And then there were two. For many, many years, there were four, but Newport County fell through the trapdoor an into the Conference in 1988 (and folded not too long afterwards), and it now looks likely that Wrexham will follow them after a wretched period in the club’s history, which has seen them tossed from pillar to post and took them perilously close to closure. In the overall scheme of things, relegation into the Conference might not necessarily look like such a disaster, but many Wrexham fans are now concerned that this could be a point of no return for them – the tipping point of a downward spiral from which they my never be able to return.
Founded in 1872, Wrexham are one of the oldest clubs in Britain, and are the oldest professional football club in Wales. The likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs are mere striplings by comparison. They were voted into the Football League in 1921, when it expanded in size to add the Third Divisions North & South. The first few decades were, to say the least, uneventful. Wrexham had a couple of brushes with promotion (fleeting and consummated just the once – very briefly, in 1960), entertained the Busby Babes in the FA Cup (and lost 5-0) and finished bottom of Division Four in 1966, but largely it was an existence in which they didn’t really trouble anyone, and no-one really troubled them. Things started to get more exciting in the 1970s. In 1972 they play Hajduk Split in the European Cup Winners Cup, and in 1974 they made the quarter-finals of the FA Cup before losing to Burnley. In 1977 they were nailed on for promotion before failing in their last few matches and missing out. In the 1980s, after a brief flirtation with bankruptcy in 1982, they continued with the occasional foray into Europe (Roma and Porto both visited The Racecourse Ground in Europe during the 1984/85 season) whilst continuing to trade in the bottom two divisions, but things would become suddenly more exciting for them at the start of the 1990s.
In 1991, they were knocked out of the European Cup Winners Cup by Manchester United and, with the Football League having already confirmed that the no-one would be relegated from Division Four, they finished bottom of the pile again. The following season, they drew Arsenal in the Third Round of the FA Cup. Arsenal took an early lead through Alan Smith, but looked largely off-key, and Wrexham drew level with eight minutes left with a thunderous free kick from the veteran midfielder Mickey Thomas. Two minutes later, with Arsenal (the reigning League champions at the time) still shell-shocked, Steve Watkins scuffed home the winning goal in for one of the greatest FA Cup shocks of all time. The following round saw them knocked out after a replay by West Ham United. In 1997, they made the FA Cup quarter-finals again (beaten this time by Chesterfield), but this was all a prelude to a tale of attempted sabotage that would drive them to the edge of extinction.
When the club’s previous chairman sold out to Mark Guterman and Alex Hamilton, their supporters had cause to be concerned. Guterman, after all, had been in charge of a disastrous spell in charge of their local rivals, Chester City, and had nearly sent them to extinction. Moreover, both Guterman and Hamilton were property developers – the natural enemy of the small football club. What happened next was an extraordinary story of attempted asset stripping that ended up in court and a critical landmark victory for clubs seeking to keep control of their assets. Hamilton bought the club in 2002 and immediately transferred the leasehold of The Racehorse Ground (which had been bought from previous owners, a brewery). Immediately the rent jumped up from a peppercorn amount of £1 to £30,000 per year, and gave the club a year’s notice to move out of the ground. Fortunately for them, there was an unwitting hero waiting in the wings. The club had fallen into severe financial difficulties, and administrators Begbie Taylor were appointed to oversee the club’s affairs. David Acland, the administrator, smelt a rat immediately and took Hamilton to court, claiming that the ground had been acquired by the holding company. In October 2005, the court found against Hamilton’s company, and in March 2006 they ruled that the ground was to stay in the hands of the club, who the administrators sold to Neville Dickens, a local car dealer.
Dickens himself has been and continues to be widely criticised by the club’s supporters, but the club is in a slightly more stable situation off the pitch than it was three or four years. On the pitch, though, it has been meltdown. They avoided relegation on the last day of last season with a 3-1 win against Boston United that sent The Pilgrims down and kept them up for another season. Brian Little (who was in the Premier League with Aston Villa as recently as 1998) took over the job in November of last year, but he has been unable to do anything to halt the slide. Support within the club is decided over the extent to which Little is to blame. Some say that he couldn’t have done any worse than he has done, whilst others have sought to defend him to a degree, saying that he couldn’t have done any more than he has wih the meagre resources at his disposal. As it stands, they are nine points adrift of safety with four matches to play. Defeat against Notts County on Saturday will almost certainly condemn them to non-league football for the first time in eighty-seven years.
At this point in the season, there is no point in trying to point out to Wrexham supporters that relegation from League Two isn’t anything like the disaster that it was thirty years ago, that they can get to enjoy being big fish in a small pool and might win a few matches for the first time in a couple of years, that the Conference has got more in common with the Football League than it has with the Conference South or that visiting new grounds with lower prices and slightly laxer security regulations, where you might occasionally find a social club at the ground might be more fun than Rochdale for the eighth year in a row. For now, it probably feels like an emasculation – the status of their club’s is going to be diminished status and, if you’ve had Football League status for your entire lifetime, I guess you get used to. I retain the opinion, however, that whether Wrexham’s supporters find Conference football a soul-destroying experience or an enjoyable one is down to them to make. I would suggest that, based on the experience of other clubs that have been relegated from the Football League in recent years, they’re bound for disappointment if they don’t bear up to their new reality with good humour and acceptance of their new, reduced circumstances.