Forget Arsenal v Liverpool - this derby with a dramatic recent history is the real tie of the round.
It's been 17 years since Wrexham and Shrewsbury Town went toe-to-toe, but the memory of our two most recent clashes over the border still looms large in the minds of both sets of supporters. The joy of a meaningful win over a rival and the despair of a damaging loss are always at stake in a derby: both Wrexham and Shrewsbury suppoerters experienced those emotions before that hiatus in the fixture. It feels like this forever delayed fixture is the long-awaited best of 3 decider.
THE WREXHAM ANGLE
New Year's Day saw Wrexham put in the sort of performance you'd need to pull off a win away from home against higher division opposition. Barrow arrived with the best defensive record in League Two, on an unbeaten run of 14 league games, but were blown away by the firepower of an attack which, for the first time at The Stok Cae Ras, featured Steven Fletcher in the starting line-up.
Fletcher's performance, after coming back from surgery, was magnificent, and if he is used from the first whistle he will be a potential match-winner.
However, a glance at Phil Parkinson's previous selections makes it clear that second-guessing his selection for an FA Cup tie isn't easy. He sprung surprises in both our matches at Championship clubs last season, rotating and being rewarded with magnificent performances. Four changes at Coventry led to an historic 4-2 win, and before the heroic performance at Sheffield United he switched out 7 players.
His policy of rotation for such huge matches clearly illustrates two important priorities for Parkinson: he wants, first and foremost, to drag his club up the divisions; and he has total faith in his entire squad.
Jacob Mendy will be unavailable as he prepares for the African Cup of Nations, but he won't get a chance to pick up a second cap for Gambia today as their preparation game against Morocco has been cancelled. Long term injured players like Rob Lainton and Ollie Palmer will be absent, but Parkinson's sizeable list of players in the treatment room is starting to dwindle, and the 3 players unregistered with the EFL are eligible for this game.
THE OPPOSING VIEW
Shrewsbury started the New Year by delivering just what was required. A comfortable home victory over Fleetwood Town ended a worrying series of results, and maintained a 7-point gap from the relegation zone.
In terms of results, it's been all or nothing for The Shrews this season. Only 3 teams in League One have won more home games than them, but only 3 sides have lost more home matches in their division too.
Their away form is a massive issue though. They've lost the most games on the road in League One, and have scored a startling 3 goals in 13 away games. No team has scored fewer in the top 6 tiers of the pyramid, and the Fleetwood game was just the second time they've scored more than 2 goals in the league this season.
The win came at just the right time, as a poor run of results had brought pressure onto the team and head coach Matt Taylor. Four consecutive defeats and one goal in 7 away league games fuelled a growing sense of frustration, but Taylor told the Shropshire Star that he had the broad shoulders to take the criticism:
“You can shout at me as much as you want, but stick with the players. My role and responsibility, and a big part of my job, is to remove a lot of the pressure from the players, I understand football as I have been in it a long time. Football does crazy things to people emotionally. If the fans are looking to blame someone they are going to blame me, and I have no issue with that.
“I understand it, but the one thing I would say is stick with the players because they are going to need you.
“I understand their frustration, is it nice to stand there and hear that? No – from a human point of view – but from a football point of view it is part of the job.”
“You have to have broad shoulders to do this job and that is the reality of it. Am I happy they are screaming at me and not the players? Yes, as I want the players to feel free and the players to perform.
“We are in a difficult patch of results at the moment, it is difficult because as you stand there as the leader of the group, that is great, what is really difficult is that you cannot step over that white line like you used to as a player. So you cannot directly impact what happens on the pitch.
“So you have to put trust in your players and the players are the ones who need to step up to the plate now and they are the ones who are missing opportunities and not doing the jobs at set plays.”
"Don’t get me wrong they’ve got some good players but they’re playing at that level for a reason, I’m a firm believer in that."
- Shrewsbury defender Tom Flanagan.
At least Taylor's injury problems are beginning to ease. Things have been tricky for Taylor as a succession of players have picked up injuries, capped when top scorer Dan Udoh suffered an injury last week which will put him out for more than a month.
However, his options are starting to widen now as players are beginning to return to action. Tom Bayliss and Jason Sraha made the bench against Fleetwood, while Carl Winchester might be in contention after suffering a calf injury.
Perhaps the widening of Shrewsbury's selection options played a part in defender Tom Flanagan's confident statement about the tie to BBC Radio Shropshire:
"I am big on the respect thing between football clubs, but lets make sure it is known that with everyone talking, that they are a League Two team, they are coming here as a League Two team.
"Other League Two teams have been here and we have beaten them, and the expectation is that we beat them.
"Whether it is a local derby or not, they are a League Two team, who owns them, what they wear, who they are, has no bearing on the game whatsoever.
"Now they’ve made it into the league and fair play they’ve done really well, it took them two goes to do it and they did eventually do it.
"But coming now, that’s what it is, it’s a League One team against a League Two team and this is where you want to show why you’re a League One player and not a League Two player as such.
"I have worked with Phil Parkinson before, I know how he likes to play and we are not going to get a chance to get the ball off them in the 18 yard box.
"The ball will be in our half from the keeper or centre halves, they won't be passing from the back so our game plan will be different."
The data suggests Shrewsbury are one of the more direct attacking sides in League One: only two sides have fewer average passes per passing sequence, and their direct speed in metres per second is the sixth fastest. Having said that, the latter stat needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as there’s a lot of sides which are just behind them on this metric. Only Carlisle and Stevenage have fewer zones of control: Shrewsbury only have more than 55% of touches in their own penalty area and the zone around the D.
Shrewsbury’s lack of goals is consistent with their xG: in open play, theirs is the 2nd worst in League One, and they’ve had the 3rd fewest shots. However, they are notably more threatening from set pieces, with the 7th best xG in the division, and they’ve also had the 7th most shots from restarts. They’ve struggled to convert those chances as only 4 sides in League One have scored fewer from dead ball situations.
At the other end they’ve been vulnerable to set pieces, with the 4th worst xG, 6th most shots conceded and behind only Lincoln in set play goals conceded. Despite a solid defensive record, they have benefitted from the profligacy of their opponents, as they’ve the 4th worst xG in open play and allow the 7th most shots.
HEAD TO HEAD
We have plenty to make up in this derby fixture, as Shrewsbury have won 5 of the last 6 times we've met. Those matches coincide with our slide out of the Football League, and the symmetry of our last two visits to Shropshire show just how high the stakes are when these two sides meet.
In April 2007 we were the opposition as Shrewsbury celebrated their penultimate at Gay Meadow before it was demolished. We were in serious danger of relegation to the National League, and faced two difficult away games before returning for a climactic Racecourse clash with relegation rivals, Boston United. Brian Carey's side handled the pressure of the occasion well and struck dramatically with 11 minutes left when Lee Jones' run from the halfway line ended in a pullback to Michael Proctor. His driven finish into the roof of the net gave future-Wrexham goalkeeper Scott Shearer no chance and sent the massed Wrexham fans below the goal wild.
Off the back of that win we were able to rescue ourselves from relegation on the final day of the season, but it was a very different story when we travelled to Shrewsbury's new stadium at the end of the following campaign.
Wrexham put up a limp display as The Shrews gained emphatic revenge, and The Red Dragons were flattered by the 3-0 defeat. Stranded at the foot of the table, it wasn't a result which condemned us to relegation, but it was a clear sign that there would be no escape from a destiny which had looked likely for some time.
Oddly, we've done better at Shrewsbury than The Stok Cae Ras this century. Since our last home win over The Shrews, in October 1996, we've drawn one and lost three at home against them; our last home clean sheet was back in 1992.
On the other hand, we won three of our last five games at Gay Meadow and have only lost twice at Shrewsbury since 1982 That defeat came in January 2006 when the only goal was scored by Glynn Hurst.
Our best win over The Shrews was a spectacular effort in a high stakes match which was described as "absurdly one-sided" in the papers. In the 1931 Welsh Cup Final we won 7-0, Tommy Bamford and Tom Lewis getting two each while Samuel Taylor, Jack Mustard and John Hughes also scored.
For our best result at Shrewsbury you have to go back to the first season after the First World War. We won 6-2 in the Birmingham and District League with four goals scored by John Taylor, who would play for both clubs. That win came at a time when we had the upper hand in the rivalry, and Taylor wasn't the first Wrexham player to score four past The Shrews. Thomas Owens had already achieved the feat in a 6-0 home win earlier that season!
Overall we've won twenty-two and lost ten of our forty-three home games against Shrewsbury, but that record is bolstered by a good run in the Birmingham and District League either side of the First World War in which we claimed 15 wins in 24 games.
Taylor is our top scorer in the fixture, having hit six goals past them in total. One goal behind him is Graham Whittle, and on 4 are Owens, George Griffiths, Gary Bennett and Samuel Taylor, who claimed our only hat-trick against Shrewsbury since we joined the Football League.in a 4-2 Welsh Cup win in March 1932.
On the other hand, we had an awful time at Gay Meadow in the 1966-7 season, crashing out of both domestic cups and recording the two worst results we've ever suffered at their hands in the process! A 6-1 defeat in the League Cup was followed by a 5-1 loss in the F.A. Cup!
TODAY’S OTHER FIXTURES
Arsenal v Liverpool
Luton Town v Bolton Wanderers
Manchester City v Huddersfield Town
Nottingham Forest v Blackpool
Peterborough United v Leeds United
West Bromwich Albion v Aldershot Town
West Ham United v Bristol City
Apart from our match, there are 6 other opportunities for upsets today, with Aldershot Town's trip to West Brom an opportunity for The Shots to do something historic against opposition from 3 divisions higher.No non-league team has beaten a Championship team away from home since...oh, us!
Paul Mullin's 425th career match.
James Jones' 350th career appearance