Rough guide to
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Rough guide to... Wrexham
5 August 2005
Cast your mind back to one of those old Hollywood movies about Spartans: honourable and independently minded, in eternal danger of being overcome by knavish manoeuvrings and forces superior in numbers but nothing else... a little like the medieval history of Wales.
Not long ago, Wrexham were a model for how a club should be run. Appointed manager in 1989, Brian Flynn had a reputation for bringing through promising young players. Maintaining patience through a couple of desperate seasons at the foot of the fourth division, promotion followed in 1993. Soon the Robins were firmly wedged just outside the third division play-off places, season after season, playing bright football. 1998 was the nearest of their misses, on goal difference.
Greater reward came in the FA Cup. Following a victory over Arsenal in 1992, in 1997 West Ham were drawn to play at an icy Racecourse. Harry Redknapp achieved the impossible during the tie: he looked even more lugubrious than usual, and his face alone must have been worth at least two goals to the Dragons. Scraping a 1-1 draw, Redknapp told the world at length that the match should not have been played, implying that the replay at the high-class facilities in Upton Park would be a formality. Wrexham won 1-0, bringing joy to all right-minded people.
Wrexham were less of a force after 1998 and Flynn's 12-year reign ended in October 2001. His replacement Denis Smith is still manager. The Robins don't sack managers lightly, perhaps because recent owners spend matches assessing the value of the ground rather than the performances. Smith couldn't avert relegation, but the visit to the fourth division was brief. The Robins finished third, ten points clear of the nearest opposition. In 2003–04, Wrexham enjoyed a double over Grimsby and finished 13th in the third flight.
In June 2002, property developer Mark Guterman was appointed chairman of Wrexham, having previously driven Chester into administration. As though having "property developer", "administration" and "Chester" on his CV were not enough to endear him to Dragons supporters, he was also subject to an individual voluntary arrangement (a form of insolvency proceedings).
Within a month, Guterman acquired the freehold of the Racecourse Ground for £300,000 from the Wolverhampton and Dudley Brewery. A progressive move, you might think, except that the freehold was acquired not by the club but by a company wholly owned by Alex Hamilton, a business associate of Guterman's and that, having previously paid a rent of £1 a year, they now paid £30,000. A year later, Hamilton gained the leasehold, giving him complete control over the site, after paying £300,000 to help the club pay a VAT bill. As debts mounted, players' wages were paid late and the heating and hot water were cut off at Wrexham's training complex.
At the end of the 2003/04 season, Guterman and Hamilton fell out, and Guterman left the club. In the two seasons he had been in charge, Wrexham's debts had risen from £700,000 to £2.5million. In July, Damens (owned by Alex Hamilton) gave Wrexham (owned by Alex Hamilton) 12 months notice to quit the Racecourse.
In November Hamilton resigned as chairman, and on 4 December 2004 the club went into administration, following a winding-up order presented by the Inland Revenue. Administrators Begbie Traynor are seeking a buyer for the club, with offers on the table from Guterman and a local car dealer, Neville Dickens. A poll run by the independent Wrexham website Red Passion finds that, strangely enough, 98 per cent of supporters oppose the return of Guterman. However, Hamilton, who remains the owner of the club, shows a marked reluctance to sell to Dickens, preferring either Guterman or a bid from Andy Smith about which the administrators are sceptical. The administrators have at least extracted a promise from Hamilton not to evict Wrexham from the Racecourse until a legal challenge to his claim to own the ground is heard in November.
In the face of this corporate vandalism, Wrexham supporters have mounted a series of protests, including a fans' day in January, when supporters of clubs all over the country converged on the Racecourse. The supporters' trust is raising £3,000 each month to keep the club running.
Guterman is doing his best to stifle the criticism. The former club secretary had a gagging order inserted in his severance terms and he has served an injunction on two Wrexham supporters to prevent them disclosing details of taped conversations which, allegedly, show his true intentions for the club. (You can sign an online petition in defence of the supporters here.)
Hamilton's response to the crisis has been, reportedly, to write to Gordon Brown suggesting that as part of his initiative on African debt, he should write off the money Wrexham owe to the Inland Revenue: a gesture one part demagoguery, one part hypocrisy and several hundred parts self-interest, and roundly denounced by the supporters' trust.
All in all, 'board games' is not the term for what has gone on at the Racecourse. Blood sports, perhaps.
Wrexham can truly claim to have been too good to go down. Defeated just three times by the end of October, the Robins hit stormy weather as the financial crisis came to a head. Four consecutive league defeats in November were offset by an LDV quarter-final victory over rivals Chester. December was worse. Going into administration cost Wrexham ten points, dropping the Robins from 16th to 22nd in the table. Heavy defeats to Hartlepool (later avenged with a 6-4 victory), Sheffield Wednesday and Tranmere followed.
Needing to win their last four matches to avoid relegation, they beat Port Vale and Stockport and took a half-time lead against play-off contenders Brentford, only to slip to defeat and the fourth division. Eight points short of safety, one of the bitter ironies of their fate is that the beneficiaries of their ten-point deduction are a franchise supported by Buckinghamshire team stealers where once there was a football club.
With just six wins at the Racecourse, you may think it wasn't the best of seasons to support the Dragons, but there was the faint consolation of a trip to the Millennium Stadium, and a 2-0 victory over Southend in the LDV Trophy final. They also reached the final of the FA of Wales Premier Cup, losing to Swansea, who will take their place in the third division. Wrexham showed enough to suggest that if Denis Smith could keep the squad together, an immediate return may be possible.
This hasn't been easy. Among the departures are last season's top scorer Juan Ugarte; Carlos Edwards, who played a large part in the two wins over Grimsby in 2004; Craig Morgan; and Chris Llewellyn. Staying put, though, are midfielders Mark Jones and Darren Ferguson. You may have heard of Ferguson; his dad is quite famous for once having owned half a racehorse, or something.
However, given permission to build a squad of 20 players, Denis Smith has managed to persuade former Sunderland keeper Mike Ingham and one of the legion of Hull reserve strikers, Jon Walters, that playing for a club that could fold in four months is more attractive than signing for the Mariners. Northern Ireland international Lee McEvilly has been signed from Accrington, for whom he scored 25 goals in 57 appearances. Other signings include Lee Roche from Burnley, and Dave Bayliss from Luton. A fair few players have been promoted from the youths and reserves, so they are either building for the future or being forced to throw in the youngsters. Time will tell.
The squad is somewhat thin, doesn't seem to have the goalscoring potential of last season, and has to get used to the physicality of the fourth division. However, the players are accustomed to playing against an uncertain backdrop and I can't see the town allowing the club to die, and that could provide the emotional uplift to keep them in the promotion race. My guess is that after a slow start, Wrexham will recover to take third place, but surviving – and finding owners who care about football – may be victory enough.
Do we like them?
As a Welshman, I suspect I was asked to use this space to provide a soliloquy on Anglo-Welsh relations in the sporting arena. [Am I really so transparent? – Ed.] Wrexham is a border town, and borders attract antipathy. The club may well also attract support from the Welsh nationalist heartlands of the north-west. Do not expect to hear paeans of praise for England's contribution to civilisation and the world economy.
Apart from that, they are not at all unlike us: a team with a proud tradition of punching above its weight and playing decent football. We have learnt to turn the constant fish references into a source of strength and pride. For Dragons, for "fish", read "sheep". They won't be expecting to hear applause for Wales' grand slam (and, the occasional visit of the Llanelli Scarlets aside, it isn't rugby territory) or an appreciation of the singing voice of Bryn Terfel (still less Charlotte Church). In fact, I'll probably be the only one disappointed to hear about the sexual practises of lonely hill farmers.
The short answer is we don't like them, and they don't care. But the expression of solidarity in the recent fans' day may have tempered the situation – at least highlighting the pantomime element to all the abuse. Let us at least respect them.
Why don't you just switch off from the football and go out and do something less boring instead?
When a tourist website starts out by telling you the town is privileged because in 20 minutes you can be somewhere else, you suspect you may be struggling for things to do. When anything, the Wrexham science festival included, describes itself as "Britain's fastest growing", reach sceptically for the nearest statistics primer. And when an ad for the museum implies that the town is dead, just head for the football. The museum is housed in former barracks. That these were built near the town centre "as much to control local people as to fight foreign campaigns" says much of what you need to know about Wales during the Industrial Revolution.