Wrex factor! North Wales is buzzing as Morrell magic brings back the good times
Andy Morrell looks out across Wrexham’s Colliers Park training ground to the aptly named Hope Mountain beyond.
It is a sunny day in North Wales but there is ice in the air and a frost has settled on parts of the finely manicured pitch, which may yet threaten Tuesday night’s FA Cup replay against Brighton at the Racecourse Ground just down the road.
The winners of the tie are at home to Newcastle United in the fourth round, making this clash, by some margin, the most important game in Morrell’s short managerial career.
Ready to go: Wrexham will entertain Brighton at their Racecourse ground
It began last September when the 37-year-old was asked to step in after Dean Saunders left for Doncaster. A month later, after seven wins in nine games, Morrell was given the job as player-manager. He has kept Wrexham at the top of the Blue Square Bet Premier, and is manager of the last non-League club in the FA Cup.
‘It’s mad, I’m the luckiest man in the world,’ says the ex-Coventry striker, who started his playing career at Wrexham 14 years ago at the late age of 23.
‘My brother phoned at 7.30 in the morning and told me that Dean had left. The club asked if I’d take over for four games in eight days or something ridiculous, and I said I’d do anything to help. I wanted to go into coaching but I didn’t know about management. But you take it when you can. The lads have been exceptional and they deserve their 15 minutes of fame.
‘Newcastle is a big carrot, but I’ve told them that Brighton at home is a big enough carrot. We’ve not had a full house for a few years.’
Player-manager: Andy Morrell is in his second spell at the club
A capacity crowd of 9,000 – almost three times this season’s average – will be at the Racecourse to see their team try to turn the clock back to the days of Mickey Thomas, Joey Jones, Dai Davies and Dixie McNeil; the halcyon days of the 1970s when Wrexham twice reached FA Cup quarter-finals.
Many also remember Thomas’s free-kick and the third-round win over First Division champions Arsenal in 1992. But Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest (then the champions of Europe), Newcastle and Sunderland were other top-flight victims. Swansea and Cardiff might be the current flagbearers for Welsh football, but there is no doubting a proud history in North Wales, too.
Wrexham’s 23 Welsh Cup wins also ensured plenty of appearances in the old European Cup-Winners’ Cup against the likes of Roma, Anderlecht and Real Zaragoza.
Jones, now 56, has filled many roles at Wrexham over the years – apprentice, player, record signing, caretaker manager and first-team coach. Today the former Liverpool favourite oversees the youth team.
Glory days: Dixie McNeil (right) and Graham Whittle
‘I was manager here for two games,’ says Jones. ‘I was consistent – we lost them both! But it would be nice to get back to where we were. I’d like to do it for the younger supporters who have never seen Wrexham play in those type of games. Their dads will remember Roma, Zaragoza, Porto, FA Cup quarter-finals and the promotions over the years. All the younger ones know is Wrexham struggling.
‘I’d like to see them have a team to be proud of because we’ve got a great tradition. If you go abroad, people remember Wrexham. With respect to the other non-League clubs, they don’t say that about them.’
There is a bond between Brighton and Wrexham that explains why the Welsh club presented their hosts with a bronze dragon before the clubs drew on the south coast 10 days ago.
When Wrexham were in danger of being evicted from the Racecourse in 2004, Brighton fans, who had faced a similar battle with their own majority shareholder, were the first to offer help.
Replay: Adrian Cieslewicz (left) earned a draw at Brighton
However, it did not save Wrexham from becoming the first club to be deducted 10 points for going into administration with debts of 2.6million. The punishment led to relegation from League One, and in 2008 the club’s 87-year stay in the Football League was over.
Now owned by the Supporters’ Trust and renting the Racecourse Ground from the local university, things are looking up. Wrexham are pushing for promotion and a place in the fourth round for the first time in 12 years. A team built on defensive stability are determined to give their Championship opponents another good game.
Just as importantly, the six-figure revenue from this tie is a godsend.
‘Brighton have shown that you can turn things around,’ says CEO David Roberts. ‘The feelgood factor is back and the whole community has bought into what we’re trying to achieve. There’s a tremendous heritage, but we have to push on.’
And you don’t have to look far for hope in this part of the world.