The landscape of the lower divisions has, perhaps, changed more than we have noticed over the last couple of decades. Twenty years ago, Luton Town were in the First Division and had been there for some time, while Wrexham were finishing at the bottom of Division Four. Both teams were, arguably, a little lucky. Luton finished third from bottom in the table but stayed up because only two clubs were relegated that season, while Wrexham were saved because there was no relegation from the Football League because of the expansion of the league. Luton fell from the First Division as the Premier League was being sworn in. Wrexham surivived – and very occasionally prospered – before tumbling into the Blue Square Premier in 2008.
Fast forward to the current day, and the two clubs finished the Blue Square Premier season just three points apart. Both fell from the Football League during the last decade, both in no small part due to financial mismanagement. Their supporters are part of a generation that spend their lives in a form of football purgatory. The Blue Square Premier is speckled with such clubs – former Football League clubs that may, to a lesser or greater extent, harbour a sense of grievance at their comparatively reduced current circumstances. If we look at the fixture list in the BSP every week throughout the season, there will be a fixure that could have been plucked from the lower – or occasionally upper – divisions of the Football League at any point during the overwhelming majority of its history.
Yet most of these former Football League clubs haven’t featured much at the top of the Blue Square Premier this season. Crawley Town, the champions, are, of course, a freak of nature, but the likes of, say, York City, Cambridge United, Darlington and Grimsby Town have barely troubled the play-off places this season and the other play-off semi-final pits AFC Wimbledon against new boys Fleetwood Town. It’s far from inconceivable that two long-time inhabitees of the Football League will drop through the trap door at the end of this season with no former Football League clubs (if we take Wimbledon as a new club) replacing them. The Blue Square Premier, as many have found in recent years, seems considerably more difficult to get out of than it is to get into.
There isn’t that much of a difference in the standard of football between League Two and the Blue Square Premier, but we get a sense of what these two clubs are missing at The Racecourse Ground tonight. There are over 7,200 people present this evening (Wrexham’s previous biggest crowd of the season was 4,630, for the visit of Crawley Town), and a sense of occasion surrounds this match. The two teams drew in the league on Saturday and, in theory, this match feels too close to call. In theory. By half-time, Wrexham’s hopes – the silver lining for their supporters at the end of a season of off the pitch chaos that has not yet been satisfactorily resolved – are in tatters, whilst Luton Town have one and a half feet in the final.
The home side starts reasonably well, as it goes, but after fifteen minutes Alex Lawless bursts through a not far from non-existent midfield and rifles the ball into bottom corner of the net to give Luton the lead. With the goal, the gaps are suddenly all too apparent. Luton are quicker, better organised, more effervescent. They buzz around the Wrexham players like fire-flies and, although Nathaniel Knight-Percival almost immediately levels from Wrexham with a header from a flicked on cross, the psychological edge has been handed to the visitors. It is a baton that they choose to pick up and run with, and after twenty-seven minutes Claude Gnapka belts the ball into the top corner following more defensive frivolity to double their lead.
Wrexham’s evening has already started to turn sour. Some people are leaving the ground with half an hour played. There are scuffles in one corner, leading to a large number of stewards and policemem standing between two sets of supporters. And if Wrexham supporters happen to be wondering whether things can possibly get any worse, they get their answer with ten minutes of the first half left to play. A Luton corner is swept out towards the edge of the penalty area, where Ed Asafu-Adjaye, with all the time in the world, drives the ball into the net. Forty-six matches, it feels, have been thrown away for Wrexham in the space of barely thirty-five minutes.
Luton seem to have settled for they have to a point, but even with a three goal cushion they are still a considerably greater threat to the Wrexham goal than Wrexham are to theirs. Willmott shoots narrowly over and Lawless hits the post for Luton, whilst it takes Wrexham until there are only ten minutes left to play before fully testing Mark Tyler in the Luton goal. He is forced brush off the cobwebs and makes a decent save from a low shot from Curtis Obeng. Wrexham, however, have been swept aside by a controlled, professional and intelligent performance from Luton Town, who are very good value for the three goal lead that they will take into next week’s second leg at Kenilworth Road next week.
How the team, the coaching staff and the supporters of Wrexham Football Club can pick themselves up for the second leg of this is anybody’s guess, and the likelihood of Wrexham being able to turn this deficit around seems, on the basis of this evening’s performance, remote to say the least. Having gifted Luton three first half goals, it was going to require a super-human performance to get back to something approaching level terms, but Luton were disciplined and thoroughly deserve their win this evening. This play-off match might only be at half-time in real terms, but psychologically Luton have one foot in the final already and it would take something truly amazing for Wrexham to be able to turn this around. There wasn’t much evidence this evening that they will be capable of it.
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