I’m not a fan of being a neutral. I know some of you are absolutely desperate to attend a football match each week, no matter who’s playing, but it’s not for me. I’ll watch games all day long on the TV but being an isolated figure amongst loyal supporters has never felt right (except, of course, for at Stadium:MK where everyone’s a ‘neutral’); it’s incomparable to watching your own team play.
It was with no surprise, therefore, that I had my apprehensions about attending the FA Trophy Final between Wrexham and Grimsby. I filled the role of every diehard supporter’s worst nightmare; a day tripper. I’d gone for a day out at Wembley, expecting an average atmosphere and a below average game. Of course, I wasn’t ignorant enough to not appreciate the growing quality of non-league football but when you’ve spent the last eight months watching Championship football, I expected the gap in class to be huge.
On the pitch, the first half did little to alter my pre-match fears. A sloppy, slow and at times dull affair was played out for the majority of the opening 45 minutes. Whether it was Wembley nerves or the true quality of the sides shining through, both Wrexham and Grimsby consistently gave the ball away, often sending wayward passes out of play which did little to help the game flow. The Wembley nerves certainly got the better of Grimsby’s Craig Disley, who somehow got away without even a yellow card after a two footed lunge on Wrexham captain Dean Keates. That moment of controversy was one of few highlights in the half as most of the goalmouth action for both sides came from set pieces that produced little.
There were signs though towards the end of the half that this game had a lot more to offer after the break. Wrexham’s playmaker Jay Harris was pinging balls left, right and centre, whilst also causing a threat to the Grimsby back four with some clever footwork but letting himself down with a reluctance to shoot. Grimsby’s biggest threat came from Marcus Marshall down the left flank; his pace, supported by left back Aswad Thomas, was proving a difficulty for the Wrexham defence but his final product was lacking.
Away from the game itself, there were signs that, even with the cup final scenario taken into consideration, this was anything but a ‘non-league game’. There were no gimmicks before kick-off; something the Trophy’s Football League counterpart, the Johnstone’s Pain Trophy, is familiar with, whilst the atmosphere was excellent with the majority of the 35,226 inside Wembley appearing to have some connection to either side. Being in among some of the more vocal Wrexham fans, much to my disgust, I even found myself joining in with a few chants. These were not your stereotypical non-league, or even lower depths of the Football League, fans. They seemed truly passionate about their club. They may have been inspired by the cup final, not ‘true fans’ after all, but that to me seemed highly unlikely.
By the end of the second 45, I was totally won over. These were two quality sides, neither of which would look out of place in the Football League, playing in an atmosphere that even a staunch neutral like me couldn’t help but be drawn into. The game began to flow, chances were created and Wrexham had two excellent opportunities to take the lead within the opening ten minutes of the restart. Player-manager Andy Morrell was played in on goal and, with Grimsby ‘keeper James McKeown slipping as Morrell attempted to round him, look destined to finish. But Mckeown recovered well to pull off a fantastic reflex save and tip the ball around the post from Morrell’s driven shot. A Wrexham corner then caused havoc in the Grimsby box and the ball ended up at the feet of Danny Wright, but the striker could only poke wide when it seemed easier to score.
Wrexham remained on top and the introduction of former Man City youngster Adrian Cieslewicz gave the Welsh side a threat down the left wing. His quick feet and pace continuously bamboozled the Mariners’ defence but his decision making prevented any real chances from being created. Looking to play the ball flat across goal each time after beating his man, a Grimsby player was often first to the ball, whilst a couple of shots after cutting inside did little to test McKeown. Down the other end, ‘keeper Chris Maxwell had little, if anything, to do. In fact, his first meaningful touch of the ball saw him pull off a fantastic save from Andy Cook after Joe Colbeck had broke down the right flank and played the ball across goal. The save meant little though as, against the run of play, Grimsby were able to take the lead with Cook reacting to the loose ball and rifling the ball into the bottom corner of the net with just under 20 minutes still to play.
With Wrexham dominating up to that point, the game certainly wasn’t beyond them. They were becoming frustrating to watch, however, as, much in the same way that Barcelona do when in desperate need for goal, they continued to casually knock the ball around midfield and maintain possession without any real chances being created. Experienced defender Chris Westwood headed over and the likes of Cieslewicz , Harris, Keates and Kevin Thornton all had efforts on gaol, but as the clocked ticked into the final 10 minutes, it seemed as if time was running out for Wrexham. That was until Cieslewicz finally produced a threatening delivery after some fancy footwork with the ball finding its way through to Keats inside the area. Shaping to shoot, the skipper was brought down by Shaun Pearson and referee Moss had little choice but to award a penalty. Thornton stepped up and showed complete calmness to coolly covert the spot kick.
The goal brought the game into extra time, with McKeown pulling off a fantastic save from a Harris free-kick soon after the equaliser to keep the scores level. At half time I had prayed for the game to be decided in normal time, but now I was delighted it hadn’t. It seemed as if the game and Wrexham especially had grown with every passing minute. My optimism for high quality period of extra time was rewarded with just that.
With Grimsby limited to nothing more than a few half chances, Wrexham pilled on the pressure, finally following up excellent build up play with opportunities at their climax. Cieslewicz fired off target after creating space for himself, and with moments left of the first period, almost caught McKeown out with a volley from range after bringing the ball down with his chest and turning quickly, but the ‘keeper scrambled across goal to save well. The second period of extra time seemed like a case of when, not if, would Wrexham score but McKeown was in sensational form. Another effort from Cieslewicz was tipped away and Stephen Wright’s ball into the box for name sake Danny was incredibly saved with Wright just a few yards from goal and firing a shot that looked destined for the bottom corner. A final chance saw a tame header at the far post comfortably saved by McKeown as the game headed for penalties.
My neutral hating, non-league bashing thoughts pre-match were now long gone. The game had me gripped and I, like every Wrexham fan around me, felt sick with the fact the trophy wasn’t won in normal time. Cieslewicz took the opening penalty and scored, which was followed up by Disley hitting the post, much to the delight of Maxwell who celebrated like he was in the stands. Danny Wright coolly rolled the second in for Wrexham, whilst Brodie lashed the ball over the bar. The trophy had Wrexham’s name on it. Westwood finished a third consecutive penalty and Colbeck kept the shoot-out alive with his kick, but Johnny Hunt converted the winner with the next kick. Pandemonium in the stands followed, something which I couldn’t help be drawn into. Wrexham were FA Trophy winners.
Yes, these are two non-league sides who have spent the majority of their life spans in the Football League, and yes, it was cup final, but that takes nothing away from the spectacle they both put on. Grimsby had their moments, but Wrexham were by the far better side and they especially wouldn’t look out of place in the Football League. One player especially, Jay Harris, impressed me greatly. He fell away towards the end, but his calmness and authority in midfield was of a player who deserved to be in a much higher division. If he plays like that on a consistent basis, as a few Wrexham fans have informed me he does, I see no reason why he can’t push up the leagues and make a name for himself elsewhere.
A truly fantastic advert for non-league football; my cynicism has vanished.