This match was supposed to be a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the final aggregate score perpetuates that feeling. Truth, however, can be stranger than fiction and the supporters of Wrexham FC can be justifiably proud of the performance of their team at Kenilworth Road this evening. In the first leg of this Blue Square Premier play-off, Luton Town put in a display of consumate professionalism at The Racecourse Ground as the home side froze on their big night. This evening, though, a match that should, with all reason, have been little more than a procession for the home side, turned, for half an hour or so into a nervy encounter which threatened to go terribly, horribly wrong for Luton.
Unsurprisingly, there was something of a carnival atmosphere around Kenilworth Road tonight. A three goal advantage from the first leg was surely too much to throw away, wasn’t it? The Wrexham manager Dean Saunders – who has already performed outstandingly against a backdrop of unrest which has often spilled over into outright civil war at his club this season – evidently though not, and the visitors began aggressively and positively. After eight minutes, the comeback seemed on course when Adrian Cieslewicz crossed from the right and Andy Mangan poked the ball over the line. The Luton players seemed visibly shaken by this early set-back and Wrexham, with nothing to lose, continued to pour players forward in search of a second goal.
The moment upon which the whole game turned came after twenty minutes, when Andy Mangan tried to turn inside the Luton defender Dan Gleeson. In trying to play the ball inside him, Gleeson handled – there were no real complaints that could be had when the referee blew for a penalty kick. Responsibility for the penalty fell to Gareth Taylor, but his kick was poor and comfortably saved by the Luton goalkeeper Mark Tyler. Even then, though, the drama of this penalty kick wasn’t over the the ball squirmed out of Tyler’s hands, off his left-hand post and back to the doubtlessly relieved goalkeeper.
Even with this chance having passed Wrexham continued to push forward, but Luton earned themselves some breathing space after half an hour, with a goal that came quite out of nothing. A long, deep free-kick saw Zdenek Kroca slip away from his marker and send a looping header over the Wrexham goalkeeper Chris Maxwell, who had strayed too far from his line, and into the net. Upon these two, contrasting moments of goalkeeping did the match rest. At one end, Tyler had ridden his luck in preventing a slight feeling of alarm amongst the home crowd from turning to full-on alarm. At the other, Maxwell’s lapse in concentration cost Wrexham a lead that they, at that point, thoroughly deserved. After this, Luton started to regain a little of their composure and the half-ended as it had begun, Luton still with a comfortable three-goal cushion.
Reorganising at half-time, the home side came out for the second half seemingly of the opinion that defence would be the best form of attack. There was something in this, certainly. Maxwell, the Wrexham goalkeeper, looked shaky and Frank Sinclair’s performance in defence for Wrexham seemed little better than his disastrous performance in the first leg of the tie. Maxwell’s botched clearance early in the second half teed up Claude Gnakpa, but the goalkeeper recovered to push his shot over the crossbar. Wrexham did try to push forward, but Luton felt more composed in the second half and, with ten minutes left to play any remaining shreds of doubt that their supporters may have had vanished into the evening air with nine minutes to play when Jake Howells found Gnakpa on the right-hand side and Gnakpa’s low, driven cross was turned in from close range by Jason Walker.
Luton Town, then, advance to the final, and deservedly so over both legs. They were excellent in the first leg and recovered well after a very shaky start this evening. Tonight’s performance may, however, give their opponents in the final cause for optimism, to some extent. Having done so much hard work last week – in the process surely putting the fear of God into both the Wimbledon and Fleetwood Town managers ahead of a likely meeting with them in the final – this evening, they looked decidedly shaky for half an hour before regaining their composure. There were over 9,000 people at Kenilworth Road this evening, and the majority of them are likely to be a little relieved as well as delighted, naturally, that their team ended up winning as comfortably as they did.
Wrexham, meanwhile, continue to face an uncertain future. Issues relating to their ownership are still unresolved – a subject that we will be doubtlessly be returning to over the next few weeks or so – but their players deserve commendation for putting up a valiant fight this evening. Indeed, their supporters – over 800 of whom made the long journey down from North Wales to Bedfordshire this evening despite the mountain that their team had to climb – may even wonder what might have happened had Gareth Taylor put them two goals up with his penalty kick, or had Mark Tyler juggled the ball over the goal-line rather than against the post. On such thin margins can matches turn and manager Dean Saunders, who may yet be lured from the club this summer, will probably pause to reflect upon the lackadaisical first half performance in the first leg that proved to be so costly. In some respects so near yet so far, in others a result that was never in doubt, Wrexham’s supporters may have other issues in the forefront of their minds over the next few weeks, at the end of a season which may be yet be remember more for what has happened behind the scenes at the club than on the pitch.
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