Roll out the cliches. It’s that time of the year again as we approach the business end of the season. The importance of a game of football is ratcheted up to stratospheric and astronomical levels. They’re not just huge, or massive – they’re pivotal, they’re season-defining. It wouldn’t be overly hyperbolic to proclaim, as manager Andy Morrell has alluded to, that the next 8 or 9 days will shape and define Wrexham’s season.
Home to Luton Town tomorrow, the side that have wrecked The Dragons’ hopes at the play-off stage in the two previous seasons, and, on Tuesday night a Mansfield outfit who have won 12 of their past 13 games to catapult themselves alongside Wrexham at the summit of the Conference. All this without taking into account the club’s historic first trip to Wembley next weekend for the FA Trophy final against title rivals Grimsby Town.
It’s enough to make any supporter giddy. Living with the stresses that often accompany this hectic stage of the season are enough to drive fans into despair. For the players themselves, it’s part and parcel of the job.
Wrexham vice-captain Neil Ashton is one who is all too familiar with it. Twice he has graced the hallowed Wembley turf, and twice he has left without walking up those steps.
“To play there is a special occasion, but to play in a final, and win and go up those steps. I haven’t been up the steps yet, if it turns out that I go up the steps and get a loser’s medal and then return in May for a winner’s medal at least I’m progressing!”
But the left-back remains realistic.
“I know we’re in a final and I know people would love to see Wrexham win a final at Wembley, but I think if you offered every single person in that squad promotion or the win at Wembley, they would take the promotion.”
The trip to Wembley next weekend is a prize in itself for a club that narrowly avoided becoming the latest on the financially-addled scrapheap. Promotion to the promised land of milk and honey that is the Football League is more concentrated in his, and his team-mates’, minds than ever.
“We’ve got a lot of characters in this squad, and to be honest there’s been a lot of hype about the game which the players are not… I wouldn’t say they’re not happy with it, but they just want to get on with the job in hand. We’ve got two more massive, massive league games and at this stage of the season they can’t get any bigger than these two.”
“I know Luton are on a bad run of form but you always want to beat them because they’re one of the best teams, one of the biggest in the division. It’s a statement – if you beat Luton people look up to you and think you’re serious about this. And then there’s Mansfield who are flying at the minute.”
“We’ve got two huge, huge games before we even think about Wembley. People seem to be forgetting that we’ve got these games coming up.”
“If you said to me now, you’re not even going to play at Wembley but you’re going to get promoted, I’d walk out of here a happy man and you wouldn’t even see me at Wembley. I know a lot of us would love to say we’ve played at Wembley, but promotion, to have that medal and lift that trophy, would be absolutely superb for us and that’s all that we want.”
As a footballer who has tasted that Wembley atmosphere before, Ashton will not be fazed by returning.
“Wembley’s superb, it is fantastic. And however long the game takes it’s great. But I’ve been there before and lost there twice (Shrewsbury). When that final whistle goes and you lose, you may as well have played on the local park. You can go and tell your grandkids, your kids and all your mates but – “Did you win?” – “No” – it doesn’t mean anything, and as someone with experience, I’ve played in play off finals there and it’s heartbreaking.”
“The first time nearly 50 of my friends and family came down and I ended up going back with them, back to Liverpool and you think – “I’ve let all these down”. You should be thinking of yourself and your teammates, but you’re thinking of all those people who’ve come on the coach, all those fans. You’ve let them down. That’s the biggest and worst feeling in the world.”
Realism is a constant theme in Neil Ashton’s psyche, and he is under no illusions as to the debt that he and the squad owe to those that safeguarded the future of Wrexham Football Club – the fans.
“Fingers crossed we come home with a trophy to give the fans something to cheer about, because over the last couple of years the fans have had to go through a lot. If it wasn’t for the fans the club probably wouldn’t be here. If this is a small payback, to give them a win for what they have done for this club and this town, it doesn’t even compare.”
“So we’re going there as much for ourselves as for the fans, and every player will tell you that. It’s a great occasion. The stadium is superb and you’ll fall in love with it when you get there. But at the end of the day, unless you win, it doesn’t mean anything.”
It seems almost perverse to compare a Play Off Final to that of the FA Trophy; for one the rewards are tangible in both silverware and promotion and the other, a trophy that seldom outside of the Football League pay attention to. But, after all, it is Wembley and it is a final. For Ashton, that is significant in itself.
“To play at Wembley’s huge, I don’t think the game itself gives it anymore added significance or pressure. You’re playing in a final at Wembley. You see that’s why I don’t like the semi finals of the FA Cup being played at Wembley, it takes the shine off it. Wembley is finals day.”
“People want to play at Wembley first and foremost, but then you want to win. I’d love to win there and I’m hoping it’s third time lucky.”
With Wrexham sitting atop the Blue Square Bet Conference Premier on goal difference ahead of Mansfield, Ashton is hopeful that next Sunday will be his sole appearance at Wembley this season. With 7 points separating the top 5, and a host of games in hand across the board, this is one narrative that is likely to go to the wire.
“In a perfect world this would be my only trip to Wembley this year. If we win and then we’ve got that winner’s medal come April 20th round our necks, there will be a massive, massive party in Wrexham.”
If there is to be a massive, massive party in Wrexham on the weekend of April 20th, then the next three games and nine days will go a long way to determine it.