As soon as Wrexham’s National League fixtures were announced, all talk centred around how tough our opening three games were going to be, and with good reason. Short of playing the two counties – Stockport and Notts – games against Boreham Wood, Solihull Moors and Yeovil Town were, on paper, the closest we could get to a baptism of fire. So with that in mind, six points out of nine has to be considered a good start by anyone’s reckoning.
Now that we’ve navigated this difficult run – and come out the other side with an encouraging points haul – it is possible fans may look at Monday’s home game against rock bottom Maidenhead United and breathe a sigh of relief. But don’t construe that as a knock on Maidenhead. After all, this is a team who finished just two points behind Wrexham last season – a mere 0.08 in PPG metrics – and took four points off us in our previous two meetings, including a 2-2 draw in the corresponding fixture a year ago. We’ve been down here long enough to know three points are rarely exchanged without a fight.
However, there’s no escaping Maidenhead’s troubled start to the new season: three defeats out of three with 10 goals conceded and just 2 scored (and both of them were penalties). Without taking anything for granted, I think it’s safe to assume any side expecting to challenge would view this as a must win game. But when it comes to Wrexham, and when it comes to Dean Keates’ Wrexham in particular, it’s the games we should be winning that often prove the most problematic.
In Keates’ first spell in charge, more or less every game was a slog, regardless of the opposition. On one hand, we were always competitive and rarely, if ever, well beaten. On the other, rarely did we ever win well. Only the 4-0 drubbing of a terrible Torquay side springs to mind, on a day we were spurred on by a few hundred boisterous friends from Germany. But for the most part, Keates has a habit of setting up his sides to ‘mirror’ the standard of the opposition. We raise our game to match stronger adversaries, as we have done in the three games just gone, yet too often we allow ourselves to be dragged into dogfights against the poorer sides.
It happened in Keates’ first stint, and was even more prevalent upon his return to the dugout last season. Despite managing a 1-0 win against high-flying Bromley, a spirited 3-3 draw with Yeovil and a brilliant 2-0 triumph away at play-off winners Harrogate, results and performances against teams at the bottom of the table were nothing short of shocking by comparison: Impotent home defeats to Fylde, Chesterfield and Aldershot, intertwined with losses away at Ebbsfleet, Sutton, Maidenhead and Chesterfield (again) shone a glaring light on where our issues lay last season. All relegation six pointers. All defeats. Aside from the Christmas double header against Chorley, Keates’ Wrexham could barely muster a win against any of the poorest teams in the league, and I use that term knowing full well we were among the poorest of them all.
In Dean Keates’ 93 league games in charge of Wrexham – spread unevenly across four separate seasons – Wrexham have only managed to score 3+ goals on 9 occasions, and the aforementioned 4-0 win over Torquay was the only time we’ve managed more than three in one game. Even more bizarre is how four of those nine games came in the 2016/17 season after Keates inherited a rubbish squad left by the disgraced Gary Mills.
So what needs to be done? Well, score more goals would be the obvious answer. I genuinely think there are more promising attackers in this squad – be that in midfield, out wide or up-front – than we’ve had for a number of seasons: Jarvis, Ponticelli, Davies, Durrell, Jeffrey, Yussuf, Thomas all at least have some tangible attributes we can point to (and you can’t say that about all the forwards we’ve signed in recent years). But getting these players “in the building” is only half the battle. There needs to be a clear shift in mentality. If we are willing to match the initiative shown by our more ambitious opponents – and we are – then we should be more than capable of grabbing the initiative against sides with no intention of doing so themselves. The battling qualities so clearly on display against Boreham Wood and Yeovil are essential if you want to get results against the top sides in this division. But when it comes to teams who will look to frustrate – rather than create – those battling qualities will need to be channelled into more of a proactively ruthless streak. Sometimes, hanging on for dear life to a 1-0 lead is necessary, but no promotion winning side relies on such a scenario on a weekly basis.
Fitness permitting, I would like Keates to start the game with a front three of Jarvis, Thomas and Ponticelli – who found success pulling off to the right on Saturday – and really take the game to a Maidenhead side who’d surely settle for a point beforehand. It’s still very, very early days, but the way we approach Monday’s game will give us a huge glimpse into how the season is likely to play out – from an entertainment perspective if nothing else.