Monday, 30 August 2010
Sunday, 29 August 2010
Last season Sam Rusell got off to a good start to the season, but once Maxwell took his place it was plain to most observers that he was the more reliable keeper. Saunders' recall for Russell, who never looked as secure as he did before that unpleasant injury against Kettering, was premature to say the least, and after a costly error against Cambridge Maxwell was restored and Russell never appeared for us again.
Of course, Saunders would have liked him tohave stayed. Understandably, Russell turned down a contract in the summer; after all, why would a keeper want to play second fiddle to one ten years his junior? Saunders' problem as he looked for a replacement was simple: that very question no doubt hung in the air whenever he spoke to a potential new goalie. Clearly Shearer would want an assurance before he committed to us that he wouldn't be signing up for a spell on the bench at a non-league club.
Naturally he started the season as Number One, and enjoyed an impressive clean sheet on debut. However, he looked nervous in the subsequent matches at Forest Green at Eastbourne: edgy when coming for high balls in the former match and setting his defensive line too deep for set pieces in the latter as he looked to stay on his line as much as possible.
That led to the remarkable sight, half an hour into the game, of debutant Marvin Andrews giving him a very public lecture on his resonsibilities, with the rest of the back four chipping in. It could hardly have helped his confidence a great deal, and so he was set up for last Tuesday.
His part in one of Kidderminster's goals led to an angry reaction from some Wrexham fans, who gave him a hard time both on the pitch and in the car park afterwards. There's just no justification for abusing a player, and it was uplifting to see him bounce back against Barrow, making a superb save at 1-0 which kept us in the game and allowed us to snatch a point in injury time.
Equally pleasing was the reaction of the fans in the Eric Roberts Stand after the save. In chanting his name they sent a clear message to Shearer; he's one of ours and we will back him. Fortunately, it was a good game for Shearer to rebuild his confidence, as with Barrow so defensive there was little scope to test the areas he has been criticised for; instead, it was his shot-stopping which was examined, and that's his strong suit.
Dean Saunders admitted after the Barrow game that he'd considered putting Maxwell back in; no doubt the fact that the young keeper is unavailable at Newport next Sunday might have been a factor in keeping faith in Shearer.
For what it's worth, I'm a fan of Maxwell's and, like last season, think we'd be best served by having him between the posts. Furthermore, with his contract up at the end of the season we'd be well advised to keep him sweet or there's no chance he'll stay on. However, I'd like to think we're the sort of club that welcomes players rather than shuns them if they lose form. The phrase "Cauldron of Hate" was used on the excellent Red Passion podcast to describe the atmosphere at the Kidderminster game; it was a tongue-in-cheek comment, but let's not let it come true.
Saturday, 28 August 2010
Saturday, 21 August 2010
Wednesday, 18 August 2010
Monday, 16 August 2010
Sunday, 15 August 2010
Friday, 13 August 2010
If ever there was a marquee signing by a side operating under a restricted budget, it’s Dean Keates!
In fact, my main worry about signing him is a simple question: why would a player with his pedigree want to come down to The Conference?
Shrugging aside that nagging question, we must hope he will deliver on his promise as there are clear issues in the centre of our midfield. The loss of Andy Fleming is a massive one; he might not have fulfilled his potential going forward, with just one career goal achieved so far, but he is still young and that side of his game will surely develop. The fact is that his energy is a great attribute, and the thought of him doing the legwork for Keates is an attractive one which will now never come to fruition.
Instead we have a likely partnership between Keates and Jay Harris. Harris certainly offers energy, but the lack of height in that partnership is worthy of concern. Take a look at this week’s Non League Paper to see what I mean. On the cover of their preview of the season, there’s a team photo composed of one player from each team in our division. Our representative, Keates, is dwarfed by the players around him (apart from the gloriously diminutive Alan Wright, of course!)
Perhaps it will work out for the best; both players are certainly tenacious and there can be no doubt that Keates can handle himself at a much higher level than this. However, Saunders admitted when he played Nathan Fairhurst and Angelos Tsiaklis together that a lightweight midfield is likely to be exploited in the Conference.
Is the greater experience of Keates and Harris enough to justify Saunders abandoning the idea of using a big man like Christian Smith in midfield? Perhaps so, although it shouldn't be forgotten that we enjoyed a good run of results when Tsiaklis and Fairhurst were in tandem, ended only when their partnership was disturbed by the arrival of Robert Crofts.
I can't help feeling that Fairhurst and Tsiaklis were dismissed too easily; indeed, the lack of opportunity offered them last season makes me question why they were both brought back to The Racecourse in the first place. Hopefully They have shown that a diminutive duo can have an impact on The Conference; otherwise Saunders will be back to the drawing board a lot earlier than he would have expected this season.
With the regular overhaul pretty much complete, we can start to settle into seeing how the new squad operates, but don't let yourself get too familiar with them. There's another huge revamp on the horizon, and perhaps some nettles should have been grasped this time round to avoid it.
Irrespective of our success or failure this season, a chunk of the side will disband next summer. If we fail to mount a promotion challenge we'll see plenty of our new signings depart courtesy of the policy of generally only offering one-year contracts. For the same reason, if we succeed we'll probably lose a few of our best players, who won't be tied to us. However, a trio of changes look inevitable no matter what happens on the pitch.
Firstly, should be get the centre back Saunders has been chasing on loan, he surely won't hang around. However, it's the demise of two more familiar faces which I'm thinking of. Frank Sinclair is surely embarking on his final season as a professional. That he has kept going so long is a huge testimony to his professionalism, and he has already made a very positive role for us. To see him still committing himself to his task, even though it's to try to aid a mid-table club in the fifth tier of the pyramid, is hugely impressive. It would be an honour if Wrexham turn out to be his final club.
One would assume the same also applies to Gareth Taylor. Another genuinely fine pro, he was the sharpest knife in a pretty blunt cutlery draw last season. (in case you were wondering, Lamine Sakho was a spoon.)
The worry is that Taylor might now be blunted. Of his ten goals last season, only one came in 2010. Furthermore, that was a fluke; a mishit cross that Wimbledon's keeper misjudged. Throw in another glorious fluke against Lowestoft, when Sakho's inaccurate header hit the back of his head and looped over the keeper, and two penalties and he only got six intentional goals in open play, the last of which came in October.
The fact that he began to pick up injuries in 2010 is a worry too; like Sinclair he showed the early signs of physical decline which might signal the end for them. Taylor does not appear to be in Saunders's thoughts as a first choice striker as the season begins, but he might be a highly valuable tool from the bench, offering us an aerial option when things get tough. Cast your mind back to the superlative job he did late on at Mansfield too, when the way he held the ball up in the closing stages was a huge factor in us keeping The Stags at bay.
However, don't expect Taylor to be the central figure he was last season. This campaign might be your last chance to see a couple of venerable internationals.
The reason for my edginess is simple. Name me a player who has arrived with a big name on a short-term contract who has been a successful signing for us. Or even one who was around at the start of the following season will do. Yup, I'm struggling too.
Actually, there is one who might tick the boxes: Frank Sinclair. But, as I outlined yesterday, this is a man of rare professionalism, able to suck up the fact that he's in the Conference and apply himself to his job, day-in, day-out. Hopefully Andrews is the same, but it worries me when I look at the scales to weigh this issue up. On one side is Sinclair; on the other are Lamine Sakho, Patrick Suffo, Matt Jansen, John Curtis, Christian Gyan and Andrew Crofts. And that's just off the top of my head.
I totally understand the temptation to make such signings. These players are all, on paper, better than the level of football we're playing at. Okay, they might be getting on and lacking fitness, but if you can nurse them back to health you've got a bargain. I like this logic in many ways, but it's an approach which sadly has the odds stacked against it; if you go back further than those names I just listed you can also throw in the second comings of Juan Ugarte and Chris Armstrong. Wishful thinking is a natural state of mind to slip into, but the hard-nosed approach is to get hungry young lads who have the appetite to get themselves out of the Conference.
Of course, Andrews could prove to be a Sinclair-like exception that proves the rule. I do hope so; his rugged style should certainly be suited to repelling some of the Conference's more direct sides. It looks like Saunders' stated aim of cherry-picking the best players from other sides in our division, admirably exemplified by the signings of Mangan and Knight-Percival, was a brief aberration though.
Andrews is certainly an individual-read this review of his autobiography for a taster-and he might have the character to rise to this rather diminished challenge. Indeed, he has been playing in Scottish football, so small crowds and rudimentary facilities shouldn't be a shock to him, and Trinidadians like Dennis Lawrence, Carlos Edwards and Silvio Spann have certainly shown commitment when they've come to The Racecourse. I just hope Andrews can match that, and beat the odds.
Thursday, 12 August 2010
This seems to me to have been the most predictable of pre-seasons.
I seem to recall spending many a July desperately trying to work out just how Wrexham's manager would field a balanced side from the lop-sided bunch he'd assembled, but this time round the starting eleven for next Saturday seems to be North Wales' worst kept secret!
I might be proven embarrassingly wrong just before we take to the field against Cambridge, but it seems that, barring injury, there's only really one position which seems to have some doubt attached to it, and that's due to the volatile transfer market more than anything else.
Apart from the question of who will play at the back alongside Chris Blackburn, as Frank Sinclair waits to see if this much-touted higher division loanee will come and rain on his parade, it already seems cut and dried: Shearer in goal, Walker and Ashton at full back, Gall, Harris, Keates and Knight-Percival across the middle and Morrell and Mangan up front.
If that's the case, I feel a little sorry for David Brown. He looks an interesting player to me, but he's the one who perhaps will find it hard to find a slot in the side in its current configuration. I know looking for significance in a friendly's a mug's game, but I thought he had an excellent half at Aberystwyth when he was at the sharp end of a midfield diamond. Following our lack of penetration last season, it was nice to see a couple of players who could pass the ball around in our midfield, with Keates sweeping long balls from back of midfield and Brown looking to feed clever little passes into the channels from higher up the pitch.
The problem for Brown, I suspect, is he's perhaps not quite cut out to play as an outright midfielder, at least not in a central pairing of two. His inclination is surely to play higher up the field, but at the moment Saunders seems to have settled with a rather straightforward 4-4-2 after some interesting tactical experimentation at the start of the friendlies.
Previously Saunders' variation on this shape has been a 4-3-3 with the likes of Baynes or Cieslewicz offering width, and with Morrell and Mangan surely the established front duo, it's hard to see how either set-up could help Brown to break into the team in an advanced position.
Kevin Gall has interested me in pre-season. It appears he'll get first go at playing wide on the right, although he's capable of being used as a striker too. However, if you check out his career strike rate you'll see why he's been forced to adapt to a more wide position as his career has progressed.
That's the facet of his game I'm inclined to focus on in the next few weeks as well. I like his movement and pace; he's clever and pops up unexpectedly where you want to see him. However, he hasn’t really looked likely to take the chances that his mobility might present to him. Furthermore, he doesn't look to have the physical presence to challenge at the far post when crosses come in, a great shame when on the other flank we have three players capable of swinging the ball into good effect in Nat Knight-Percival, Neil Ashton and Johnny Hunt.
The other remarkable thing to consider if that is the side Saunders picks, of course, is that it would feature only two players from last season if he gets his central defensive target: Mangan, who arrived at Christmas, and Walker, who made his debut on the last day of the season! Plus ça change, eh?
Wednesday, 11 August 2010
Still, certain observations can be made, and one of the more interesting facets of our preparatory games has been the situation at full back. Whether you view the situation on either side of our defence as half full or half empty depends on the extent to which you're willing to put your faith in youth.
We've got four specialist full backs in the squad, two on either flank, if you discount potential stand-ins like Kai Edwards and Frank Sinclair. (I hope Dean Saunders discounts the Sinclair option too; I had Sinclair as a shoo-in for player of the season at the turn of the year, but asking him to haul his ageing hamstrings up and down the flank at left back at Altrincham meant he picked up an injury which led to his campaign descending into a mess of injuries and mistimed tackles. As for Edwards, Saunders says he’s looking to loan more players out, and he’s the one member of the senior squad who hasn’t been given a squad number. Go figure.)
The thing is, the two most impressive full backs in pre-season by my reckoning have been the two kids, Declan Walker and Johnny Hunt. I'm sure Saunders won't be too shocked to see Walker play like this; after all, his debut at Hayes was as good a first appearance as I can recall in a Wrexham shirt.
There's a huge danger in assuming one performance by a teenager guarantees a similar output week-in, week-out, but Walker's pre-season suggests he will start the Cambridge game ahead of Curtis Obeng, whose terrific pace is hampered by the fact that a schooling with Manchester City's coaches, followed by a year of coalface experience in the Conference, haven't yet eradicated the naïveté from his game. Just ask Saunders, who is often seen to be frustrated by his decision-making and spent a good couple of minutes on his own with Obeng after the final whistle at Vauxhall Motors taking him through his positioning.
The left flank will, surely, see Neil Ashton start, but I wonder if Saunders ought to be bold and throw Hunt in at the deep end. Admittedly, starting with two full backs boasting two starts between them in their nascent careers might be madness, but Hunt has looked more solid than Ashton in pre-season. Ashton impresses when he goes forward, but so does Hunt; the defensive part of their game is more important, especially as we're looking to piece things together at the back after losing a most of a record-breaking defence.
Ashton has been troubled when a wide player runs at him, most notably in the Liverpool game when the young Spaniard Silva ran rings round him. Mind you, the Saturday before Aberystwyth got their winner when Craig Williams slalomed rather too easily inside Ashton to tee the scorer up. Hunt looked vulnerable in his only first team outing at left back, as an early substitute for Aaron Brown at Hayes, but has appeared solid in pre-season. Notably, Silva's threat receded to nothing once Hunt replaced Ashton with twenty minutes left.
Anyone watching that game who wasn't familiar with the Wrexham squad would have assumed the first choice left back had come on at the end. Hopefully Ashton will use pre-season to get himself into the groove defensively as I strongly suspect he will be the first choice in the opening weeks of the season. Having played much of his career at left midfield, he needs to show he's equally adept in a more defensive role.