When it comes to Saturday 20th April, and promotion to the fabled land of milk and honey that is the Football League is decided, Wrexham will doubtless reflect on the fateful events of the evening of the 29th January, 2013.
Victory over a 14th-placed Southport would have lifted the Dragons to the top of the Blue Square Premier. As it is, fate conspired against them. Although Wrexham remain eight unbeaten in all competitions, they squandered the initiative twice granted through goals from Danny Wright and Joe Clarke with their own defensive paucity. All this drama, without the added caveat of an injury to Joslain Mayebi that left player-manager Andy Morrell snookered, not only during the second half but now for the rest of the season.
The Cameroonian had pushed off to clear a loose back-pass from Neil Ashton when the injury occurred. The farcical situation that led to seven minutes of injury time was first accentuated by Morrell’s policy of not selecting a substitute goalkeeper, but then aggravated by the post-match revelation that Mayebi faces up to eight months on the sidelines.
Already it feels like a season-defining evening at the Racecourse. It had all started so positively for Wrexham, playing in front of a home crowd for the first time in 2013 – a result of the quirks of the fixture list and the weather – who were in buoyant mood following the side’s progression to the semi-finals of the FA Trophy at the weekend.
‘We are top of the league’ roared the Wrexham faithful. And who could argue with their sentiments after a confident opening to the first half. Wrexham were all over their North West opponents during the early exchanges, which resembled the disparity in their league positioning.
After the first shot of note in the game on five minutes was spannered wide by Southport’s Godfrey Poku, the home side took the lead barely a minute later. A loose pass in midfield from Shaun Whalley was picked up by Nick Rushton, who exploited the vacuum behind Southport’s high defensive line with an astute through-ball for Danny Wright to run on to.
Though the striker’s run took him away from goal, his finish was exquisite as it nestled into the far bottom corner. Wrexham had the lead and looked to turn the screw. Their passing and movement was a level beyond Southport, who could neither contain nor counteract it.
Incredulously the lead lasted a mere 6 minutes, with the Dragon’s defence in particular guilty of over-confidence. Danny Alfei looked to play a quick 1-2 but delivered the ball straight to Poku, whose low cross found its way straight to Karl Ledsham on the edge of the area. Granted an age to pick his spot, he made no mistake with a sublime finish into the roof of the net, which left Joslain Maybei helpless.
The goal came out of nothing, it took the sting out of Wrexham’s early attacking zest and the match meandered with neither side seeming capable of taking control. Only until the half-hour mark did the home side register another shot on goal, when Johnny Hunt coaxed a sprawling parry out of Tony McMillan.
The Southport goalkeeper was forced into a number of defiant saves in the final quarter of the first half, denying Joe Clarke from 20 yards and Hunt again, as Wrexham stamped their authority on affairs.
The first quarter of the second half could not have differed more radically – the sting in Wrexham’s play had disappeared and the game became sterile. Neither side created anything until the 58th minute when Johnny Hunt, profiting from a clever Dean Keates dummy, slammed an effort from 10 yards out against the foot of the post.
It was to be, rather harshly, his last involvement of the game, as he was replaced soon after by Adrian Cieslewicz – the creative spark that the home side had been crying out for. His ingenuity paid dividends, but not until after the moment which changed the outlook of the match – perhaps the season – and left goalkeeper Mayebi stricken.
The Cameroonian played on, more out of duty and necessity than anything, despite his movement being visibly restricted. Yet it was the home side who pounced first on 70 minutes. Substitute Cieslewicz manoeuvred spaced inside the penalty area and found Joe Clarke, who swiveled and slammed his effort beyond McMillan for his fourth goal in as many games.
Play did not resume for another six minutes as Mayebi received extensive treatment for his plight. It seemed inevitable that Southport would probe the physical aptitude of a goalkeeper who could barely walk. It bore fruition just nine minutes from time when he could only punch a floated corner kick straight into the path of Andy Owens, who drilled the ball through a crowded six-yard box and into the box.
The injury to Mayebi did not simply hamper his movement, but the attitude of the team. Imagination and flair were sacrificed at the behest of a rear-guard siege mentality. In reality, the away side barely threatened the Wrexham goal as the clock ticked down. Andy Morrell had an injury-time goal correctly ruled out for offside, but the Dragons struggled to convert dominance into anything meaningful.
Doubtless, Morrell and co. will look back at the game as two points lost, but its long-term ramifications will be more severe. The loss of Mayebi and the imminent hunt for a new goalkeeper will surely bring into sharper focus the alarming statistic that Wrexham have not kept a league clean sheet at home since the 25th September.