The beautiful thing about the opening day of a league season is the positivity. There’s new players, new shirts and new chants. Everything that happened in the previous campaign is put to one side as fans up and down the country dream of it being their year.
Seeing Wrexham’s first home game of the season has been a tradition of mine for many years. I’m fairly certain I’ve not missed an opener at the Racecourse since we were relegated to the Conference 10 seasons ago. I’ve learnt many things in that time. Like winning 5-0 against title favourites Stevenage doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be there or thereabouts (we finished 10th) and drawing to a Cambridge United side that would finish 17th isn’t too bad (we finished 2nd on 98 points).
With those experiences in mind, I travelled to the world’s oldest international football stadium still in use today with an open mind. And joining me for her first taste of proper football was my girlfriend, Saffron.
I figured the opening fixture of the season would draw a number of Wrexham fans. It’s been a very good summer of recruitment by manager Dean Keates, who really has brought a feel-good factor to North Wales. Two-year deals have been given to the entire starting back four – which, in my view, is one of the best back fours in the National League – so we have a base to build on. We look a lot stronger in midfield this year too, whilst I’m fairly certain strikers Scott Boden, Chris Holroyd and Ntumba Massanka will contribute a number of goals between them.
It didn’t really shock me when the attendance came through: 6,118. The only surprise was the ratio between home and away supporters. Before the match, I thought Macclesfield would take about 500-800 fans. It’s not too far for them to travel and a bit of opening day optimism would surely persuade a few to make the short trip. However, they took around 300 in the end. So that meant nearly 6,000 Wrexham fans turned up. A staggering number when you compare the attendance figures across the country.
We were by far the biggest crowd in the National League. Hartlepool were the only team to come close with just under 4,000. Although it would have been interesting to see what figure Tranmere Rovers would have had if they were at home on opening day.
What’s more impressive though, is how the crowd compared to teams in higher divisions. Five out of 12 fixtures in League One and nine out of 12 in League Two had lower crowds than Wrexham. That’s astonishing. My dad also told me Cardiff’s game at Burton Albion had less than us and that’s in the Championship!
A ‘fulfilling’ game
Last season, Wrexham opened their campaign against Dover with a 0-0 draw. I remember feeling lucky to gain a point as we were hammered by the away side. That left me frustrated. There was nothing to shout about in that game. It only brought moans, jeers and fear for what was to come later in the season.
At full-time this year, I didn’t feel particularly bad. Both teams were pretty evenly matched and only one goal – a 30-yard shot out of nothing – proved the difference.
Throughout the game, I felt I got my money’s worth. The referee had a terrible game, giving every little decision to Macclesfield and nothing to us. This included a stonewall penalty. Marcus Kelly was through on goal and brought down in the six-yard box by their goalscorer Noe Baba. We were livid behind the goal. I think the only person who thought it was a good tackle was the man in black. Later on, I saw a picture on Twitter of Baba’s foot wrapped around Kelly. Baba would have surely been sent off if the ref blew so perhaps that was in his mind. Still, it got us off our feet and left me with a satisfyingly hoarse voice, even if we didn’t grab an equaliser.
Asked how I felt on the train home by Saff, I couldn’t think of the right word. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t content or even confident. It wasn’t until I arrived home that the right word hit me. Fulfilled. I’d been craving a meaningful game all summer. And as much as I enjoy going to different matches and stadiums, nothing quite compares to the emotions I experience when seeing Wrexham. Having a trip to the first away game against Maidenhead planned three days later probably took the sting off the loss.
Oh, and Saff said she enjoyed the game too. So very fulfilling all round.
It’s a pretty obvious one. I’ve had a good record down the years with winning the first home game but I’ve only seen one win in four now (v. Torquay 2014/15). Wrexham tend to come unstuck when playing to a large crowd. Perhaps the nerves are jangling a bit to put on a performance. The team certainly looked edgy against Macc. There was no flow to our play at all in the first half. Credit to the Silkmen though, they were very well organised, winning every header at the back. And their goalscorer, Baba, was by far the best player on the park. He absolutely dominated the midfield and ran the show for them. And even though he should have seen red for that last-ditch foul on Kelly, it just kind of added to his perfect day.
Something that could be a concern for us in the upcoming season is a lack of depth. We brought on Ntumba Massanka after 20 minutes when former Macc forward Chris Holroyd popped his shoulder and came off. To be fair, Massanka played well. But when we needed a goal in the second half, there weren’t many options on the bench to change things up. In the end, centre half Shaun Pearson was thrown up front in a bid to find the equaliser. It looked a little desperate to be honest. Especially with only 80 minutes of the season gone.
With a tight-knit squad of 18 players and only three forwards to choose from, I feel like Keates needs to bring in another striker and also be astute in the loan market if or when a succession of injuries arises.
Despite losing, I didn’t feel despondent after the game. I could tell that Wrexham are in a much better state on the field than they were 12 months ago. Ironically, we got a point back then when we should have lost and had a defeat this time around when we should have had a point.
I think the Wrexham team just need a little time to gel. With a revamp of 13 players in the summer, the finished article will take some time to manifest. But I think once the first win comes, the ball will start rolling. The early season optimism isn’t dead in me yet.
Wrexham 0 – 1 Macclesfield Town
Ground rating: 10/10 (of course)