Game Of Two Halves Sees County Face Trip to Dragons' Den
County ensured that their name will be in the draw on Monday for the FA Trophy's last sixteen - although they will need to overcome their opponents at the Racecourse Ground the following evening if they are to progress to that stage of the competition for the first time.
On a blustery afternoon, and following overnight rain, the first challenge of the day was to ensure that the hallowed turf in SK3 was playable. Thanks to the unstinting and dedicated efforts of a number who had been working since early morning light, it proved to be - with the referee, a little over an hour before kick-off, confirming that the game could definitely go ahead.
Given that recent arrivals, Danny Glover and Greg Wilkinson, were ‘Trophy-tied', changes to the team that had started against Tamworth six days previously were inevitable - and there were welcome recalls to a 5-3-2 line-up for Matthew Todd and Richie Baker, following their injury lay-offs. Chris Sharp was also restored to the attack, and replaced Scott Spencer who was named among the substitutes. Leading scorer, Kristian Dennis, was another returnee to the squad from the treatment room - joining Spencer on a strong bench. The Conference Premier visitors, for their part, included an ex-Hatter in the popular, once-loanee forward, Connor Jennings.
Three minutes into the game, the crowd broke into applause by way of remembering four devoted County supporters of long standing - Lee Bennett, Sandra Brotherton, Karen Hargreaves and David Murphy - who had sadly passed away in recent days. The visiting fans, filling two blocks on the Popular Side, earned themselves plaudits of their own by joining in the tribute. Diolch yn fawr iawn, Wrecsam.
Just three minutes later, the game was to see its first action of note. And how! A delightful through ball from Stephen O'Halloran found Jack Ryan, who had beaten the offside trap and left himself with only Dan Bachmann, in the Wrexham goal, to beat. Ryan made no mistake in the one-on-one situation - calmly slotting home to give County an early lead.
The same striker was almost to repeat the trick when he again timed a run to perfection and got behind the visiting defence. On that occasion, however, a lofted pass from Chris Churchman was just slightly over-hit - enabling Bachmann to get to the ball first.
County continued to make the running during the initial stages of the contest, and two free kicks in quick succession caused further consternation for the Red Dragons. The first one, delivered by Scott Duxbury, flew just out of the on-rushing Sharp's reach, whilst a second, from Baker, did find the boot of O'Halloran but was volleyed over the Wrexham bar. The latter set-piece proved to be the last taste of action for the unfortunate Baker, who was substituted shortly afterwards following a recurrence of his hamstring problem.
By the time of Baker's departure, however, the Hatters had doubled their lead - and, once again, the Wrexham defence had been caught square in the process. Sharp was the beneficiary this time - rounding Bachmann to the left of goal, and then giving himself the opportunity to tee the ball up for his right foot to rifle home.
While Wrexham were winning the corner-count, they were not looking as (excuse the pun...) sharp as the home front line. Their final corner before half-time did find Jennings - who had earlier been responsible for his side's first meaningful attempt on goal, when firing narrowly over from the edge of the area - but the former County player's acrobatic manoeuvre was not matched by his finish, and the ball trickled harmlessly wide.
HALF-TIME: County 2 (Ryan, 6; Sharp, 31), Wrexham 0.
As had been the case in County's previous Trophy match at Edgeley Park - also, as coincidence would have it, against opponents from North Wales - the Hatters were two goals to the good at the break. But just like Colwyn Bay, towards the end of November, the Red Dragons were to fight back with fire in the second half.
Andy Bishop signalled an early declaration of the visitors' intent, when his shot took a deflection narrowly over the County bar. Jay Harris unleashed a thunderbolt from thirty yards, which a diving Danny Hurst - who had been relatively unemployed in the first half - had to be at his best to save. And Jennings half-volleyed into the ground an effort that fortunately squirmed into the arms of the grateful County ‘keeper.
Tunji Moses limped off on the hour - requiring County to re-group with four at the back. And a little over ten minutes later, Wrexham had scored twice to draw level. First, Jennings came back to haunt his old club (but, commendably, refused to celebrate afterwards) - latching onto a cross from Neil Ashton, before driving in a shot that took a deflection. Then substitute, Louis Moult, was quickest to pounce on a loose ball in the area - executing an overhead kick for the equalizer.
Wrexham continued to apply the pressure, as they made a concerted attempt to secure the tie: a Harris free kick from distance sailed close to the top corner of the County goal; Manny Smith headed just wide following the latest in a string of corners for the visiting side; and Hurst saved further efforts from Moult and Robbie Evans. During this spell, too, Bishop bundled the ball in County's net, after being thwarted by a point-blank stop from Hurst - but a flag was waved for offside to leave the teams all-square.
County did initiate a brief resurgence of their own as the game entered its closing stages. A pair of Dennis free kicks respectively fizzed over the bar and hit Wrexham's defensive wall, while Duxbury lofted an exquisite shot from twenty yards that floated narrowly beyond the Cheadle End upright.
Harris, finally, launched two late, late shots in an attempt to avoid a replay - but his first was parried behind by Hurst, and his second was wide of the target. In all honesty, there could be few complaints from either team at the full-time result, following what had been a truly textbook ‘game of two halves'.
So, then, we get to do it all again at the Racecourse Ground on Tuesday night. On the basis of this afternoon's topsy-turvy entertainment - not to mention a particularly spirited first-half performance by County - the tie remains one that the Hatters can approach with relish, rather than feeling that the contest is wearily ‘dragon' on...
FULL-TIME: County 2 (Ryan, 6; Sharp, 31), Wrexham 2 (Jennings, 68; Moult, 71).
Team: Hurst, Todd, Duxbury, Lees, Belezika, O'Halloran, Moses (Dennis, 60), Churchman, Sharp, Baker (Lofthouse, 36), Ryan.
Unused Subs: Ormson, Spencer, Hancock.
Man of the Match: O'Halloran.
Attendance: 2,416 (483 away).
MATCH HIGHLIGHTShttp://youtu.be/92J2xCsgaroAlan Lord on the Non-League Show
Listen from 21 minutes: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/nonleague