THE LONG READ | The Case for the Defence

Macclesfield Town
Posted:Sun 01 Nov 2020

While recording Friday's Dragonheart show for Calon FM (you can listen to the podcast below), Ollie Williams, Tom Crofts and I discussed how best to measure the achievements of Wrexham's goalkeepers.

The conversation was sparked by Rob Lainton making his 150th career appearance last week, while fast approaching a century of games for Wrexham.

Lainton is one of only four goalkeepers who have played over fifty games for Wrexham and conceded fewer than a goal a game, and has kept clean sheets at a better rate than any other goalkeeper in our entire history. These are remarkable achievements, and he was actually second in terms of goals conceded before the Wealdstone game!

But how can we quantify these statistics against those of earlier goalkeepers? I'm no legal expert but, I'd like to offer a case for the defence. 

Top ten goalkeepers who have made 50 appearances for Wrexham, ranked in terms of goals conceded per game.

When we look at the figures for the best Wrexham keepers of all-time, ranked in order of goals conceded per game, a striking pattern emerges. The top five all played for us this century, and four of those have represented us purely in the National League. In comparing defensive statistics like these, clearly there are many extenuating circumstances to consider.

Chris Maxwell - the greatest?

It seems unlikely that the greatest goalkeepers in our history have all been attracted to us when we are playing at our lowest ever level. Clearly other factors are at play, although that's not to deny that we have had a particularly fine crop of goalkeepers in the last decade, allowing us to enjoy a period of defensive stability. Contrast our fortunes between the sticks with the mid-1980s, when we used 17 different goalkeepers in a four year period between 1983 and 1987, including Dai Davies coming out of retirement, and manager Bobby Roberts, who not only had hung up his boots 10 years earlier, but wasn't even a goalkeeper!

Bobby Roberts - out of necessity, our oldest ever player!

The top ten contains some fine keepers who are lower than our non-league goalies. Davies, Andy Marriott and Brian Lloyd were all Welsh internationals, for example, and Eddie Niedzwiecki is only 17th in the list. That can be ascribed to the fact that, in the two seasons he was our first choice goalkeeper, although Niedzwiecki was excellent and claimed the 1981-2 player of the season award, he couldn't stop us from sliding to consecutive relegations.

A similar tale played out for Mark Morris. He was player of the season in 1990-1, and was kept busy as we finished bottom of Division Four. However, he made nearly half his Wrexham appearances in that campaign and therefore languishes in 25th place in the list.

  Wrexham's best 10 seasons since entering the Football League, in terms of goals conceded per game.

Clearly the quality of the defence in front of a goalkeeper is crucial when considering these statistics.If you look at the ten best seasons we've enjoyed in terms of goals conceded per game, our seasons in the National League dominate once more. The side Dean Saunders put together in 2009 struggled to create, but its solid defence was, at the time, the most effective in our history. It has been superseded though, by how Andy Morrell built on those solid foundations between 2011 and 2013, and the Roberts-Pearson-Smith-Jennings unit forged by Dean Keates. Chris Dunn certainly benefitted from playing behind that back four, as he is a surprising name to find at number 5 in the list of Wrexham's most miserly goalies.

Obviously, the fact that this is the lowest league level we've ever played at is a massive factor too. In theory, opposing strikers ought to be more wayward than they are in higher divisions, and it would certainly not be realistic to expect Dunn, for example, to perform as efficiently in the Championship. 

Goals conceded per game by Wrexham in each of the five tiers we've played in since entering the Football League.

The suggestion that we concede at a slower rate when playing at a lower level is borne out by the statistics, with one remarkable outlier.

Looking first at the cases where the statistics follow the pattern you’d expect, our defensive record is certainly better in the Conference than at any other level, with our fourth tier record better than our figures from the third tier.

Even the days of the regional third tier fit neatly into this pattern. The Third Divisions North and South were a halfway point between what would become the Third and Fourth Divisions, and our defensive record remains similar to our figures in the third tier.

The statistical anomaly is our record in the second tier. We spent four years in what is now known as the Championship, and were better defensively than at any other level apart from the fifth tier.

There are a couple of likely explanations for this. Firstly, I don’t think you’d find many Wrexham fans who would argue against the notion that this was the greatest team the club has ever known. We had Wales’ goalkeeper, Dai Davies, and two centre backs who were also Welsh internationals in Gareth Davies and John Roberts. Alan Dwyer was a high quality left-back, and while injuries restricted the appearances of another Welsh international, Mickey Evans, we drafted in the likes of First Division stalwart Terry Darracott and the legendary Joey Jones during this period.

Gareth Davies - defensive legend

Apart from the superlative quality of our defensive unit in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the other factor contributing to our excellence goals concession figures is a matter of balance.

The 1977-8 season, in which we earned an emphatic promotion to the Second Division, was underpinned by that fine defence, but defined by the spectacular effectiveness of our attack. The attacking trident of Dixie McNeil, Bobby Shinton and Graham Whittle terrorised defences and scored 25, 24 and 16 goals respectively in all competitions.

Things changed in the following season. Mickey Thomas, our driving force in midfield, left for Manchester United, and Shinton left for Manchester City after failing to score in 36 games at a higher level.

To survive in the second tier, we had to lean more heavily on our defence, which stood firm for three seasons and wasn’t too awful in the year we were relegated: with the 42nd best goals conceded per game figure, it came over half way in a list of our 92 league seasons, and above our average figure: we let in 1.33 goals per game in 1981-2, and our overall average is 1.42.

It should also be pointed out that football has changed radically since we first entered the Football League in 1921. As I mentioned earlier, we've enjoyed a decade of remarkable defensive solidity. That's borne out by the figures: the 2010s were, by some distance, the decade in which we conceded the least goals per league game.

The overall trend also suggests that fewer goals are being scored since the 1960s. The 1940s are somewhat anomalous, but remember that there's half as much data to rely on from that decade. Despite Wrexham conceding more goals per game in the 1920s and 1930s than any other decade apart from the 1960s, we actually measured up surprisingly well against the average goals scored in the divisions we were in: in all but 6 of our first 22 seasons in the Football League, our defence conceded fewer goals than the league average. In the days of 2-3-5, goals flowed more freely: have a look at Tommy Bamford's scoring records during this period for evidence!

The reason we conceded so regularly in the 1960s is probably down to the fact that we were relegated twice and also finished bottom of Division Four in that decade!

Comparing goals conceded per game to the average of the league we were playing in is highly revealing. It shows that our defence has been better than the average in each of our 12 seasons in the National League - the last time we were worse than our divisional average was the season we were relegated from the Football League.

We also enjoyed our best ever defensive season in comparison to the mean in that period: in that magnificent, frustrating 2011-12 campaign, when we were pipped to promotion by Jamie Vardy's Fleetwood Town, we let in a remarkable 0.71 goals per game fewer than the league average.

Of course, our defensive stats often mirror the success the team has had overall: a good season doesn't tend to be based on a leaky defence, after all. However, there are some revealing exceptions:

  • in 1988-9 when, at the last gasp, we qualified for the play-offs for the first time, our defence was actually worse than the divisional average
  • our 1992-3 promotion was achieved despite a defence which was just 0.6 goal per game better than the divisional average, an indication of how badly we started the campaign.

So it's no huge surprise to see our National League keepers dominating the club's defensive stats: we've been consistently outperforming our peers for the last 12 years, at the back at least.

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