THE WREXHAM ANGLE
A Welsh derby in front of what should be our biggest league attendance since, thanks to the opening of the temporary Kop stand, means this is a fixture to relish.
The victory over Colchester illustrated a great strength of Phil Parkinson's side: the ability to find different ways to win a match. While we've shown we can sweep sides away on a tide of attacing football, battling to three points after such an early dismissal showed that when necessary we can dig in to claim victory, as well as being able to dominate a game with 10-men even at this level.
The return of Eoghan O'Connell and Anthony Forde to the squad last Saturday was a promising sign that injured players are returning to add to Phil Parkinson's options: it's remarkable to think that we're in the position we are in when you consider the injuries we've suffered this season.
"It's a Welsh derby and there's history between the two clubs. Every game for us has been like a cup final since I came to the club. This has got that extra bit of incentive. The lads are used to playing in that cup tie type of environment. In terms of the atmosphere and the occasion, I'm expecting us to handle that really well, take it in our stride and keep our run going."
However, football gives with one hand and takes with the other: George Evans will start his 3-match suspension for the straight red card he picked up against Colchester United.
THE OPPOSING VIEW
County are 17th in the table, but well clear of the relegation zone with an 11-point buffer between them and 2nd-bottom Forest Green Rovers. Manager Graham Coughlan has been frustrated recently at their failure to hold onto winning positions, and it's that lack of consistency which is hurting them.
On the face of it, the stats aren't great. Only one League Two side have lost more away games, and just 3 have conceded more. However, County have won 3 of their last 6, including a notable victory over league leaders Stockport County and a comprehensive 4-1 win at Barnet, who are currently 3rd in the National League and, as we know only too well, are no pushovers.
County have suffered a number of injuries in recent weeks, but key personnel are now coming back into contention. Key among them is Will EVans, who has been outstanding up front since arriving from Bala Town in the Summer. He already has 14 goals to his credit this season, after starting the campaign spectacularly by scoring in 6 consecutive matches.
He had to come off at half time in the disappointing 2-1 loss at Tranmere a fortnight ago, but appeared for the last 8 minutes of The Exiles' 1-1 home draw with Grimsby last weekend.
“I don’t know how close he was to starting but I think the best we could get out of him would be around half an hour,” Coughlan explained to Nation Cymru.
“You’re always running the risk then of any contact on the ankle in the second half and that it could put him back another week, so it was a big risk for us.
“I wanted Will on the pitch in the end. He’s our talisman, he leads the line really well and he gives us that real energy up top.”
That draw against the only side which hasn't won an away game in League Two this season, frustrated Coughlan.
“We deserved to win it and should have won it but again our unreliability and lack of clean sheets have cost us. There are one or two players that I want to be able to trust but they let me down. They don’t normally do that but that was a very soft goal against us. We are just chucking points away too easily and I’ve got to address that, one of two players will need to be changed to stop that.
“I think the Wrexham game can be almost seen as a make-or-break game. If you win it, it makes everyone’s Christmas but if you lose it, it’s the opposite. I think there’s obviously a lot of talk and pressure around the game but it’s something that I thrive off. Some players like the pressured games, some players don’t, but I’m one of those that thrive off big atmospheres and it’s something that gives me intrinsic motivation."
- Seb Palmer-Houlden
“I know that my remit was to stay in League Two and survive but I want a little bit more than that and I think we can achieve a little bit more than that with one or two fresh faces. Whether it’s mentality, leadership or the same bodies playing week in and week out, there are a number of factors in there.”
“We have played 30 games (in all competitions) and have only got six clean sheets. That is nowhere near good enough. If you want to win games in League Two then you need to keep clean sheets, you can’t make mistakes the way that we are making them. There does come a time when you have to look for that little bit more quality.”
Seb Palmer-Houlden, on loan from Yeovil Town, doesn't appear to be in Coughlan's sights though, as 2 goals in 5 games have established him as a useful player for the Exiles.
“I think my game since being at Newport has developed massively," he told Newport's club website.
“When you’re working with the likes of Omar Bogle who’s been there and done it at the top level, and even with Will Evans too, it's been an invaluable experience. Sometimes I think in games I can be a bit too eager and sometimes it’s learning when to hold off and when to go and press, so I think I’m learning lots and progressing each week.
“I really enjoyed the goal against Barnet a few weeks back and the game as a whole. I just love getting in behind defenders and that game suited me perfectly in all honesty. That goal and that game meant an awful lot, especially after coming back from injury.
“The injury hasn’t given me any further problems so far, so I feel as fit as normal and if anything I feel quicker. The injury period I would say was a learning curve for me, to manage my body a little bit better off the pitch and just make smart choices. It’s all about learning as a footballer and especially at my age. To have been back over the last few games has been amazing, and to top it off with a goal the other week was brilliant.
“The amount of boys that are coming back at this stage is huge. With Harry Charsley returning, Aaron Wildig, Adam Lewis is nearly there too, it suddenly all looks positive at the moment. We’re building some really good squad strength and depth, especially with experienced players who can come off the bench and influence the game. When we have the full squad available, anything can happen.
“For me, at the moment I’m continuously focused on pushing myself to be in the starting eleven each week and if that’s scoring goals along the way, then brilliant, but all my focus is on supporting the team."
“I love the games coming up, it’s the best part of being a footballer. I can’t wait for the games ahead and it’s a good chance for us to build some momentum.
“It could be a brilliant occasion. The Newport fans have sold out the away end which will bring a good atmosphere, and in all fairness, since I’ve been at Newport the fans have been brilliant with me and I can’t thank them enough.
"I can’t wait to play in the fixture and hopefully we can get a good result which would lead us nicely into Forest Green on Boxing Day.”
HEAD TO HEAD
There’s a certain poignancy around a clash with Newport County, as in May 2013 they were the team which foiled our best pre-takeover attempt to get out of the National League.
We beat Kidderminster Harriers to reach the final of the play-offs, but the clash with County at Wembley would be a bleak affair. The match was intense, and neither side was able to take control as they grappled grimly. Famously, Brett Ormerod missed an open goal in the second half, and Wrexham were made to pay for his miss as County counter-attacked to take the lead in the 86th minute. As Wrexham over-committed in desperate search of an equaliser, we left ourselves open at the back and conceded again in the 4th minute of added time to abruptly render futile our efforts that season.
We need to ensure that match wasn’t a pivotal one in the history of this fixture as we were on our longest unbeaten run against Newport when we arrived at Wembley, but haven’t fared well against them since.
We drew them in the second round of the FA Cup in 2018, and had the better of a goalless draw despite the remarkable turmoil which preceded the game, as manager Sam Ricketts was told to stay away in response to the news that he was in advanced talks to abandon Wrexham in favour of Shrewsbury. The replay was less straightforward, though as the dismissal of Luke Young preceded a 4-0 loss.
The first time we ever met our South Walian rivals was in the sixth qualifying round of the FA Cup, in December 1921. An impressive crowd of 8,693 saw us draw 0-0 at The Racecourse, but we lost the replay 3-0.
Apart from two Welsh Cup wins over Newport in the mid-1920s, we didn’t meet again until the late 1950s, after the end of the regionalisation of the Third Division. Our initial league record against them was poor, but in more recent years we’ve had the upper hand, to the extent that we boast 18 wins in this fixture, against 11 draws and 14 defeats.
At home we’ve certainly had the better of Newport, with 12 wins, 7 draws and 3 losses. Our best victory over them came in the 2003 Welsh Premier Cup Final. Newport were clawing their way back up the pyramid after the financial problems which saw them drop out of the Football League, and were unfortunate to come across a Wrexham side in rare fine form. Promotion to League One had been secured, and Denis Smith’s triumphant side needed a win against Newport to match the club record of ten consecutive victories.
It didn’t take long to secure the record, and the trophy, as by the 21st minute goals from Dennis Lawrence, Andy Morrell, and Jim Whitley had put us 3-0 up! Lee Trundle chipped in with a couple and Shaun Pejic, no doubt feeling that if Whitley could score, he could too, also got one as we ended a memorable season with a 6-1 win.
Just to put the rarity of those goals into context, Whitley scored twice in 162 appearances for Wrexham, and Pejic got the same amount in 209!
The last time this fixture was played in the Football League was in March 1988. We walloped a County side which was sadly imploding 4-1, with Ollie Kearns scoring a hat trick and Kevin Russell getting the other goal.
That’s the only time that a Wrexham player has put three past a Newport keeper, putting him equal top of the list of our scorers against them, alongside Arfon Griffiths, Albert Kinsey and Ray Smith.
We haven’t lost at home to County since March 1980, when we lost a Welsh Cup fifth round game 1-0, and our last league defeat at The Racecourse was back in February 1968, when we again lost 1-0. Furthermore, we’ve never gone down to a heavy home loss against Newport: we’ve lost 3 times in 22 games at home, all to the tune of 1-0, and they’ve scored twice just 3 times in those games.
THE WEEKEND’S OTHER FIXTURES
FRIDAY 22ND DECEMBER
Forest Green Rovers v Gillingham
Colchester United v Salford City
Crawley Town v AFC Wimbledon
Crewe Alexandra v Barrow
Doncaster Rovers v Bradford City
Stockport County v Notts County
SATURDAY 23RD DECEMBER
Accrington Stanley v Walsall
Grimsby Town v Harrogate Town
Morecambe v Milton Keynes Dons
Sutton United v Mansfield Town
Tranmere Rovers v Swindon Town
With half the weekend's fixtures being played on Friday, we'll know how many of the teams around have done before kick-off. The game of the weekend sees Stockport County and Notts County, our title rivals over the last two seasons, go head-to-head at Edgeley Park. Another appetising match-up sends Barrow, on an outstanding run of form, to fellow title-chasers Crewe Alexandra.
Forest Green and Sutton United both removed their managers this week in the hope that a change will enable them to fight their way clear of the drop zone. United have a tough home game against Mansfield Town, while Troy Deeney's managerial career begins with at The New Lawn against Gillingham.
James Jones' 100th Wrexham league appearance.