Hereford United 2 Wrexham 0
NO amount of excuses can hide the fact that Wrexham’s record on the road this season has been anything less than woeful, so it’s all the more remarkable there were 500 or so loyal fans prepared to make the trip to Hereford and experience what is becoming a regular dose of travel sickness.
But the scale of the trials and tribulations that have so far hampered manager Denis Smith and his side plumbed new depths at Edgar Street, where the Racecourse boss was able to call upon only four first-choice players after the Football League rejected overtures for a postponement due to the on-going absence through illness and injury of the majority of his recognised senior personnel.
Though squad numbers are not necessarily a definitive pecking order, Mike Ingham, Lee Roche, Shaun Pejic and Chris Llewellyn would clearly be in Smith’s ideal line-up – which as he pointed out after this defeat, he has not had the luxury of naming even once this season – but the majority of the names on show on Saturday were – in footballing terms – barely out of the nursery, only midfielder Matty Crowell boasting more than 12 months of Football League experience.
Nevertheless, the patched-up visitors did themselves proud and were desperately unlucky not to take some reward from a match in which they were the better side by some distance – except where it mattered most, in front of goal.
The match statistics tell their own story (Wrexham figures first): On target shots 6-2; off target shots 4-3; corners 7-3. And while striker Alan Connell earned the post-match plaudits for plundering both breakaway goals, it was Bulls keeper Wayne Brown who was the unsung hero, with some fine saves and confident handling in less than ideal playing conditions.
Although he had been unable to train all week due to a leg injury, Roche found himself pressed into action in midfield alongside Crowell, while Pejic, captain for the day at the club where his father Mel still holds the appearance record, marshalled a novice defensive line also manned by Simon Spender, Gareth Evans and Mike Williams.
Their prospects looked as flimsy as the paper on which the line-ups were printed and in a less than auspicious start, Evans sliced a clearance to United striker Tim Sills but had the speed to get back and block before the damage was done.
A couple of minutes later Pejic’s poor header was seized upon by Connell, whose instinctive dipping volley beat Ingham before rebounding off the top of the crossbar.
Wrexham created the first genuine opening when Matty Done fed Llewellyn on the left and moved into the penalty area for a return pass, which he spooned high over the bar with only Brown to beat.
Two minutes later Crowell and Marc Williams combined to give Llewellyn a sight of the target and his effort flew inches wide, during a spell which also brought a superb full-length save by ex-Chester man Brown to deny Llewellyn following a corner which caused all sorts of problems in the United penalty area.
But, as so often happens, the destiny of the points was determined in the space of 60 seconds eight minutes before the break. Crowell won a midfield tussle to pick out Llewellyn and his pass gave teenager Marc Williams the chance of his first senior goal. But whether it was stage fright or Brown’s quick movement, the youngster shot tamely at the keeper.
And Brown quickly threw the ball out for Simon Travis, a constant threat down the right, to get beyond Spender and deliver a low cross which Connell flicked into the net, via Ingham’s fingers and the inside of the upright.
It was a harsh lesson for Wrexham, who went close to an immediate riposte when Crowell’s shot and another effort from Mike Williams were both narrowly off target and the resumption saw Lee McEvilly on for Williams and Kevin Smith replacing Josh Johnson in a clear bid to boost the visitors’ firepower.
Brown was forced into another save from Pejic and after Llewellyn and sub Kevin Smith created an opening for Done, the keeper again did well to block the shot. Even when the on-loan Sunderland man finally beat the keeper in the 57th minute, his shot clipped the outside of the post, an effort that summed up Wrexham’s luck.
But they persevered, Llewellyn hitting the side-netting after more good work from Crowell before it was McEvilly’s turn to be foiled by Brown turning his close-range header over the bar.
There was a sense of inevitability about Connell’s 88th minute clincher when Travis profited from a rare Evans mistake to set up his team-mate for a simple finish.