Yesterday afternoon in London was one for extra layers. As the Metropolitan Line train rolled out of Baker Street underground station and north towards Wembley Stadium, the slate grey sky darkened, the temperature dropped, occasional flurries of snow lacerated the roof tops and the feeling grew that perhaps we were here on the wrong day of the year. Cup final days aren’t supposed to feel like this – well, not this cold, anyway. Of course, to complain about the weather in London would be churlish in the extreme. The weather in both Lincolnshire and North Wales was considerably worse this weekend, and there had been talk that some – perhaps many – supporters might even find themselves snowed in and unable to make the long trip south for this match. Yet most made it. A day out at Wembley can have a galvanising spirit on the soul of the football supporters.
For both the supporters of Grimsby Town and Wrexham, this match is hardly the main event of the 2012/13 season. The promotion places in the Blue Square Bet Premier are far from already sewn up to the point that these two clubs might yet meet back here in the division’s play-off final in a couple of months time. Yet it does matter for both. Grimsby Town managed a Wembley double at the end of the 1997/98 season, winning both the Football League Trophy and Division Two play-off finals there, but the recent times have been tough on their club and relegation from the Football League, which came about in 2010 and ended one hundred and seventeen years as a Football League club has been hard to stomach, a blow to the pride of the town. Wrexham, meanwhile, were making their first ever trip to Wembley. The oldest professional club in Wales had waited a long time for a day like this to come about.
We’re told that cup finals like this are in the process of being crushed by the seemingly relentless march of the league football calendar, but yesterday afternoon quite clearly did matter to the supporters of these two clubs. A crowd of over 35,000 people turned out at Wembley, where we stood through the niceties, the now-traditional booing of the national anthems, and then a first half which Wrexham shaded but was notable most for how little both teams wanted to give away. It was cautious fare, something approaching a definitive example of a game that needed a goal, and by the time the referee’s whistle blew for the interval, it didn’t have one. Indeed, it took until the closing quarter of the the game for things on the pitch to even start to warm up at all, but then with twenty minutes to play the deadlock was finally broken when Andy Cook’s shot was blocked only for the rebound to fall to the same player. This time he forced the ball over the line and Grimsby Town had the lead.
This was a goal which changed the course of the game, but not necessarily in the way in which we might have expected. Now with something to chase, Wrexham pushed forward straight away and their reward came with nine minutes left to play, when Dean Keates was knocked over inside the penalty area and Kevin Thornton scored from the resulting penalty kick. From here on, throughout the remainder of normal time and more or less the whole thirty minutes of extra time, Wrexham dominated with the introduction of Adrian Cieslewicz, who had come on earlier as a substitute for the Wrexham player-manager Andy Morrell, causing particular problems for the Grimsby defence which required some outstanding saves from goalkeeper James McKeown in order to keep them in the match. Ultimately, though, there was no way through for Wrexham, although the cheer that greeted the confirmation that the resultant shoot-out would be taking place in front of their supporters proved to be somewhat prophetic.
It goes without saying, of course, that a penalty shoot-out is a harsh, almost arbitrary and unfair to decide a football match, and it is difficult not to have sympathy for Sam Hatton and Richard Brodie, who hit the base of the post and fired over to give Wrexham what turned out to be the decisive advantage in the shoot-out. Each of the Wrexham kicks was perfectly placed, with the fourth from Johnny Hunt proving to be the decisive kick. At the end of one hundred and twenty minutes, in some respects it feels unfair to have to separate these two teams, but Wrexham just about shaded things throughout normal time and extra time, and kept their heads together under the curious stress of the resulting penalty shoot-out.
League football is the bread and butter of the ordinary football supporter, and there can be no questioning the importance, for both of these clubs, of getting back their place in the Football League. Yesterday’s experience, however, was something else altogether, a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent their modest clubs at the spiritual home of football in this country. Both clubs can take considerable heart from the size of the crowd and that so many were prepared to make that trip to London for them, and both can now look forward to a tense run-in to a season which may yet see both promoted but may similarly see both miss out on promotion. The top of the Blue Square Bet Premier remains, at the time of writing, too close to call. But yesterday wasn’t about that. Yesterday was about holding one’s nerve when the pressure was on, and it was Wrexham who steadied their ship the better, meaning that for the second time this season a Welsh club has returned home with a trophy in tow and the hope of better times around the corner. After years of protest, financial mismanagement and the growing belief that perhaps a state of dysfunction might just be the way of things in the lower divisions, yesterday was all about the football for both Grimsby Town and Wrexham – just the way, we might ponder, things should always be, and would, in an ideal world.
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