IF ONE man is assured of a tremendous welcome at the Racecourse this afternoon, it is Kevin Dearden. He was resident in North Wales for only two years but in that time he made a big impression - with emphasis on the "big".
Official data confirms that the ex-Wrexham goalkeeper weighs 12.08, but this will come as a surprise to many Reds fans who warmed to the Luton-born player on account of his notoriously chubby physique.
Brian Flynn's decision to dispense with Dearden's services at the end of the 2000-1 season will go down as a high-profile managerial blunder, and many supporters would date the start of Wrexham's current demise to that period when several seasoned performers were allowed to leave, without adequate replacements being lined up.
David Walsh and Kristian Rogers were given their opportunity by Flynn, but neither convinced. The former has since been released; the latter is now third-choice glovesman at the Racecourse and has recently asked to go on the transfer list.
Dearden meanwhile has flourished. He has played 70 games for Torquay over the last couple of years and, not surprisingly, has become something of a cult hero in the south-west. One Gulls fan has described KD's first year at Plainmoor: "Kevin knew his limitations and as the team grew and was rebuilt around him, his defence learned exactly what he would come out for and what he would leave to his defenders.
"Previous keepers came and flapped at crosses, lost the ball with defenders waiting for the keeper to collect, and we conceded soft goals. By the end of the season, Torquay were safe in 17th place, partly due to Dearden's heroics in goal. At last, Torquay had someone who could stand up and be counted, someone who wasn't learning the game or leaving it. Torquay's future looks in safe hands."
Which brings us neatly on to the Dragons' future - in safe hands too? The answer has got to be a qualified yes.
He may be prone to injuries and the odd blooper, but in my view Dibble (15 matches this year - 1.47 goals conceded per game) has had an excellent first half of the season. For a big man, his agility and bravery is commendable, and his prowess when it comes to snuffling one-on-one goalscoring opportunities is phenomenal. He might be a stop-gap signing - he's probably only got one season left in him after 2002-3 - but he's been good value so far.
Whitfield (13 appearances this season - 1.46 goals conceded per game) has also been excellent. His rise from anonymous rookie to dependable second-choice keeper has been meteoric. He not only makes good saves, but has a presence and composure that other young keepers have lacked in recent years.
And then there's Rogers (4 matches this campaign - 1.25 goals conceded per game). He boasts a top-class attitude and an impressive shot-stopping ability, but he does not inspire me with confidence in the same way that Dibble and Whitfield usually do.
He's a player with lots of potential, but after recent nervous performances I'd be surprised if manager Smith is able to get a fee for him if he does eventually exit the Racecourse.