ARTICLE by Tomos Wyn Jones.
PICTURE by Glyndwr University.
LETS’ GO BACK to January 4 1992. Wrexham face reigning English football league champions Arsenal at The Racecourse in the FA Cup 3rd round.
Alan Smith converted from a Paul Merson cross to give the Gunners the lead before half time, but what came next was nothing short of sensational. Mickey Thomas’ free-kick found the back of the net to bring the Red Dragons level, and just two minutes later, Steve Watkin scored arguably the most precious goal ever to have been scored inside what is the oldest international stadium in the world, as Wrexham miraculously triumphed over the Gunners 2-1.
Another FA Cup win against top flight side Middlesbrough by the same score line (2-1) marked the Welsh side’s second win in eight seasons against top division sides. These were the good times, as the club were thriving playing in the English football league, but what happened next, led to a huge decline for the Red Dragons.
Wrexham were starting to spend more and more time at the wrong end of the table, and faced many on and off-field problems across many areas. Then club chairman Alex Hamilton attempted to evict the club from their own stadium so he could sell the Racecourse (To a company Hamilton owns) for development purposes.
When Hamilton’s company took over, he gave the Red Dragons until 2005 to leave their ground. Although they developed an affiliation with Brighton & Hove Albion, who survived their chairman trying to sell their ground, on December 3 2004, Wrexham were placed in financial administration by the High Court in Manchester, as the club were in debt, and owed up to £2,600,000, 30.8% of that sum was owed to the Inland Revenue in unpaid taxes.
And as a result, in the 2004/05 League One season, they found themselves from being in a commanding mid-table position, deducted 10 points, and, unsurprisingly, found themselves relegated to tier four (League Two) aka the lowest division in the football league. But yet despite all of their struggles, they completed that season with a piece of silverware, by winning their first ever football league trophy, beating Southend United 2-0 after extra time at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. John Ugarte and Darren Ferguson, son of Sir Alex Ferguson, scored in front of 20,000 Wrexham supporters, who made the 142-mile journey down South.
2006 brought even more uncertainty for the Welsh side, as the Birmingham High Court ruled that chairman Hamilton’s group, CrucialMove, hadn’t “acquired the freehold of the ground”, therefore he had lost the case, and subsequently took the matter to the Appeal Court in London. And yet again, the court ruled that the club’s administrators should remain in control of the ground. A month and a half later, on April 30, 2006, the club administrators came to an agreement with Neville Dickens, a local car dealer, to take full control over the club, subject to shareholders and creditors agreeing. And exactly a month later, Dickens officially took charge – just four days before Wrexham faced being expelled from the football league if they remained in administration.
Although we still refer to the club as Wrexham AFC, it was actually given a new name – Wrexham Football Club Ltd -due to the Dickens takeover. The club’s new name could now be seen on merchandise and kits, but the fans have always kept referring to the club as Wrexham AFC.
After starting well, going eight games unbeaten at the start of the season, the 2006/07 league two season saw Wrexham finish 19th in the table on 51 points. Although they finished outside of the drop zone by a convincing 15 points, it raised concerns, as they were nearing the exit of the football league. However, expectations were running high for the 07/08 season, with some tipping a return to tier three football, due to the arrival of the likes of Trinidad & Tobago international Silvio Spann (above) seemingly boosting their promotion chances. But what came next was nothing short of disastrous, as the club finished in a position they had not been in for 87 years – they were relegated and would go on to play non-league football in 2008/09. They have been stuck at that level ever since.
Ownership at Wrexham was damning, with the club suffering two relegations in three years. They had sacked and hired many different managers to try and change the direction of the club, and the latest in 08/09 was Brian Little – who was relieved of his duties with the club only four points above the relegation zone. Former Liverpool and Wales international Dean Saunders then took over as manager, and beat Forest Green Rovers in his debut game. He steadied the ship, and managed to help the Welsh side finish in mid table. The next season (09/10) saw Wrexham finish in mid table again (11th), with no suggestion on the field that the club looked like playing in the football league again anytime soon.
The club faced a mixed season during the 10/11 campaign, with performances on the field improving, but off-field problems worsening. They had secured a play-off spot, but were unable to beat Luton Town, and were thrashed 5-1 on aggregate over two legs. After Geoff Moss bought Dickens’ shares three years previously, the club were running into more financial trouble, and in March 2011, the Wrexham Supporters Trust (WST) and businesswoman Stephanie Booth both bided to buy the club, for £5m. They eventually secured a takeover but knew they would face a difficult task.
In their first month in charge of the club, they faced a winding up order from HMRC, with unpaid tax bills coming up to £200,000. But, after surviving that, it gave the club a new lease of life, and their performances on the pitch significantly improved. They had also secured the services of fans favourite Andy Morrell (below) as player-manager. And the Welsh side returned to producing shocks in the FA cup too – they pulled off an astonishing win against then League One side Brentford in the 2nd round, and earned a replay against championship side Brighton & Hove Albion at home, though they eventually lost 5-4 on penalties at The Racecourse. Although Wrexham finished on 98 points, that tally saw them five points adrift of Fleetwood Town, who had Leicester star Jamie Vardy in their team at the time, and therefore they had to settle for a play-off place. And the same result as the previous season prevailed, as Luton Town yet again knocked them out of the running, this time winning 3-2 on aggregate.
Wrexham had an even better 12/13 season, having secured their first piece of silverware in eight years, as they won the FA Trophy, defeating Grimsby Town 4-1 on penalties, following a 1-1 draw. The Red Dragons went on to make a 2nd appearance at the new Wembley in the same season, as they faced fellow Welsh side Newport County in the Conference Premier play-off final, with a place in the football league at stake. But after a closely fought match in the capital, County defeated the Red Dragons 2-0, with Christian Jolley and substitute Aaron O’Connor scoring late on for the South Walians.
The club then faced a difficult 13/14 campaign, finishing in its lowest position in the club’s history, 17th place in The Conference, in what was the club’s 150th anniversary. And just to further disappoint the Reds, manager Morrell announced his departure from the club in February, feeling it was in the interest of the club and himself that he stood down from the helm. Kevin Wilkin, former manager of Nuneaton Town, then took over as manager.
The 14/15 season saw a slight improvement for Wrexham, as they finished in the top half in 11th place, though, also recorded their third worst points tally in non-league football. The club saw improvement once again in the newly named national league in 2015/16, finishing in eighth place. But, Wrexham continued to see managers come and go, with Wilkin dismissed in 2015, and Gary Mills was only manager of the Welsh side for over a year. Wrexham had another shocking campaign in the 16/17 campaign, finishing in the bottom half. After Mills’ dismissal in October 2016, former Red Dragon Dean Keates, who made 169 appearances for the club, took over as manager. Although Keates struggled in his first season, many fans shared sympathy for a man who had never managed a senior football club in his life beforehand.
And the supporters’ trust in Keates seemed to pay off, as Wrexham started the 17/18 campaign extremely well, recording wins against fellow promotion chasers Tranmere Rovers and AFC Fylde. The club was flying high, and at one point in December, even found themselves top of the charts. However, soon after they were crushed 4-1 by eventual champions Macclesfield Town, and couldn’t find any consistency to keep getting positive results. Having had a brilliant first full term as manager of Wrexham, Keates drew attention from many football league clubs, and with nine games remaining of the national league campaign, he accepted the manager’s role at another former club of his, Walsall, who were in League One. This proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Wrexham’s 17/18 season, as they quite incredibly failed to reach the play-offs, and ended up finishing in 10th place.
Shortly after the season ended, former Wales international Sam Ricketts signed a three-year contract to become manager. And his short tenure at the club saw the Red Dragons challenging near the top of the league again. However, Ricketts’ time at the club turned sour, after reports linking him with league one Shrewsbury Town, as they searched for a new manager. Ricketts was even told, for his own safety, to stay away from the racecourse when Wrexham faced Newport County in the 2nd round of the FA Cup. Consequently, on December 3, Ricketts left his post as manager, and was appointed as the Shrews’ boss on a 2-and-a-half-year contract. Graham Barrow then took over as interim boss in the aftermath and, although he led Wrexham to big wins against Salford City (5-1) and AFC Fylde (2-0), he eventually followed Ricketts to Shrewsbury as assistant manager. Former youth product, Bryan Hughes, was appointed as the Dragons’ latest manager on February 6, 2019. The Scouser led Wrexham to their first play-off place finish since the 12/13 season – but they ultimately fell short, losing 1-0 to Eastleigh after extra time.
That play-off defeat had a massive impact on the club, as it has been on a downward spiral ever since. After a run of eight games without victory, and the club in the national league relegation zone for the first time ever, Hughes was sacked from his post as Wrexham manager on September 25, 2019. The club was in its lowest position in its 155-year history, and brought back Dean Keates (above) as manager in October. He gradually steadied a sinking ship, and secured vital victories that were required for the Welsh side, who were staring at relegation to the National League North. When the season was suspended on March 22, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Wrexham sat one point clear of the drop zone, with nine games left to play. Clubs voted to end the season a month later, with promotion to the Football League and relegation to the National League North/South yet to be determined. If the season was to be decided on a points-per-game system, it would look likely that Wrexham would avoid the drop due to their two games in hand over Ebbsfleet United and the fact they were also one point clear of the Kent-based side.
We will see in due course what fate awaits Wrexham, but it’s fair to say that a lot of lessons have to be learned from the past 15 years at the club. Financial difficulty, ownership problems, struggling on the pitch are just a few of the problems they’ve endured. But one thing that has stuck by the club throughout all of this are it’s loyal and loving fans. They have turned up throughout all of this difficult time, no matter the weather, or how the team is performing on the pitch. No one could’ve imagined 28 years ago that Wrexham were going to go on to be one point above the National League relegation zone. Football is a strange game.