John Neal

Memory Match – 22-04-78

Throughout the 2017/18 football season I will be contributing to the Wrexham AFC matchday programme. I will be penning a feature called Memory Match, a look back at classic Wrexham games from the past that I will share in this blog over the coming months.

This is the third successive season that I have been writing the Memory Match column. Indeed, when I have written a Memory Match for every Football League season that Wrexham AFC enjoyed,  I would like to compile all the columns into a book that will reflect the rich history of my beloved football club.

22-04-78

Wrexham v Rotherham United

League Division Three

Racecourse Ground

Result: 7-1

Wrexham: Davies, Evans, Dwyer, Davis (Cegielski), Roberts, Thomas, Shinton, Sutton, Lyons, Whittle, Cartwright

Goalscorers: Thomas, Lyons, Whittle (3, 2 pens), Shinton, Cartwright

Rotherham United: McAlister, Forrest, Breckin, Rhodes, Spencer, Green, Finney, Phillips, Gwyther, Goodfellow, Crawford

Goalscorer: Phillips

Attendance: 16,586

I wasn’t there. Almost four decades later I only have a dog-eared programme and a video cassette of poor quality images – that seem to have been shot from the moon – to remind me that the game really did happen.

After the heartbreak of the previous season, we had lost manager John Neal to the bright lights of Middlesbrough, star striker Billy Ashcroft joined him and a flood of transfer requests resulted. Arfon Griffiths stepped-up as player-manager, but the Robins recorded just one win in their first seven games and found themselves languishing in eighteenth position in the Third Division table. Griffiths took decisive action by signing Dixie McNeil for £60,000 from Hereford United and goalkeeper Dai Davies was recruited for a bargain £8,000 from Everton. “I am not a Welsh nationalist, but the little girl was beginning to get a Liverpool accent,” said the Welsh-speaking keeper.

‘Deadshot’ Dixie scored on his debut and Wrexham went on a thirteen game unbeaten run to top the league table for the first time in four years. However, it was the cup exploits of Arfon’s men that really made the nation sit up and take notice. It took Liverpool and Arsenal to knock the Welshmen out of the League and FA Cup competitions, both at the quarter-final stage.

Thankfully these cup shenanigans did not interfere with the Town’s league form and seven straight victories in March helped earn Griffiths his fourth manager of the month award of the season.

As the season drew to a close, Wrexham faced relegation-threatened Rotherham United on the back of five games without a win. Nevertheless, if Wrexham could win this match they would ensure promotion to the second tier for the first time in their history. In preparation for this massive game Arfon took his players to the Costa del Llandudno for a ride on the donkeys and a tram ride up the Great Orme. Whatever happened on the north Wales coast certainly helped to quash the tension and banish the jitters as Wrexham returned to the Racecourse to destroy Rotherham in emphatic fashion and finally escape from the Third Division.

16,586 fans crammed into the Cae Ras and saw Mickey Thomas fire us ahead on 12 minutes. Following a return pass with John Lyons, the magic little man fired past United goalkeeper Tom McAlister and celebrated with a somersault. Only three minutes later Lyons doubled our advantage after Les Cartwright clipped the ball back from the by line. Wrexham had the bit between their teeth and added a third after a penalty was awarded following a clumsy challenge on Cartwright by visiting defender Mark Rhodes. The spot-kick was blasted home by Graham Whittle.

Bobby Shinton got his name on the score sheet after he turned a defender inside out before jabbing the ball into the far corner. Before the half time whistle, the Reds made it five as Whittle headed home Cartwright’s cross. It was such a fine display that even the referee – Mr Bert Newsome – joined the rest of the ground in a standing ovation.

Battling Rotherham pulled one back after the break when Wayne Cegielski’s header dropped invitingly for Trevor Phillips to promptly smash the ball past Dai Davies.

Wrexham restored their five-goal advantage from the penalty spot as Whittle completed his hat-trick. Cartwright made a spectacular run to fire in a seven. At the final whistle, the crowd erupted and spilled onto the pitch in never-to-be-forgotten scenes — at least for those who were there.

***

The result did not help Rotherham’s cause, but they stayed up by one place.

Memory Match – 21-12-74

Throughout the 2016/17 football season I will be contributing to the Wrexham AFC matchday programme. I will be penning a feature called Memory Match, a look back at classic Wrexham games from the past that I will share in this blog over the coming months.

21-12-74

Wrexham v Watford

League Division Three

Racecourse Ground

Result: 5-1

Wrexham: Lloyd, Jones, Fogg, Evans, May, Whittle, Tinnion, Sutton, Davies, Smallman, Griffiths

Goalscorers: Smallman 25, 44, Whittle 26, 31, Davies 45

Watford:  Rankin, Craker, Williams, Joslyn, Keen, Goodeve, Bond, Jenkins, Mayes, Scullion (Bristow), Downes

Goalscorer: Joslyn 55

Attendance: 4,128

 

When writing about a John Neal side of the Seventies there are certain words that usually feature, such as “giantkillers” and “Europe”. However, neither of these words could be used in connection with 1974-75, which failed to explode into the expected promotion charge. Instead, during a season of transition we had to settle for a few sparks of hope in an ultimately disappointing campaign.

After losing to Stourbridge in the previous season’s Welsh Cup semi-final, there were no memorable European encounters while Fourth Division sides Crewe Alexandra (1-2) and Mansfield Town (3-1) knocked us out of the League and FA Cups respectively – both at the first round stage.

Prior to this featured game against mid-table rivals Watford, the Leader spoke about how victory was vital for 12th placed Wrexham to keep in touch with the promotion-chasing pack. Manager Neal was in an optimistic frame of mind: “What we need is a good run. We have dropped a few silly points which would have put us among the front runners, but we have been working hard on trying to sort out one or two little problems we have had.”

Goals were what we needed and the players responded to their pep talk by putting on their shooting boots. Wrexham scored five goals in a remarkable first half. The avalanche started in the 25th minute when Dave Smallman sent a glancing header past Watford goalkeeper Andy Rankin after Arfon Griffiths floated a free kick into the box.

Less than a minute later, Wrexham doubled their lead. Griffiths sent Smallman away down the left and his cross was knocked back across the box by Brian Tinnion for Graham Whittle to turn on a sixpence and shoot low into the corner of the goal.

Watford were all over the place. Whittle grabbed the third after good work from Smallman and Geoff Davies allowed him to score from 12 yards. The rampant Reds were in awesome form and Smallman almost notched another soon after, but he headed a Tinnion cross onto the bar. Not to be denied, Smallman nodded home the fourth after a Griffiths header from a Tinnion corner had bounced off the bar.

On the stroke of half-time, Wrexham completed their five-star show when Smallman ran free of the beleaguered Watford defence and crossed for Davies to slot home.

The Robins eased up in the second half and allowed the Hornets to score a consolation goal after 55 minutes when Roger Joslyn followed up after a shot by Bobby Downes had been blocked.

A jubilant John Neal said: “We hadn’t been putting away a big enough percentage of our chances in previous matches, but on Saturday we really tucked them in.”

***

After such a resounding victory our topsy-turvy season took a turn for the worse as we lost five and drew one of the next six games. In March, we beat Aldershot 4-0 thanks to a Dave Smallman hat-trick, but shortly after this treble the club – £50,000 in the red – accepted a club record fee of £75,000 from Everton manager Billy Bingham for the young marksman.

A distraught Neal said: “Wrexham have won, Everton have won, and the boy was won. I’m the loser because I hated to see him go.”

The campaign concluded with a 0-0 draw at Ewood Park against champions Blackburn Rovers that left us floating in 13th position.

Still, we managed to finish a largely forgettable season on a high after beating Cardiff City 5-2 over two legs to lift the Welsh Cup and earn another crack at European opposition.

Memory Match – 28-09-68

Throughout the 2015/16 football season I will be contributing to the Wrexham AFC matchday programme. I will be penning a feature called Memory Match, a look back at classic Wrexham games from the past that I will share in this blog over the coming months.

28-09-68

Wrexham v Notts County

League Division Four

Racecourse Ground

Result: 3-2

Wrexham: Livsey, Ingle, Bermingham, Davis, May, Bradbury, Beanland, Moir, Charnley, Smith, Kinsey

Goalscorers: Charnley (2), Ingle

Notts County: Rose, Ball, Worthington, Oakes, Gibson, Farmer, Pring, Murphy, Bradd, Masson, Bates

Goalscorers: Bradd, Masson 

Attendance: 4,277

Reds manager Alvan Williams tended his resignation after an inconsistent start to 1968/69 that saw a League Cup exit, the sale of David Powell and Steve Stacey, to Sheffield United and Ipswich Town respectively, and subsequent bitter demonstrations from the fans.

The official line was that the departure of Williams was caused by “a disagreement with the Board of Directors over club policy”, but word on the grapevine suggested that club directors wanted to curtail his power as general manager with a demotion to the specific role of team manager only.

Despite the fact that the vacant post was not advertised, Wrexham still had 14 applications for the job, which was eventually given to John Neal. George Showell became first-team trainer. This new managerial duo certainly had their work cut out as we prepared to play bottom-of-the-table Notts County as we’d suffered five straight defeats without scoring.

The Magpies started the brighter and conspired to hit the woodwork, miss a sitter and had a penalty claim turned down before Ray Charnley ended Wrexham’s goal drought on 23 minutes. Charnley hit the ball past Mick Rose who had failed to deal with Ray Smith’s shot. Rose may still have been feeling the effects of his collision with Smith just four minutes earlier.

County equalised on the half-hour mark when Don Masson headed home from an inviting free kick. This parity only lasted for three minutes as Charnley out-jumped several defenders to connect with Alan Bermingham’s cross.

Wrexham were at their brightest during this period as Steve Ingle and Albert Kinsey tested Rose, but it was County who struck after 44 minutes with another headed goal. This time it was Les Bradd who met a centre from Ron Farmer.

From the re-start, Ingle restored the home sides lead with a fine solo effort when he collected a loose ball, raced forward and unleashed a thunderbolt from 20-yards to put us ahead at the break.

The second period promised much, but actually delivered little in terms of goalmouth action as the closest we came to adding a fourth goal was when a late effort from Eddie May went a foot wide. It also says a lot that Charnley’s only competition for man of the match was goalkeeper Gordon Livesey.

According to Reg Herbert of the Leader, the majority of our players performed under par. Apparently, Ian Moir had a “nightmare game” characterised by “erratic passing” that frustrated the fans while Kinsey and Smith were deemed to be “still struggling for form and luck”. Bermingham was criticised for “not being his usual ebullient self” and Gareth Davis was lambasted for a “first half miskick” that presented County with a chance that they should’ve scored from.

John Neal looked on the bright side: “Not having scored and won a match for so long a time the players were all tensed up.  If they had relaxed it might have been so different.  Still, we achieved our main objectives – we scored goals and we won.”

As underwhelmed Reds fans trudged home that afternoon, little did they realise that the new man in charge was sowing the seeds of a Racecourse revolution…

Memory Match – 27-02-82

Throughout the 2015/16 football season I will be contributing to the Wrexham AFC matchday programme. I will be penning a feature called Memory Match, a look back at classic Wrexham games from the past that I will share in this blog over the coming months.

27-02-82

Wrexham v Chelsea

League Division Two

Racecourse Ground

Result: 1-0

Wrexham: Niedzwiecki, Jones, Bater, Davis, Dowman, Ronson, Leman, McNeil, Fox, Vinter (Hill), Carrodus

Goalscorer: Carrodus (66)

Chelsea: Francis, Locke, Hutchings, Nutton, Chivers, Pates, Rhoades-Brown, Britton (Mayes), Lee, Walker, Fillery

Attendance: 3,935

Star-studded Chelsea may be experiencing a season of turmoil, but it is still hard to believe that back in 1981/82 we played them five times. What’s more, the Stamford Bridge hot-seat was occupied by a certain John Neal…

It all began with a disappointing League trip to Stamford Bridge that ended in a 2-0 defeat before a trio of tussles in the FA Cup fourth round. A goalless draw in West London was followed by a 1-1 draw at the Racecourse and a second replay took place at the same venue on the toss of a coin. Home advantage did not help on this occasion though as we lost 1-2 and missed out on a lucrative fifth round home encounter with Liverpool.

The fifth meeting between the sides came at the end of February 1982 on the back of six straight defeats. The mood around the Cae Ras was one of resignation as the club were staring relegation in the face under Mel Sutton, had not won at home since their 3-1 victory over Cardiff on November 24 and had only won three home games in the League all season.

Writing in the Leader, Les Chamberlain said:  “It now looks a certainty that there will be Third Division football at the Racecourse next season.  Only a superhuman effort by the team and the collapse of teams above Wrexham can now save them”.

Ahead of this must-win game, Wrexham were without Wayne Cegielski through suspension but Billy Ronson and Steve Buxton, who had both been suspended, come back into the reckoning. Wrexham fans also had their first chance of seeing Denis Leman who was on loan from Sheffield Wednesday.

The match was only nine minutes old when Joey Jones brought down Clive Walker in the penalty area for what seemed a certain penalty, but fortunately the referee ignored passionate appeals from the Pensioners.

Two minutes before the interval, Mike Fillery beat Eddie Niedzwiecki with a thunderous drive, but the ball hit the side of the bar, bounced on the line and back into play. Once again Chelsea players felt aggrieved as they felt the ball had crossed the goal line.

Wrexham’s goal started from a mistake by Fillery as his under strength pass to Gary Locke was intersected by Steve Fox who took the opportunity to whip in a pinpoint cross to the unmarked Frank Carrodus who calmly drove it past a helpless Steve Francis in the Chelsea goal.

Mel Sutton said: “We played the ball about today and the goal gave them confidence.  Now this has given us a lift and I think it has given the players a lift.  We have now got to work on that and make it pay.”

There is no doubt that this victory gave everyone at the club a confidence boost as the Reds had still to play fellow strugglers so their fate was largely in their own hands. Unfortunately, despite an immediate upturn in fortunes that saw us undefeated in March, we conspired to win just one of our last eight games and we were relegated along with Cardiff City and Orient.

***

1981/82 was also the first season that the three points for a win system was introduced.

Memory Match – 15-01-77

Throughout the 2015/16 football season I will be contributing to the Wrexham AFC matchday programme. I will be penning a feature called Memory Match, a look back at classic Wrexham games from the past that I will share in this blog over the coming months.

15-01-77

Wrexham v Reading

League Division Three

Racecourse Ground

Result: 3-1

Wrexham: Lloyd, Hill, Davis, Cegielski, Roberts, Thomas, Shinton, Sutton, Ashcroft, Whittle, Griffiths

Goalscorers: Ashcroft 23, Griffiths 33 (pen), Whittle 73

Reading: Death, Peters, Henderson, Bowman (Youlden), Bennett, Moreline, Murray, Hiron, Earles, Carnaby, Stuckey

Goalscorer: Murray 68

Attendance: 5,653

 

The Robins entered this game on a high. They were flying high in the League and three days previously they had knocked Sunderland out of the FA Cup at the second attempt – completing a memorable hat-trick of cup victories over First Division opponents that season.

Wrexham were without regular full backs Mickey Evans and Alan Dwyer. Evans was unwell and Dwyer had dislocated a shoulder during the replay against Sunderland, which seemed likely to keep him out of action for six weeks.  Despite this, the Reds were far from disrupted.

It was a day to remember for Wrexham’s formidable three-pronged strike force as they brought their combined season’s goal tally to an incredible 46. Billy Ashcroft’s header gave him 17 for the season, Graham Whittle’s shot took his tally to 13 and skilful Bobby Shinton was unlucky not to add to the 16 he had netted that term.

Whittle thought he had scored after 20 minutes, but his “goal” was disallowed by the linesman. However, two minutes later the deadlock was broken when Mel Sutton’s cross was met by the head of Ashcroft and his powerful header went in off the underside of the crossbar.  Steve Death in the Reading goal had no chance.

Shinton – who was mesmerising all afternoon – almost doubled the lead after displaying his sublime skills with the ball, but his shot was cleared off the goal line by Gary Peters with Death beaten.

On 33 minutes, visiting defender Paul Bennett was forced to impede the unplayable Ashcroft to prevent him from connecting with a Sutton cross. The referee had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and Arfon Griffiths stepped-up to net his first goal of the season and double our lead.

Reading were chasing shadows in the first half. Their only chance of note was squandered by Pat Earles – a new £15,000 signing from Southampton – who tamely headed Ray Hiron’s centre across the face of goal.

After the break, Wrexham loss some of their momentum and Reading enjoyed a period in the ascendancy after John Roberts went close with a good header.

The warning signs were there when Brian Lloyd, a spectator for much of the game, was called upon to make a staggering full-length save from a rasping drive by Bruce Stuckey.

However, Lloyd was left helpless after 68 minutes when John Murray lashed home an unstoppable drive from 30 yards for his 13th goal of the season.

Any hopes that the Royals had of staging a comeback didn’t last for long as just five minutes later Whittle restored the two goal advantage from 12 yards after good work from Ashcroft and Griffiths.

Manager John Neal said: “I am overjoyed.  This has completed a wonderful week.  Now I am going to give the lads a couple of days off. They deserve a rest after their tremendous efforts, twice against Sunderland and again today in the energy-sapping mud.”

***

Unfortunately, following their FA Cup heroics over Sunderland, which was watched by over 16,000, the attendance dropped to a mere 5,633.  This was disappointing to say the least, but it could be explained by the atrocious weather conditions – including snow – that cast some doubt on whether the game would actually go ahead.