It’s happened again. Eight weeks after Danny Hollands hit an extra-time play-off wonder-strike that left me unable to lift myself for another campaign in the National League, once again, I find myself eager for Wrexham to start the new season.
Say it quietly but it’s actually been a near-perfect close season for the Dragons. The core members of the squad that featured in the play-off defeat to Eastleigh, and who got us there over 46 league games, remain at the Racecourse. Meanwhile, the aging players we’ve let go in attacking positions have all been replaced with young blood: Devonte Redmond (22) for Nicky Deverdics (31), Leighton McIntosh (26) for Chris Holroyd (32) and JJ Hooper (25) for Stuart Beavon (34).
The astute business done by Bryan Hughes in his first transfer window as manager has been extremely encouraging and there’s now growing optimism around the club that we can do very well this season. For that reason, a big following was expected for Wrexham’s opening pre-season friendly at Cefn Druids. The girlfriend and I headed to The Rock to see the squad return to action.
Cefn Druids’ home is about 20 minutes from Ruabon train station if you’re willing to walk beside a number of main roads. However, rather than make this tarmac-heavy return journey on the hottest day of the year, we started our day in Chirk and took a more scenic route to the ground alongside Llangollen Canal.
On the way, we encountered many friendly walkers and canal boat residents who were also enjoying the serenity of the North Wales countryside. Things got busier when we arrived at Pontcysyllte Aqueduct but we managed to find our own corner of peace at the foot of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and admired the tallest canal aqueduct on the planet.
The epic scenes continued as we climbed back up the hills and into the village of Cefn Mawr. Any hint of a breeze dissipated and left us sweltering. We were, therefore, thankful for the air-con and chilled food provided by the local Tesco and the amazing rock face that greeted us at the stadium – which not only added to the ground’s character but also gave us some much-needed shade for the next two hours.
Return of attack
Wrexham’s side for the first 45 minutes featured many of the players you’d expect to see starting on the opening day, including new signings Redmond, Hooper and Mark Harris. And, excitingly for the 1,000 Reds fans in attendance, they were all incredible.
In the space of 22 minutes, Wrexham were 3-0 up. Redmond opened the scoring after being played in by Hooper and looked so confident with his finish. The roles were then reversed as Redmond freed Hooper, only for the striker to be brought down in the box. Hooper dispatched the penalty with similar confidence to his teammate and then grabbed another with a header from James Jennings’ cross. Harris was playing phenomenally well, too, and nearly made it four when he hit the post just before half-time.
Seeing Wrexham fluent in attack was a welcome sight. The past two seasons have seen us break records for clean sheets but lack a cutting edge up front. Redmond looked to be the key component in transforming our fortunes as his midfield presence was severely missed in the second half. He combined with Bobby Grant and Paul Rutherford, as well, and they all made us look more threatening than we’ve been for many years.
Same old Wrexham
With the game being the first of pre-season for both teams, the starting 11’s were completely changed at half-time. That killed the match for two reasons.
First, Wrexham reverted back to how they’ve played for two seasons. The lack of midfield threat meant they were only dangerous from set-pieces and new forward McIntosh, along with trailist Chris Dagnall, struggled to make much of an impression. Akil Wright scored from a corner to make it 4-0 and our trialist goalkeeper made a couple of reactionary saves but that’s all the second half scrap offered.
The other problem with the mass half-time switch-up was seeing Druids introduce ex-Wrexham goalie Michael Jones. Seemingly keen to make an impression against his old employers, Jones barked orders at every player in front of his goal for the entire 45 minutes. Just imagine a continuous cycle of the phrases ‘get tighter’, ‘man on’, and ‘squeeze them’ being echoed around the ground – along with an X-rated outcry of ‘fucking sort it out’ – and you get an accurate impression of Jones’ afternoon.
The very still conditions made the game an uncomfortable watch from the sidelines, so I can only imagine how tough it must have been to play in. The artificial surface didn’t help either, as many of the first team squad – including Jake Lawlor, Luke Summerfield and Rob Lainton – didn’t play to avoid aggravating their respective knocks.
Their inclusion may have made the the second half less of a slog but besides the poor finale to the match, I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to The Rock. It’s picturesque location, both in terms of where the ground lies and the surrounding area beyond Cefn Mawr, made the whole day more memorable. Plus, the glimpses of quality we witnessed from the opening period has given us several reasons to be excited for the season ahead.