The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Three – Wrexham vs Eastleigh

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

My last trip to a match was to Berlin, a mighty 893 miles (by road) from my house.  That’s over 14 hours of driving, if I chose to head there that way (I didn’t, obviously).  That is the very furthest away from my house that my adventures have taken me, so far at least.

Last weekend I went to the Racecourse Ground which is all of seven miles from my house. I could, as I am currently undergoing training for the London marathon, comfortably run there in about 45 minutes.  Instead I drove there in 15, but it certainly feels weird to be watching a team so close to my house.  Even more so that I haven’t been there so far in the previous two seasons of doing this (or in my three years of living in North Wales).

I’ve been to Chester, Tranmere, Colwyn Bay, Telford and Connah’s Quay since I started, and they’re all pretty close to home but nowhere near as close as Wrexham.  I get my car serviced there.  Me and the wife sometimes go shopping there, and we drive past the stadium and I get all giddy.  It’s a crime that it’s taken me so long to get down there.  The guy who owns the pub down the road from us – where we even had our wedding reception – is always talking to me about Wrexham and telling me to get down there.  Well, I’ve finally done it.  And after seeing two 2-0 victories for my adopted sides in my first couple of games of the season, I felt confident I could help my most local of sides pick up another win.

Speaking of driving past the ground, the main reason to get excited is that there is a speed camera that forces you to slow down and peek inside the stadium, getting a good look at the now disused Kop end. In its heyday it was one of the largest standing ends in British football, but the 5,000 capacity end now remains empty.  On match days it is covered in supporter flags, but every time I drive by it I see the slightly uneven concrete and red painted crash barriers and wish I could have experienced it a few years ago.

Because I was only down the road, I had a weirdly lazy morning before the game.  It was a far cry from getting up at 4am to get a 6am flight to Berlin.  I lounged about the house, had breakfast and had a natter with my wife.  Very dignified.  I set off for the game at 2pm, arrived at 2.15pm and found myself trying desperately to get a parking space at the ground.  You pay £2 and you can park in the adjacent university, but it seemed that everyone had the same idea as me.

Whilst the Racecourse is right next to the station, pretty much – not really a surprise as the ground is one of the oldest in the UK from back when stadiums were in town centres – the nature of North Wales is that you need to drive most places.  When my friends in London complain about having to wait an extra ten minutes for a bus or a train, I like to remind them that we have one bus a day in the village where I live.  Driving is a must up here, so it’s no wonder the car park was heaving.

It’s one of those hard to navigate ones as well, with two separate entrances and about seventeen different car parking areas.  The fact that loads of other sports are played on the University campus also meant that we were competing for parking spaces with people playing hockey and other sports.  I eventually found a very narrow spot and got into a Mexican stand-off with another driver over it.  He reversed towards me aggressively to stake his claim.  I did what any British man would do: I indicated and waited.  I won out in the end.  A parking space isn’t worth losing your no-claims bonus over.

2015-09-26 14.39.10For £15 I sat in the Glyndŵr University Stand, formally known as the Tech End. It used to house the away supporters but they now have a section up in the Yale stand.  That area is now officially called the “Cash4Gold Stand”, something I will never ever type again.  Of all the corporate sponsorship I have ever seen, that is the most abhorrent.  At least with the university they are a big part of the financial security and infrastructure of the club.  They’re not getting you to shove your Gran’s necklaces in an envelope for a tenner.

It’s sad to see Wrexham outside of the leage structure these days, in the fifth tier Conference Premier.  When I was a kid, they were responsible for one of my most vivid football memories.  I did a paper round on Sunday mornings, and I remember how I would read the back pages of the papers as I walked around, half awake.  I’d always get back in time to eat breakfast and watch Trans World Sport and Sharky and George, mind you.  One Sunday the papers all carried the same story and iconic image of Mickey Thomas celebrating after the Red Dragons knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup.  Thomas’ goal was a bit special, that’s for sure, but very few people outside of Wrexham seem to remember that the winner in that game was scored by Steve Watkin.  That result was stunning at the time, with Wrexham in the old Division Four, having finished in 92nd place in the league the previous season.  Luckily thanks to the departure of Aldershot from the league there was no relegation to the conference level.  Arsenal at that point were the reigning league champions.  It was an utterly stunning result, especially in a time where big clubs didn’t treat cup games as an excuse to put out their reserves like they do now.

This game was the start point of a big sporting week in North Wales.  In the evening the Welsh rugby team would take on England in the World Cup, and the following Saturday Wrexham will travel to their most fierce rivals: Chester.

That game will kick off early, and away fans will only be allowed into the stadium if they travel through approved methods.  It is a raucous, sometimes violent rivalry that very few people from outside of the area can understand.  It’s one I struggle with a bit as I’m not from the area originally, but also because I’m half Welsh.  I like both the Welsh and English national teams – although if I had to choose, I’d go for Wales because my Dad is Welsh and my wife is Welsh and I live in Wales.

Chester and Wrexham are less than half an hour away from each other.  That would be a fine base for a rivalry, but when you add in an international border to the mix then it makes it all the more feisty.  When I went to Chester last year I noticed that there was a lot of anti-Welsh sentiment, in the same vein in Wrexham there is anti-English vibe.  Neither time did it make me feel uncomfortable or out of place, nor did it slide into casual racism.  But you get the impression that the word “England” to a Wrexham fan conjures up that little city across the border, and vice versa with Wales to a Chester fan.  It’s a strange dynamic when you grew up a fair way away, but I’m certainly starting to get it now.

Once in the stadium I got my first hot dog of the season.  A keen reader of this blog might say “but Jim, you ate a bratwurst in Germany”.  That is not a hot dog.  It’s a totally different type of sausage.  That’s a sentence that I never thought I’d type.  Wrexham serve the best hot dogs – Rollover – and I grabbed a Yorkie and a Diet Coke as well.  There were two concessions stands in our end, but only one had hot food despite it being fairly busy.  The sunshine had brought people out, and I won’t lie to you:  In North Wales, sunshine in September is definitely not the norm.

Seats are unreserved, and when I took mine I noted that the Mold Road stand – the newest at the stadium  – is oddly futuristic.  It looks a little bit like a UFO has got very lost and decided to do a bit of ground-hopping.  It made me like the Racecourse even more; even though I’m not a fan of more modern grounds, the mixture of something that modern with the huge disused Kop and the more regular (yet still mildly old) other stands makes it an interesting place to cast your eye around.  It’s certainly not boring, that’s for sure.

2015-09-26 14.49.46As the teams finished warming up, I noticed that there are two separate tannoy announcers.  One read the line-ups out in Welsh, before the other did the same in English.  Quite a lot of the inane PA chatter was in English, but all the important announcements were in Welsh first.  I didn’t hear anyone speaking Welsh inside the ground, but that’s not the point.  Wrexham fans – much like my wife – are proud of being Welsh and proud of their language.  Many people (like myself) who grew up in England won’t be aware that Welsh is still a mandatory subject in all schools in Wales.  It may not be widely used these days, but it’s fantastic to try and preserve a language even in a setting like a football match.

The Eastleigh fans seemed in decent spirits despite a difficult week.  They were only promoted to this level two seasons ago, and last season reached the end of season playoffs.  I counted 37 of them (they would later be announced officially as numbering 50) and they unfurled a banner thanking their now ex-manager Richard Hill for his hard work.  He had resigned this week with them having a stuttering start to the season, but he was clearly held in high regard after guiding them to the Conference South title and a fantastic fourth place last season.

As we kicked off, our end was pretty busy.  To my left was a bunch of youths, none older than 14.  To my right, three older men who were very enthusiastic.  And in front of me, five lads of university age.  All of them had the local accent, which I now know is from North Wales but isn’t the Welsh accent that you expect if you’ve only ever watched Gavin and Stacey.  Just don’t for the love of god call anyone from North Wales a Scouser.  They’re not.  It’s like me with my accent, East Midlands is a hard one to define but you know it when you hear it.

The first Wrexham chance fell to Wes York, a diminutive wide player on the right hand side who one of the chaps on my right seemed to have a burning hatred for.  As he spooned a decent effort wide, this bloke went on a thirty second rant about him, crucially not swearing once as he noticed that kids were behind him.  He used the words “sugar” and “flip” a lot though, in the most aggressive way that I think I have ever heard them used.

Rob Evans then had a good effort that was well saved by Eastleigh keeper Lewis Noice, before I was briefly distracted by one of the kids to my left.  He proudly produced a vape device to show to his friends, making me laugh to myself as I reasoned he wasn’t even old enough to have smoked in the first place.  At least he’s cutting out the addiction and lung disease from smoking and going straight for the vaguely futuristic alternative that most people use to quit with.  I feel at this point I should say something like “the state of youths today”.

In the twentieth minute, we were dealt a shock. Jai Reason hit a shot at goal for Eastleigh from outside the area that took a massive deflection and nestled in the net.  This followed good work from Lee Cook and a distinct lack of closing down from the Wrexham defence.  The away fans were delighted, nearly all of them removing their shirts and jumping about.  I imagine – seeing them from where I did – that I can pick out the one bloke who suggested taking their shirts off.  In amongst all of the regular football fan bodies was one bloke who was quite insanely ripped and who I should probably give a job as a pro wrestler.  He looked like the sort of man who understands interval training and macros.  The rest of their fans presumably think macros are places where you can buy your shopping in bulk.

With the away fans shirtless, the usual “you fat bastard” songs followed, with most fans settling on the much more subtle “have you ever seen a salad?”  It’s a shame there isn’t a follow on song that includes the words “of course he has, you get one free with a kebab”.

Wrexham reacted to the goal by having the lion’s share of possession but no real end product for it.  There seemed to be an over-reliance on crossing with no target man in the middle, whilst Eastleigh seemed a real threat on the counter attack.  Whilst Wrexham toiled in front of goal, Eastleigh would go 2-0 up in the 40th minute through Andy Drury, and what a strike it was.

It was great work from Cook once again down the right hand side, and he held off two men before passing the ball into the path of Drury.  From 30 yards out, he looked up and hit a wonderful half-lob over Cameron Belford into the top corner.  It was a mix of brilliant awareness and ridiculously accurate finishing.  If you want to get a sense of how deft a touch it was to loop the ball in, everyone in the stadium knows that he pressed R1 as he hit it.

Yes, that’s a FIFA 16 reference for you all.  Although it’s so hard now you’ll never score a goal that good.

Belford would have to punch a corner away in a panicky fashion before the first half came to a close, with the entire stadium a little stunned.  The Eastleigh fas were still all half-dressed and bounding about, and the Wrexham fans were astonished at their lack of effectiveness despite all the play they had, and that quite amazing goal from Drury to leave them reeling.  The only thing that cheered the stadium up was learning that Chester were doing even worse, 3-0 down at Bromley.

2015-09-26 14.49.55In the second half the youths to my left did not return, which I found myself oddly relieved by.  Despite having a 12 year old and being a former teacher, I find kids quite baffling.  Their desire to echo the dress sense of the older lads in front of me was quite funny, especially knowing that at that age they still can’t quite do it right and they have to ask their mums for Ellesse track suit tops for their birthday or Christmas.

Wrexham boss Gary Mills had to make some changes at half time, and he brought on Javan Vidal for Rob Evans and club captain Lee Fowler for Adam Smith.  The latter really made a difference, adding urgency and organisation to the team as they started the half with a desire to get something out of the game.  Wes York and Dan Harding got into a scuffle that the referee had to break up as Wrexham tried to dictate the pace of the game.

Connor Jennings flashed a header wide from a Wrexham corner, before another goal in the 54th minute, this time giving hope to the home fans.  Jennings sprung the offside trap to put York through who finished with aplomb.  Jennings then managed to miss when clean through before Dominic Vose hit the post from a fair way out.  Vose is very impressive, still only 21 and with a fantastic future ahead of him.  Once given a trial by Manchester United and Arsenal, he is fantastically skilful but also incredibly hard working.  He’ll go far.

With the clock ticking on, Wrexham pushed forwards and the atmosphere really picked up inside the ground.  A throw-in on the right hand side led to a hanging cross into the box that was hammered home via a towering header from full-back Sean Newton.  Once the cross was in the air you just knew he was getting on the end of it, running from the edge of the box and flattening anyone who got in his way.  He celebrated wildly in front of us, and the thought in everyone’s minds now was is there enough time for a winner?  The whole place was jumping.

Well, one thought in my mind was why isn’t there a uniform font for the backs of shirts in the Conference?  Stuff like that really annoys me.  At least it isn’t as bad as the German league where teams like Augsburg pretty much have Comic Sans on the backs of their shirts.  That is a bloody atrocity.

The game was all Wrexham now, but in the 87th minute Eastleigh had a rare chance to attack via a free kick on the right hand side.  The ball eventually came to Joe Partington who crossed from the byline onto the head of midfielder Ben Strevens who put Eastleigh back in front.  Their fans got undressed again in celebration, and our end was stunned.

York could have tied it up for Wrexham again, sliding in but not managing to get on a dangerous ball across the six yard box, before Jamal Fyfield was sent off for a second bookable offense for the home side.  Eastleigh held on and got their interim manager Chris Todd his first win in charge, whilst the Wrexham fans -who were loud and proud and excellent throughout – had to go home and hope that Wales would beat England in the rugby that night.

So it turned out that in the end, it wasn’t that bad a day after all.


Wrexham 2 (York 54, Newton 75) vs Eastleigh 3 (Reason 20, Drury 40, Strevens 87)

Attendance: 4,708

Cost: Ticket £15, Parking £2, Hot Dog £3.20, Diet Coke £1.80, Yorkie £1.50

Fun Factor: 8/10


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