A few weeks ago, one rather disgruntled gentleman decided to write to the Non-League paper and inform their readership that the current National League promotion and title contenders Lincoln City should be known as a Football League Club, despite playing their football outside of the Football League. What prompted the gentleman to write to the paper in the first place was down to the praise Lincoln City were receiving for their magnificent run to the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup as a Non-League club. The letter caused quite a stir, and the following week many people wrote to the Non-League paper themselves and informed the disgruntled gentleman that despite having played in the Football League for the majority of their history, Lincoln City were very much a Non-League club and had been since relegation from the Football League in May 2011. The point the gentleman was trying to make was that many clubs who are currently plying their trade in the top tier of the Non-League pyramid, the National League, have spent much of their history playing in Football League clubs and therefore he felt that they shouldn’t be labelled as such.
A quick look at the current National League table and you will find that it isn’t just Lincoln City who have the resources, support levels and desire to recapture their former Football League status. The supporters and owners of Tranmere Rovers, York City and Torquay United would all dearly love to see their clubs escape the clutches of the National League, but unfortunately relegation from the Football League is often a deep wound that isn’t quickly healed.
Meanwhile up in North Wales, the loyal and long suffering supporters of Wrexham Football Club can certainly identify with that feeling of being another former Football League club that’s currently playing in the National League and not exactly wanting or enjoying being there. Despite finishing in the National League play-off places for three consecutive seasons in 2011, 2012 and 2013, the Welsh club suffered agonising play-off defeats in the semi-finals in 2011 & 2012 and the final in 2013. The 2013 defeat in the final came at the hands of Welsh neighbours Newport County. The Dragons are now into their tenth season outside the Football League after dropping out of the Football League in 2008. Unfortunately, instant promotion back to the Football League is a very rare event for clubs that drop out of League Two as the likes of Luton Town, Grimsby Town, York City, Stockport County, Hereford, Torquay United and Tranmere Rovers have all found out in recent times. Only Bristol Rovers, Lincoln City and Carlisle United have managed to go down and then gain promotion the following season. The road back to the Football League is more often than not a long and painful one.
The National League is a strong division with a mixture of former Football League clubs (Lincoln City, Wrexham, York City, Tranmere etc.), clubs with huge ambition and wealth (Forest Green Rovers & Eastleigh), phoenix ex-Football League clubs on the rise again (Aldershot, Maidstone United & Chester FC), and clubs that many would see as punching well above their weight (Braintree Town, Dover Athletic, North Ferriby United & Solihull Moors). The 2015/2016 season saw two part-time clubs in Braintree Town and Dover Athletic, despite having less resources and financial wealth that many clubs at this level, manage to finish in the play-off places, which is a testimony to the strength and competitiveness of the National League as well as proving wealth and support levels are no guarantee of success at this level anyway.
A lot of Braintree Town’s success last season can be credited to their talented former management duo of Danny Cowley and Nicky Cowley, two brothers who have worked their way up from managing in the Essex Senior League to managing in the National League. The pair became joint managers at Cressing Road in the summer of 2015 and within a year they had gotten the club to within touching distance of the Football League. However, it’s Alan Devonshire, the manager, who had taken the club from the Third Division of the Ryman Isthmian League to top level of non-league football and then managed to establish them amongst the cream of semi-professional football as a part-time club who deserve immense credit for the rise of Braintree Town.
This season sees Braintree Town playing their sixth straight season in the National League, the highest level they have played in their history. However, whilst Braintree might be enjoying life at their elevated level, a club that most certainly are not are Wrexham. After Brian Flynn stepped down as manager in September 2001 having become the club’s third longest serving manager, Wrexham have been on a rollercoaster of a ride of extreme highs and lows. A Football League Trophy success in 2005, as well as a few Welsh Cup wins in the period was rather overshadowed by the club having ten points deducted after they entered administration in the 2004/05 season. The loss of those ten points most certainly cost the club their place in League One that season and the Dragons’ downward spiral was about to rapidly accelerate thereafter. The club were put into administration by the directors, who believed it was the only way to prevent the club from liquidation after the owner at the time, Alex Hamilton, refused to sell the club to either a consortium or the Wrexham supporters trust. At the same time Alex Hamilton also had plans to use the land that the land the Racecourse Ground was built on for housing or commercial development after he had acquired the freehold of it in June 2002. These were worrying times for everyone who had Wrexham close to their hearts.
Further reading – The Wrexham Supporters trust finally takes control
After many legal shenanigans and court battles, the Racecourse was returned to the administrators and a new consortium was eventually allowed to take control of the club just before the start of the 2006/2007 League 2 campaign. The club had been saved from extinction at the 11th hour, but would it prove to be a turning point in their fortunes? Unfortunately, it didn’t on the field. Manager Denis Smith was sacked along with assistant Kevin Russell in January 2007, when the club were tumbling towards the Conference at a rapid rate. Their fight for survival went right down to the wire that season until safety was finally secured on the last day of the season in front of a packed Racecourse. A 3-1 win over fellow relegation rivals Boston United sent Boston down instead, to the pure and utter delight of the majority of the 12,374 crowd. After years of painful legal battles off the pitch and poor performances on it, surely this would prove to be a major turning point in the Dragons history? Sadly, again it wasn’t to be. The following season (2007/2008) Brian Carey and then Brian Little tried to turn the club’s fortunes around but neither could, and after a 2-0 loss away at Hereford United in April 2008, the Dragons 87 year stay in the Football League was ended. It was a dark and very sad day in this part of North Wales, but at the time I doubt many Wrexham supporters believed their stay in the Conference National, as it was called back then, would be a very long one. Sadly, they were to be mistaken and the long road back to the Football League is still far from reaching any of sort of happy ending.
Dean Saunders, Andy Morrell, Kevin Wilkin and Gary Mills have all tried their hand at getting Wrexham back into the Football League since relegation in 2008, but not one of those managers could quite find that formula. Andy Morrell came the closest to ending the club’s stay in non-league football. The 2011/2012 season saw the club gain 98 points and finish second but with only one automatic place in the Conference they were denied by Champions Fleetwood Town who gained 105 points. They went on to lose in the playoffs semi-finals that season and then in the final to Newport County the following year. Morrell did however manage to add to the club’s trophy collection with a FA Trophy win in 2013. The reigns of Kevin Wilkin and Gary Mills after Morrell can best be described as underachieving and underwhelming and now Keates has the task of restoring pride in playing for a club the size of Wrexham whilst also trying to achieve that promotion the supporters of this once grand Welsh club have been yearning for since 2008.
Further reading – The trails and tribulations of Wrexham managers
Saturday 4th March 2017 – National League – Braintree Town 1 v 2 Wrexham – Cressing Road – Attendance 698
When these two clubs took to the field at the Racecourse back in September they were both already on their second managers of the season, with Dean Keates having taken over from Gary Mills at Wrexham and Hakan Hayrettin having replaced Jamie Day in the dugout at Braintree. Despite Gary Mills having a track record of getting clubs he managed promoted from the National League to the Football League, he couldn’t work his magic in North Wales, and after a run of just one win in six games in mid-September and early October, Mills was shown the door with an assault on promotion looking already unlikely only a few months into the season. However, worse was to follow for the Wrexham supporters a few weeks later. An extremely embarrassing exit in the FA Cup to Stamford, three leagues below Wrexham, left the Dragons’ faithful wondering who exactly could sort out the mess the club now found themselves in.
The Wrexham board decided to appoint Dean Keates, a former playing legend at the club, and in his first four league games he managed to steady ship with three draws and a win before struggling Braintree Town turned up at the Racecourse and returned back to Essex with all three points. It was a massive reality check for Keates who now knew the size of the task at hand. His programme notes from that same game said as much; “We’re four games unbeaten at the moment, which is a good starting point. I am under no illusions, though, that there is plenty of room for improvement.” As for improvement of the Dragons since his appointment, Keates has certainly given the club a platform to build on for next season having won seven, drawn 3 and lost 5 of his 15 games since that reverse to Braintree.
Meanwhile since the departure of Jamie Day from Braintree in late September, the new manager Hakan Hayrettin has been fighting to keep the club from getting sucked into a relegation battle after such a poor start to the season under Day. Unfortunately, results failed to improve immediately after Hayrettin’s arrival with the team winning just one of his first seven games in charge. However, a strong set of results in November and December meant the team started to pull away from the relegation scrap. Another two wins in January and a useful point away at promotion chasing Forest Green Rovers kept the momentum going after a poor start to January included defeats to Chester City and Essex rivals Dagenham and Redbridge. Then came a hectic period in February with seven games played in the month. A shock FA Trophy defeat to Dulwich, a club two leagues below Braintree, meant league survival was now the main focus. The players responded well and a vital ten points were earned after wins against North Ferriby, Eastleigh and Bromley, and a vital point gained from relegation threatened Maidstone United.
Further reading – A new manager in charge of Braintree Town
Wrexham came into the game in good form too but within a minute they found themselves a goal down. A corner wasn’t dealt with by the Wrexham defence and Micheal Cheek fired in from close range. It was mad opening to the game and within three minutes, Wrexham were back on level terms. A strong run down the left by Izale McLeod took him area where he could pull back the ball into the path of Tum Massanka who fired the ball into the net to the delight of the 150 or so away fans who made the trip from North Wales.
The next big chance of the game came the way of the home side when a thrown in into the penalty area caused the Wrexham back line problems. The ball eventually found its way to Jack Midson who chip to the back post was somehow headed over from six yards out by the goalscorer Cheek. The closet Wrexham came to adding to their one goal in the first half was on 40 minutes when skipper Mark Carrington forced home keeper Sam Beasant to tip the ball over the crossbar. The Dragons also had a shout for a penalty turned down just before half time but the game remained level at the break.
The second half began with a strong start from Wrexham and they could have been in front inside the first five minutes when Jennings ran into the box, lost the ball, but it ran into the path of team mate Ntumba Massanka who’s goal bound shot was excellently blocked by the leg of Frankie Musonda. A flurry of corners then followed and Martin Riley really should have done better with a header from just six yards out. Defender Martin Riley was certainly in the thick of the action and he must have breathed a sigh of relief when his challenge on Reece Hall-Johnson in the box went unpunished with the home side screaming for a penalty award.
An hour into the game and at this point it could have gone either way. Then on 64 minutes a great passing move by the visitors put them back in front. A good bit of link-up play between Dunn, Carrington, Riley, Massanka and Barry led to Paul Rutherford attacking the Braintree back line. Once he got towards the penalty area he cut in twice and squared the ball for Jordan White. White had his shot blocked but Ollie Shenton was on hand to fire the ball into the net right in front of the now jubilant visiting support.
This time it was Braintree who responded immediately after conceding a goal. The home team thought they were level just two minutes after Wrexham went in front. A powerful shot from the edge of the box by Hall-Johnson landed sweetly into the far corner of the net but the linesman raised his flag after Jack Midson who was offside had interfered with the goalkeeper’s view of the shot.
In the 70th minute a third penalty appeal in the game was turned down when Midson failed to convince the referee he had been fouled in the box. Nine minutes later Wrexham should have killed the game off but Braintree had their keeper to thank for keeping them in the game when his legs prevented Massanka from scoring from 12 yards out.
Time was now running out for the home side but they kept on plugging away. A free kick from 25 yards out was their best chance of final ten minutes but Cheek could only smack the ball against the Wrexham wall. After five minutes of injury time the referee signalled the end of the game and a win for Wrexham. For Wrexham it was the third time this season they have come from behind to win a game, and it was also their sixth win from their first ten games in 2017, a best start to a calendar year since 2013. Braintree could count themselves rather unfortunate to lose the game but it seems Hakan Hayrettin has them going in the right direction as the campaign reaches its climax.
A full set of pictures from this match – Match snaps