Wrexham took a significant stride towards a Wembley final with a 3-1 victory in the first-leg of their FA Trophy semi-final against Gainsborough Trinity. After an even first-half in which a Danny Wright goal was cancelled out by Darryn Stamp, Wrexham made their squad depth count in the second-half with a string of substitutions that changed the complexion of the tie, let alone the game.
Second-half strikes from substitute Adrian Cieslewicz and Neil Ashton’s seventh goal of the season in stoppage time put clear daylight between the two sides, and brought Wrexham, who began the afternoon 180 minutes away from Wembley, within touching distance of the FA Trophy Final.
The Racecourse basked in almost Spring-like sunshine, and there was an unmistakably expectant atmosphere surrounding the old ground. The TV cameras were present, the music blared from the tannoy and a substantial crowd had gathered.
Yet at odds with the bombastic buildup, the start to the game was rather subdued and low-key, resembling the hesitant early exchanges of an archetypal two-legged cup-tie. As both sides preferred to get the measure of the other, little had been created, with Wrexham keeping the ball well yet not penetrating the Gainsborough back line.
The game sparked into life in the 19th minute when Brett Ormerod’s vicious strike from 20 yards forced a sprawling save out of Jan Budtz, who could only palm the ball into the path of Danny Wright who couldn’t miss.
It should have been the first of many as Wrexham subsequently seized the initiative and carved out a succession of chances. Two minutes later the erratic Budtz spilled a routine catch, and abandoned his goalkeeping duties, preferring to chase the ball out of the penalty box.
As the ball was sent back into the area, Danny Wright’s goal bound header was cleared off the line by Danny Hone, comfortably Gainsborough’s most accomplished defender of the afternoon.
The goal had brought added urgency to Wrexham’s play and they had begun to dictate the tempo of proceedings. Minutes later Rob Ogleby found himself one-on-one with Budtz, who rushed off his line, again, forcing the Welsh youngster to rush his effort, which trickled well wide, before Danny Wright then blazed over the bar from a knock-down in the area.
Yet Wrexham have acquired an unquenchable appetite of late for conceding goals when they are themselves on top in games, and today was no different. Declan Walker, who endured a torrid afternoon, lost his man, Jamie Yates, whose pinpoint cross found the inviting head of Stamp who nodded the ball past Chris Maxwell from barely 6 yards out.
The lead lasted just 8 minutes; it may have been against the run of play, but it is becoming a worrying theme in Wrexham’s season. The Blue Square Conference side’s defensive shoddiness continued to be exposed as the half wore on, Chris Westwood and Walker looked particularly vulnerable.
Maxwell himself was guilty of negligible goalkeeping when he almost palmed a Gainsborough corner into his own net in the 38th minute. It speaks volumes that he actually appeared to be the more composed goalkeeper on show.
Wrexham ended the half unable to create anything meaningful after the flurry that had followed the opening goal. But they began the second-half the stronger side, Danny Wright came close to doubling his account shortly after the re-start before a Jay Harris effort from outside the penalty area was blocked by the temperamental Budtz on the penalty spot.
The Dutchman’s apparent licence to roam out of his goal continually went unpunished by a misfiring Wrexham front line, whilst Darryn Stamp was causing untold problems in the Wrexham defence, who could not cope with the aerial threat that his 6’ 1” frame provided.
Player-manager Andy Morrell sensed the anxiety in Wrexham’s play and brought on Adrian Cieslewicz for Ogleby in the 60th minute, who proceeded to fire Wrexham back into the lead fives minutes later.
The Pole beat Josh Wilde for pace down the right hand side before ploughing inside the area and finishing with aplomb into the bottom corner. Cieslewicz continued to terrorize the tiring Gainsborough defence. Sensing that the tie, let alone the game, could be decided in the final 25 minutes, Wrexham grasped the opportunity.
The home side began to look assured in the middle ground and dictate play, a product of both Gainsborough manager Steve Housham’s inexplicable decision to replace Criag Nelthorpe and the introduction of Glen Little with 11 minutes remaining.
A Jay Harris shot from the edge of the area was blocked on the line, before Morrell, who had brought himself on in place of Brett Ormerod on 84 minutes, scooped an effort into the side-netting from a tight angle.
The ever inventive Cieslewicz embarked upon another run before prodding his shot wide, whilst Jay Harris again brought a save out of Budtz from distance. The two then combined a minute later, with Harris unable to head home the Pole’s pinpoint cross. Unable to make that decisive breakthrough it appeared that the home side had settled for their slender advantage.
But in the second minute of added time Glen Little won a corner kick through his own persistence. Jay Harris, whether deliberately or not may remain a mystery, drilled the corner low, which was flicked goal wards by Danny Wright. Morrell instinctively shot at goal but was blocked off, only for the ball to land at Neil Ashton’s feet who resoundingly drilled home.
It was the gloss on the scoreline that Gainsborough may consider harsh given their herculean efforts, but it was the scoreline that the balance of play merited. Wrexham created countless chances, many of them off-target, but belatedly showcased not only their superior fitness levels but the depth of their resources.
Whilst Cieleswicz’s introduction with half-an-hour remaining shifted the momentum of the match, Glen Little provided the authority in the middle that had been lacking and Morrell himself provided a late energy boost to tiring legs and minds.
In a season where even Bradford City can beat Aston Villa over two legs, Wrexham should take nothing for granted in the return leg at Gainsborough next Saturday.