whilst I was still spluttering over the ticket price, I decided to add to the pin badge collection by purchasing a Wrexham pin badge for £3. No gripe with this price as it’s about the standard outlay for all levels of football!
With match tickets acquired and securely stored in the pocket (and I made sure the ticket was safely stored considering how much I had to shell out for it….), we decided to find some pre-match refreshments. Therefore we doubled back on ourselves by walking in the direction we came from, past the programme seller, before crossing over the busy Mold Road and ventured into the nearby pub called ‘The Maesgwyn’.
The Maesgwyn is a big pub directly opposite Glyndŵr University and situated on the Mold Road, and within an easy walking distance from the Racecourse Ground. There is also a huge pub carpark which allows cars to park there for a price during match days also, so there is another option should the University car park become full. Anyway the pub itself is a cracking place to get some drinks before the game. When we went into main room, they were showing the early English Premier League game between West Ham and Arsenal on a massive screen at one end of the room, with tables and chairs all laid out in the main room. A decent setup especially as the bar was at the opposite end of the room to the screen!
Drinks were ordered from the bar which included a pint for Greg and one of the new J2Os for me, considering I was driving, although it was perhaps a bad choice for a sober drink. The bottle this new concoction came in was bright pink with a massive pink flamingo on it. Aware that a lot of people were drinking ‘manly’ pints, it was perhaps not the most ‘masculine’ of soft drinks I could have chosen from the list, and stood out like a sore thumb…..a tad embarrassing!
Thankfully Greg himself would suffer a face-palm moment when trying to buy the drinks so I would not be suffering in embarrassment myself ha. The drinks total came to £5.10, but Greg “claimed” he thought he heard the barmaid say it was £10.10. Thus followed about 20 seconds of him confusingly looking at his palm with an array of coins on display, trying to work out the correct change to give the woman, even though he had enough cash to pay her. After a bit of head-scratching, he asked if he could pay by card much to the barmaid’s (and mine at this point) bemusement, and found out he couldn’t pay at that bar. Consequently in the end, he asked if I could pay for them as he didn’t have enough money (even though clearly he had) and would pay for food later on. Shaking my head in amusement, I handed the money over to the barmaid who just shrugged her shoulders towards me, confused in the situation and conversation as I was ha.
Once we had sat down with our drinks (trying to shield the intense pinkness of the bottle from fellow supporters’ eyes) and watched some of the West Ham versus Arsenal game, I told him what the barmaid had said and how much the drinks order had come to. The look of horror on his face was an absolute picture! “She must think I’m a right bloody tool!” he said despairingly and looking at the barmaid, whilst I laughed loudly at the whole confusing situation. I think he might have been one step off falling through the bar Del Boy Trotter style ha!
With time ticking by and kick-off approaching, it was time to leave The Maesgwyn and head back to the Racecourse for the match, but not before we stopped at a fast food vendor parked up in the pub’s carpark. With a number of tantalising options on the menu, in the end I went with the classic 94th Minute favourite of the hotdog costing a reasonable £2.50, whilst Greg plumbed for the bacon & cheeseburger for £3.20. There are the traditional hot food options sold in the stadium concourses if you’re heading straight to the stadium, however on this occasion, the wafts of cooking meat coming from the fast food van were just too delicious and tempting to resist.
With hotdog in hand, it was short walk to the turnstiles at the Mold Road stand where we queued up to gain entry. It would be at this point when the heavens decided to open up and unleash a monumental cascade of raindrops which soaked all queuing supporters. Thus resulted a rapidly wolf down of the hotdog to avoid it becoming too soggy, whilst I grumbled to myself for not taking the waterproof coat which had been foolishly left in the car. Thankfully the entry queues moved forward at a steady rate, and there wouldn’t be too much rain exposure before we were inside the warmth and dryness of the Mold Road concourse.
As stated before, there were stalls which sold food and drink, as well as Wrexham merchandise located within the concourse. As neither of us wanted any food, drink or merchandise, it would be a quick walk past the stalls and onto the stand to find our seats on Wrexham’s newest stand.
The Mold Road Stand was built over the old stand in the same location in 1999 after securing the finance from lottery funding, and has a current capacity of 3,500. The stand has all the modern media facilities required for clubs nowadays, as well as the corporate boxes essential for generating revenue. It is also the stand where a majority of the disabled places and easy access facilities are generally located. The stand was originally called “The Pryce Griffiths Stand” after then chairman of the club, but was renamed to its current name following Griffiths’ endorsement of Alex Hamilton’s highly controversial redevelopment scheme.
It would be at the very front row of the Mold Road stand, situated near to the halfway line, where our match tickets would designate where we would be sitting for the match. Now although the view and closeness of the pitch were very welcome, and I managed to take many decent pictures during the game, the rain did not make our positions perfect. The combination of the belting rain being blown in our direction, plus large water droplets falling onto our positions, having descended from the roof, meant the first quarter hour of the match would become a very damp affair for the pair of us! I knew I should have worn the waterproof jacket!!
For this critical match in Wrexham’s season, the locals had come out in force and the Racecourse was buzzing with nearly 5000 supporters in attendance – an amazing volume for a fifth-tier match! The more vocal of the home support (complete with rhythmic drum) were situated in the 2800-seat Glyndŵr University stand situated to the left of my viewing position. There were also a large amount of fans in the Yale Stand, situated on the opposite side of the pitch. Built in 1972 in preparation for Wrexham’s first venture into European competition, and holding a capacity of 4200, the stand houses both the changing rooms as well as club offices. In additional it also has The Centenary Club and club shop located underneath the stand.
The Yale Stand was also the location for the travelling Dover fans who were perched and segregated in the top left corner of the Yale Stand. Making the 273 mile journey from the far corner of the island to travel to Wrexham, the 114 Whites’ fans must be highly commended for making the journey up to support their team! Granted it wasn’t the furthest journey they would be making in the league this season (that would be Barrow), they must be fully commended for making the long journey along the breadth of the country to attend this game. It is fervent fans like that which should always be applauded!
To the right of my position would be the imposing yet desolate Kop End (also known as the Crispin Road End or the Town End). The historic terraced stand had seen witness to many glorious Wrexham and Welsh glories over the years, and still portrays that old school feel of a bygone era of British football. Having a capacity of 5000, it was once the largest all-standing terrace in the English Football League before health and safety officers closed the stand to the paying public due to the decaying condition of the stand. There have been many plans to develop the Kop End and bring the old stand back to life, but none as yet have been fulfilled or committed. Therefore the old girl currently lies empty – a sad image to a stand which has been a colossal presence in modern Welsh football history.
With the heavy showers continuing to batter the already sodden Wrexham pitch, the teams eventually ventured from beneath the Yale Stand and out onto the playing field, to a rapturous welcome from the home support. The home supporters were well aware that a home win here today would put Wrexham deep into the playoff hunt, with a number of games to go. Defeat to Dover would almost practically end all chances of gaining a playoff spot and condemn the Red Dragons to another season in non-league’s top tier.
Wrexham would be playing in their traditional kit of red shirt with white shorts and red socks, whilst Dover would be in their home strip of white shirt with black shorts and white socks. The home side would be without regular centre-back Blaine Hudson and star player (and club captain) Connor Jennings as they were both suspended after being sent off against Forest Green Rovers in the previous match.
MATCH REPORT – FIRST HALF
The first half would be difficult viewing for Robins’ fans as Wrexham failed to cope with Dover’s physicality and defensive solidity. Lacking the firepower of the suspended captain Connor Jennings, Wrexham’s attacks looked disjointed and failed to keep possession under constant pressure from the visiting defence. Mark Beck would have a torrid time in the first half, being isolated against the Dover backline as the ball was constantly pumped forward in his direction. When Beck could not be found, fellow forward Kaydon Jackson was the centre of Wrexham’s attempted attacks. However his blistering pace could not be used to full effect as the domineering Richard Orlu continually marshalled the young forward to ensure the threat was kept to a minimum.
There would be an early chance for Dover after just two minutes when a Stefan Payne header was punched away by Rhys Taylor. Wrexham would have their first chance on goal after four minutes played through Mark Beck, when a Mark Carrington corner was latched on by the big striker. However agonisingly for all home supporters, his glancing header could only drift across Mitch Walker’s goal. It would be one of few chances the home side would get on the Dover goal during the first 45 minutes.
With both teams matching each other’s attacks, it would be a further 15 minutes before there was another chance on goal, this time coming from the visitors. The impressive Stefan Payne forced on loan keeper Rhys Taylor into an impressive parry save when he fired a fierce shot from 25 yards out that was goalbound. From the Dover attack, Wrexham launched an impressive counter-attack with Kayden Jackson forcing Mitch Walker into making a save, which could only rebound into Mark Carrington’s direction. Alas the Wrexham play could only hit the rebound into the side netting.
Both teams would have few chances towards the backend of the half as the defensive segments of the midfield cancelled each other’s’ attacks out. Wrexham would have a half-chance through a free kick just outside the penalty box, after Craig Braham-Barrett had fouled a Wrexham man on the byline. However a combined effort of a Ricky Modeste clearance and Walker gather ensured Wrexham’s chance had gone. After his clearance at one end, Modeste showed a flash of attacking brilliance at the other end of the pitch seven minutes from the break. Doing well out wide, he managed to shape a crossing chance, but his ball in was too close to Taylor and claimed by the Wrexham stopper.
It would be the last real effort of the half as both teams went into break on goalless terms. The first half was not a classic, and the lack of attacking intent from the home side was starting to make the home support restless.
HALF TIME: WREXHAM AFC 0 – 0 DOVER ATHLETIC
Half time saw half of the pitch turned into a mini-pitch as two teams of locals stepped onto the turf and had a quick game. The two teams were made up of Wrexham-based people who are involved in Wrexham’s numerous community schemes organised in the local area. In fact one of the biggest cheers of the day came from this kick-about when one of the players produced a ‘worldy’! He swerved and dribbled past four tackling players before dropping a shoulder to send the keeper diving in the wrong way and coolly slotting it into the bottom corner of the goal. What a finish!!!
MATCH REPORT – SECOND HALF
With Wrexham needing the win to keep their playoff dreams alive, they needed to push forward more in the second half. However this urgency from the home side helped Dover’s game plan as Chris Kinnear’s men soaked up the pressure and could rapidly catch Wrexham on the counter-attack.
It would be Dover who looked the more threatening at the start of the second half, and had the first clear chance of the half on the 56th minute through Ricky Miller. Another counter attack allowed him to launch a shot on Wrexham’s goal, but his straight effort was easily dealt with Rhys Taylor. With Wrexham struggling to find a foothold into the game, Gary Mills made a significant change to his attacking intent when he substitute the isolated Mark Beck with Adriano Moke on the hour mark, hoping for a change in fortunes.
Alas for the home side, there was a change of fortunes but for the worse as the Whites took a deserved lead a minute after the Moke substitution. A driving curling shot from the ever-threatening Stefan Payne left Rhys Taylor stranded as it struck the inside of the post before rebounding kindly into the direction of Ricky Modeste. The winger making no mistake by firing home from close range to ensure the visitors take the lead and silencing the home crowd.
Wrexham AFC 0 – 1 Dover Athletic
It was now a desperate time for Wrexham, as they started to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at the Dover defence. Gary Mills made a couple of attacking changes as he brought on both James Gray and Lee Fowler to try and turn the tide for the home side. However the increased Wrexham attacking threat were constantly dealt with by the Dover backline. Simon Heslop would test Mitch Walker on the 78th minute by firing a shot towards, however Walker’s first save of the second half would ensure his side kept the lead.
The official Karl Evans was not making any friends with the Wrexham faithful with his rather confusing decisions, which were often the wrong call and against the home side. One woman in particular behind my seated position was shouting all things under the sun at him. Needless to say I think I heard every derogatory word fired at the official, who was having a very poor game in my opinion by making the wrong calls and failing to manage the game effectively.
Wrexham almost came close to claiming the crucial equaliser with four minutes remaining when a cross-shot from James Gray looped over Mitch Walker and cannoned off the top of the crossbar, with Wes York’s follow-up successfully blocked by the Dover defence. With just a minute left on regulation time, Simon Heslop almost found the leveller when a first-time volley from the midfielder was goalbound. However in keeping with the luck of the hosts this afternoon, the ricochet failed to hit the bottom corner of the net but deflected past the wrong side of the post.
Karl Jones gave a surprising amount of seven minutes minimum of injury time which produced a cheer from the home supporters, as they knew they still had a chance to get something from the game. Alas not even with the excessive amount of injury time could Wrexham conjure up anything to threaten the Dover goal and find the breakthrough as the official blew his whistle to end the game. Even though Wrexham had threatened in the last 10 minutes, it just wasn’t enough as Dover deserved the three points for their whole match performance. A solid defensive display which solidifies their playoff credentials and effectively ended Wrexham’s chances.
The game ended in a chorus of boos as the home supporters were understandably disappointed that the home team had not performed in one of the most important games of the season.
FULL TIME: WREXHAM AFC 0 – 1 DOVER ATHLETIC
After the disappointing result for Wrexham, the pair of us quickly left the stadium and headed back up the Mold Road back to the Maesgwyn to watch the upcoming Grand National. As with most people in the country, we both had bets on horses for the race. Greg having money on The Last Samurai, whilst I had a good bet on a horse named Holywell (no guessing why I chose that horse ha). Unsurprisingly not too many home fans joined us back in the pub to watch the race. No doubt they were hugely disappointed with both the result and the performance as they slumped off into the evening hoping to drown their sorrows.
Alas I would be the one drowning my sorrows, albeit with very alcohol-free drinks, as Holywell fell at the second fence. However Greg would encounter better luck as his horse would finish in second place, and would win about £12 for the trouble. Not a bad day’s haul! With the race over and the post-match traffic now dissipated, we would head back to the car for the 50 minute drive back home.
Although the result wasn’t what myself and the crowd were after, I really enjoyed my visit to the Racecourse Ground and would encourage other to follow suit. Not only it is the oldest international football venue in the world (more Wales games in Wrexham please FAW!!), but you can sense and feel the history of the place as sit inside the ground. If you can visit for a big game, like I managed, the atmosphere can be electric! I can only imagine what the atmosphere was like back in the 1970’s and 80’s when Wrexham were having their glorious European nights, or Wales was competing in the Home Internationals on the ground. It must have been brilliant! There was plenty of covered seating, and the food & drink stalls are very well stocked – all welcome in the modern stadia. Plus the Racecourse is a groundhopper’s paradise with the train station and pubs nearby, whilst being in a fairly close location to the town’s centre.
However I found it such a shame that the ticket prices were so high for National League football. I suppose that’s the price of modern football and probably what most clubs are charging in the league also, but it is still too much for fifth-tier football in my opinion. However the biggest shame was seeing the Kop End lie so dormant and empty. I do hope plans are put in place and started to rejuvenate that end of the stadium as such an iconic stand in Welsh football deserves better. Although you may not be able to stand on the hallowed terraces, it is good to gaze at it and wonder what special moments it had been a part of over the many years of Wrexham and Welsh football.
So there you have it, a high recommendation for North Wales’ biggest venue, and one of the oldest football grounds in the world – would you expect anything less from a North Welsh groundhopper? Ha! May the Racecourse continue to host spectacular events and experience memorable moments for the next 150 years!