Confessions of the 'Racecourse Three'

FA CUP: Wrexham's road to Chesterfield for tomorrow's sixth-round tie has been an arduous one, with the Welsh side coming from behind on eight occasions. Phil Shaw meets the men behind an extraordinary run of success
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The switchboard is flashing fit to catch fire. Television crews trawl the corridors. No sooner has the driver delivering lager from the sponsors popped in to wish him luck than Brian Flynn is interrupted by a secretary asking about donating a ball for Red Nose Day. "It's like Crewe station," sighs the Wrexham manager. Correction: it is like a fire drill in a madhouse.

The reason for the clamour is the Welsh club's FA Cup sixth-round match at Chesterfield tomorrow, a tie which guarantees that a team from the Second (nee Third) Division will feature in the semi-finals for the first time in 13 years.

Now Wrexham have staged several great European nights and count Arsenal among numerous prestigious scalps, but they have never played at Wembley. Never mind lager, you could almost bottle the adrenalin coursing round the Racecourse Ground.

The fact that Flynn and his confidants in the Wrexham "boot room", Joey Jones and Kevin Reeves, have seen it all before does not make them immune to the excitement. As players they won a total of 140 caps and commanded pounds 3m in transfer fees. Wrexham have neither the resources nor the support of the big-city clubs each once represented, so success on a national scale would probably be the most satisfying achievement of their lives.

Although none of the "Racecourse Three" gained an FA Cup winner's medal, Reeves, the assistant manager, scored for Manchester City in their defeat by Tottenham in the 1981 final, while Jones, the coach, lost with Liverpool against Manchester United four years earlier. Flynn, like Wrexham, is a stranger to the semi-finals yet not to the competition's capacity to inspire emotional extremes.

Shortly after he broke into Burnley's midfield, in 1974, they contested a place in the last four with a Wrexham team which included Jones, a fellow teenager and colleague-to-be in the Welsh national side. Flynn watched from the stand as a "wicked Arfon Griffiths I think" took the Lancashire club to an unsuccessful semi-final.

The following year he made his Cup debut. Burnley were chasing the League championship and had home advantage; Wimbledon were Southern League part- timers. "They beat us 1-0 and our dressing-room was like a morgue afterwards," Flynn recalls. "There was a knock on the door and this gentleman from Wimbledon came in saying: "We'd like you to have these as a souvenir''.

"He gave us these Womble shampoos, based on the characters from the kids' TV show. Zebedee was it? Anyway, it was a lovely gesture. Needless to say it didn't go down too well at the time.''

Jones, meanwhile, moved to Anfield - after a fashion. His new club found him accommodation, but the pull of the old town proved too powerful. "I'd kept on my digs in Wrexham," he explains, "so what I did was move back here and paid the landlady in Liverpool the pounds 9 rent every week so that she wouldn't tell Bob Paisley!''

It became a recurring theme during a career that featured three spells with Wrexham, spanning the best and worst of times. "I just love the place. When me and Mickey Thomas played for Chelsea we used to commute from North Wales, setting off at 5am. We were often first in for training. Other times we kipped down in the kit room. Now that I'm back here, a mile down the road, I'm always late.''

Memories of 1977, if ultimately regretful, encourage Jones to believe that Wrexham can go all the way in '97. "We [Liverpool] were a bit lucky to get a draw with Everton before beating them in the semi. I still don't know why Clive Thomas disallowed Bryan Hamilton's "goal''. The best team in the country wins the League, but you don't have to be the best to win the Cup.''

Like Flynn, he has one skeleton in the Cup closet, a terrible chasing by Clive Walker at Chelsea. "I had a nightmare,"Jones admits. "It was the third round and we lost 4-2 - exactly the same as this year - and I seemed to take most of the blame." He never played for Liverpool again.

Lest anyone in Derbyshire begins to suspect that the trio are jinxed, Reeves actually owed his biggest break to the Cup. Malcolm Allison, rebuilding Manchester City after being knocked out at Halifax, paid Norwich pounds 1m for the young striker who would go on to play twice for England. Allison's time at City was almost up, but they made it to Wembley under John Bond the following May.

"We were the better side in the first game with Spurs," Reeves says. "I remember Steve Mackenzie hitting the post after shooting with the outside of his right foot when he could have sidefooted it in. We'd have been 2-0 and it would probably have been all over, but then Tommy Hutch [Hutchinson] scored an own goal from a position he was never supposed to be in.''

The replay will forever be the Ricky Villa final. So why wasn't Reeves tracking back to stop the Argentinian's slalom through City's defence? "I'd given away a penalty against Arsenal on my debut," he laughs, "and after that I thought: "There's no way I'm going back there again'.''

Flynn and Reeves became acquainted after the former's return from Leeds to Burnley, where he still lives. Not long after they joined forces with Jones at Wrexham in 1989 (Flynn may not know his Magic Roundabout from his Great Uncle Bulgaria but he is the League's fourth longest-serving manager), the club flirted with relegation to the Vauxhall Conference. A year later, with demotion temporarily scrapped, they came bottom.

Salvation came in the form of a youth policy modelled on the one which produced their own manager at Turf Moor. Five years ago, driven on by the veteran Mickey Thomas, the team who had finished 92nd turfed the champions, Arsenal, out of the Cup. "It was the result that turned everything round for Wrexham," Flynn says.

That run ended in a home replay defeat by West Ham. This year, when the tables were turned at Upton Park, the London club alone have failed to lead Wrexham. Incredibly, they have been behind eight times on the road to Chesterfield. Once to Colwyn Bay ("we equalised late on and were glad of a replay," Flynn confesses), no fewer than four times in two meetings with Scunthorpe, twice at Peterborough ("my bogey ground'') and again at Birmingham ("our best performance in my time here'').

Steve Watkin, match-winner against Messrs Seaman, Adams and Co, is one of the Flynn fledglings who will be involved this weekend. He may be partnered by Gary Bennett, 33, a prolific scorer in his previous spell at Wrexham who came "home" from Preston last week after rejecting an offer from Chesterfield, of all clubs.

The most coveted new face is Bryan Hughes, an ex-trainee and frequent marksman from midfield, but not, his patriotic manager had to concede after a trawl through the Merseysider's family tree, remotely Welsh. Flynn, who makes no secret of an ambition to manage his country, regards his team as carrying the Red Dragon: "Oh yes, and very proud of it.''

His squad divides fairly evenly between Welsh and English players. Hence the Racecourse tradition of the Friday "international", a five-a-side game between teams captained by Jones and Reeves. "It can be a bit fiery," the Englishman says, his expression a cross between a grin and a grimace. "A few tackles flying about.''

Flynn anticipates that tomorrow's Anglo-Welsh confrontation is likely to be "very tense, because the stakes are so high". The ludicrous kick- off time (the police having insisted on 11.30am) will not, he insists, detract from the occasion. "It's the FA Cup quarter-final for heaven's sake," he says, like a true believer. "If we started at midnight on Thursday it would still be fantastic.''