Friday, 31 August 2007

Rotation Frustration

Brian Carey and Steve Weaver got a lot of experience last season of lifting their team up from the floor after a crushing blow. Considering the nature of Tuesday's defeat to Aston Villa they'll have to use those skills again before tomorrow's game.
There's no disgrace in losing to a Premiership side. After all, the result obscures the fact that for the first half hour we were the better side, and in the opening five minutes of the second half, when the score was still 1-0, we forced Stuart Taylor into two good saves. If either of those shots had gone in it would have been game on!
However, once Villa got their second you knew the game was over, and that was when the damage was done.
The nature of the line-ups made a big impact on what happened next. Often a side will take its foot off the pedal once it's in the comfort zone against a lower division side, but the eleven Martin O'Neill picked was never going to do that. He'd made six changes from the team that beat Fulham last Saturday, but that wasn't a reserve side he put out.
Instead, he'd packed his side with players hungry to impress and get a chance of a run in the first team, so rather than relax they pushed on, looking to impress the boss. Look at Shaun Maloney, who's been talking of moving on to get more time on the pitch this week, and has sent a message to his boss in the form of three goals, or Marlon Harewood, an expensive Summer signing who'd only made one brief substitute appearance before Tuesday, and kept going until he'd got his first goal late on. The result of such hunger was a margin of victory of five goals.
Of course, the fact that Wrexham prioritised the Hereford match also had an effect. Would the midfield have been able to withstand the impressive muscular athleticism of Nigel Reo-Coker and Isaiah Osbourne better with Danny Williams in their midst? Would the presence of Neil Roberts have given support to the admirable Michael Proctor? Would Matty Done have exposed stand-in right-back Craig Gardner with his explosive pace? We'll never know, although to be fair some of them were carrying knocks.
The key thing is how we kick on from here, a sentiment which has been alarmingly common amongst Wrexham fans over the last year. Carey and Weaver have succeeded in getting the side to react positively to knock-backs since they took charge. The low point of last season was surely that cruel home defeat to Notts County through an injury time own goal by Simon Spender, but we bounced back to win our next three games, two of them away to sides that reached the play-offs. That's how inspirational Carey and Weaver can be and they've got a much stronger squad now. We need to see that they've worked their magic again this week!

Monday, 27 August 2007

Goal Poacher Needed!

It's probably a bit naïve to be yearning for a goal-sniffer up front; after all, just about every team wants one. However, I can't help thinking that with a little more predatory behaviour in the box we'd have got off to a flyer this season!
That's not meant as a criticism of the current front two though. Neil Roberts has been as robust as ever up front, battling off all-comers and striving manfully to bring others into play, while Michael Proctor has already been hitting the net as well as showing all his usual qualities. Proctor is already a cult hero at The Racecourse, and quite rightly. His enthusiasm is endearing, but he also shows flashes of the quality which established him as a Premiership player with Sunderland, most obviously in the superb service he provided Matty Done with last Saturday.
The thing is, I see both Proctor ad Roberts as the sort of strikers a fox-in-the-box would love to feed off. They're both intelligent and creative, possessing the vision to spot movement and the touch to feed runners something they can run onto without checking their stride. The fact that they've scored all our goals this season is great, but if somehow we could get someone feeding off them we'd be laughing.
I admit I'm sounding rather naïve now. How do you accommodate these two and a goal poacher in the same side? I sound like I'm just calling for Brian Carey to pack his side with eleven strikers on the basis that we're bound to score lots of goals then, like a five-year-old or Kevin Keegan might reason. However, I was one of the few people who found the 4-3-3 experiment against Liverpool to be promising. I admit the way we chased shadows in the first half of that match wasn't too hopeful, and coloured most people's views of the system, but I'd like to point out that it was the same system which enabled us to win the second half 2-0 against a Liverpool side which was green but still packed with talent.
Of course the main beneficiary of that style of play was Eifion Williams, and I'd like to see what he makes of playing in a more central role. He looks sharp to me, and his strike rate suggests he's the most likely goalscorer Carey currently has available to him.
His next league goal will be his seventy-fifth, having scored more goals than anyone else in Carey's squad by some distance, as the next men in the list are Roberts, Llewellyn and Proctor on forty-eight, forty-four and forty-one goals respectively.
Williams' strike rate is better than the other three as well, so there's logic in playing the percentages and putting him in the middle.
Of course, it wasn't by accident that I said Williams is the most likely goalscorer available to Carey currently. It's not really healthy to speculate on the effect Juan Ugarte could make on League Two defences. After all, we've been asking that question for over a year now, so it's best to give him every chance to get fit again. However, when I saw the ball rolling time and time again across the face of goal at Darlington, Port Vale and Bradford I couldn't help yearning for the Basque to be making a typical run into the six-yard box. Roberts and Proctor are both fine strikers, but they're not that type of striker.
Even against Morecambe we missed chances in a tremendous first half performance. The fact that we hung on for a win rather deflected attention from the fact that we should have been three or four up at half time with the game already over.
There is another option, though. Jamie Reed is a player who has consistently scored goals at reserve level, and I wouldn't mind seeing him given a go at some point. He has looked lively when he's come on as a sub and missed a couple of six-yard box chances to win the game at Darlington last season. He might not have hit the net, but at least he was making the runs into those sorts of areas, and I'd like to bet he'd start putting them in give an extended run. Admittedly he's on loan toAberyswyth at the moment, but he's sing that opportunity to show that no matter where he goes he scores goals; did you notice that last weekend he scored a hat trick in a 5-1 win at T.N.S.? No mean feat! I never felt convinced by Andy Morrell when he first broke into the team; his endeavour and enthusiasm were undoubted, but he looked to lack a bit of class to me. However, he had scored consistently in the reserves and the Welsh Premier Cup, and eventually that innate ability to stick the ball in the net showed through in the Football League, with spectacular results. I reckon Red could well be on the same sort of career path.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Mister Spanntastic

Sven-Goran Erikson freely admits that he had not seen a number of his many Summer signings play in the flesh, video evidence proving enough to convince him to part with some hard-earned Thai cash. Good job he hasn't seen footage of Silvio Spann then, or we'd have been drawn into the quickest bidding war of all time.

If you want a bit of instant gratification, just type "Spann Trinidad" into youtube and sit back (I've tried pasting the links in but blogger won't have it-sorry!). It'll treat you to the most stupendous strike you could imagine-and the guy who hit it's coming to play for Wrexham!

It's a free kick from so far back you almost expect to see his keeper step up and tap it to him, but he launches it with terrific power, it seems to pick up extra pace half way towards goal, soaring sweetly to thud into the top right corner, beating an acrobatically futile leap from El Salvador's keeper to the screaming delight of the Latin American commentator, who howls “Siiiii Siiiii Siiiiilviiiiiooooooo!”

And it's not a flash in the pan either! Look at the other results from your search and you'll a free kick he took two days later against the U.S.A. from a similar range. It's equally outrageous; it starts off looking like it's going to go about five yards wide of the left post, then swerves so extravagantly that it ends up curling a yard wide of the other side of the goal. The keeper's desperate scrambling from side-to-side is a sight to behold!

And further evidence is offered of his dead ball skills by a video of the Trinidad team taking on Soccer AM's crossbar challenge. Each member of the team has to have a go at hitting the bar from the halfway line, hardly an easy task as Wrexham showed when they did it! No-one managed it and Mike Ingham nearly smashed a window in Holt! Guess which Trinidadian did it?
Of course anyone who thinks a player's bound to be good just because he has hit a couple of remarkable free kicks is an idiot, although I'd also argue that anyone who sees his team buy a player who can do that and doesn't allow themselves to feel a frisson of excitement is a poor excuse for a football fan!

Still, judging a player on selected highlights is a mug's game. Anyone looks good if you cut out the bad bits. The famous example of this is Savo Milosevic, bought by Aston Villa on the strength of a highlights reel edited together by his agent. Of course, we all remember Milosevic as a striker who was capable of scoring spectacular strikes-just the thing to make a manager's jaw drop when he sees them. However, we will also remember that for every net buster there were twenty shots that went flying deep into the stand behind the goal, or more likely well over it and into the car park of the adjacent retail park!

Fortunately, Brian Carey isn't so daft. Spann was first sighted on a scouting mission to see Trinidad play a friendly at Q.P.R. and has been tracked ever since. Other promising signs include the fact that Roy Keane saw enough in him to offer him a trial with Premiership Sunderland, and the fact that he hasn't come from our usual Trinidadian source.

I'm not saying that using the same agent to bring in our previous Trinidadians was a mistake, although it could sound like it in theory. If we hadn't got good value from them one might suggest that in operating as a gateway for a succession of Trinidadians to establish themselves in the Football League we were acting more in the interests of the players than ourselves, but the facts don't bear that out. Admittedly we had to wait for some of them to acclimatise, particularly Dennis Lawrence, but we got good performances from the likes of Lawrence, Edwards and Sam and none of them left in haste to climb the ladder.

Also, unlike the others Spann has already played outside his home country. The well-travelled midfielder has played in such diverse cultures as Croatia and Japan, so getting to grips with North Wales shouldn't be too tricky. Throw in the role he can play in helping facilitate the continuing progress of Josh Johnson and he looks like a very intelligent acquisition.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Carey The Genius

Brian Carey was right to urge caution after the fine victory at Port Vale on Tuesday; after all, one swallow doesn't make a Summer, and smashing Sheffield Wednesday at the same stage last season hardly led to great things did it? But it was great wasn't it?

The greatest delight of it was its unexpected nature. It looked a tough task anyway, but when I saw that Carey had picked Michael Jones in goal and Levi Mackin in midfield it was clear where his priorities lie. Or so I thought.

Both youngsters have been rotting in the reserves over the last season and were in need of a boost, but giving them one by throwing them into an away tie against a higher division team looked like putting their interests ahead of the team. They emphatically proved that to not be the case.

The important thing with Jones is to remember how young he is-just nineteen. Goalkeepers are generally thought to mature in their thirties, so he's still over ten years off his peak! In 2020 he should be pretty tasty! However, goalkeeping is about confidence, and nurturing young keepers requires careful consideration for the damage a bad experience can inflict. Remember how a traumatic experience at Peterborough destroyed Paul Whitfield? It came hot on the heels of an LDV tie at Stockport in which he conceded five goals, and we never saw him again. Jones let in five at Edgeley Park last season as well, and his other appearance was in the shock defeat at Newport, so his selection could have backfired. However, it emphatically didn't; two superb second half saves marked a flawless performance, and Jones took a major step forward in the maturing process.

Mackin is also an interesting case. It's four seasons now since he made his debut, and a lot of fans feel that he hasn't kicked on from a promising start. This season might well be make-or-break for him, and rotting in the reserves is hardly a recipe for success. However, Tuesday showed that this might just be his year! He was energetic and, after looking a bit tentative in the first half, really grew into the match. His passing got crisper and he started getting his head up and playing ambitious balls over the top to the nippy forwards who turned the game in our favour.

It's a question of confidence with Mackin, I suspect. Sometimes when a young lad is new to the scene it's hard to push himself forwards and take a leading role. As the tie wore on, Mackin did exactly that, and in doing so finally established himself as a serious option for Carey.

All credit to Carey for seeing that. Obviously a manager gets to see more than us. Sometimes fans get frustrated when a player is persevered with despite a lack of success in the first team, but remember that the coaching staff will get the full picture on them. Performances in training and the reserves might mark a player out as having something which those who just watch the first team haven't seen. On the other hand, you might argue that if a player doesn't deliver in the first team, then there's no point in waiting for it to happen. I remember a lad I played with who, in training, was one of the most gifted players in a strong side. However, in matches he went to pieces and the creative flair he undoubtedly had was completely obscured. Eventually giving him games in all sorts of outlandish positions in the hope that he would settle, he was reluctantly jettisoned. Thankfully, Mackin responded the other way, and as a result has just given his career a huge boost, and Brian Carey an extra option.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Darlington 2 Wrexham 0

Click here for the podcast.

Missed Chances Prove Costly For Carey

It's a basic fact of football life that if you don't take chances you get punished, and Wrexham started the season paying the price for failing to take that lesson on board.While constant pressure in the second half yielded nothing but a series of missed opportunities, Julian Joachim showed Wrexham's terrific travelling army what they were missing up front as he gave a typical example of his finishing power, putting the game out of reach with a superb second Darlington goal which left the away fans green with envy.

The first half started cagily. Darlington enjoyed more possession, but what danger there was occurred in their penalty area. A Neil Roberts flick from Anthony Williams' kick sent the industrious Chris Llewellyn round the back of the Darlington defence and his pull-back evaded the keeper and was agonisingly just out of reach of Michael Proctor. Then Eifion Williams went close to marking his debut with a goal; a long throw was headed to the edge of the area and Mark Jones' powerful but off-target shot was deflected goalwards by the debutant. Unfortunately it flew straight at the keeper; a yard either side and he would have had no chance, as Williams' head-in-hands reaction indicated.
At the other end Shaun Pejic and Richard Hope were looking rock-solid against the awkward pairing of Tommy Wright and Pawel Abbott. Early on Pejic had to leave the pitch after being whacked in the face and Wright would eventually be booked for using his elbow once too often, but they were unable to unsettle the defensive duo, with Hope terrific in the air.As the half looked to be petering out Darlington's only attacking moment of note had come when a corner was headed back into the goalmouth by Steve Foster to his fellow centre-back Ian Miller, but in trying to force the ball through the crowd he could only deflect it weakly to Anthony Williams.
However, the docile nature of the game was shattered in the 38th minute: Keith McBride broke play up in the centre of the pitch and as Abbott got behind Hope on the right, the midfielder ran into the box. When Abbott cross, McBride nipped undetected between Simon Spender and Pejic and glanced an unmarked header past Williams from ten yards.Wrexham responded well, and within a minute came the first controversial moment of the game. Llewellyn again got round Austin and once more delivered a cross which cut out the keeper. Eifion Williams rose six yards out and looked certain to head the ball into the net until Tim Ryan shoved him in the back but referee Keith Evans, taking charge of his first Football League game, waved away the vociferous calls for a penalty and thus spared himself the necessity of delivering a red card-temporarily.
Rather than dwell on the decision, Wrexham started the second half at a high tempo. A fine piece of patient play down the left ended in Valentine crossing for Proctor to head just over the bar from ten yards before a second controversial decision denied the Dragons. A long ball over the top sent the onside Llewellyn clear on goal, but the linesman erroneously flagged for Proctor who, though offside, was not interfering with play. As Proctor had kept up with Llewellyn to leave both Wrexham players facing the keeper, a goal would surely have accrued.
Nonetheless, the game appeared to take a decisive turn in Wrexham's favour in the 62nd minute. Another flick-on by Roberts, who caused constant problems in the air and typically bore his rough treatment without complaint, sent Proctor clear but as he rounded the onrushing Andy Oakes the keeper scythed him down a yard outside the box. Pandemonium ensued as players clustered round. Oakes was eventually shown an inevitable red card but the referee then had to sort out some argy-bargy between Valentine and Ryan, the Wrexham man lucky to survive as he had already been booked. And all this time nobody seemed to be clear on whether a penalty had been given or not! Eventually the game was ready for resumption and Proctor's well-placed free kick looked destined for the top left corner until David Stockdale, the replacement keeper, leapt high to paw it clear, making a fine save which he had no right to manage considering his sudden entry into the fray.
The red card seemed to galvanise Darlington if anything, and Dave Penney's decision to leave two men up front and send Joachim into attack from his original post on the wing worked wonders. Foster ought to have done better than slash a shot over from fifteen yards before, with eighteen minutes left, Wrexham went further behind.
The goal was a fine effort by Joachim who ran at pace at Hope before lashing an unstoppable drive into the top right corner, Williams rooted to the spot for the second time.The game was not lost yet though. Matty Done, just on before the goal, stretched Darlington's defence and although the creative Jones went off after failing to shake off a blow to the knee-he still looked uncomfortable as he was leaving the ground-Wrexham created enough chances in the closing minutes to at least salvage a point from the game.

First Llewellyn latched onto a through ball and rolled an enticing cross-shot which just eluded Roberts and went a foot wide of the far post. Then Llewellyn whipped in a free kick which landed perfectly on Danny Williams' head six yards out, but inexplicably the midfielder planted his free header back across goal and narrowly wide.Next it was the unlikely figure of Pejic to come close to scoring, powering a header from a Done corner towards the bottom left corner of the goal only to be denied by a second fine save from the sub goalie.

Even as time ran out Wrexham still had time for two more chances, both squandered by Proctor. In the last minute he ran clear but, with Marc Williams unmarked in the middle, played a poor ball to him which was intercepted by the lone defender, and then when a corner was nodded down to him by Hope, he headed straight at the keeper from six yards.The final whistle blew to delight of the home fans, but Wrexham were left to rue their missed chances; ring any bells?

Referee: Keith Evans

Attendance: 4,408

Misc: Wrexham's first defeat at Darlington's new ground; Eifion Williams and Richard Hope's Wrexham debuts; Keith Evans' first game as a Football League referee

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

The longest journey begins with a single match.

I must be more excited by a trip to Darlington than anyone has ever been! It marks the beginning of an annual odyssey, tramping round the country watching Wrexham. My Dad and I, the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of North Wales (though I don't know which one's which!) have been setting off to tilt at lower division windmills for the best part of three decades now.

It's a quest which usually ends having taken us absolutely nowhere, sometimes ends in crushing failure, but occasionally, just occasionally, concludes in euphoric triumph.

Like when we traveled to Bury in 2003, knowing we were already up and that we'd beat them, which we did 3-0.

Or Northampton in 1993, when Gary Bennett earned promotion and thrust his head through the net in celebration, giving the massed throng of Wrexham fans behind the goal a clear view of one of the most iconic sights in the club's history.

It's an epic undertaking, and I don't use that adjective lightly. Consider this: the cumulative distance to each of the other teams in League Two and back from my house is 4,844 miles. To put that in perspective, if you travel due west from Wrexham for that distance you'll pass Ireland, cross the Atlantic, leave New York, Chicago and Seattle in your wake and end up in the Pacific Ocean!

And that's ignoring all the times we'll get lost! We once stopped for directions to Rotherham's ground to be told by a bemused local that we were in Sheffield!

Traveling around has a subsidiary benefit of giving you a nice sense of the country you live in, a sense of belonging. Name a major town in Wales or England and I'll probably be able to give you an opinion on the place.

Some places charm you with their quirks, although my opinion might be coloured by how well we've done there! For example, Luton might appear run-down to most, but I like the ramshackle charm of a ground with a press box named after Nick Owen which is so hemmed in by terraces that you enter the away end through a gap between two houses and have a view into someone's bathroom as you make your way in up the stairs! However, that might be linked to the fact that in quick succession I saw us stick five past their bewildered goalie (a certain Andy Dibble!) and then win 4-3 despite being 3-0 down at half time.

Similarly, Doncaster is a town which doesn't strike as being too thrilling, and I've never seen a decent game of football there!

Driving back, certain landmarks along the way tell me how close I am to home. An Indian restaurant in the middle of nowhere tells me I've half and hour to go; I know there's twenty miles to go when I pass the sign by Oswestry that says Tourist Information is in eight hundred metres. (By the way, in eight hundred metres is a post-it note saying “Keep going!”)

I didn't realise how itchy my feet were until I reflected on my reading matter for the last month. Bill Bryson's book on trekking the Appalachian Trail down the east coast of America is a classic tale of a pointless quest of heroic proportions, and sadly an awful lot of our treks have ended up pointless in more than one sense!

Another was a book by Lloyd Jones which glorifies a bizarre march around Wales embarked upon, essentially, for the sake of it.

So I've substituted meandering aimlessly round with reading about other people all Summer! Roll on Saturday when I can start doing it for real!

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