The National League season rages on as Wrexham travel to Grosvenor Vale for our first ever competitive fixture with Wealdstone. After an unacceptable home defeat to Maidenhead United on Monday evening, Dean Keates’ men will arrive in North West London knowing 3 points are a necessity. For the second game in succession, Wrexham will be facing the side who sit bottom of the National League table, but as Stones fan Paul Franklin explains, the table might be a tad misleading…
Last season you won 10 of your first 11 league games in the National League South and – despite pressure from Havant & Waterlooville – never really looked like relinquishing top spot. How do you look back on the campaign as a whole, and did you fear the worst when covid curtailed the season?
We will all look back with immense pride at what the club achieved last year. The previous two seasons had been relatively successful with National League South play-off appearances and going deep in the FA Trophy. The expectation was to be up there challenging again but I am not sure anyone saw us leading the league from the first month of the season. The squad gave some incredible performances. Beating Havant & Waterlooville 4-2 at their place and Bath City at home 7-0 will live long in the memory. We were closing in on the title knowing Havant were pushing hard but it could have been won around Easter time and the anticipation was palpable. The celebrations were going to be epic. The club was homeless and in Ryman League Division 3 in the 90’s so to think being back at the top table of non league football after 32 years was within touching distance. The club had won the Non League Double in 1985 and it has really been a story of bouncing back ever since and this would be the final piece of that story.
Late March onwards was nervy for us all. Had all the hard work on and off the pitch come to nothing? Will we get promoted? PPG or null and void? Is this such a ‘Wealdstone’ way of not getting promoted? But to finally get told that the Stones were Champions still makes me and many others smile, even if we weren’t able to celebrate the success. It was richly deserved for so many who refused to let the club die, which was a strong possibility more than once over the years.
How badly has the club been hit by the pandemic?
We are certainly not unique in being hit hard by the Pandemic. The board and volunteers have really worked hard to ensure the club are financially sustainable going forward after years of instability. The challenge the club faced was two-fold. Survive the pandemic whilst trying to prepare the playing squad, management and support team, off the field facilities and stadium ready for National League football. Where was the money going to come from? No fans allowed in, season curtailed until October and huge bills due to the upgrades have been crippling. It’s testament to the board, volunteers and fans that we are playing National League football.
It has to be said that in these times of uncertainty, the fans have been unbelievable. They have raised nearly £60,000 towards the playing budget across 2 fundraising campaigns. The ‘Stoneshare’ campaign which finished this week has raised in excess of £55,000 alone, with every penny going towards the 2020/21 playing budget. It has funded two, maybe three players for the squad. It makes me proud to say I support the Stones with stellar work like this. We all say it, but I do think we have the best, most loyal support base there is and they deserve National League football.
Not being able to attend games in person has been disappointing for all supporters, but it must be especially hard for Wealdstone fans in your first season back at this level after so long?
Gutted, absolutely gutted. Banging around the lower reaches of the Southern League and Isthmian League for many a season with no idea this was on the horizon makes the thought of being able to travel to the ‘big’ teams of the NL even sweeter. For it to be pulled from under us as we were starting to prepare away days and looking forward to it is hard to take. We may be a small club tucked away in the North West corner of London suburbia but we have a big heart with a big following from across the UK and beyond. We would have travelled in force and made sure the opposition knew we were there to help our team in a challenging season, whilst having fun along the way. One day we will be let back in…it cannot come soon enough.
Your manager, Dean Brennan, led you to the National League South title in his first season at the club. How good of a job has he done?
It can’t be underestimated the impact Deano has had. Not only did he have to build a squad almost from scratch on a reduced budget from previous seasons, he also had to help build a stronger bond between players and fans, which had waned a little under the previous manager. He has extensive playing and managerial experience at Tier 1 to 3 of non league football but most importantly he ‘got’ what the Stones were about. A uniquely brilliant football club with a passionate, partisan die-hard following who really embrace the notion that “If you play for the badge on the front of the shirt, We will remember the name on the back.” He knew as a collective something special was achievable. He has his footballing philosophy and brought together a group of players that bought into that and he gave them a platform to perform. We got behind them all, they appreciated that and it snowballed into a season that will go down in Stones history as one of the best. He now has the most challenging season he has probably had as a manager, we have to trust him and back him all the way. We are competing on the smallest budget in the smallest stadium with a part time squad.
What was the expectation at the start of the season?
Stay in the league. It has taken 32 years to get back and thousands of pounds of investment to be ready for the level. It has to be a season of consolidation to allow for the club to build in the coming seasons. There was a feeling that we would ‘make a good go of it’ and not be there to make up numbers. The squad size and playing budget is a huge challenge so realistically if we are fourth from bottom come the end of the season it has to be accepted. The fans will of course expect the players to do all they can to ensure they stay in the league. Effort and pride to wear the club badge is a minimum requirement for anyone representing the Stones.
Ross Lafayette, Moses Emmanuel and Dan Wishart are names which might ring a bell to Wrexham fans, but otherwise Saturday’s match will be a trip into the unknown for most. What can you tell us about your squad, and is there anyone we should keep a particular eye on?
Deano has relied heavily on the NLS winning squad. His starting eleven may feature as many as nine or ten from last season. He has supplemented it with signings of young lads who wish to prove themselves at NL level whether they are climbing the footballing pyramid or have been released from full time football. Although the team has been fairly settled, it is fair to say that the manager is still trying to work out his best formation, starting eleven and add to the quality of the squad. I can foresee more comings and goings to allow the team to be more competitive. Up until now we haven’t had a stand out performer but on their day, Kundai Benyu, Dennon Lewis or Michee Efete can influence the game positively!
You currently sit bottom of the National League, but is that an unfair reflection of your first three games? Even the 2-5 defeat to Stockport was a close contest until the dying minutes.
I think so. We could be reflecting on four points rather than one point after the three matches. There were very good chances missed against Yeovil and Dagenham & Redbridge that would have helped turn a draw into a win and a loss into a draw. But we can all talk about the ‘ifs & maybes’ of performances. The harsh reality of this league was on show against Stockport when we looked like we were in the match at 2-1 up and within a 10 minute period we were 5-2 down. Deano and the team will take the positives out of all of the performances so far. It’s going to be a tough winter but I do think we have enough to survive in the league.
I’ve got to ask. Wrexham cult hero Glen Little spent one season at Wealdstone immediately after leaving us in 2013. Is he the greatest player of all time?
He may not be regarded as the greatest player of all time, but he will always be talked about amongst the greats that include Lindsay, Duck, Bowgett, Beckford and North. He did however score one of the best Wealdstone goals, if not the best, against Dulwich Hamlet in 2013. Google it, it’s an unbelievable individual effort! Jefferson Louis and Christian Smith have also played for both clubs. Jeff played at the Vale from 2014-16 and Smudge in 2018-19.
I’m sure it would be quicker to list the non-league clubs Jefferson Louis hasn’t played for! Finally, give us a score prediction.
I have to be realistic as well as optimistic. We need a win quickly and both teams come into this match with defeats in the week. I will be brave and say the Stones will win a close match 2-1.
Huge thanks to Paul for giving us a great insight into Wealdstone. We wish them all the best for the season – after Saturday, of course – and hope their fans can be back at Grosvenor Vale and beyond sooner rather than later.