NEW Wrexham boss Dean Saunders endured an uncomfortable baptism to management in the sort of rain-lashed surroundings he probably last experienced as a schoolboy footballer dreaming of a successful future in the game.
The 44-year-old former Wales striker, who went on to fulfil most, if not all, of his ambitions at the elite level of the game, was brought back down to earth with a bump at The New Lawn where it was debatable whether the driving rain or his side’s woeful defensive performance caused him the most discomfort.
But the end result – a 3-2 victory achieved in added time followed by two fine saves from goalkeeper Gavin Ward to secure the points – at least ensured that Saunders could contemplate the harsh reality of Blue Square Premier football with a degree of humour.
"In injury time I wanted to get on the pitch and head one of those corners away," he said afterwards.
"I’ve had to change because I was soaked right through and it’s the first time I’ve been at a game and seen the fans all soaking wet because there was no cover.
"So that’s a welcome to non league football I suppose."
At his heights as a player, which included a spell with Liverpool, Saunders was – in common with Anfield predecessor Kevin Keegan – never the most naturally gifted of players, but his spirit, ability and commitment earned him the respect of his peers, who almost universally regarded him ‘lucky’ in the sense he often found himself in the right place at the right time in his career.
And Wrexham chairman Geoff Moss, who has gone through three managers in the space of little more than 22 months following the relative stability provided by two bosses in the previous 17 years, will be hoping it proves a case for him of ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’.
Though it’s very early days, the new manager’s first gamble eventually turned up trumps as the Dragons edged to their first win in four games with Saunders, just three days into the job, opting to go with six players who have come through the club’s youth ranks in his debut line-up.
Notable among them was Levi Mackin – a scapegoat for much that has gone wrong in recent times – but nevertheless durable enough and presumably worthy enough to have now played for four managers since making his debut in 2004.
At 22-years old the senior member of a homegrown contingent also comprising Wes Baynes, Andy Fleming, Neil Taylor and the Williams brothers, Mike and Marc, Mackin was as effective and productive as any of his team-mates and Saunders obviously has high hopes of a potential partnership with the emerging Fleming, who shone for more than an hour in his first senior outing of the season.
He said: "I thought the two young boys in midfield did well today. They gave the ball away right in front of our own goal a few times, but if I’m asking them to play football that’s going to happen and I have to swallow that.
"But we go on the training ground and we work and play possession so they don’t give away as many balls.
"And when they are passing the ball we need to ensure it goes where it is being aimed more often, because we didn’t half give it away a lot today.
"But if you haven’t got the fighting spirit or the stomach for it that they showed today then it doesn’t matter what you do in training."
With that blend of encouragement and constructive criticism Saunders obviously hopes to coax more from a group of players less blessed with talent than those he has more usually come across in coaching roles elsewhere.
And it was evident that the Dragons have already taken on board their manager’s core belief in the value of playing with pride for themselves, the shirt and the fans, nearly 400 of whom were rewarded for their noisy support by that last-gasp winner.
The scenes of celebration were a marked contrast to the dismay that greeted Wrexham’s error-prone start to the game, despite the apparent advantage of a strong wind behind them. that drove the rain into the faces of their Forest Green opponents.
But inside the opening three minutes they were trailing after central defender Steve Evans was caught out by a simple punt forward from Michael Symons that held up in the wind and was seized upon by Andy Mangan, who chipped the ball over the advancing Gavin Ward.
Resisting the temptation to use striker Jefferson Louis as the focal point for their response, Wrexham played some neat football in spells. with Fleming and Mackin putting in plenty of spadework through the centre while defenders Baynes and Taylor pushed on at every opportunity.
The lively Marc Williams took a bit of a battering as he tried to make something happen in and around the home side’s penalty area, but for all the possession and territory scoring opportunities remained elusive, Evans flashing a header wide and the ginger-topped striker forcing a decent save from Ryan Robinson.
But their efforts finally paid off on the half-hour when Taylor took a Louis pass and delivered a measured cross which Williams met forcefully to equalise with a downward header. that gave the keeper no chance.
The goal did little to improve the visitors’ vulnerability at the back where Brown and Evans, for all their hard work, continued to flirt with the occasional disaster and Ward was twice tested, most notably in the final minute of the half when Mangan again ran free but was thwarted by an excellent save.
Louis , working as hard for the team as he has this season, flashed an early second half effort just wide of the Rovers goal, but another mistake by Brown released the ever-dangerous Mangan which required an timely intervention from Baynes. to save his team-mate’s blushes.
In the 54th minute, Evans had to make a goal-line clearance after an exposed Ward was beaten to the ball by Symons and the home side were rewarded for their pressure when Mangan picked his spot from the edge of the Wrexham area and drove a fine shot into the roof of the net.
Saunders had seen enough and switched Mike Williams into the centre of a three-man defensive unit but the biggest surprise saw Mangan taken off as Rovers boss Jimmy Harvey reacted to the Wrexham shake-up by leaving just one up front.
The ploy failed miserably because Wrexham were back on terms for the second time within a minute of the substitution. Williams took a Louis flick-on in his stride and was strong enough to hold off a challenge from Jerry Gill before clipping the ball into the far corner to record his first-ever double in a senior game.
With his brother now a steadying influence in front of Ward, there was an air of inevitability about the outcome as the Dragons surged forward. Robinson came close to being deceived by a scuffed effort from hat-trick hunting Williams and Shaun Whalley, who did not get into the match as much as he would have wanted, fired high and wide after cutting in from the left.
But the match was into added time before Wrexham went ahead, a clever overhead flick from substitute Michael Proctor falling for Williams whose cross-shot was heading into the bottom corner when Louis pounced to make sure.
The big striker’s touch sparked furious protests from the home side about offside, but referee Andy Hendley was unmoved and Rovers channelled their resentment into an all-out assault on Ward’s goal. The veteran goalkeeper, however, was equal to potential point-savers from Darren Jones and Conal Platt in a tense finish.
Man of the match: Run close by young Andy Fleming, two-goal hero Marc Williams did his new boss proud.
Big debate: Can Dean Saunders build on his dream start and take Wrexham back into the Football League?
Forest Green Rovers: Robinson; Gill, Jones, Preece, Stonehouse; Smith, Fowler, Mohamed, Clist (McDonald, 59); Mangan (Platt, 63) Symons (Afful, 71). Subs: Molyneaux, Burton.
Booked: Robinson, Stonehouse, Gill, Smith.
Wrexham: Ward 8; Baynes 7, Evans 6, N Brown 5, Mike Williams 8; Whalley 6 (sub Proctor, 86), Mackin 7, Fleming 8, Taylor 7; Marc Williams 9, Louis 7. Subs: S Brown, Pejic, Murtagh, A Williams.
Booked: Baynes, Whalley.
Referee: Andy Hendley (Birmingham).