Out of the wreckage

TEN years ago this week, Wrexham were just about hanging on to a Second Division play-off place – and were the top football club in Wales. The decade since has not been kind. Last night, their 87-year run as a Football League club was ended by defeat at Hereford.

Cardiff and Swansea are enjoying a renaissance in 2008 after the lows of the mid-to-late 1990s. Wrexham, on the other hand, have been on a steady descent since missing out on those play-offs on the final day of the 1997/98 season.

But they would probably still be a Football League club – perhaps even a League One club – but for Alex Hamilton, who tried to make Wrexham vacate the Racecourse Ground when he was chairman so that he could sell it for redevelopment.

He would have made a lot of money had he succeeded; the Racecourse is on valuable land, on the main road into town and five minutes’ walk from the railway station. Though he didn’t succeed, Hamilton’s chairmanship saw the club run down so much that they were the first to be deducted 10 points for going into administration in December 2004.

Those 10 lost points effectively relegated Wrexham from League One that season. They have never looked likely to climb back, despite businessman Neville Dickens winning control of the club in 2006.

Although Wrexham appear to be on a steadier financial footing these days, they remain a club with a valuable ground and not much money. Relegation was dramatically avoided on the final day of last season thanks to victory over Boston, but such an escape never looked likely this time, despite a mid-term change of manager.

Dropping into the Conference no longer carries the stigma it once did – just ask Hereford. Indeed, Carlisle and Doncaster have both managed to make it back from non-league football having suffered under troublesome owners, and both could yet be playing in the Championship next season. Even Aldershot – who went bust mid-season in 1992 – have managed to make it back into the league in the last couple of weeks.

Before last season, the last time Wrexham’s Football League place was really under threat was in 1989/90. After a bad start, manager Dixie McNeill was sacked and replaced by the untried Brian Flynn. In March 1990, Wrexham faced a must-win match against relegation rivals Colchester. On a nailbiting afternoon at the Racecourse, the weather veered between glorious sunshine and thunderstorms. So did the action. Wrexham trailed twice before fighting back to win 3-2. Colchester ultimately went down. Wrexham stayed up, and went on to enjoy a glorious few years under Flynn’s management, even reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals in 1997.

Colchester, though, were another team who fought back from the blow of losing their Football League status. Despite having just been relegated from the Championship, the U’s are arguably in better shape off the field than they’ve ever been, and are about to leave their compact Layer Road ground for a shiny new stadium.

That in itself is evidence that relegation need not be the start of a slide to oblivion for Wrexham. It won’t be easy, though. Just because Carlisle bounced back in a year doesn’t mean Wrexham will, and there’s always the danger of becoming another Halifax, who could yet be relegated to the Conference North this weekend.

Wrexham fans groups are right in calling for investment to ensure the club can compete in the Conference, which becomes more like the unofficial League Three every year. Get it right, and the drop into non-league football could be the springboard for a revival.

And if one of the friendliest clubs I’ve visited in recent years does make it back into the Football League at the first attempt, I will be delighted.

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