2013 – The Year of the Dragons

When you suddenly find the football club you support cast off in the wilderness of non-league football after relegation from the football league, I doubt a trip to Wembley in the non-league equivalent of the League Cup is the first thing your mind wanders off to.
After contemplating Tuesday night trips to the likes of Forest Green and Hyde (no disrespect if you follow those clubs and you’re reading this), I suspect your first thought after that sobering reality is probably how quickly and effortlessly your club can get back to playing league football.

However, the reality is that the football conference, or Blue Square Premier to give it its official title, has turned into an unofficial league 3 that has become easy to get swallowed up into now that two teams are relegated from League 2, but a lot harder to navigate your way out of it. Just ask the fans of Luton Town, Mansfield Town, Stockport County (now in Blue Square North) and Cambridge United, all clubs that have spent time in the football league in more recent times, quite how difficult getting back to the football league becomes once you fall through the league two trap door.

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With only one automatic place up for grabs from the Conference and the rest left to scrap it out in the lottery that is the playoffs, Wrexham, a club saved by the supporters after financial problems nearly saw the club sink without trace, have felt the raw pain of what happens when you don’t secure that one automatic promotion place. The Dragons finishing second to Fleetwood Town at the end of the 2011/12 season, despite picking up a staggering 98 points from 46 games, but missed out on promotion after losing in the playoffs.

Grimsby Town, another club which has had their fair share of financial woes over the past ten years, lost its place in the football league in 2010 after 117 years, and have, like Wrexham, yet to make a return to the football league.
This current Conference season has again seen the Dragons and the Mariners amongst the leading sides in the Division. However, with only a few games remaining, both sides now look set for the agony, ecstasy and pain of the playoff lottery having failed in their bids for automatic promotion.

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Away from the rigours of the league campaign, back in November last year both clubs began an FA Trophy campaign with many other non-league clubs. The FA Trophy is played by non-league sides from Conference level down to tier 4 (Ryman South level), and is a competition only 43 years old having only began life back in 1970. Whilst the competition itself is a distraction from the league, a Wembley final is a day out many non-league clubs strive to reach for. Previous winners of the competition include Ebbsfleet United (winners 2008), as well as Colchester United (1992) and Wycombe Wanderers (1991 and 1993), the latter two both now established league sides.

Saturday 24th 2013 – FA Trophy Final – Grimsby Town 1 v 1 Wrexham(AET 1-1 – Wrexham win 4-1 on penalties 

On Saturday 24th March 2013 I made the trip to Wembley stadium along with a Wrexham supporting friend of mine, hoping the showpiece occasion of the non-league provided a fitting testimony to the strength of the Conference.

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With Wrexham having the majority of the support with an estimated 17,000 making the trip from Wales, the 14,000 making the trek from Grimsby were in fine voice on Wembley Way with the usual array of welsh mocking related songs. The Welsh hordes weren’t to be outdone though, responding with a good natured song about their sheep and what they intended to do with them!

As for the game itself, the first half was a tight, nervy and chess-like affair with both teams not wanting to make any significant moves or show their respective hands. The best chance of the half for Wrexham fell to Jay Harris as he rode three challenges and shot narrowly over the bar. After the restart it was Wrexham who began to assert themselves on the contest, and went close a number of times, most notably when a slip by Grimsby keeper James McKeown, who was to later prove his worth, slipped and almost let in Wrexham’s player manager, Andy Morrell.

However, it was Grimsby who eventually went in front on 70 minutes, Andy Cook scoring from close range after his initial shot was saved by Chris Maxwell in the Wrexham goal.By this point in the match Wrexham’s player manager Andy Morrell had left the field to be replaced by sub Adrian Cieslewicz; a popular player amongst the Welsh hordes who welcomed his addition by turning up the noise levels inside Wembley.

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It was Cieslewicz who went closest to equalising for Wrexham before the referee threw the Dragons a lifeline with ten minutes remaining, when Dean Keates was tripped in the box by Grimsby defender Shaun Pearson, and a penalty was awarded. Kevin Thornton stepped up and sent the ball into the bottom corner as the otherwise impressive James McKeown was left to pick the ball out of the net. The goal came just at the right time for Wrexham, as despite a strong second half display, the game was beginning to slip away. As it was, the penalty sent the game into extra time.

In those extra 30 minutes, Grimsby were left thanking McKeown for keeping the Dragons at bay as they continued their dominance from the second half. First he saved a spectacular shot from Cieslewicz as the sub hit a shot from near on 35 yards out which was stopped dead single-handedly as the custodian threw himself towards the ball. Then with time almost up in extra time, Danny Wright saw his goal bound header touched brilliantly onto the post by McKeown who got down quickly to get the his fingertips to the ball and turn it away.

That left the final to go to penalties for only the second time in its history, and it was Wrexham who triumphed by four goals to one, as Grimsby failed miserably from 12 yards. This was the first trip ever to Wembley for Wrexham and the first Welsh club to ever win the FA Trophy. Whilst it may not be promotion back the league all ex-league sides crave, for the near 17,000 inside Wembley it will be a day they’ll never forget.

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