No Sweat: Wrexham AFC Prepare for Grudge Match with Newport County

“It’s Thomas who takes it…OH WHAT A GOAL MICKEY THOMAS! He’s done it! The magic little man, at the venerable age of 37, has produced a sensational goal.”

Wrexham AFC are hardly rookies when it comes to the FA Cup. Though their most famous moment in the competition came at the Racecourse Ground in 1992, beating Division One champions Arsenal less than a year after finishing bottom of the entire Football League, their journey to the fourth round that season pales against their cup achievements before and since. Twice in the seventies The Dragons reached the quarter-finals, knocked out by Burnley and, coincidentally, Arsenal, before another run to the last eight in 1997 was ended by fellow giantkillers Chesterfield.

That run in the mid-nineties came during a time of relative stability for the North Walians, before a despotic owner and the Inland Revenue combined to plunge the club into crisis. In 2004, Wrexham broke new ground by becoming the first club to suffer a ten point deduction on financial grounds, having been placed in administration, which factored heavily in their relegation from the third tier. A string of false dawns and hapless managers followed, until The Dragons eighty-seven year stay in the Football League ended in 2008, as they finished bottom of League Two.

The course of Wrexham’s future took a turn for the better on 12th December 2011, when the Football Conference ratified the takeover of the club by Wrexham AFC Limited, a wholly subsidiary of the Wrexham Supporters Club. Since then, Wrexham have been wholly fan-owned, and have quickly become one of the biggest success stories of the fan-ownership movement. Within two years of the takeover, the club announced that all previous debts had been cleared, thanks largely to their FA Trophy win in the 2012/13 season. From the club running at a loss and finding itself mired in over half a million pounds worth of debt pre-takeover, Wrexham were able to announce profits at their most recent AGM in March, and thanks to their ongoing stability on the pitch, the Dragons now find themselves in fine fettle, ready to fight their way back up the football pyramid.

This season they embarked on their tenth successive year in the Conference, and though they’ve finished in the playoff places on three occasions, they’ve only made the final once, leading to perhaps the most heartbreaking moment for Wrexham’s supporters in the last decade.

Under the guidance of player/manager Andy Morrell, Wrexham had squeezed into the last playoff place thanks to the goals of Danny Wright and Brett Ormerod. With Kidderminster Harriers dispatched in the semi-finals, one game at Wembley stood between them and a return to league football. They would come up against a team that had themselves suffered at the hands of imprudence, having been forced to fold in the late eighties and make their way from non-league obscurity to the brink of League Two. The fact that Newport County hailed from the south of Wales gave this particular final an extra pinch of spice, as if it needed it. A tense, nervy encounter looked to be heading for extra time when, in the 86th minute, Christian Jolley gave Newport the lead. With Wrexham throwing men forward in search of an equaliser, County broke forwards and Aaron O’Connor smashed in the second to secure promotion for the southerners. For Wrexham, another afternoon of crushing disappointment.

In the aftermath of that defeat, Morrell and his players struggled to maintain the momentum that had taken them so close to promotion. The manager would depart midway through the following season, as Wrexham limped to a 17th place finish, before bouncing around midtable for the next few seasons. The emergence of Dean Keates last season, the former Dragons midfielder taking his first steps into management, would be shortlived as, having steered the club into the playoff places, he departed for hometown team Walsall, and Wrexham’s latest promotion challenge stuttered to a halt.

This season, though, things look brighter for the men in red. The appointment of former Welsh international defender Sam Ricketts has galvanised the squad, and they currently find themselves in the mix for automatic promotion alongside big-spending Salford City and Football League stalwarts Leyton Orient. Ricketts’ defensive nous has clearly rubbed off on his players, with Wrexham boasting the third meanest defence in the division, and along with the moneybags from the North West, they were one of only two sides unbeaten at home this season before the visit of table-toppers Orient this weekend. The young manager has dismissed rumours that Shrewsbury Town are keen on poaching his services, and now focus can turn from the promotion push to overdue revenge after Wrexham were drawn at home to Newport County in the Second Round.

With national pride on the line, alongside a place in that coveted Third Round draw, we spoke to lifelong Wrexham supporter and Online Sports Reporter Nathan Salt to find out if fans are worried about a cup run scuppering league form, and how they’re feeling about meeting their playoff conquerors and fellow Welshmen.

“I think Lincoln’s achievements are the go-to example for any non-league club now when it comes to the FA Cup. As much as that run was unprecedented, it did not derail the league and winning breeds momentum. Having not had a good run in the cup since the trip to Stoke City a few years ago, it would be great for the supporters to go on a run.

“The 2013 playoff final is still fresh in the memory of many and inevitably a sense of ‘we owe you one’ comes to mind. Geographically it’s not exactly a derby but this is the pride of north vs south, a national rivalry and there’s something about purple jumpers which Wrexham fans will never let lie…

“At home we have no reason to fear. That’s not to say the club go into the contest with their eyes closed. Newport are doing well in League Two and have plenty about them. But this is a winnable game and I’m sure that will be the feeling in both dressing rooms.”

Whilst the Racecourse Ground regularly pulls in league-high attendances with more than five thousand supporters roaring on The Dragons, Wrexham will be expecting a bumper crowd for their meeting with Newport. Combined with the broadcast fee from BT Sport and any potential prize money from winning the tie, the match provides an unexpected windfall for a club that can ill-afford to live outside their means.

The Welsh side got to this stage by beating another financially flush Conference side in the Fourth Qualifying Round, with goals from Akil Wright and Luke Young earning a win in the replay over Harrogate Town following a goalless draw at Wetherby Road. The banana skin of Weston-super-Mare in the First Round was successfully maneuvered, and ahead of this weekend’s top of the table clash with Leyton Orient, Ricketts’ team found themselves on an eleven game unbeaten run in all competitions.

Newport, meanwhile, have a promotion push of their own to contemplate, having recovered from a couple of early season shellackings to put pressure on Lincoln City and MK Dons at the top of League Two. They discovered first hand how lucrative a run in the FA Cup can be, finding themselves minutes away from knocking Tottenham Hotspur out at Rodney Parade, before eventually succumbing in a Fourth Round Replay. That cup success also coincided with faltering league form, as the Exiles fell from 5th in January to 11th by the end of the season. Even so Welsh pride remains at stake, and Michael Flynn, who patrolled Newport’s midfield during that playoff final win, will be keen to ensure that revenge is off the menu.

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