It has been two and a half years since Dean Saunders gazed across at his Wrexham players training and told The Independent that he simply must get immediate promotion out of non-league football. "I mean, they are not proper players," he said. "They are non-league players. I'm a non-league manager. I've said to them: 'I don't want to be known as a non-league manager.'"
It has proved to be a struggle like none he has known. Saunders' charges finally have the chance to get back to what he considers to be the real world, in the first leg of their Conference play-off semi-final with Luton Town at The Racecourse Ground tonight, but have reached that threshold against the backdrop of the same kind of financial turmoil that pushed the club out of the Football League in the first place. Even the play-off berth was in jeopardy until last Friday after a £200,000 tax bill came to light, with a £50,000 loan from Welsh Assembly member John Marek, who is up for election today, proving decisive when the Conference threatened expulsion from the knockout and the club's owner, Geoff Moss, said he still could not afford to pay up.
None of the four play-off clubs – AFC Wimbledon and Fleetwood Town contest the other tie tomorrow – have as much on the line as Wrexham, who, having been put up for sale in mid-season by Moss, know that promotion could be critical to finding a saviour with money. The wage bill, which was £1.99m on a £1.85m turnover in late 2008, is likely to be cut if Wrexham stay down and Saunders may receive better offers elsewhere. Moss said the money had run out, having injected £4.9m after taking Wrexham out of administration in 2006 and taking £5m back in 2009. The club will enter community ownership if the Wrexham Supporters' Trust has its way. The trust plans to talk Stephanie Booth, a local hotelier, a London-based businessman and a former UKIP candidate, Stephen Cleeve, about taking stakes in the club.
It is difficult to know whether these traumas will galvanise the side. The lack of money didn't help when Saunders' players were forced to make the coach trip to Gateshead on the day of their third-last game after waiting for their Llandudno-based contingent to travel to Wrexham by car. Little wonder key striker Andy Morrell pulled up 15 minutes into the game with a hamstring injury.
But as bookies' outsiders to triumph in the play-off final at Eastlands on 21 May, they carry no weight of expectation. Saunders has also revealed that Morrell and co-striker Mathias Pogba are both winning fitness battles, while key scoring asset Andy Mangan, who has 15 goals this season, is raring to go. Saunders' hopes are based on the 1-0 league win in November and last Saturday's 1-1 draw at Kenilworth Road, where he fielded a virtual youth team. "The boys are ready for it," Saunders said yesterday. "You need the ball to bounce your way and the referee to be good. But we will work hard. We can only give it our best."