Football: Continuity the key to a Cup killing

Stephen Brenkley finds the fighters of Wrexham dreaming of a glorious reprise
Click to follow
For Wayne Phillips the memory of Arsenal lingers. The Gunners were the League champions, Wrexham had finished bottom of Division Four the previous season. They were drawn to meet in the FA Cup third round. Naturally, Wrexham won the match.

"It was my greatest moment in football," said Phillips. "Nothing that has happened since has quite matched it. We were a young side, we had nothing to be frightened of. We knew it was the Cup and that strange things were supposed to happen, so we just went out and did it."

That 2-1 victory at the Racecourse Ground precisely six years ago might remain unequalled on Wrexham's Cup shock scale, but it is a near thing. The match launched the Welsh club on a mini series of Cup triumphs which have enduredthroughout the decade. While there were two fallow years after Arsenal were dispatched, Ipswich, then of the Premiership, were their victims in the 1995 third round and they showed Manchester United they could play a bit in a 5-2 defeat at Old Trafford in the fourth. Last year they were at it again, beating West Ham with a last-minute winner in a replay at Upton Park and then going on to the sixth round. All of which should give Wimbledon no reason to feel smug about the tie today, though Phillips was not making any assumptions.

"Of all the Premiership teams, Wimbledon are probably the most difficult to take on and break down. They are so competitive and we know we'll have to be very careful of them at set-pieces. The match hasn't been mentioned at all in training, though the players have been talking about it among themselves all week."

Much of Wrexham's strength derives from their continuity. Their manager, Brian Flynn, appointed in November 1989, is the third longest serving in the League behind John Rudge of Port Vale (March 1984) and Alex Ferguson of Manchester United (November 1986). It should not be surprising then that he has stuck by his team. Five of the side which beat Arsenal are still there (it would have been six save for the recent departure of Steve Watkin, who scored the winner that day) and four of them are likely to start today's match. The odd one out will probably be Phillips who was dropped to the substitute's bench a month ago.

It is a measure of Flynn's managerial skills and the settled atmosphere that the midfielder now with more than 200 games behind him is not complaining. "Of course I want to play. But we've got a big squad and once you're out, you know it's going to be difficult to get back in. There's no foregone conclusion about it. I know I haven't been playing as well as I can, but the boss has been encouraging and I still feel part of things.

"I signed a new five-year contract back in the summer. I love Wrexham and I intend to stay here. Every footballer wants to go as far as he can but I'd say my ambition is to get into the First Division with this club."

More than half the first-team squad have had only one club. Phillips, 27, who hails from Caernarfon 70 miles away but still regarded Wrexham as his local club, came through the impressive youth system with players such as Gareth Owen, Karl Connelly and Phil Hardy, who will all be in against Wimbledon. This is balanced by others who have made a career out of plying their trade for whoever might hire them around the lower divisions. The winger Peter Ward, 33, was at Huddersfield, Rochdale and Stockport, and Kevin Russell has had seven other clubs. At none of them did the balding midfielder achieve the fame gained when he drilled in the winner at Upton Park a year ago.

Wrexham started the season in indifferent mood but then embarked on an unbeaten run of 16 matches. "We're pretty confident and well organised defensively," said Phillips. "We know we've got to get more goals and the Cup could be the thing to kickstart us."

Winners of the Welsh Cup 23 times, Wrexham have never been beyond the quarter-finals of the FA Cup but they are making out a strong case to be the giant-killers of the decade, as Wimbledon might discover.