Friday, 30 April 2010

Loss of Russell an Opportunity for Saunders

Sam Russell’s departure is a blow to Dean Saunders, but if he’s crafty he can turn it to his advantage.

You can’t blame Russell for leaving of course. Playing second fiddle to a player nearly ten years younger than you is hardly an attractive prospect, and he was clearly disappointed when he lost his place for the run-in.

It was a decision which had to be made though. Saunders clearly wanted to give Russell every chance to establish himself. In the first four games of the season he looked impressive, but in his absence Chris Maxwell showed his quality and the decision to replace him when Russell regained his fitness was a mistake.

When Russell came back from injury he struggled to regain his earlier form, a fact which looked even worse when the inevitable comparison to the wronged Maxwell was made.

Too many times a goal could, to some extent, be attributed to him, the final straw being the last goal he conceded for us; Cambridge’s injury time equaliser from outside the box.

Also, he’d been caught out too often with the ball at his feet; his much-vaunted ability when the ball was on the ground had ironically rebounded on him. Suddenly every kick that soared out for a throw-in made him look to have feet of clay. Maxwell’s return to the team was inevitable, not to say overdue.

That’s not to say Russell’s a bad keeper; far from it. He would have been better off if he hadn’t been rushed back into the side though; I’d been told his form for the reserves wasn’t too great; perhaps he needed more time to regain his match fitness. A change will probably do him good.

Still, this is a situation which Saunders might be able to use to his advantage. The factor which has changed in the goalkeeping situation since Russell’s arrival is the emergence of Maxwell as a first choice player. While that has marginalised Russell, it also gives Saunders room for manoeuvre.

Russell, a player signed from the Football League as our first choice, would surely have been on a decent wage. If Saunders goes shopping for a back-up goalie this Summer, or maybe a young keeper on a season’s loan (but not Dean Bouzanis please!) then he can keep back a bit of money to spend on other areas of the pitch.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Time to Say Goodbye

So the long-awaited retained list is out, and inevitably there are surprises and outgoing players that some of us will be sorry to see go.

Of course Saunders promised he's cut the squad back to the bone. Indeed, he said last Saturday that he'd have to release players he didn't want to let go.

Bearing that in mind, I have to add a qualifying statement before I go on to sympathise with certain released players: the fact is we couldn't keep the same squad as we were mediocre last year at best. Changes had to be made and you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. As I've said all along, the need to break the squad up isn't disputed; the key is whether Saunders is going to recruit the right replacements. If six first team regulars are recrutied who make up the core of a good side next season, no one will look back to today with regret except those who have left.

Still, there are players I'll be sorry to see go, (and not just from a selfish point of view-Mike Williams, Spann, McCluskey and Jones are excellent post-match interviewees!)

Mike Williams is perhaps the man I feel particular sorrow for, He has never let us down and is a flexible defender. With two aging centre backs signed up for next season, one of whom has serious fitness and disciplinary problems, and Mani Assoumani unlikely to re-sign, I'd have thought he'd have been offered handy cover.

I don't suppose we can be totally shocked that Mark Jones is on the list, but that doesn't make me feel any less sorry about it. Apart from being Wrexham through-and-through, he had shown better form in the latter stages of the season and might have felt he'd done enough to earn another year. Certainly his performance at Hayes last season was as good as I'd seen from him this season. Admittedly there's perhaps an element of wishful thinking when I consider his departure; there's no doubt he has terrific talent, but I suppose I have to be hard-nosed and admit he's not going to recapture his form of four years ago.

Silvio Spann's lengthy, successful run at right back must surely have made him think a contract offer was inevitable: perhaps his lack of sustained form over the course of the last three years counted against him; probably his wages were the issue. And then there's the performance of Declan Walker on Saturday, which must surely have encouraged Saunders to believe that, with him and Kai Edwards on the books, he has adequate cover for Curtis Obeng.

I'm sad to see Wes Baynes go too. He suffered from the fact that we never really worked out the best position for him; was he a full back, striker, attacking midfielder or wing back? I hope we don't regret the loss of his set pieces, especially as we've also let Luke Holden go. I suspect it was Holden's likelihood to make hot-headed errors which could cost us that led to his release; it's surely no coincidence that the last we saw of him was his daft sending off for diving.

There was an inevitability about the departure of Sam Williamson, Hedi Taboubi, Jamie McCluskey, Nathan Fairhurst and Matty Wolfenden, although I'd have liked to have seen the latter two given more chances to show what they could do.

It's interesting to see that four of the released ten are either defenders or holding midfielders when our problem is creativity. Also, bearing in mind Saunders' suspicion that we're too lightweight, there are a lot of slight players on that list; only Williams could claim physical presence as an attribute. Let's hope he's able to shape a squad that justifies his decisions.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The curse of the player of the season trophy!

Beware the curse of the player of the season trophy!

It seems to be something of a poisoned chalice of late. Andy Fleming picks up the bauble before the Rushden game, then goes home because he’s not hanging around! Likewise, Marc Williams won it last season and hasn’t scored since, his most notable achievement since the award being a serious injury!

And the season before that? Neil Roberts became the first player of the year to be immediately released!

And it goes on: Steve Evans won it the year before and went on to score six goals from centre back in the following campaign. Unfortunately, three of them were into our own net as we were relegated from the Football League!

What an incredible sequence! Perhaps we need to vote tactically next time; if we’d picked Richard Hope two seasons ago he might have been held hostage for a year by the New Broughton Liberation front and we could have stayed up!

Taking Respomsibility

I might not agree with all Dean Saunders' decisions, but credit where credit’s due: he’s willing to face the music.

The fact that he turned up to a fans forum two days after the lowest league position in our history was confirmed is worthy of admiration. There’s absolutely no requirement for a manager to turn up and be accountable for his actions, and therefore very few do.

Only a fool could suggest that this season has gone well. Equally, a couple of weeks ago I’d have said only a fool would suggest that Dean Saunders would attend a fans forum and justify himself. Irrespective of the angle of the individual reporters, there’s an etiquette at press conferences which means major blow-ups are rare, but facing up to the fans means the gloves are off and the agenda can’t be limited.

I’m a great supporter of transparency in football clubs. I believe people should be accountable for their actions. So I’m not saying we should grovel gratefully because the manager has deigned to come down from on high and mingle with us. They ought to communicate directly with the fans (although having the people who own and run a club speak to its supporters is a much greater priority). What I am saying is that managers very rarely face up to that responsibility. I’m glad Saunders is not cut from that cloth.

Saunders could have been metaphorically torn limb from limb last night but he didn’t opt for the easy way out, and he should be applauded for that.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Reed it and Weep

As Dean Saunders prepares to tell players if they’re staying or going, he must desperately be hoping he’s making the right calls. There have been plenty of poor decisions made with respect to the players allowed to leave Wrexham in recent years, some of which are obvious and high profile. A less celebrated departure could well turn out to be the most costliest mistake of all though. Should Brian Little really have let Jamie Reed go?

There was a real risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water as Little reshaped the squad twice in the space of six months. Some players, like Matt Crowell, were dismissed before they’d really had a chance to show him what they could do, while the release of the likes of Neil Roberts beggared belief. Reed’s departure didn’t merit any headlines, but it did make me feel uncomfortable at the time.

After all, the lad was young and had time to improve. He was prolific in the reserves and for the youth team, and although he hadn’t found the net in the first team, he’d been restricted to appearances off the bench and had looked lively in those.

Admittedly he had missed some decent opportunities in those rare outings, and that might well have counted against him. For me, it was a positive though. Okay, you want to see a striker take his chances, and I understand the frustration of seeing them being frittered away when we needed something drastic to happen if we were to stay in the Football League. However, at least he was getting into those positions, and despite being a youngster his confidence wasn’t being damaged by the misses to the extent that he stopped trying to get into the danger area.

Reed won the Daily Post’s trophy for the League of Wales player of the season at the weekend, and from what I’ve seen of him on Sgorio, he deserves it. Having played a season as a winger for Rhyl, he has been a crucial creative influence in Bangor’s side this term, and has stepped up to the plate in front of goal after Chris Sharp’s departure.

I just wish he’d had the chance to develop like this with us.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Uneasy Security of the Pre-contract

I'm cautiously optimistic, which is as good as I've felt all season! Signing Nat Knight-Percival is a very positive early move. An established player in the Conference whose energy delivers around ten goals a season from the flanks is going to be a useful addition, and anyone who was a key part of Histon's success in recent years is going to be able to handle the physical side of the division. This feels like a smart move, and the type Saunders has been promising to make recently.

So why the caution? Well, quite apart from the fact that "cautious" is the default setting for all Wrexham fans, this is yet another case of the signing of a pre-contract being made public. That's right, the same ultimately worthless piece of paper signed by Paul Carden. With the Anthony Barry fiasco also fresh in the memory, I'm taking nothing for granted.

So while I applaud the move for the man we'll hopefully soon be calling NKP as he streaks down the wing, I'm conscious of the fact that, until we actually have his signature on a contract, all we've done is advertised his availability to other clubs. By all accounts he's made a very positive impression at the club with his personality and demeanour, so let's hope we can finally sign a bloke without all the attendant dramas for once.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Were We Too Quick to Judge Little?

So did you see who won the Manager of the Month award for March in the Blue Square North? Step forward the boss of Gainsborough Trinity, Brian Little!

When I heard the news my jaw dropped, After all, Little had looked like a seriously discredited busted flush when he left The Racecourse. Having taken a long break from the game before coming to The Racecourse, the impression grew as his tenure wore on that he had been left behind by the game, which had changed a lot since his glory days. Does his recent success suggest it's time for a re-evaluation of his time in charge of us?

I think not. He didn't have enough of an impact on our slide down the table, and he hardly inherited an impossible situation. But have subsequent events suggested that he was fighting against an irresisitible tide?

We've certainly suffered a number of embarrassing defeats since he left-frankly more than we did under him-and Dean Saunders' initial impact on the side, which suggested so strongly that Little had failed, wasn't sustained.

However, that impact was achieved by a couple of basic changes which showed Little to be deficient. Saunders simply imposed a clear style of play on the side-something which Little failed to do as he switched tactics match by match-and made some common sense changes in personnel. The selection of Marc Williams, who incredibly didn't appear under Little last season, is the most obvious example, but not the only one.

Furthermore, Little enjoyed a great deal of financial support from the board, which funded his introduction of a number of players in an attempt to fend off relegation, then a complete overhaul of the squad the following summer. Those funds were clearly weren't invested wisely, although Saunders is about to embark on his third reshuffle of the squad.

I suppose the conclusion to draw from Little's success last month is that it changes nothing. He might have enjoyed four good weeks at a lower level than ours, but he failed at Wrexham where a more savvy manager could have saved us from dropping out of the Football League. However, the number of similarites between his reign and Saunders' raises other questions about out current state.

Thursday, 15 April 2010


So Mark Guterman has been disqualified as a company director, and many Wrexham fans will feel it came a few years too late.

It's the line about him currently living in Monaco that gives you pause for thought though. It's one of life's great mysteries isn't it? How do some people always manage to land on their feet?

A Whole New Ball Game?

So Garside and Colford are gone. I'm not going to comment on the case itself, partly because I think the issue is pretty cut and dried, and partly because I don't enjoy the thought of ending up in court over what I write! However, what the decision means in a broader context is a different matter.

I've felt a certain nervousness about what we're told is the open nature of the new regime. I always like to see substance backing up fine words, and hadn't felt I'd seen anything to put my mind at ease. Perhaps today changes that.

I don't like to jump to conclusions too much, so I'm being cautious about today's announcement. However, I couldn't help feeling that the long delay before action was taken over the duo was just more of the same: Wrexham Football Club stalling for time to hope the fans would be dim enough to forget we were upset about something and move on. Today's announcement suggests I've done the board a disservice.

If so, this leads me onto an issue I've raised previously. I suspected Ian Roberts' elevation to the chair was a genuine regime change, although subsequently plenty of people disagreed with me. Today's events suggest to me that there has indeed been a change at the top of the club. Which, as I speculated earlier, might not be the best of news for Dean Saunders. Looks like Roberts is keen on accountability.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Friday, 9 April 2010

The Title Decider!

I can't wait for the Grays game. There's nothing more thrilling than a game late in the season between the two sides that have established a runaway lead at the top of the table and stand locked level with just four games left. Only one of them can win it, and their clash might just decide once and for all who wins the title. The title of dirtiest team of the season.

Grays might already be relegated, we might be determinedly drab, but there's still one accolade to claim! We went into Monday's games dead level at the bottom of the fairplay league, with ninety yellow cards and seven reds apiece. Prodigious totals, levels of indiscipline which third-placed Mansfield could only dream of (they also had seven reds, but were a miserable sixteen yellows adrift!)

There was much excitement in commentary on Monday when Luke Holden got himself sent off in comical circumstances. Surely we'd taken a decisive lead? But no: the only booking we picked up was Holden's first yellow; Grays' four yellows at Luton and the fact that you get three points for a red mean we're still level, locked in deadly combat the title. Hopefully not literally!

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Is O'Leary The Answer?

If the three new men are undergoing an "Apprentice" style five week job interview, the results so far are fairly straightforward.

Danny Mitchley showed genuine promise at Mansfield, but aprt from that hasn't really suggested he'll convince Dean Saunders to sign him rather than look to splash the cash on a more established player in the Summer.

Aaron Brown is what his pedigree suggested he would be; a sound defender whose qualities are obvious; the question is whether Saunders wants to continue his fetish for collecting left bakcs when he already has Neil Taylor and Mike Williams perfectly capable of playing there.

Kristian O'Leary offers the most interesting conundrum though. He has certainly shown enough quality to suggest he'd be a valuable addition to the squad, although I always get edgy when people assume there'll be more to come from a player when he has got his fitness back; players don't tend to turn into soemthing totally different and O'Leary is never going to turn into a box-to-box midfielder.

What he is is a strong, canny defensive midfielder. His strengths were shown off to their best advantage at Mansfield, when we found ourselves digging in and, able to sit in front of the back four and destroy, O'Leary turned in a fine performance.

He was much less influential against Gateshead though. When we needed to take the game to the opposition, a proficient defensive midfielder wasn't necessarily what we needed, and the circumstances conspired against O'Leary's ability to break out of that role.

Firstly, the bobbly pitch and wind made passing the ball around difficult. Secondly, a player looking to get fit hardly needs to play two games in three days, especially when the first was on a heavy pitch which will have taken a lot out of him.

I like O'Leary, and want to see more of him next season. However, I don't see him as a solution for our biggest problem. We need to somehow convince a playmaker who can unlock defences to make the move down to The Conference. We've had a few over the years: Dave Brammer, Darren Ferguson, Peter Ward, Danny Sonner. They'd all have done! O'Leary is a good midfielder who can make a big impression on The Conference, but he's not that type of player.

Sir Alan's search for an apprentice goes on!

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Holden a Minute!

Why was everyone so surprised by Luke Holden's red card against Gateshead? Wasn't it the most predictable thing that's happpened this season? He's certainly a singular character.

It certainly wasn't the first time he made the most of a challenge. There are some people in the press box who call Holden Lazarus for his ability to rise remarkably from the dead soon after he'd hit the deck apparently mortally wounded by a challenge from behind.

Also, my son is a ballboy and he reports with fascination that Holden wanders the pitch swearing to himself and at others throughout the match.

Now I'm not about to turn into a hypocrite over this. He has made a genuine impact in some matches; let's not forget that fine free kick in our previous home match.

Also, I've previously praised the streetwise edge he and Andy Mangan have brought to the side, and I've not changed my mind about that. We need toughening up and to get a bit cuter, and both Scousers contribute to that process.

However, Holden could do worse than learn from his team mate. Mangan took a couple of liberties yesterday, but got away with them with a dollop of cheeky charm; he ought to have been booked for kicking the ball away twice, but made a joke of it with a ref who wasn't looking to whip his card out recklessly, and got away with it.

I guess the question with Holden is whether he can tone down his behaviour without losing something of his feisty style of play. This is the great conundrum asked about Wayne Rooney; can he function so well if he loses the anger. I'm sure Holden can learn from what happened and continue to contribute to the side. I certainly hope so.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Personas Non Grata

There was something Dean Saunders said after the Gateshead match that didn't quite stack up for me.

For only the second time this season he picked an unchanged side, despite the fact that we'd played on a tiring pitch two days earlier. He then explained that part of the reason for our poor performance was the number of players who weren't fully fit: Mangan and Mitchley in attack, plus Holden, Taylor and Smith on the bench. That, he explained, limited his options.

Of course, the obvious question is why he didn't indulge in at least a little reshuffling of the pack, but quite apart from that, a more serious question is raised. What does his selection tell those who weren't chosen? He said he was reluctant to use the injured trio on the bench, so what must the likes of Matty Wolfenden, Hedi Taboubi, Adrian Cieslewicz and Nathan Fairhurst be thinking? Probably that it's time to grab their coats.

...and the result of the test is.....

Well at least I picked the sponsors' man of the match out with my caption! Okay, so if the Gateshead game representes a crucial test of our credentials, we failed pretty comprehensively.

Yes, the pitch and the wind weren't helpful, but the fact of the matter was that the quality of the mathc was abysmal. A few people have suggested it was the worst home game of the season; the depressing thing is that, despite the total lack of anything to recommend it, it certainly wasn't the only contender for that epithet.

Remember the Hayes game? How horrendous was that? The fact is there've been worse performances by Wrexham this season, but the Gateshead match was indeed probably the worst game we've witnessed. The truth is that the visitors lived up to their billing: they were a part-time team struggling to stay in the Conference whose away form is grim. And we were no better than them. There can be no grimmer indictment of us than that.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Gateshead Podcast

The Gateshead podcast is now available at featuring Dean Saunders, Chris Maxwell and Kristian O'Leary.

Litmus Paper

Today will be an interesting test of how much progress we've made lately. There can be no doubt that, with three new men making an impression, the results have picked up over the last couple of weeks, with a 3-0 home win, a hard-fought victory at Mansfield and a draw at AFC Wimbledon which ought to have been a win. Performances have perked up too, but today we face the sort of challenge which had consistently troubled us this season.

Gateshead are fighting for their lives, are part-timers and have a dreadful away record: since October they've played 15, won 2 (and one of those was against a lower league side), drawn 3 and lost 10. One of the three away games they've lost in a row was an 8-0 too! Sounds like a typical Wrexham banana skin!

That's not the whole story, of course. Gateshead have enjoyed some impressive home wins lately, including one against us, of course. Today we might see if the new men bring enough nous to help us overwhelm a determined rearguard action. If not let's see how we fare next Saturday: Grays are already relegated, have won just three games all season and scored a mere thirty goals. I'm dreading the humiliation already!

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Baby Steps

Dean Saunders continues his learning curve as coach, and I'm hopeful that he's making more correct calls than he used to. He certainly appeared to have learned from a recent mistake yesterday when he made a crafty, match-winning substitution.

Gareth Taylor's introduction with Adrian Cieslewicz was a departure for Dean Saunders. The obvious comparison was the Cambridge match; indeed, Saunders said it was a similar scenario after the game at Field Mill. However, his reaction to the situation was completely different, and much more astute.

I'd argue the Cambridge game wasn't particularly similar to yesterday's. Frankly they weren't as threatening as Mansfield despite having plenty of second half possession, but despite a lack of real threat on our goal, Saunders withdrew one of his strikers, putting on a defensive midfielder. The result? We left poor Andy Mangan horribly isolated up front and a side which was used to throwing the advantage away took the lead from their manager, surrendered the initiative totally, and nearly lost despite being 2-0 up late on.

Saunders was very unhappy when the BBC's Ian Beddow questioned the substitution afterwards, calling it a "clever dick question" and complaining that any point could be made with the benefit of hindsight. He was wrong; it was absolutely the key question to ask after a match that had turned on the change, and as for the charge of abusing hindsight, well what else can we use to analyse a match? I must say that in commentary, Steve Edwards and I were both making the same point as the substitution took place, as I'm sure Ian did.

Saunders, a cornered, wounded animal, defended himself by coming out fighting, but yesterday suggested that privately he'd taken the point on board. We were under a great deal more pressure and only defending a one goal lead, albeit defending it admirably, Mansfield chances coming rarely. The spectacular implosion at Wimbledon four days earlier meant Saunders might have been even more inclined to draw further into a defensive shell. Instead he made an excellent call.

We were defending grittily but unable to keep the ball higher up the pitch, so Mansfield were able to pile pressure on us constantly. This time, instead of bringing another defensive player on, he kept two up front and introduced Taylor with immediate results. He gave a fine cameo performance, holding the ball up superbly, winning headers, and relieving the pressure in textbook manner. The result was a surprisingly comfortable last fifteen minutes, apart from an injury time volley from Luke Foster which drew a superb injury time save by Chris Maxwell (and incidentally should have resulted in a red card for Foster, already on a yellow, who took his frustration out on the keeper when the ball was crossed back in with a brutal foul).

We might have forgotten what qualities Taylor brings to the side as a result of his enforced absence through injury, but he reminded us of what he can bring to the side with that canny performance. Clearly Saunders hadn't forgotten Taylor's attributes, and his positive use of them earned us a hard-fought three points.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Wrexham Calendar