When Wrexham entered 2019 with a record of three defeats in the whole season, many fans were looking at the Easter Monday game against FC Halifax Town as the match that clinches our National League title. Even I allowed myself to dream, as I pictured our supporters running on to the pitch at The Shay after Shaun Pearson’s header secured our return to the Football League…
Just a few games into the new year, though, I quickly realised how far from reality my mind had wandered. Four straight defeats in the league dented our title challenge significantly. Graham Barrow resigned after two months as manager and Bryan Hughes took over to help steer us in the right direction again.
To be fair to ‘Yosser’, he did manage to do that for a time. But in early March, a 1-0 defeat at Leyton Orient ignited another severe dip in form and we headed to Halifax with half a chance of finishing third but without a hope of winning the league.
Strangely though, having guaranteed a play-off spot for the first time in six years, there was still the possibility of the fixture being Wrexham’s last away match in the National League. Securing third spot would go a long way to making that happen, as one win at home takes you straight to the Wembley showdown. I headed to West Yorkshire to see how our promotion chances would look at full-time.
Bank Holiday Monday
The train ride from Manchester Victoria set me up for what Halifax would be like. We passed several picturesque towns and villages I’d never heard of, such as Hebden Bridge and Todmorden. Their limestone houses were bathed in hazy sunshine and surrounded by impressive hills. It was a shame I couldn’t stop off at each one and look around but Halifax had it’s own great discoveries.
There were two points of interest I wanted to see before the game: the Piece Hall and Halifax Minster. The former was a stunning, old market square that was home to many independent shops and cafes on three levels. A lot of people were taking in the sun on the ground floor, though, so I headed to a quieter venue.
Halifax Minster was about five minutes away and was much more calmer. I took a few snaps that tried to capture the age and mood of the place. Then when I was about to leave, a lady informed me that photos required a permit costing three pounds. I didn’t know if she wanted me to pay for the photos I’d just taken so I delayed leaving until I could sneak out with my illegal shots still stored on my phone.
Eventually I realised there were no other escape routes so I crept past her and out the front door before making a hasty retreat to the ground.
Matching the hosts
Hoards of Wrexham fans were drinking outside the Three Pigeons pub as I made my way to The Shay. That was my first indication of the mammoth following we’d brought, which turned out to be almost half of the game’s total gate.
The away end was full of red shirts when I arrived and included some traditional, end-of-season fancy dress costumes. It felt like a party even though we had little to play for.
Wrexham bossed the opening exchanges and should have grabbed an early lead through Jason Oswell’s instinctive backheel but he somehow managed to completely misdirect it.
The home team’s front three soon began to cause us problems, though, with Matty Kosylo and Devante Rodney charging at our back four far too easily. Their dominance pinned us back and allowed Halifax to score the opening goal. Cameron King’s threaded pass put Scott Quigley through and he hit a great strike into the top corner.
The former Wrexham man turned to us and instantly apologized for his goal. He looked genuinely gutted to have scored. We all appreciated that and the fans sung his name when he, unfortunately, came off injured just 10 minutes later.
That change seemed to aid us and we looked more threatening before we eventually drew level. Oswell headed towards goal from a corner and Chris Holroyd prodded the ball home. It set us up nicely to find a winner in the second half and keep us in the hunt for the top three place.
The second half could have gone either way, in all honesty. Halifax looked like they’d breached our defence a couple of times but Kieran Kennedy and Kevin Roberts put in some important, last-ditch interceptions.
James Jennings, on the other hand, went up the opposite end and had a header saved on the line. A lot of people were saying it actually went over but I thought it was just kept out by Sam Johnston in the Halifax goal.
Wrexham went looking for a winner knowing that a point would probably end their chances of finishing in the top three but could only muster long-range, off-target efforts from the boot of Bobby Grant. The party atmosphere in the away end slowly suffocated as the half went on before it was resolutely killed off in added-time.
Out of nothing, Rodney managed to find space in the Wrexham box and fired a shot into the bottom corner of Rob Lainton’s goal. It was a tough one to take, not only because of the time on the clock but for how much Wrexham could do with a player like Rodney up front.
We don’t have any match-winners like him in our team and that’s why I can’t see us winning the play-offs. Our only chance of going up is by keeping things tight and winning every game 1-0 but that’s unlikely to happen over three games, especially now our defensive record has diminished so drastically.
Even if we clean sheet our way through the play-offs, we need to make attacking players a priority in the summer. Re-signing Ben Tollitt would be a great first step but there needs to be more depth in the forward options, plus a midfielder or two who can actually run at opposition defences.
People say these players aren’t easy to find but I’ve seen many teams below us in the league with match-winners. Why can’t we sign 15-goal striker Alfie Rutherford from relegated outfit Havant and Waterlooville, for example? Or persuade 13-goal forward Adrian Clifton to move from Maidenhead United?
We signed Louis Moult from Nuneaton a few years ago. So, for me, it is definitely possible. If we do that and keep our defensive spine (Lainton, Pearson, Luke Young) then we will be closer than ever.
Chances are we’ll be returning to the Shay next season. I’d like to revisit if we do face them again as the town and most of the stadium is really nice. However, if the price of the ticket remains the same and we’re put in the same stand again, I may have to reconsider.
Getting charged £20 to sit in the shed end where the seats were still covered in dust and the toilets were literally like pissing up a wall, really didn’t sit well with me. Reading the match programme after the game, those running the club are giving their fans discounted season tickets for the next campaign, so it felt like we were the ones paying for that.
If they’d opened the massive terrace instead of using it for a flag pole then I’d have been more satisfied to pay £20. Fingers crossed they make the change for next season – or we win the play-offs!