There is, perhaps, little surprising in the fact that the most confusing tie of the Third Round of the FA Cup should involve Wrexham. The Blue Square Premier club – the last non-league club still involved in this year’s competition – have had possibly the most convoluted twelve months of any side in the entire English league system, and this extended into the arrangements for this match against Brighton & Hove Albion, following their 1-1 draw at The American Express Community Stadium a week and a half ago. Contradictory messages flooded the internet regarding when this match would be played and on which television channel it would appear, and the matter was confused further yesterday lunchtime, when a frozen pitch put the match back by twenty-four hours.
Tonight, however, the game is emphatically on and the rewards of this FA Cup run for a club of Wrexham’s size – particularly one under the ownership of a supporters trust charged with balancing the books after years of mismanagement – are obvious. The television money and gate receipts from this match alone are highly significant amounts of money for them, and the rewards of winning – even if we set to one side for just a moment considerations such as the achievement that it would mark in itself – are even greater. The winners of this match have already been drawn at home against Newcastle United in the next round, a match that has already been confirmed as a live televised match on ESPN. There has already been good news for the club this week with the return of the £250,000 bond required by the Football Conference in order to allow them start this season. That they should be here this evening, against this opposition and with Premier League opponents awaiting in the next round of the competition is a testament in itself to the potential of the club and of the steps made towards securing its long-term future made by the club’s supporters trust since they took ownership of it in October.
Gus Poyet and Brighton & Hove Albion have been here before. In last years FA Cup, they were held at home twice by non-league opposition – Woking and FC United of Manchester – before winning the replays, but Gus Poyet has hardly counted this tournament as being amongst the top of his list priorities during his time in charge of the club. Some have argued that the postponement of this match, taking, as it has done, Poyet and Brighton twenty-four hours closer to their Championship match at Peterborough United on Saturday afternoon, may even have played into the hands of Wrexham somewhat. On top of this, Brighton & Hove Albion have been the epitome of inconsistency so far this season. Whether they get through to face off against Newcastle United or not may well come down to which Brighton team turns up this evening.
We see which Wrexham team has turned up this evening in the first half, and it’s the one that hasn’t been beaten in the league since the end of September and has already knocked League One opposition out of this competition in the form of Brentford, in the previous round. They are fluid, well-organised and play with confidence. It takes them twenty minutes to fashion anything of great substance, when Peter Brezovan blocks from Andy Morrell and Jamie Tolley’s shot as the ball bounces loose flies narrowly over the crossbar. Brighton, however, fail to heed this warning and seven minutes later Wrexham have the lead. Daniel Wright skips down the left-hand side before pulling the ball back to Morrell, who steps inside and, from twenty yards, curls an absolutely delicious shot into the top left-hand corner of the goal. It’s a sensational shot, struck with both pace and precision, and it is no less than Wrexham deserve for their endeavour.
The goal wakes Brighton up a little, but Wrexham seem to be coping with them reasonably comfortable until their occasionally rickety looking goalkeeper Joslain Mayebi fumbles a cross after a bit of a scramble inside the penalty area, but the ball is cleared with no green and black shirts near the ball. The home side continue to keep them at arm’s length – a cross from Will Hoskins flies narrowly high and wide – but Wrexham have continued to push when they have the chance, with one opportunity for Jay Harris bringing a decent catch from Brezovan. At the half-time whistle, it doesn’t even feel as if there is a “giant-killing” on the cards, here. Wrexham have been every inch the match of the team that plays three divisions above them, and they deserve their lead.
It takes less than ninety seconds at the start of the second half for Wrexham to reassert themselves. This time, the smart play comes on the right hand side before the ball is slipped through to Curtis Obeng, whose shot is smothered by Brezovan’s right arm. After this flurry of activity, however, the game settles into a slower, perhaps more mundane tempo. That said, however, it is Wrexham who are controlling most of the possession and what few chances there are. Brighton look out of ideas and out of energy, but with thirteen minutes left to play they grab a lifeline when Wrexham fail to clear the ball, Matt Sparrow crosses from the left and Ashley Barnes heads past Mayebi and in at the far post. The Racecourse Ground is momentarily quietened, but this doesn’t last for long and within three minutes Adrian Cieslewicz crosses and Jay Harris heads narrowly over. Within a couple of minutes, Craig Mackail-Smith, who has hitherto been playing as if auditioning for the lead role in the The Invisible Man, flashes a shot across the face of goal and wide. although Brighton look a little perkier for their goal, but deep into stoppage time at the end of the match a corner from the Wrexham right sees Joe Clarke slip free of his marker and head just over from five yards out. Upon such chances, victory or defeat can stand or fall. For now, though, the match proceeds to extra-time.
As legs begin to tire, the match opens up a little more during the first period of extra-time and there are chances at both ends of the pitch. A corner from the left is met by Mark Creighton and his header is brilliantly saved by Brezovan. At the other end of the pitch, Wrexham hearts are in mouths as Torbjorn Agdestein wriggles free from his marker, only to see his low shot smothered by Mayebi. With time running out in the first period, Glen Little’s low shot is deflected narrowly wide of Brezovan’s left-hand post but the referee doesn’t see the touch and gives a goal kick. As time runs down in the second period of extra-time, however, Brighton finally start to wear Wrexham down. They are encamped in the home side’s half, but seem unable to successfully break the Wrexham defence down. at the other end of the pitch, though, comes a moment of real drama. Wrexham break, and cross from the right finds Jay Harris, whose header is flicked onto the top of the crossbar by Brezovan and over to safety. A penalty shoot-out it is, then.
We’ll spare too many details of what happens in the penalty shoot-out. A polite ripple of applause rolls around The Racecourse Ground as Dean Keates trudges back to the centre circle having seen the first kick of the shoot-out saved by Brezovan. From here on, every kick is just about perfect, and Craig Mackail-Smith’s final kick is enough to see Brighton & Hove Albion through to a Fourth Round match against Newcastle United a week on Saturday. Wrexham, meanwhile, can now redouble their efforts in the Blue Square Premier, where a two-way battle for the championship has emerged between them and Fleetwood Town, with a coveted place in the Football League awaiting the winners. It will be very hard work, of that we can be sure, but they have demonstrated during this FA Cup run that they would thoroughly deserve a place in a higher division.
This evening, though, is a time to reflect upon how far Wrexham FC has come over the last few months. Over the last twelve months, it frequently looked as if there was a realistic chance that this club wouldn’t even see the start of 2012. They overcame many, many hurdles, both on and off the pitch, including losing their manager to a bigger club as this season was just starting to kick into gear. Andy Morrell, however, has held the team together outstandingly, and tonight saw a polished performance against a team three divisions above them which they might, on another day, have won. It is to be hoped that some of the crowd of 8,316 at The Racecourse Ground this evening return for the rest of this season. The Wrexham Supporters Trust, which needs their money if the club is to maintain its recent success, needs them, and the team itself, which has won so many hearts and minds over the last few weeks, deserves it. Brighton & Hove Albion won the match tonight, but this Wrexham team, we suspect, will live long in the memory.
You can see an array of inexpertly taken photographs from the first match between these two clubs here. Those of you that are interested in Wrexham’s turbulent 2011 may wish to click here for something approaching the full story of their year.
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