Wrexham 0 Mansfield Town 0
A REAL sense of anti-climax, tinged with an equal amount of relief, greeted the final whistle on Saturday as Wrexham’s biggest crowd of the season digested a sensational closing passage of play in which either the Dragons and Mansfield could have snatched a late winner.
For older Racecourse hands, the scenario was horribly reminiscent of the meeting between the sides 30 years ago when a last-minute strike from Mansfield’s Ernie Moss on the final day of the season cost John Neal’s team promotion to what is now known as the Championship.
On that occasion Stags’ goalkeeper Rod Arnold repelled everything thrown at him in a one-way onslaught before the Moss goal broke thousands of hearts in a crowd of more than 20,000.
Hence the feeling of deja-vu in Saturday’s game when visiting goalkeeper Jason White instinctively threw up a gloved hand deep into added time to divert a Richard Walker header over his crossbar.
When the subsequent corner was cleared, it was another Arnold – substitute Nathan – who had the opportunity to break a few more Welsh hearts as play switched quickly to the other end.
But Dragons keeper Anthony Williams threw himself to his right to hold a powerful shot and the point saved may yet prove to be crucial in Wrexham’s fight to preserve their Football League status.
The heart-stopping finale was the high point of a match that was short on both quality and goal-scoring opportunities, which is hardly surprising given what is at stake for the Welsh club.
And it’s fairly safe to say there will be a few more equally jittery performances from Brian Carey’s side in the weeks ahead, despite his best efforts to encourage cool heads and strong nerves.
“It’s another point for us, but of course we wanted to win the game and all we were short of was the final touch,” he said afterwards.
“We were the better side so I’m disappointed that we didn’t take all three points.”
The Racecourse boss admitted his heart had been in his mouth when Wrexham so nearly let the draw slip through their hands at the death.
“I was more disappointed with that than anything else because it looked as though we were going to score from our corner and we let them have an attack at the other end, which was not good from our point of view,” he added.
“But we have had two clean sheets now since the three new lads came in and there has been an improvement in confidence.
“Now we need a bit more quality in the final third.”
That element was never missing more on Saturday than midway through the first half when teenager Michael Carvill was played through on goal by Lee McEvilly.
But the ex-Charlton Athletic striker lacked both the composure and experience to take his shot early and was eventually crowded out by the covering defender.
It was the only blemish on an otherwise encouraging display from the youngster, an early replacement for captain Neil Roberts, who was forced to withdraw after just five minutes with a calf strain.
But the striker’s experience was missed, as was that of midfielder Jeff Whitley whose no-show immediately became the subject of speculation and rumour.
The Dragons boss, though, went to some pains to deny anything untoward.
Acknowledging Whitley’s previous reputation for being unreliable, he said: “That’s the thing with Jeff, it follows him around wherever he goes but he was ill today.
“But I’ve got the players to fill in and we have a lot of competition for places.”
Whitley’s absence certainly saved Carey a selection dilemma in midfield where Robbie Garrett, returning from international duty with Northern Ireland’s under-21 side, would have been competing with the Cardiff City man and Danny Williams for a place in the starting line-up.
And the Stoke City youngster did not disappoint, his terrier-like performance throughout pushing him close to man-of-the-match honours which in the event were just edged by another teenager, Matty Done.
Taken out of the front line in recent weeks, the winger looked refreshed and injected welcome pace into the side.
He gave Mansfield full-back John Mullins a torrid time, provided a string of crosses from the flank and was at the centre of two first-half penalty appeals, both of which were turned down by referee Jurnail Singh.
The first came 17 minutes into the game when he appeared to be flattened by the Stags defender and the second – with a degree more justification – five minutes before the interval when he was put clear by Garrett.
Winning a race for the ball against White, the teenager was brought down by the keeper on the edge of the box and referee Singh took a long, hard look before awarding a free-kick and punishing the offence with a yellow card.
Although not the decision that Wrexham or their fans had hoped for, Lee McEvilly went close to breaking the deadlock with his set-piece strike, the ball rebounding from the crossbar with White well beaten.
It was the closest either side came to scoring in a scrappy opening period in which the defences came out on top and Holywell-born Gareth Jelleyman was outstanding for the visitors.
He seamlessly switched from full-back to central defender when injury forced the premature retirement of team-mate John Hjelde.
Neither goalkeeper was overly-stretched, although Williams made one potentially costly error in dropping a high ball and was grateful for the alertness of Simon Spender for blocking Simon Brown’s goalbound effort.
But the game picked up after the break, Michael Proctor looping a header too high from McEvilly’s flick before inviting opportunities came in either goalmouth.
Mansfield striker Martin Gritton missed a sitter on 62 minutes, when he headed Matt Hamshaw’s cross wide of the target from just eight yards and when Mike Williams muscled his way to the by-line at the visitors’ end, McEvilly was just inches from turning home the defender’s inviting centre for what would have been a crucial opener.
The longer the contest went on, though, the more determined both teams were not to concede and everyone seemed happy to settle for a stalemate until that frantic last-ditch bid to land a killer cruel sucker punch.
Veteran Stags’ boss Billy Dearden was not too far from the truth with his summing up.
He said: “It was a bit scrappy and I thought we probably had the best chance of the game when Martin Gritton headed it wide and he’s very disappointed with that.
“But all in all I thought it was probably a fair result.”