THE competitive nature of this season's Third Division promotion race was underlined by Wrexham's drop of five places in the table following only their third away defeat of the campaign at Bournemouth on Saturday.
Although leading duo Hartlepool and Rushden have established clear water between themselves and the remainder of the chasing pack, there are a dozen or more clubs jostling for the third automatic spot and the play-off places.
And, as Dragons manager Denis Smith again pointed out after the match, nothing was ever decided with nearly one-third of the fixtures yet to play. With games in hand over most of their rivals, this defeat was not a disaster for his side, who had already come through two physically demanding and bruising contests in the previous few days.
Arriving at the Fitness First Stadium on the back of three straight victories, Wrexham only fleetingly looked capable of building on their big midweek win at Oxford United and their minirun was halted in its tracks by two goals in the space of three second-half minutes.
Striker Lee Trundle, one of several players who appeared to be heavy-legged, afterwards admitted that the visitors could have no complaints.
"We were coming into another tough game here after Oxford on Tuesday and they just worked really hard and probably deserved it," he said. "We rarely tested their keeper but we've got to forget that now and look ahead.
"We'll look forward to a good week's training on Monday and prepare for the game next week. We've got to keep our heads up and be positive because we know we still have a great chance of going straight up."
Cherries boss Sean O'Driscoll, who paid Wrexham the compliment of changing his normal 4-4-2 line-up to match their 3-5-2 system, was delighted with the success of the switch, even though he lost wing-back Stephen Purches early on and had to replace him with midfielder Wade Elliott.
Northern Ireland international Warren Feeney returned after sus-pension and his speed off the mark and intelligent running caused the visiting defence problems throughout the afternoon.
He also claimed both goals, although the post-match consensus was that he failed to get a touch on Brian Stock's free-kick which bounced, almost apologetically, into the corner of the net for the opener.
O'Driscoll said: "We felt that after the Kidderminster game we had been beaten by a poor side but it was their extra man in midfield that gave us problems, just as it had against Macclesfield.
"We knew Wrexham would come here with five in midfield so we decided to match it up and everybody knew the jobs they had to do. I thought everyone played their part; Warren came back in and gave us pace, Jamie Hayter did a man-for-man job on Darren Ferguson and our two wide men also did well. Now we have to kick on from here.
"We also knew their front five were the danger and Wade Elliott had to come on early but he showed a side to his game we maybe did not know he had. Warren was suspended against Kidderminster but we knew if they had an Achilles heel it would be their back three and we felt we could use his pace."
There was little to choose between the teams in the opening exchanges on a surface that was slicker and more treacherous than it appeared, causing several players to slip and slither around.
But Steve Thomas and Carlos Edwards combined on a couple of occasions to pose a threat for the visitors but home keeper Neil Moss was a spectator until the 18th minute when he went down to his left to hold Fergu-son's curling free-kick.
The Dragons' skipper, who won a penalty at the Kassam Stadium in midweek, claimed another after 26 minutes when he was stopped by Karl Broadhurst as he exchanged passes with Trundle, but referee Alan Butler was not impressed and the visitors' best chance of breaking the deadlock came eight minutes before the break.
Broadhurst found himself with time and space but, inexplicably, played an ambitious cross-field pass, which was intercepted at speed by Carlos Edwards. The Trinidadian's initial touch was just too heavy, and the ball zipped off the turf to give Moss an advantage in the race between the pair.
It was by no means a classic, but the home side themselves went close in a period of sustained pressure approaching half time. Lewis Buxton whipped in a free-kick which Jason Tindall drove against the bar and there was a second scramble in the Wrexham penalty area when Welsh under-21 international Stock deliv-ered another quality cross.
The visitors suffered a blow at the interval when leading scorer Andy Morrell failed to re-appear and was substituted by Hector Sam, but the replacement might have made a sensational start, his looping header from a corner almost catching Moss too far off his line.
Trundle thumped another half chance into the side-netting but Wrex-ham's hoped for second-half improvement was halted by Bournemouth's opening goal on 51 minutes.
Stock's curling centre eluded the biggest combatants in a crowded penalty area and Feeney's late run almost certainly influenced Dibble's decision to stay on his line. Whether or not the striker got the slightest of contacts was irrelevant as the ball crept into the net at the unguarded far post.
Before the visitors could get their thoughts together, they found themselves further in arrears when Elliott left an altogether-muted Paul Edwards floundering to deliver an inviting centre which Feeney this time met firmly to send an unstoppa-ble header beyond Dibble.
It was the killer blow as far as Wrexham were concerned and, despite the best efforts of Ferguson and Jim Whitley to build in midfield, they found opponents snapping at their heels constantly and there was little opportunity for the wide men to get forward in support of the strikers.
Trundle might have inspired a late fightback when he skilfully turned to make space for a shot 10 minutes from time, but Moss saved and it was the home side who finished with a flour-ish, Dibble doing well to deny Feeney what he believed would have been his hat-trick.
BOURNEMOUTH: Moss; Tindall, Broadhurst, Buxton; Purches (Elliott 33), Hayter, O'Connor (D Holmes 90), Stock, Cummings; Feeney, Fletcher. Subs: Tardif, D Thomas, Foyewa.
WREXHAM: Dibble; Roberts, Carey, Lawrence; C Edwards, Whitley, Ferguson, S Thomas (L Jones 57), P Edwards; Morrell (Sam 45), Trundle. Subs: Rogers, S Holmes, Pejic.
BOOKINGS: Bournemouth's Broadhurst; Wrexham's Carey.
REFEREE: Alan Butler (Sutton-in-Ashfield).