Every year for my birthday, I go on an all-night adventure with my friend Sam to the other side of the country. We’ve previously taken in cities like London and Bristol until the early hours of the morning but we’ve started centring our travels around Wrexham away games.
Last year we ventured north to Guiseley and witnessed a 3-2 win featuring a last-minute winner from Paul Rutherford. Twelve months on we headed down south to what the FA recognises as the oldest senior ground in the country that’s been continuously used by the same club. That club is Maidenhead United, who’ve been playing at York Road since 1871.
I can’t get past anything else as a highlight without dissecting our first three points of the 2017/18 season. In some ways, it felt like the same sort of circumstances as last year’s win over Guiseley, i.e. a bit of a smash and grab.
Wrexham didn’t play great. We gave the ball away too many times for my liking and didn’t create a lot of chances. Credit must be given to Maidenhead who won the Conference South title last season by only losing one game at home. That one being when they were already crowned champions. Their centre-half, Alan Massey, was a colossal presence against us. However, as their manager – former FA Cup winner and England midfielder Alan Devonshire – pointed out, they will be disappointed by their defending from set pieces.
Manny Smith opened the scoring for us in the game as well as the season with a header from Marcus Kelly’s free-kick. It was a great moment. I think the players felt a bit of pressure had been lifted by getting that opening goal as they looked elated to open the scoring in front of our away following.
I celebrated the goal with my dad on the phone. Another great moment. But as soon as I’d hung up Maidenhead were down the other end of the pitch snatching an equaliser. Dave Tarpey, scorer of 46 goals last season and who I was most concerned about before the game, grabbed the goal after a fine defensive block fell kindly for him to slot home.
All the pressure was back on and it showed at the start of the second half. We were constantly getting pegged back. Then our captain Shaun Pearson appeared to bring down Sean Marks in the box. I thought the whistle would go but the referee carried on like nothing had happened. Definitely a lucky escape there in my eyes but I guess that evens things up after our clear penalty wasn’t awarded on Saturday.
A change in wingers then changed the game in our favour. Last year’s hero Rutherford was replaced by Jack Mackreth who set up Smith for another headed goal. Being on the opposite end of the ground, I couldn’t see who’d scored or if the ball had even gone in… but the Wrexham players celebrated and that was enough for me.
If I had to guess who’d scored, I would have said Ntumba Massanka. That’s who the official credit went to as well until the striker took to Twitter and credited Smith instead. Strangely, BBC Sport still has the winner down as Massanka. Hell, I’d take an own goal. As long as someone got the winner for us, I don’t mind who got the credit.
The goal came with just over 10 minutes left to play. We looked comfortable in that time but we had to thank goalkeeper Chris Dunn for the win too. He made a fantastic save in added time from a looping header. I must admit, I thought it was in as soon as it left his head. But Dunn, who was criticised for not doing better with Macclesfield’s winner in the opening game, proved to be a key figure in securing our first win.
Great away following
Over 300 Wrexham fans made the journey down south on a Tuesday night, which I thought was very commendable. The exchanges they had with the home fans next to them really gave the match an edge. It did threaten to boil over at one stage with police being brought out to stop people confronting each other. But it was a trouble-free game on the whole.
One Wrexham fan did get on the pitch when we scored before jumping back into the away end. Stewards tried to chase him down in the stands after the incident which I thought was harsh. I hope he got to see the game through in the end.
One of the appeals of visiting Maidenhead was the chance to visit UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s constituency. To see the town that’s elected her as their MP for over three decades was a fascinating sub-plot. One which the Wrexham fans also took note of by singing the viral chant ‘oh, Jeremy Corbyn’.
From what I saw of my brief time in Maidenhead town centre, it’s not as flashy as I thought it would be. I was also disappointed we didn’t spot Lord Buckethead, who challenged May at the General Election last June. Fair play to the people of Maidenhead though, they obviously feel like she’s represented them well over the years.
Some average performances
I feel like some Wrexham players haven’t found their rhythm yet. When Mackreth came on, he typified what Wrexham fans want to see in a player. One fan called him a ‘terrier’. It’s that constant pressing and closing down that I haven’t seen enough from some of the other players yet.
Sam Wedgbury grew into the game in that way, whilst substitute Akil Wright proved a handful when he was introduced in the closing stages. It will be interesting to see if manager Dean Keates starts with Mackreth and Wright in the next game away at Dover.
Maidenhead United was great fun to visit. Their fans are vocal and the atmosphere was very enjoyable. Whilst Wrexham weren’t at their best, the scrappy game that unfolded was a treat. It felt like two teams working hard for the badges on their respective shirts and for the fans in the stands.
The win obviously helped me enjoy my birthday celebrations a lot more and set up our all-night escapades nicely.
Maidenhead United 1 – 2 Wrexham
Ground rating: 6/10
Coming back from Maidenhead, we stopped off in Reading and had a look around before our next train. The most noticeable aspects of the town were the vast amounts of shops. But also, unfortunately, the sheer amount of homeless people. We were stopped three times by people asking for change in the space of an hour and counted double figures on people sleeping rough. It was pretty eye-opening. Many times on our annual adventures we’ve been helped out by someone on the streets. They’d give us directions and we’d give them some biscuits or whatever we were carrying around. But Reading was beyond what we’d seen before in terms of numbers. All of our loose change was gone by the time we travelled on to Newport.
In Reading, I didn’t have time to visit the Madejski Stadium as it’s situated on the outskirts of the town. Something I’ll have to rectify in the future. However, Newport’s stadium is just over the River Usk and is 10 minutes away from the train station.
Rodney Parade is home to Newport County Football Club as well as Newport Rugby Football Club and the Newport Gwent Dragons. Many international rugby stars have played there including Welshmen Taulupe Faletau and Dan Lydiate. The football team has only been playing at the ground since 2011, having moved from Spytty Park.
I’m going to be very honest with this assessment and say that Rodney Parade is my least favourite ground I’ve visited so far on my tour. I don’t like saying it and I don’t want to say it but it’s how I feel. There isn’t any kind of warmth or charm to it at all. Its surroundings are bleak. From dingy alleyways to building site panelling displaying the entrance to the ground.
To be fair, I was visiting at night and the ground itself is actually situated inside all of the construction work on the exterior. When we scaled one of the back walls, it did look alright on the inside. Perhaps I would have a different opinion if I went to a match and saw the stands and pitch properly.
Until then though, I would have to agree with the Four Four Two article I read recently. Of the 92 Football League grounds they reviewed, Rodney Parade came out second-bottom. Unfortunately, at the minute, it’s one less than that on here.
The city of Newport is very nice though! Sam and I would like to go back and see its impressive bridges, historical castle and cathedral, and riverside walk again in the daytime.