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Jan 5, 2012

Wrexham's moment of glory

The FA Cup has gained itself a reputation for giantkilling as, throughout its history, clubs from the lower echelons of English football would occasionally upset the established order and knock out one of the big-boys. Whether it was Hereford against Newcastle in 1972 or Colchester beating Leeds a year previous, the competition is beloved for its propensity to provide shocks. Twenty years ago, on January 4, 1992, the club at the foot of the Football League, Wrexham, found themselves in the spotlight against First Division champions Arsenal at the Racecourse Ground. The Welsh side would go on to secure their greatest ever result and one of the biggest upsets in FA Cup history.

• ESPN Fan Films: The FA Cup journey

One of the great shocks of the FA Cup may never have happened if Aldershot had not become the first Football League club since Acrrington Stanley to go bust, in 1991. Wrexham would have been relegated to the GM Vauxhall Conference as they had finished bottom of the Fourth Division, but the Football League announced that there would be no demotion from their lowest division as Aldershot would be expelled at the end of the season.

With the threat of financial destruction hanging over a lot of lower-league clubs, Wrexham were struggling off the pitch, as well as on it. Still, The Guardian's Stephen Bierley wrote of the Welsh side: "Wrexham are no ordinary Fourth Division club. Slip inside in the modest doors and a small but brightly lit trophy cabinet catches the eye. Inside dwell the club's many and precious European icons - here Romulus and Remus suck at the teats of the she-wolf, celebrating Wrexham's meeting with Roma in the Olympic Stadium in 1984. God Bless the Welsh Cup."

A miserable defeat to Swansea in the Welsh Cup final in May 1991 had proved a low point, but it preceded their arrival in the FA Cup's third round after they had beaten non-league sides Winsford (5-2) and Telford (1-0).

A prestigious draw with reigning First Division champions Arsenal - who had lost only one game en route to the title - was the reward, but Wrexham were not in a good state. Rumours that their ground was to be turned into a supermarket had been doing the rounds, while a £42 million development plan that included a multi-leisure centre, 5,000-seater stand and executive boxes was met with scepticism by the public. Indeed, the recession in this area of North Wales had proved to be ''deeper and longer'' than first feared.

David Rhodes, Wrexham's managing director told The Guardian before the game: "We have been down to absolute rock bottom, but now we will continue to get stronger. Every bit of spare cash is being spent on youth development. There are six teenagers in the side, but old hands are still needed ... In football, it's best to look on the black side of everything. We expected to be knocked out in the First Round this time."

A 3-2 win over promotion-chasing Mansfield Town on New Year's Day had raised the spirits and, even though they had not won an away game since October 1990, the Welsh side were on a run that had seen them lose just two of their last 17 home games.

Ahead of Arsenal's visit, however, the response from the fans was disappointing. Back in 1978, the Gunners had visited the Racecourse Ground for the sixth round of the FA Cup and played in front of 25,500 - they won 3-2 on the day with goals from Malcolm McDonald, Alan Sunderland and Willie Young - but 14 years later, the attendance figure of 12,500 fell 4,000 short of full capacity.

If it was fear of a hammering by George Graham's side - which included the famous back four of David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams and David O'Leary, as well as the likes of David Rocastle, Paul Merson and Alan Smith - then it was well founded, but Wrexham's players were approaching the game with more optimism that their supporters.

"On paper they should murder us, but the game isn't being played on paper," said manager Bryan Flynn.

Indeed, Wrexham had an ace up their sleeve; a rather unusual, free-spirited ace named Mickey Thomas. The forward had begun his career at the club in 1972 before being sold to Manchester United for £300,000 six years later. He had victory in the 1978 FA Cup final snatched away from him by Arsenal and, after spells with a number of clubs including Everton, Stoke, Chelsea and Leeds, Thomas returned to the Racecourse Ground aged 37 to see out his playing days. It was a calculated gamble by his former club.

"He trains when he wants to train," revealed Flynn. "I don't see him too often... but I will take whatever he is taking to keep him going. And if he was 10 years younger, I'd be able to sell him for £5 million." Team-mate Gordon Davies claimed: "He listens to the teamtalks and then just goes out and does what he wants."

Indeed, against Arsenal, for the first half Thomas did just that. Little cohesion from the Welsh side saw Arsenal take control and they could have been two or three up before Smith tapped home for the Gunners in the 43rd minute after a great run from Merson. As Bierley wrote: ''It was at that awkward moment just before half-time and seemed to put the game well beyond Wrexham's powers of recovery."

As the second half began, a fierce shot from Andy Thackerey gave notice that it might not be such a foregone conclusion. Something had changed during the break and Davies observed that "They [Arsenal] were complaining amongst themselves and, although they kept the ball, they never really got at us."

Graham's long ball tactics still saw chances, as Winterburn hit the bar and Kevin Campbell had a shot blocked by Vince O'Keefe, but the Gunners struggled for creativity and their performance in the second half was later described as ''woefully mundane." A stroke of luck then gave the home side a chance to get back into it. On another day, the free-kick that referee Kevin Breen awarded to Davies for a push by O'Leary with eight minutes left could have gone the other way. Davies later said the Irishman was ''over my back like a rash" and ultimately the decision afforded Thomas a chance from the dead-ball five yards outside the box.

Having faked to take it quickly, Thomas lined up the shot and it was a goal as soon as it left his boot; arrowing into the top corner past a despairing Seaman. The goalkeeper had got fingertips from his right-hand to the effort, but not enough to stop it flying in and Thomas remembered after the game: "Once we scored, I thought we would get a goal every time we went forward. They started to panic and the back four just went."

Pouring forward with confidence high, Wrexham sensed blood. Riding on the crest of a wave, they snatched a second within two minutes as Davies latched onto a ball over the top and, instead of volleying an effort on goal, squared for 20-year-old top scorer Steve Watkin to hook the ball into the net as Adams missed his chance to clear. Incredibly the score was 2-1 with five minutes left.

An anxious looking Flynn screamed at his players to focus and see out the final minutes, but Arsenal had the ball in the net from Jimmy Carter before it was ruled out for a questionable offside decision. Adams was apoplectic, but it was the last chance for the Gunners and, moments later, the Welsh fans invaded the pitch to pay tribute to their heroes.

Bierley wrote: "Arsenal will go on to win leagues and cups in plenty; Wrexham may never have another day like this. It was sheer joy to see them enjoy it so much and football in general was the better for it." While the Daily Express ran with a stereotypically typical headline of 'Boyo boy, we've won' and columnist John Giles pointed the finger at Graham for failing to keep his players happy with his tough discipline and stoic stance over wage increases.

Another giant had been slain and the final words were left to Wrexham's veteran hero Thomas, who said: "I feel sorry for them as I have been at the top and know how difficult these games are... They had everything to lose today and they lost it."

What happened next? Wrexham went out in the next round 1-0 at home after drawing 2-2 at West Ham, while Arsenal recovered to win the Cup the following season. Thomas soon hit national notoriety for a money counterfeiting operation that saw him jailed for 18-months as well as an extra-marital tryst that led to his being stabbed in the buttocks. The club continued to find success in the FA Cup and beat Ipswich and Middlesbrough before going into administration in 2004. Dropping down the divisions after that blow, the club would never reach the peak of their night against Arsenal and, for pure shock value, no FA Cup upset has matched their achievement since.

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