My friend, Sam, and I have travelled across the country to see Wrexham’s first away game of the season for the past two campaigns. Trips to Guiseley and Maidenhead have given us plenty of stories, along with plenty of points (six in total).
But, interestingly, every time we’ve visited a new place on the road with the Reds, it’s been under a different manager every year – Gary Mills oversaw our fortuitous 3-2 win in Yorkshire, while Dean Keates edged a 2-1 win down in Berkshire 12 months ago.
Our latest trip to Dover stuck to the fresh manager trend, as Sam Ricketts took charge of Wrexham for the first time since being appointed in the summer. His chances of keeping our 100% record on the opening away day were pretty slim, though, with Wrexham never managing to beat the Whites in eight previous attempts.
We lightened the long journey to the south coast by heading down to London on Friday night, before setting off for Dover the following morning to see if Ricketts could make history in his first game as a manager.
From the Cliffs to the Crabble
It was hard to miss Dover’s biggest attractions when we arrived. The castle stood on top of the town’s famous white cliffs and was visible from street level. Not only that, almost every shop, cafe, takeaway and pub had been christened something castle or cliff-related. It’s no real surprise, though, their presence in the skyline was stunning. And when we hiked to the top, the views along the cliffside walk were epic.
I could probably post about 10 amazing photos from the white cliffs, they’re just so photogenic from every angle. But despite how nice they look on camera, I honestly don’t think photos do them justice. For me, they’re an experience more than a sight; walking along the edge, touching the chalk, sweating in the heat, watching the bustle of the ferry port below and taking in the calm expanse of the English Channel, were all unforgettable moments.
The only problem we faced was on our descent: we realised we were completely out of game mode. Seeing a football match felt more like a bonus than the main event at that point, and an extra half hour of walking to reach the ground didn’t help our excitement levels either.
When we eventually arrived, we had further walking to do. Crabble is a strange stadium that’s wedged in-between a forest and a rugby pitch (that’s also used as a car park). A long, winding path through woodland leads to the away end – which would have been quite pleasant had we not been hiking all afternoon.
Still, we managed to get to the ground in plenty of time and our anticipation for the season opener grew quickly amongst the vocal Wrexham following.
Making his competitive debut at Dover was our new number nine, Mike Fondop-Talom – a man who’s had quite a pre-season.
I remember the day he signed. I was on a train to Aberdovey and some Wrexham fans were having a minor meltdown over his arrival. Scathing gifs and comments were posted on social media about the club’s lack of ambition, the length of his contract and Sam Ricketts’ capabilities as our new manager. All before he’d even played.
Admittedly, I had my doubts as well. A one-year deal felt more appropriate than the two he’d signed. But things began to change on the beaches of Aberdovey when I heard his first interview.
He had something different about him. A lack of upbringing in academy football meant he didn’t use clichés. Whimsical is the word I keep using to describe him. He’s infectious, charming and humble. And it seemed to endear him into the hearts of Wrexham fans, even if his goalscoring prowess was still questionable.
Five goals in six pre-season games quickly changed things though. That, along with some dance moves, more great interviews and a few rounds of applause for the Wrexham faithful during games, transformed MFT into a cult hero. And things only propelled further for him when he took to the field at Crabble.
The 6’3” striker led the line magnificently against three centre-halves with their own height and physicality. He was a total menace, both up front and when he came back to defend.
To cap it off, he scored the winner. Luke Summerfield – also making his debut – put in a dangerous ball that Fondop acrobatically latched onto with his back to goal. It was a sort of low bicycle-kick, and it sent us 312 fans at the other end mental.
During the final stages of the game, MFT applauded us once again for our support, and came off to rapturous chants of his name. Then, post-match, he gave us a celebratory dance.
Now, I don’t know if I’ve caught too much Fondop Fever, but I swear he danced for my camera. It certainly looked like he acknowledged me after he did it. But either way, cheers for the photo, Fondop!
Rob Lainton had a strange match. The on-loan keeper could make a firm claim to be man of the match after saving a penalty on the stroke of half-time. It was a moment that was as important to the win as Fondop’s goal, and looked to be justice for a penalty decision which seemed baffling.
However, he didn’t fill me with confidence with a lot of his decision-making or catching, particularly as Dover seemed to have a legitimate goal ruled out in the final few minutes.
Lainton produced a poor punch away initially, before dropping the ball onto Shaun Pearson’s back during the next phase of play. A lot of people think Pearson was fouled as Jamie Allen tucked the loose ball into the net. But I’ve seen a replay and I don’t think that’s the case.
Even so, I think Lainton should have been stronger in the air on both occasions and I fear we may come unstuck further down the line. I hope I’m wrong.
‘The Room’ of programmes
In recent months, there’s been a lot of talk about matchday programmes moving online and ceasing to be sold as hard copies outside grounds. Getting a couple of programmes for me and my dad is always high on my priority list when attending the football – I like to keep him involved with my travels and it’s nice to have a souvenir from the game.
However, I kind of wish I’d downloaded Dover’s programme instead. It’s predominantly made up of adverts and any actual content is very light on information (unless it’s about Wrexham’s history – which is a lovely, jam-packed copy and paste job from Wikipedia). Meanwhile, one column piece is a complete re-print from their game with Leyton Orient in March!
I’m sure they’ve got a hard-working media team, so I don’t want to be too harsh, but reading it was a bit like watching The Room – I found it funny but not for the right reasons. Finding out on the train that I got charged £3 each instead of the £2.50 advertised just added to the humour.
My time in Dover couldn’t have gone much better. I didn’t expect us to win – especially since we’d never beaten them. But, to be honest, I’d have been satisfied even if that late goal had stood. Wrexham looked like a team with a plan. Each player knew their job and they managed to control proceedings right until Fondop was substituted.
Killing off games is something we failed to do last season and I’m pleased with Ricketts’ post-match comments about scoring more goals to give us breathing space. He knows there’s more hard work down the road, which is an aspect of Ricketts I really like. He’s more mellow than Keates was but I think he’s more methodical and I’m excited to see how he and his side gets on this season. Breaking records on debut is a pretty promising start.