Wrexham 1 Shrewsbury 3
THERE’S no finer example of the triumph of hope over experience than to see Wrexham fans queuing in the rain yesterday afternoon to buy tickets for next month’s clash with Shrewsbury Town at the Gay Meadow.
Some might say it’s a pity that none of the Dragons players witnessed the bedraggled fans – perhaps they should be more accurately described as gluttons for punishment – handing over their hard-earned money in the immediate aftermath of a 3-1 Racecourse drubbing at the hands of the same opponents.
The defeat means Wrexham have now gone 12 league games without a win – nine of them coming in the wake of the surprise sacking of former boss Denis Smith – and it leaves replacement Brian Carey facing the sobering fact that his tenure to date has produced just three points from a possible 27.
It’s also hardly the prognosis club owners Neville Dickens and Geoff Moss had either anticipated or hoped for and increasingly makes their decision to part company with an experienced manager more questionable.
Carey rang the changes once more following last Tuesday’s defeat at Grimsby for a match against a side unbeaten since Boxing Day and one with their sights set on a late assault on the League Two play-off places.
Few would dispute it was the right choice to restore fit-again club captain Neil Roberts in place of Lee McEvilly, while Jeff Whitley came into midfield at the expense of Michael Carvill.
But although Ryan Valentine possibly paid the price for a below-par performance at Blundell Park and lost his place to on-loan Scott Barron in a 3-5-2 formation, Carey’s decision to deploy Danny Williams ahead of namesake Mike on the left of his defensive trio ignored the “horses for courses” maxim and ultimately proved expensive.
With Whitley, Robbie Garrett and Mark Jones all obvious midfield musts, it was a tough call for the rookie boss, who clearly erred on the side of Danny’s experience when weighed up against the naturally left-footed Wales under-21 man.
But the constant chopping and changing to his line-up suggests that Carey – who had a virtually full squad to choose from – has yet to decide on his best 11, which can be as unsettling for his players as for the supporters who are worrying about where a first victory since before Christmas is coming from.
There were no such selection worries for visiting boss Gary Peters, who stuck with the same line-up that beat Notts County in midweek and Town’s recent good form was reflected in the travelling support who packed the away end.
And their fans were given plenty to shout about from the off as the Shrews stormed forward, prising three corners from a nervy Dragons defence in the opening two minutes.
It was not an auspicious start for Wrexham and although one promising move saw Jones try his luck from 20 yards, they soon found themselves trailing.
Only eight minutes had gone when Derek Asamoah broke clear on the left and after he evaded a Whitley challenge, his perfectly-weighted cross cleared Williams and was met by Leo Fortune-West for a copybook finish.
No one could say it hadn’t been coming but the home side didn’t let their heads drop and forced three quick corners of their own, with Steve Evans going closest to an equaliser on two occasions when headers were turned away by goalkeeper Chris Mackenzie and defender Sagi Burton.
Garrett, who was working as hard as anyone for the Dragons, had a chance, his swerving shot beaten down by Mackenzie, but Shrewsbury generally continued to win the key midfield battles and looked solid at the back, with twin strikers Asamoah and Fortune-West causing the home defence all sorts of problems.
And it was Asamoah who doubled his side’s lead seven minutes before the break when another defensive mistake left Williams exposed. The Shrews striker cut inside his opponent and drilled the ball through the legs of John Ruddy, who really should have done better.
Worse was to come for the home side when they were reduced to 10 men two minutes later, Steve Evans being shown a straight red card after appearing to lead with his elbow in an aerial challenge with David Edwards.
Harsh though it seemed, the dismissal was the big defender’s third of the season and will result in a hefty ban during what promises to be a critical run-in for Carey and his players.
Given the explosive nature of events on the field, the fireworks display that greeted the teams’ return after half time was somewhat superfluous and Shrewsbury stoked the fires with a third goal in the 51st minute.
Edwards made the run to pick out Asamoah, whose toe-poked effort should have been held by the Wrexham keeper, but his handling error gave Fortune-West the easiest of tap-ins.
That should have been game, set and match to the visitors, who could have been forgiven for taking their foot off the gas, but a stunning goal from Williams – a rasping drive from at least 30 yards – breathed new life into the contest and into the beleaguered Dragons.
A curling shot from Jones brought a save from Mackenzie and the Wales international saw another fierce drive blocked as Shrewsbury were pushed back in to their own half, where Mackenzie bizarrely risked conceding another goal but he was fortunate that Chris Llewellyn lost his footing after winning the ball.
But they were unable to sustain their momentum, despite the introduction of fresh legs in Carvill and McEvilly, and the visitors settled back into a routine designed to protect their lead and deny time and space on the ball as the clock ticked down.
It remains to be seen whether Carey can pick up his demoralised and well-beaten players for a run of three matches on the road, beginning at Newport County on Wednesday in their much-delayed FAW Premier Cup quarter-final.
That testing encounter is followed by another long trip to Barnet on Saturday, just 72 hours before yesterday’s faithful and long-suffering followers make the short journey for the re-run against Shrewsbury.