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It is, perhaps, no great surprise that the two most funereal evictions from the Football League since the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation between Division Four and the Conference in 1987 both involved Welsh clubs. In the case of Newport County in 1988, it was like witnessing the last day at work of a terminally ill employee. They were the most impoverished club in the Football League at a time of widespread financial crisis, and were wound up in February 1989, without even completing their first season in non-league football. The new club were founded that summer and, some nineteen years later, still find themselves two division below the trapdoor that they fell through two decades ago. The same fate befell Wrexham this summer, meaning that the number of Welsh teams in the Football League is now half what is was prior to Newport’s demotion. It is one of the ironies of Welsh football that the senior Welsh clubs, that for all their rebranding themselves in something approaching Welsh nationalist colours – Sam Hammam tried to market Cardiff City as “the club for all Wales” and Wrexham changed their nickname from “The Robins” to “The Red Dragons” – they are utterly dependent on the English league system. Ask an average Cardiff City supporter what their biggest fear for the future is, and they would be likely to say someting along the lines of, “being forced to join the Welsh Premier League”. Welsh clubs have, for decades, worn this otherness on their sleeves as a badge of pride, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the number of Welsh clubs in the Football League has now dropped from four to two.
Wrexham’s demotion was also met with a quiet, deathly acceptance. They had survived in the last day of the 2006/07 season with an edgy win against Boston United at The Racecourse Ground, and I noted on here in the summer of 2007 that many clubs that have survived the drop in such circumstances have gone on to flourish, having heeded the warning shot fired and resolutely decided “never again”. Wrexham, however, reacted differently. They were in the bottom two of the League for the whole of last season, and slipped through the trapdoor with barely a murmur. For many of their supporters, this was the beginning of the end. There was talk amongst their supporters that they would have to turn semi-professional, even that they might have to join the Welsh Premier League. Stevenage Borough, meanwhile, are the Blue Square Premier’s perennial “nearly men”. Promoted in 1994, they won it two years later and, in 1998, held Newcastle United to a 1-1 draw in the FA Cup Third Round before losing the replay at St James Park. Last season, following the resignation of manager Mark Stimson to take up a position at Gillingham, they hired Peter Taylor in a demonstration of their ambition to finally that elusive place in the Football League. Things didn’t however, go according to plan and they missed out on a place in the play-offs by one place. Taylor was sacked and replaced with Graham Westley. Westley is a curious mixture of football manager and, seemingly, motivational speaker. During his time as owner-manager of Farnborough Town, for example, he changed the name of the club’s Cherrywood Road ground to “The Aimita Stadium”, with “Aimita” being an acronym for “Attitude Is More Important Than Ability”. His record as a manager may be mixed, but he has been given money to spend. Stevenage start the season as the bookmakers as favourites to win the BSP, with a strong forward line of former Franchise striker Iyesden Christie and former Canvey Island and Cambridge United goal machine Lee Boylan starting up front for them.
Wrexham concerns that relegation from League Two means the beginning of the end for them appear to be unfounded. A crowd of nearly 5,000 were at The Racecourse Ground for the first match of the season, and Wrexham ran out comfortable winners in match that was tighter than the final 5-0 scoreline would appear to suggest. With their manager, Brian Little, having also made numerous changes to his squad over the summer, there was an element of the unexpected about this game but, as things turned out, it would appear that Wrexham might be well-placed to launch a sustained bid to get back into the Football League. The opening goal came just after a quarter of an hour, when Tom Kearney’s shot took a massive deflection and left Stevenage goalkeeper Ashley Bayes diving in completely the wrong direction as the ball rolled into the opposite corner of the net. Stevenage had the best of the rest of the play in the remainder of the first half, with the Wrexham goalkeeper Gavin Ward being forced to make good saves from Bostwick and Albrighton. Few in the crowd at half-time could have successfully guessed what would happen in the second half. The game changed completely with the sending off of Stevenage’s Steve Morison just before the hour mark – a straight red card for an aerial challenge on Darran Kempson. Down to ten men and with an attacking substitution already having been made, Stevenage fell apart. Jeff Louis took advantage of poor Stevenage defending to to double the lead from close range, and with twenty minutes to play Shaun Whalley lobbed a hopelessly out of position Bayes to add a third goal, even though Levi Mackin had been sent off a couple of minutes previously. Suddenly, this non-league business was starting to look quite easy. Christian Smith took advantage of more poor defending to make it 4-0 and, in the closing stages, a lack of communication between Bayes and his defenders allowed Marc Williams to roll the ball into an empty net to bring down the curtain on a perfect start to Wrexham’s season.
Wrexham’s supporters would do well not to get too over-excited by this result. Whilst the final scoreline was convincing, the match statistics confirm that Wrexham scored with five out of their seven shots on target, and a number of their goals came as the result of some poor individual and collective defending by the visitors. Wrexham will play better teams that this Stevenage team, and heir confidence is still brittle enough for a setback of any sort to undo much (if not all) of the good work that Saturday’s result will have bred into them. For Stevenage Borough, however, this result is a sudden and unexpected crisis. Stevenage played much of the match giving the impression that the players didn’t seem to know each other at all. Graham Westley may still believe that “attitude is more important than ability”. One presumes that he will be spending the next few weeks working on his team’s attitude.