This feature is a part of Improbable Triumphs
It’s 5pm on Boxing Day in 2018 in Wrexham, the largest town in north Wales. Home fans have just seen their side hit five past Salford City in a top-of-the-table clash in the Vanarama National League. Such free-flowing football is not the norm in these parts, and the 8,000-strong crowd served to generate an atmosphere up there with the best in recent years.
Despite not sealing promotion, the result went down as one of the most crucial three points gained in an arduous struggle of a season. For Wrexham, success doesn’t come around too often, so when it does, an occasion such as this tends to stick in the mind.
“Oh, could you imagine a free-kick struck sweeter than that?” pondered Tony Gubba in the gantry of the Racecourse Ground some 27 years earlier when a left-footed missile of a shot courtesy of Mickey Thomas sent the ball into the top corner of the Arsenal goal. Thomas wheels away in celebration after displaying a thumping exhibit of how to strike a dead ball. From a practical standpoint, this goal serves as the equaliser in a third round FA Cup tie with Arsenal. In terms of iconic Wrexham matches, there will never be another quite like this one.
Going into the game, Arsenal were the overwhelming favourites. After all, this was a team that the previous year had won the First Division title. Manager George Graham had a squad of league winners to call upon, with Alan Smith, David Rocastle, David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Paul Merson and Tony Adams all England internationals.
On the other side of proceedings were the no-hoper hosts. Wrexham had finished bottom of the Football League the previous season, only saved by the then-in-force re-election system. Half of the Wrexham squad lacked experience at 23 and under, whilst veterans Thomas, Gordon Davies and Joey Jones were seen as past it. Even boss Brian Flynn was realistic, claiming before kick-off: “On paper they should murder us, but the match isn’t being played on paper.”
Read | Is there any magic left in the FA Cup?
That it was not. Instead, the venue was the iconic Racecourse, the site of Welsh football’s first international match and the world’s oldest stadium to still host national team fixtures. Additionally, as the home of Wrexham since 1864, the ground has borne witness to many an extraordinary event in over a century and a half of use – but few come close to that early January night of 1992.
Over 13,000 loyal devotees of football crammed in underneath the stadium’s famous floodlights with the Kop terrace in fine voice to provide a suitable cacophony of audio backdrop to what was to become the biggest afternoon in the club’s history.
Early on, however, It appeared this wouldn’t be the case. Smith had a header from a Merson corner cleared off the line with little more than two minutes gone – surely an early indication of how the afternoon would play out. Wrexham did squander an early chance of their own, with 20-year-old Gareth Owen allowed space to control in the box and fire an instinctive shot just wide of Seaman’s right-hand post.
Arsenal, however, remained on top and after knocking on the door for the majority of the first half, Merson got the better of Mark Sertori. Cutting in from the left to square into the six-yard box, Smith got on the end of the cross in front of a travelling Gunners contingent of some 4,000 and scored to send the sides into the break with an expected scoreline.
The second half started in similar fashion. There was genuine concern amongst Wrexham fans, and perhaps even some players, that the match could end five or 6-0. Winterburn hit the bar early in the second half with a cross-cum-shot, but as time ticked on it appeared there might be half a chance for the hosts. Right-back Andy Thackeray forced a fabulous save from Seaman, and then, with eight minutes of normal time remaining, Gordon Davies won a free-kick.
Mickey Thomas and Wayne Phillips stood over the ball, with the former then running up and arrowing an unstoppable shot into Seaman’s top right corner. The commentary remains almost as iconic as the goal itself: “He’s done it the magic little man, at the venerable age of 37,” quipped Gubba in a line made famous. Thomas, the former Chelsea and Manchester United midfielder, was mobbed by his ecstatic teammates, whilst joyous supporters spilt out of the Kop at the other end of the ground and on to the pitch.
Not long had these fans got back on the terraces and was there cause for further celebration. A hooked ball forward found Davies on the right-hand side, who let it bounce before squaring it. Tony Adams got his feet in a mess and sliding in on the floor was Steve Watkin, who hooked his right leg behind the ball to divert it along the ground and into the bottom corner.
With six minutes left to hold on, Arsenal threw everything they had at Wrexham. Things appeared to have been levelled after a long free-kick from Seaman was eventually converted by Jimmy Carter, however the linesman’s flag was raised well before the net bulged. Despite the vociferous protests of Adams, Wrexham had survived.
At the full-time whistle came another pitch invasion from an infectious home crowd amazed at what they had just witnessed. The result served to have a huge impact on Wrexham’s future as a club, buying manager Brian Flynn more time to build his team in what was a youth-focused project. It would pay dividends, with Flynn remaining as Wrexham boss for a further decade and turning the club into a stable League One outfit before departing in 2001.
In terms of what the result means today, one only has to look at a time I took a taxi in Exeter. One topic of conversation concerned where I was from. When I replied Wrexham, I rather pitying, “Oh they used to have quite a good football team. Beat Arsenal in the cup. I remember that.”
Although it might be over a quarter of a century later, this giant-killing remains lodged firmly in the memory of football’s faithful who seldom let the legendary fade away.
By James Kelly @jkell403