Both Wrexham and Newport County went into their play-off semi-final second leg matches in the Blue Square Bet Premier this season with leads that could perhaps be best described as “precarious.” Newport County entertained Grimsby Town at Rodney Parade with a one goal lead from their first leg trip to Blundell Park, but a first half goal from Christian Jolley was enough to settle most nerves and they held on with some comfort to book a trip to Wembley for a second successive season after losing in the FA Trophy final there to York City last season. If anything, Wrexham’s position going into their second leg match at Kidderminster Harriers was even more suspect. Protecting a two-one lead from the first leg at The Racecourse Ground, they might have been expected to man the defensive barricades in order to cling onto that lead, but instead a crowd of just over 6,200 people saw them win by three goals to one on the day, and by five goals to two on aggregate.
It is worth pausing a moment to consider the agonies suffered by their opponents this season. For Grimsby Town, this season has been a case of “no near, yet so far,” twice. Beaten in the final of the FA Trophy by Wrexham last month, they have now missed out on a second trip there as a result of losing to Newport County and have to regroup for the start of next season. For Kidderminster Harriers, the sense of disappointment may just be even greater. The club had a disastrous start to this season, failing to win any of its first ten league matches, before losing just four more league matches all season and missing out on automatic promotion at the end of the regular season to Mansfield Town. As has happened so many times before, however, perhaps the physical efforts of straining to the very last and the psychological effects of daring to believe before having the title snatched away at the last proved to be too great to overcome.
Perhaps, though, it is appropriate that Wrexham and Newport County should be playing off at Wembley at the end of a season that has surely been one of the most extraordinary in the entire history of Welsh football. With Cardiff City having been promoted to the Premier League and Swansea City having consolidated their Premier League place as well as having lifted the League Cup, the accession of either Newport or Wrexham to the Football League will complete an unprecedentedly successful season for the game in Wales, and there may be further success to follow if Merthyr Town can win in the play-offs for Division One South & West of the Southern League over the next couple of weeks or so, having finished in third place in the table in their first season in that division.
Easy – and convenient – though it may be to casually lump all Welsh clubs in as one homogeneous bloc, however, it is worth remembering that these clubs have, more regularly in the past, been rivals rather than anything else. All have their own stories to tell, and the stories of Newport County and Wrexham are those of clubs revived, in one case from the brink of death and in the other after the death of the club had already been reported. In the case of Newport County, it was the mismanagement of one man, Jerry Sharman, that was the biggest single contributor to the demise of a club that had become one of the first victims of the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation between the fourth division of the Football League and the Football Conference. Two successive relegations in 1987 and 1988 saw the club plummet from the Football League after a stay of sixty-eight years – albeit one that was interrupted by one year back in non-league football, in the 1931/32 season – and folded in February 1989 with debts of £330,000.
The club reformed a year later as Newport AFC and joined the Hellenic League, with a dispute with the Football Association of Wales preventing the club from playing in its home town until 1994, when it won its legal claim to be able to continue to play in the English league system and moved into the Newport Stadium. There was, however, no AFC Wimbledon-esque race up through the divisions for the club, which changed its name to Newport County in 1999. The club spent fourteen years in the Southern League before being placed into the Conference South upon its introduction in 2004, but it was promoted again in 2009 with a record one hundred and three points. After a reasonable first season, however, the club struggled in its second season despite its FA Trophy run, and finished in nineteenth place in the Blue Square Bet Premier table, avoiding relegation by just six points and two places. Last summer, the club left the Newport Stadium to move to Rodney Parade, and it has been about the top end of this year’s Blue Square Bet Premier table, finishing the season in third place in the table, behind Mansfield Town and Kidderminster Harriers.
The supporters of Wrexham Football Club never quite lost their club, but it was close at times, before the Wrexham Supporters Trust took ownership of the club in October 2011. There had been concerns over whether the Trust could keep up the levels that the team had, against all odds, it has to be said, achieving during the previous season, but managed a Third Round replay in the FA Cup against Brighton and lost in the semi-finals of the Blue Square Bet Premier play-offs to Luton Town. This season has seen a continuation of that success, with a win in the final of the FA Trophy last month at Wembley – the club’s first to that particular venue – coming on top of another place in the play-offs in the Blue Square Bet Premier play-offs, where this time they held their own over two legs against Kidderminster Harriers. A return to the Football League would be an extraordinary end to less than two years of ownership by the Wrexham Supporters Trust.
These are, then, two clubs that have been to the brink and back and it is, perhaps, a salutary lesson for the supporters all clubs at this time of year to remember that returning to form can be a matter of patience after years in the doldrums. Football in Wales has had an extraordinary year at club level, with the successes of Cardiff City and Swansea City to be added to what Wrexham and Newport County have managed over the last nine months. And by the end of Sunday afternoon, Wales will have a third club back amongst the top ninety-two of the English league system, regardless of the result. Considering everything that has happened across Welsh football over the course of this season, it is entirely appropriate that it should be two clubs from that part of the world that should be ending the season at this of all venues.
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