Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Roving Around Wrexham

Wrexham has always seemed a bit of an anomaly. The town is indisputably Welsh but is geographically much closer to the great English conurbations of Merseyside and Manchester than it is to Wales's big population centres of Cardiff, Swansea and (if you must) Newport. If this has given Wrexhamites something of an identity problem, those who follow the football club have forged it into a fierce rivalry with Chester, less than twenty miles away but, crucially, just across the border in England.

Wrexham FC is not only the oldest football club in Wales but the third oldest professional football club in the world. Just pause for a moment to think about that. Its proud history includes quarter-final appearances in both the FA Cup and the European Cup-Winners' Cup, and many fans may still be scratching their heads and wondering how the Red Dragons have been slumming it in football's fifth tier for the last twelve seasons.  At least for the last campaign they were joined in the National League by Notts County, the oldest professional club in the world. Despite what Crystal Palace might claim! (In case you were wondering, the second oldest is Stoke City.)

Good pub...


Football aside, Wrexham doesn't have many claims to fame. JMW Turner painted a street scene here. It's where lager was first brewed in Britain. And it's the birthplace of guitarist Andy Scott, the one surviving member of the Sweet's classic early 70s line-up.

I first visited the town in November 2008, some six months after the club had dropped out of the Football League. They were home to Lewes in what looked a curiously skewed league encounter; just five seasons earlier Wrexham had been playing in the third tier of domestic football while the East Sussex side competed four levels below them in Division One South of the Isthmian League. The Rooks' dizzying surge up the non-League pyramid had by now hit the buffers and they were propping up the Blue Square Premier table.

I love the town of Lewes (home of Harvey's ales) but wasn't a great lover of the financially inflated football club (they'd turned Sutton over a few times in Conference South) so was happy to be a Wrexham supporter for the day. After a wander round the town I had a pint in the Ellihu Yale  - a JD Wetherspoon pub named (like Yale University in Connecticut) after an 18th century merchant and benefactor who lived near Wrexham in his later years.  I asked the Racecourse Ground stewards for advice on where best to watch the game. I was directed to the main stand which commanded a fine view over the stadium, including the vast but now unused Kop terrace behind one goal. Wrexham won 2-0, both goals headed home from corners by centre backs. Lewes had a man sent off to compound their misery. About a dozen away fans made the trip up from Sussex.

Four seasons later, in January 2013, Sutton met Wrexham for the first time as we played them at home in the third round of the FA Trophy. By then we were back in the Blue Square (Conference) South and were starting to get our act together after a slow start to the season. We gave it a real go in the first thirty minutes but couldn't find the net. Then Wrexham suddenly scored four times before half-time, eventually running out 5-0 winners. They would go on to lift the trophy in the spring, but their other trip to Wembley ended in disappointment as they lost to Newport County in the only ever all-Welsh National League play-off final.


Oh come on, we had to show some football!


Wrexham were of course kindly waiting for us when in 2016 we got promoted back to what by then had been re-named the National League. Our home record against them in this competition has been very respectable, three wins and a draw. But it's the away games that I want to concentrate on.

Three of Sutton's four games at the Racecourse Ground have fallen in the month of September, with the other in April, and so were mostly blessed with good weather. The first was on Saturday 10 September 2016. In the previous few weeks we'd clocked up trips to Forest Green, Lincoln, Chester and Gateshead, rapidly re-acquiring a taste for the long distance travelling lark. But Wrexham felt like a biggie. The Racecourse Ground had actually hosted proper international matches.

I decided to go up to north Wales on the Friday and enjoy some sea air with a stay-over in Llandudno. I hadn't been there since a romantic holiday way back in 1981, and was keen to revisit the place. It's a very different town from gritty Wrexham, a Victorian resort with an air of slightly faced gentility, ideal for relaxing and taking stock of life. After checking into my guest house I got a tram up the Great Orme, the limestone headland that looms over town and sea. Once back in town I (naturally) popped into a few pubs including the King's Head which I'd drunk in all those years ago.

The next morning I caught the train back to Chester then another through Wrexham and on to the village of Ruabon (birthplace of Mark Hughes). Here I paid my first visit to the excellent Bridge End Inn, a former CAMRA national pub of the year. I fell into conversation with some Wrexham fans who also follow Wales, and discovered that they knew our very own Wales supporter Four Days. Small world alert! In Wrexham I had a pint at the Royal Oak (run by the re-established Joule's brewery of Market Drayton) and then it was time for the game. Sutton put in a decent performance but (familiar story!) couldn't find the net, the closest we came being a Chris Dickson volley that struck the bar. Wrexham scored from about their only clear chance and the match finished 1-0 with the home side booed off despite the win!  Afterwards Sal and I went to the Elihu Yale where we fell in with the home fans I'd met in Ruabon. Then it was back to London; on the train I chatted to Johnnie Yoof about how, despite the day's result, Paul Doswell and his team were rising to the challenge of National League football. 


Bit of yeractual culture...


Twelve months and three weeks later and we were back at the Racecourse. This time I made it a day trip. I still have to pinch myself when typing this, but Sutton were then top of the table, though we were facing the side with the meanest defence in the division. Before the game I hiked out to the Acton Park pub for lunch, then drank at Wrexham's other Wetherspoons, the North and South Wales Bank, where I paid (with discount voucher) £1.35 for a pint. Good value is Wrexham. On the field of play Sutton went a goal down before half-time and, as the match drifted into second-half stoppage time, we were resigning ourselves to another 1-0 defeat. Then Ross Lafayette, shrugging off a clutch of defenders, unleashed a venomous shot that crashed down off the bar and over the line. Let me tell you that the footage of that goal was replayed more than a few times in certain parts of south London! Buoyed by the snatching of an away point we repaired across the border to Chester where I ticked off the Goat & Munch micropub before hooking up with the Gandermonium mob throwing back pre-train pints in the Deva bar near the station. I like Redwillow beers, but the pint I had there that evening tasted particularly special. 

The following season the National League kindly came up with Good Friday as the date for this fixture. That wouldn't have been too bad had Euston station not been completely closed for the entire Easter weekend. By travelling up on the Thursday I at least managed a straightforward outward journey. I visited a couple of pubs in Chester on the way and enjoyed a stroll along the River Dee in the spring sunshine before continuing to Wrexham. Here I checked into the Premier Inn, handily located close both to Wrexham General station and the Racecourse Ground.  Then it was a bus to the village of Ponciau and a pint in the garden of the Colliers Arms before another bus on to Ruabon for a return visit to the Bridge End Inn. Here I got talking to some other Wales supporters, one of whom mentioned “a tall lad who works in a pub in Carshalton”. I wonder who that could be? Back in Wrexham I had a pint in the boisterous Fat Pig before repairing to a curry house round the corner. 

The next morning, after breakfast and coffee in town, I found the Gandermonium crew in the Elihu Yale.  It was then a crawl on to the Horse & Jockey and Cross Foxes, winding up at the Fat Boar where Four Days had caught up with his Wales mates whom I'd met two seasons previously. Almost inevitably, Cathy and Bob turned up. As for the game, we lost 1-0 (late goal following a corner) in what was developing into an underwhelming end to the season following Dos's decision to step back from the managerial hotseat.  The most notable aspect of the match was that it completed an unprecedented clean sweep in Sutton's history; following our IrnBru Cup adventures in the autumn, the team had played in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales in a single season. After the final whistle we piled into the Maesgwyn Hall bar across the road from the ground. I then returned to London via Birmingham, having to endure the hot and busy trundler from Wrexham to Brum.

Less than six months later, and with Matt Gray installed as our new manager, we were back in north-east Wales for the 2019/20 fixture. Again, rail transport was problematic. BT Sport had selected the game for live broadcast with a 5.20pm kick-off, meaning that the game would finish just as the last sensible train for a return to London was pulling out of Wrexham General. Oh well, it would just have to be a Saturday night in Wrecsam. (Some of our supporters actually seemed to like this idea, although I think that was more to do with the price of beer than any actual desire to sample the quality of the nightlife!)


Choice...


I opted for another Friday night in Landudno, where I stayed at the same guest house as three years earlier. Rather than ascending the Great Orme this time I wandered along the road that encircled it, admiring the fine views across the bay to the Little Orme. I spotted some ravens circling overhead. The raven is thought to be the most intelligent of all birds and it's croaking call is quite easy for a human to imitate. I did fancy that I was holding a conversation with one of these big black omens of doom as it perched on a clifftop, although I suspect that it was actually calling to its mate. A little further round and looking down to the sea I spotted another pair of crows alighting on the cliff. These ones had red legs and bills. Wow! Choughs, four-star birds. I'd seen them before in Pembrokeshire but didn't know that they also hung out on the Great Orme. The weekend was getting off to a very good start.

It was then a bus to historic Conwy where I visited three pubs including the award-winning Albion Ale House, jointly managed by four small Welsh breweries. It was here, while taking a photo of the impressively-furbished bar counter, that I got a cheery thumbs-up from one of the bar staff. Back in Llandudno it was dinner and Lees bitter at the impressive Links Hotel then a final beer in the mellow ambience of Tapps micropub.

I had most of the day to kill before the late kick-off at the Racecourse Ground so decided to stop off at Rhyl on the way round to Wrexham. I'd not been here before, but knew what to expect; a rather run-down seaside resort where there were more Scouse accents than Welsh lilts.  I knocked off the three Beer Guide pubs, starting at the Sussex (bog standard 'spoons) and continuing to the Cob & Pen (a traditional pub with nice wood panelling) and finishing with a tramp out to the Dove micropub on the south side of town. Once in Wrexham I headed to the Fat Boar before encountering a very well refreshed Gandermonium crew exiting the North and South Wales Bank. Magnum PI informed me that that the gang had stopped at Ruabon on the way up and enjoyed the hospitality at the Bridge End Inn. Good to see that pub attracting new customers.  Rather than joining them in the Crafty Dragon opposite (no real ale) I opted for the Royal Oak next door - which turned out to be a bad  move as the beer there was poor. After five visits I was coming to the conclusion that Wrexham is a bit rubbish for decent beer. But I still quite like the place.


Happy barmaid!


Once again the match was a tight affair, and the first half provided little entertainment for the BT Sport viewers apart from a goalmouth scramble that ended with a disallowed Sutton goal. Then, early in the second period, Harry Beautyman did what he managed so often this season, conjuring a goal from an unpromising situation. With the game winding down, Craig Eastmond produced a great save to tip over Shaun Pearson's header. Unfortunately for us, Eastmond is not our goalkeeper.  A red card and penalty award duly followed, with Bobby Grant levelling things up from the spot to calm the restless natives who had been calling for the manager and the board's heads during the second half.  Our four games at the Racecouse had now produced two 1-0 defeats and two 1-1 draws. Tight.

I'd planned a return visit to the Bridge End Inn after the game, but the trains were up the creek. I abandoned the plan, leaving Johnnie at the station to endure a tortuous journey back to the capital that ended in the wee small hours. Unsure what to do, I had a pint at the Elihu Yale and ended up eating at the Premier Inn restaurant. The next morning it was back to the Elihu Yale for breakfast before a return home.

Sutton and Wrexham both struggled through the autumn before mid-season revivals, though ours was more pronounced than theirs. With Dean Keates back as manager they did claw their way above the dotted line before Covid stopped the music in March. So at some time there will be another Sutton trip to this corner of Wales. And the beauty of football away trips is that, almost wherever we go, there's still lots to discover. Here's to the next pint of cwrw.

AA

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