This weekend, Wrexham play Grimsby Town at Wembley in the final of the 2013 FA Trophy. Both of these two clubs are former stalwarts of the Football League for whom promotion back from the Blue Square Bet Premier remains a still attainable target for the end of this season, but both are also clubs that have had difficulties in recent years and for whom this weekend’s match is a cause for celebration in itself.
Somehow or other, it seems difficult to believe that this weekend will mark Wrexham Football Club’s first ever visit to Wembley. This is, after all, the oldest professional football club in Wales, a club with a long and rich history which dates back to the very beginnings of football as an organised spectator sport. Such a long history, however, doesn’t necessarily equal a successful one, and in the days when Wembley appearances were rationed to the FA Cup final and – more latterly – the League Cup final, Wrexham was one of the multitude of clubs that managed to miss out. Over the last quarter of a century, the Wembley gates have been loosened, but this was a period during which Wrexham supporters were frequently more concerned with keeping their club alive than any other considerations. Yet the very fact that Wrexham Football Club remains an instructive story for all supporters. It is a story of the supporters themselves taking responsibility for the future of their club in a manner so dogged that the fact that it has ended in the way that it has could, with the benefit of hindsight, be regarded as inevitable.
But it wasn’t, and on more than one occasion over the course of the last decade alone it had to be the supporters themselves who stepped up when it seemed as though no-one else would on their behalf. First up came Mark Guterman and Alex Hamilton. Guterman was initially reported as the purchaser of a 78% share in the club from its former owner Pryce Griffiths in the summer of 2002, but it was soon after confirmed that Hamilton was the actual buyer. At the same time, Wrexham FC wrote to the landlords, W&D Breweries, requesting to buy the freehold to The Racecourse Ground – the brewery agreed to sell for £300,000 – and the deeds were transferred into the name of a company called Damens Ltd – a shell company owned solely by Mr Hamilton. The terms of the club’s tenure were then changed to increase its annual rent from a peppercorn £1 £30,000 and to include a 12 month break clause. After a row between Hamilton and Guterman, the club received twelve months notice to quit The Racecourse Ground in the summer of 2004.
After the club’s financial collapse in December 2004, administrators Begbies Traynor issued legal proceedings which required Hamilton’s company – which by this time had been renamed ‘Crucialmove’ – to transfer the Racecourse Ground back to the club’s ownership. After a refusal to do so on the Hamilton, the administrators won a summary judgement which was upheld by the Court of Appeal in February 2006, restoring the ground to the club, meaning that the administrators were able to sell the club later that year. Throughout all of this, a group of Wrexham supporters, known as the “Dismal Jimmies”, had been protesting, with varying degrees of (legal) directness, against Hamilton and their actions at that time were crucial in securing the club’s future, with nationwide attention being brought to the club’s plight due to demonstrations such as Fans Reunited days which attracted the supporters of scores of other clubs as a demonstration of solidarity across clubs against the mismanagement of this club.
Under new ownership, however, the club’s decline continued. Having saved its place in the Football League on the last day of the last 2006/07 season thanks to a win against Boston United, the club slipped out of the Football League a year later. The story of the crisis that engulfed the club throughout the 2010/11 season is a hugely convoluted one – you can get a brief idea of what was going on throughout the second half of the season by reading the links contained here – which included a prospective owner of the club not mentioning that she was disqualified from acting as a company director at the time of her attempt to purchase it, the rumoured interest of those nemeses of the supporters of all lower division football clubs, the Vaughans, and the involvement of a disqualified solicitor at whose house the Dismal Jimmies turned up in order to express how they felt about him getting involved with their club.
All the time, however, the club’s supporters trust worked tirelessly and diligently in order to get control of it once and for all. Ownership of the ground was lost – it eventually ended up with Glyndwr University, who now lease it to the club – but the battle for the club itself finally ended in November 2011 when the Wrexham Supporters Trust took control of the club. Tough lessons have had to be learned. The club has had to rebuild links with its local community which were almost shattered by the years of mismanagement, while the days of racking of enormous debts are now surely behind the club. Crowds now sit at around the 3,500 mark on average, but this weekend will see a true display of the potential of this club, with – at the time of writing – over 17,000 tickets having been sold for Sunday’s match.
As with the other clubs huddled together at the top of the Blue Square Bet Premier, the FA Trophy is a diversion from the altogether more important business of getting promotion back into the Football League. Indeed, there’s a chance that both Wrexham and Grimsby Town might yet meet again at Wembley before the end of this season in the Blue Square Bet Premier play-off final (the clubs are in third and fifth place in the current league table respectively), but this weekend’s match has a significance which runs underneath the day-to-day nature of being a football supporter. For Wrexham supporters, this Sunday’s match is a chance to celebrate their club, its salvation and their crucial role in keeping it alive. Without their diligence, any one of a number of potential asset-strippers or carpet-baggers might have ended up with it. We can only shudder to think at where it might be now, or where it might be headed, had that happened.
This Sunday’s match, however, will not be about them. This match will be about those that worked so hard, for such a long time, and in the face of such adversity, to save their club. There were times at which the battle that the Wrexham Supporters Trust was facing seemed insurmountable, but at no point was there any question of them changing their ultimate goal. Supporters that had been skeptical of the Trust running the club were talked around and the supporters themselves now control the destiny of a club that is, of nothing else, secure for the first time in a very long time indeed. It is, perhaps, a fortuitous accident that the club should have reached Wembley for the first time in its history so soon after the Supporters Trust took ownership of it, but some may consider it apt and there can be no question that this is an opportunity for a party that both the club and the town have grasped with both hands. Regardless of the result on the day, Wrexham supporters will have plenty to celebrate when their team represents them at Wembley on Sunday afternoon.
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