Memories of Arsenal revived as Wrexham clinch FA Cup progress
After Iain Macintosh saw Maidstone United overcome Stevenage in a first-round replay, the Road to Wembley took Nick Ames to Wrexham for a round-two encounter featuring two non-league sides battling for the chance to go into the hat with the Premier League clubs.
WREXHAM, Wales -- "Remember Ipswich! Remember Arsenal! Remember Middlesbrough! Remember Newcastle! WE. WANT. MOOORRRRRRE!!"
Steve Jones has been Wrexham's PA announcer, on and off, for nearly two decades and a fan of the club for 40 years, during which time he has seen his team conquer the best and plumb the depths.
So there is nothing affected about his exhortation to the home support, as Wrexham and Maidstone line up in the Racecourse Ground tunnel: To avoid being victims of a shock themselves, it would do no harm to invoke the spirit of giant-killings past.
This weekend seems an appropriate time to take strength from what went before. Two days before Maidstone's visit, almost every member of Wrexham's staff had attended the funeral of John Neal, a manager who long-serving club secretary Geraint Parry said "dragged the club into the modern era."
This was during the 1970s, a time when the Dragons, playing mainly in the old Third Division, made cup heroics their speciality, with FA Cup quarterfinal appearances in 1973-74 and 1977-78.
Upsetting Arsenal and Maidstone links
Those heroics came before anyone mentions Arsenal. What happened on Jan. 4, 1992 defines most neutrals' memories of the club in the just-about-modern era.
After going a goal down to the then-English champions, Brian Flynn's side looked set for a thrashing but equalised eight minutes from the end through a free kick from the 37-year-old Mickey Thomas and then, minutes later, won the game with a less-remembered but equally seismic finish by Steve Watkin.
Wrexham would lose to West Ham after a replay in the next round, but three years later, they beat Ipswich of the Premier League by another 2-1 scoreline at the Racecourse. Now, six years since they dropped out of the Football League after an 87-year stay, they sit in the middle of the Conference and wonder whether times will ever be as good again.
On Mold Road, behind the south stand of the Racecourse, there is a small room behind a red door that seems to contain every piece of Wrexham history imaginable: scarves, pennants, boxes of programmes, shirts, a selection of club badges laid out on a desk.
Behind that desk stands Pete Jones, chairman of Wrexham Supporters Trust. He is here before every home game, chatting to his trickle of regulars and purveying memorabilia, the proceeds of which will go directly to the Trust and, therefore, the club.
That is because Wrexham are now owned and run by their supporters. In 2011, the Trust took over the club's operations and inherited debts of 750,000 pounds. It was the first time supporters had assumed control of a professional club as a going concern.
It has been a slow road to recovery, but Wrexham are in steadier hands now, and with former Southampton and Everton man Barry Horne on the board at the club where his career began, Wrexham can look forward to a previously familiar sense of stability that a cup run would only intensify.
"We've got a big history -- make no mistake about that," Jones says. "We celebrated 150 years of our existence this season, and wherever you go in the world, people have heard of the town primarily because of the football club. The last few years haven't been the best, and we are determined to get out of the Conference -- it's a hard league to escape, a bottleneck, really frustrating, but we know that if we can do it, then the possibilities will open up.
"We want to promote fan-owned clubs," he continues. "We work transparently and openly, and that is the best way to be. Today is a really big day for all of us. A decent draw in the next round would be like winning the lottery."
It feels de rigueur to make a contribution, and flicking through a programme from the Arsenal game -- expertly retrieved from the pile by Jones -- pulls up a few surprises.
"We play at home again next week against Maidstone United," Flynn's notes said. "I hope that a number of those less regular fans here today will be encouraged to come back and cheer us again."
Flynn could not have known the encounter, which finished 0-0, would be the last chance for these two clubs to meet at the Racecourse for almost 22 years. Maidstone dropped out of the Football League seven months later and went out of business, only to subsequently reform and work their way up the English pyramid.
They are currently second in the Ryman Premier League and regularly watched at home by crowds of more than 2,000. Eight hundred of their fans, who have made the 239-mile journey from Kent, mill around the ground in their amber and black scarves before the game and make enough of a din to cut through the air of a cold afternoon in north Wales.
Loyal servants prepare
In the warmth of the Wrexham club office, Parry and Steve Jones sit at adjacent desks, and with kickoff just over an hour away, their workload is intensifying. There have been comings and goings all afternoon, not least because the FA Cup trophy is in the building and various visitors are being pointed in its direction.
Parry, who is much more than merely secretary in practice, has greeted the match officials and is now typing out the teamsheet. "Was that Fisher or Flisher?" he enquires of Maidstone's No. 11, whose name is indeed Alex Flisher.
Shortly afterward someone who has a lifetime's worth of his own tales arrives. Joey Jones is one of Wrexham's most loved and most decorated names and a genuine superstar on local and national levels.
A left-back from Llandudno who came through the ranks before making what was at the time a big-money move to Liverpool (110,000 pounds in 1975), he was an important part of the Anfield club's first European Cup win in 1977. He eventually rejoined Wrexham, and then, after spells with Chelsea and Huddersfield, played out the final years of his career in a third stint that ended a few months after the win over Arsenal.
"I was actually a substitute that day, and that was only because we were short of players due to injuries," said Jones, who was then 37 and now coaches Wrexham's under-18s and reserves.
"After Mickey put that free kick in, I remember saying to [then-assistant manager] Kevin Reeves as we were breaking down the right flank, 'We're going to score here,' and then Steve Watkin put it in. That was a great occasion for the town, and I only wish the younger generation could see what we were like in the past. All those big cup games and at times looking as we could get out of what's now the Championship. I'd love the kids now to experience something even close to that."
After Steve Jones does his bit on the PA and the teams emerge to a racket primarily coming from the Maidstone section, Wrexham attempt to do exactly that.
The home side start like a train against opponents who, for all their upward momentum, are still two divisions lower and look that half-percent less athletic. Mark Carrington and Connor Jennings should both scored for the hosts within seven minutes, and shortly after that Wes York has a delicate effort saved.
Maidstone attack the desolate, mournfully dark "Kop" -- now out of commission, but a wonderful anachronism -- but only sporadically. They do, however, force a superb double save from Jon Flatt, when first Flisher and then Jay May look odds-on to score.
Within minutes, that looks like a decisive sequence, as Maidstone goalkeeper Lee Worgan flaps at a right-sided corner, and as the ball bobbles in the six-yard box, it is jabbed in off the bar by centre-back Manny Smith. Now the home supporters do make some noise, and the first strains of "Que sera, sera..." duly follow.
After half-time comes perhaps Maidstone's biggest moment of regret, as a long throw is hurled into the home penalty area. May leaps high and makes a perfect contact, but his header thuds against the crossbar, and fans on the far side of the pitch resonate with anguish.
The next goal looks crucial, and it arrives when York, though again appearing to take too long, got tangled up with Aaron Simpson. He is fouled, and the defender is sent off. Andy Bishop doesn't really miss penalties, and that seems to be that.
Not quite so, though, as Maidstone, with 10 men, go all out. In the 63rd minute, James Rogers gets to the byline and crosses to Flisher, who finishes neatly. The away fans are back on song, their players' body language is urgent, and for a few minutes, Wrexham panic.
But as the final quarter-hour approaches, they rediscover their nerve and begin carving Maidstone open at will. Three minutes from time, Bishop is located by a pinpoint, outswinging ball from the right wing and heads it in emphatically. Game over -- but not without a fright for the hosts.
While Maidstone's players and supporters indulge in mutual thanks, pride, memories and regret, Wrexham, job done, are much quicker down the tunnel. Their win is merited, but manager Kevin Wilkin is not entirely happy.
"I'm a little bit disappointed with the way we've not managed the game, but you have to give great credit to Maidstone," he says. "They've come out and had a go at us and tried to do the right thing, and you can see why they're a club moving the right way and doing so well in their league."
Upstairs in the boardroom, the opinion was similar. Maidstone co-owner Oliver Ash has a flight to catch back home -- he is based in France -- but is happy to accept congratulations for his club's showing, while making it clear there is a bigger picture in focus.
"In the last two years, the whole town has woken up to the fact that we've got a team and a club, and they can get involved in it," he says. "It's a club for everybody, and a good cup run is the icing on the cake. There's just the right atmosphere around the place. This has been a great experience, great fun, and now we'll move on to the day job of getting promoted."
As the players leave the stadium, a figure scampers past them, face obscured almost entirely by the huge box he is ushering outside. "Cheers mate," he said to the ubiquitous Parry as he exited. Inside the box is the FA Cup -- finished with Wrexham for today but not, it turns out, for good.
On Monday evening, a number of Wrexham players, staff and board members face the local television cameras for the standard "draw reaction" piece. These are sometimes affected, but this time couldn't be further from the case, as Wrexham are drawn to play Stoke in the third round.
There is palpable delight, and aside from the fact that this will be a tie against Premier League opposition at a ground just 40 miles away, the reasons begin to dawn.
In one of numerous happy coincidences, Stoke manager Mark Hughes grew up just outside Wrexham, while his assistance Eddie Niedzwiecki came through the Dragons' ranks as a player and was a pallbearer at Neal's funeral.
Jon Walters, the Stoke forward, was -- amazingly -- released by Wrexham in 2006 before he worked his way back up the leagues, and Mickey Thomas, of the Arsenal free kick, played for and was revered at both clubs.
The list could go on -- this will be a meeting of the world's second- and third-oldest professional club sides, to boot -- and Parry's grin shone from ear to ear.
"Outside of the top four or five really big boys, we could hardly have asked for a better tie," he says. "A nice, local game, thousands of our fans can get there easily, and we are playing a club who have been really helpful to us in recent years.
"It's going to be a great day and what will be, will be, but we certainly haven't given up on getting something from it. We've knocked over one or two giants in our time, and it will happen again some day."
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.