You couldn't ask for a more explosive start to 2024 than a clash between two sides with their eyes set firmly on the title.
THE WREXHAM ANGLE
The festive games brought mixed fortunes as victory at Swindon was followed by defeat at Walsall. At least Phil Parkinson's injury worries eased a little with Anthony Forde and Ryan Barnett returning to the squad and the sickness bug which hit the squad seeming to clear.
Phil Parkinson's options will be expanded by the return of George Evans and James Jones from suspension, after they each picked up the first red cards of their respective careers. Furthermore, the opening of the January transfer window will add to Parkinson's options: Bryce Hosannah, Callum McFadzean and Billy Waters have been unregistered since September, but they are now eligible again as the registration rules are relaxed for this month.
LAST TIME WE MET
THE VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE
You couldn't wish to approach a big game in much better form than Barrow. They are on a 14 league game unbeaten run, and in the midst of that was a 7-match winning streak. They have the meanest defence in the division, and up front Ben Whitfield has scored 6 goals in the last 6 games.
Their winning streak ended in heroic fashion, as they went toe-to-toe with league leaders Stockport County and emerged with a point from a 2-2 draw. They then drew again, at home to Accrington who, as Wrexham know only too well, can be a difficult proposition.
Barrow boss Pete Wild told The Mail he has an original way to prevent his side getting carried away with their league position.
“Ultimately the league tables don’t mean anything until the end of the season, so it’s very much about making sure we are on track on a points tally.
“So you never know where you are really up to with league tables until the end of the season. We look at it as points per game and our next sort of touch point is ...60 points.“We understand that we have probably already outdone staying in the league, which is all 24 teams first touch point.
“So the next target is to hit 45 and the next one after that is 60. The quicker we hit those markers the better, because it shows that we are still doing well, and it gives us a chance of hopefully being at the right end of the table.”
“Per month we look for a minimum of 1.5 points per game. This month out of four games we needed a minimum of six points and we’ve passed that.
“We are always looking each month to hit the minimum target and that’s how we’ve broken it down.
“Anything we get over that, then that’s banked up as bonus points. We’ve tried to do it that way this year to take the anxiety out of the league table.
“All of the staff and the players have bought into that, and we know if we are meeting that points per game target we are on the right markers, and we are headed in the right direction.
“We look at how many points have we got on the board? How many do we need for the month? Where will that put us at the end of this month?
“For me that approach has really helped the dressing room, really helped me, really helped the staff to focus in on where we need to be.”
“Many moons ago, I looked after Chris Wilder as a manager. I was with him at Oxford. I think they’re pretty similar, I think Pete could go in the same direction. He needed an opportunity, he’s hungry, he brings structure on the field. It was a gamble, but it was an educated gamble. He’s very open, very approachable and the way he plays I like. He has a bit of Chris in him, no doubt about that.”
-Barrow Sporting Director Iain Wood on manager Pete Wild.
That isn't the only unique approach which Barrow adopt to make the most of their resources. Sporting Director, Iain Wood told The i that they are benefitting from being what he calls a hybrid club., playing in Barrow but based day-to-day in Manchester.
“It does make a difference – if you’re trying to sign someone who is 28 years of age, they’ve got two young kids, are they taking them all the way up to Barrow to go to school, it’s a tough call."
“This model takes that equation out. A lot of people are Manchester-based in football, it’s a really big hub that north west area.
“We go up every Friday for every home game and we go into schools, we go and see local businesses, we get the players to go up, we get the the staff to go up.
“Before Christmas the manager was up at the hospital handing out presents. We make the effort to go up whenever we’re there and blend in with the locals.
“But we are a hybrid club and it can be a tough thing to balance. We’re a super small club, we are literally out on a limb up here.
“We have the Cumbria derby, the game against Carlisle, but it takes over two hours to get there. It’s a bit mental. We can’t rock the boat and go back to Barrow at the moment. I think it is the right decision currently and I think the fans understand that.”
That miserly defence has benefitted massively from the arrival of James Chester at the end of the transfer window. Chester is best known in these parts for his role in helping Wales to the semi-finals of the European Championships in 2016, the high point of a 35-match international career.
Having initially signed a short term contract, he has now extended to the end of the season, and he told Barrow's official website that he was delighted to make that commitment:
“It’s been great, I think the lads and the staff first and foremost having spent time with them every day has been really enjoyable, and it’s been time well spent.
“Certainly, from my point of view signing was something that was going to be inevitable once the club spoke to me about extending, it probably just took longer than it has done as having a four-year-old and a three-year-old at home once I get through the door hasn’t left me with much time for anything else, especially around Christmas time.
“But for myself, it was something I wanted to do, and I think for my family too, they’ve been enjoying coming and watching me play again, and with my children being the age of which they are, they are starting to remember and understand what’s going on so it’s nice all round.”
“It's been going quite well so far, Naz [Niall Canavan] and George [Ray] have had really good careers themselves and they’ve both got a lot of experience and along with myself and Farms [Paul Farman] it governors itself almost and I’ve enjoyed playing alongside them, they make the game a lot easier for me.”
“I think that when your career’s finished it’s one of the things that you’ll miss the most, the playing in front of crowds is amazing, but spending time with the people who become your friends every day and the things that you do away from football is that stuff that you’ll also remember.
“Here there’s always something going on to look forward to, whether that is the game on Saturday or the cards on the bus on Friday, or some darts in the morning before training, it’s a really good feel around the place at the moment.”
HEAD TO HEAD
Barrow returned to the EFL after a 48-year hiatus, winning the National League in the COVID-curtailed 2019-20 season.
We shocked them on the first day of the season though, ending our longest run without a win against them. Barrow took an early lead, but Bobby Grant equalised shortly after the break and JJ Hooper grabbed the winner on his debut.
Previously we’d not beaten them in seven matches, going back to October 2015, when we beat them 4-1 with Connor Jennings and Wes York grabbing two goals each in the “Barrowe’en” match.
We’re ancient rivals, having both joined the Football League in 1921. Our first clash was at Holker Street on New Year’s Eve, and Barrow got the perfect start with a goal in the first minute. We fought back and went in level at 2-2 at the break, but Barrow blew us away in the second half, winning 5-2. In contrast to that goalfest, the return match a fortnight later ended in a goalless draw. That first meeting remains our worst result against Barrow, and if you look up our scorers you’ll see that, appropriately, they were “Goode, Evans”!
We had a point to prove against Barrow in that 2020 clash, as their visit to The Racecourse the previous March saw us turn in our worst performance of the season.
We went into the game in third place on a bleak, stormy night, looking to bounce back from a defeat at Leyton Orient, but got off to a horrible start, conceding after three minutes. A new formation failed to bed in, and by half time we were 3-0 down! Kieran Kennedy got a late consolation, but we never looked capable of making a game of it as we slumped to a 3-1 defeat.
It was also our first defeat to Barrow in 21 home games, since we lost 2-1 in December 1953. However, Barrow have found it difficult to beat us in that period too, stalemate being the most common outcome. In our last 22 clashes, we’ve won just 6 and they’ve won a paltry 4!
There was a 41 year break in this fixture between Barrow dropping out of the Football League in 1967 and us following them in 2008, but since a 3-1 victory in January 1966 we struggled against them until they failed to achieve re-election, and that poor form continued when we met them again in the Conference.
Jeff Louis slammed in a spectacular last minute goal to earn a draw on Boxing Day 2008, and the return match looked like it would finally be a win as Obi Anouruo came off the bench to score a goal which made him the fifth youngest scorer in the club’s history. However, a goal in the 4th minute of added time meant it also ended in a 1-1 draw. We played out a bad tempered goalless draw at the Stok Cae Ras the next season before the sequence of 5 draws was broken at Holker Street. An Ashley Westwood own goal and Mani Assoumani’s red card helped Barrow to recover from Mark Jones’ 62nd minute goal to win 2-1.
We played Barrow on New Year's Day 4 years ago in what turned out to be an epic encounter. Chris Holroyd opened the scoring but Barrow came back at us and led by the 38th minute. James Jennings equalised just before the break and Scott Boden gave us the lead again inside the last quarter of an hour. However, Calum MacDonald struck in the final minute to earn a draw.
Overall, Barrow’s overall record at The Racecourse is very poor. In 47 matches they’ve lost 26 times and won just 5, the most recent before that 2019 triumph coming in February 1953, when they won 2-1 despite a Ron Hewitt goal. Having beaten us 1-0 three days earlier, the result secured the double for Barrow, and oddly, although we have a superior record against them, they’ve achieved that feat three times to Wrexham’s two.
We’ve scored five goals past Barrow four times, and each time a Wrexham player has gone home with the match ball. Gordon Gunson got a hat trick in February 1928 and Hewitt matched that in September 1956. However, the outstanding achievement in this fixture came in January 1929, when Albert Mays struck four past them.
Each of those games ended 5-0, our best result against Barrow, and Brian Whitehouse also scored three times in a 5-2 F.A. Cup win, in November 1962, but the player who punished Barrow most consistently is club record scorer Tommy Bamford. He hit nine past them, putting him three goals clear of Hewitt and four ahead of Tommy Bannan, Gunson and Billy Tunnicliffe.
TODAY'S OTHER FIXTURES
Accrington Stanley V Salford City
Colchester United V Gillingham
Crawley Town V Swindon Town
Crewe Alexandra V Bradford City
Doncaster Rovers V Milton Keynes Dons
Forest Green Rovers V AFC Wimbledon
Grimsby Town V Walsall
Morecambe V Harrogate Town
Stockport County V Mansfield Town
Sutton United V Newport County
Tranmere Rovers V Notts County
The League Two fixture list to kick off the year is a beauty, with the top 4 facing off against each other. While we do battle at the Stok Cae Ras, Stockport County welcome Mansfield, who have been lurking menacingly with a game in hand lately.
At the other end of the table Salford City, who sacked Neil Wood on Thursday, face a tricky trip to Accrington.