A final duel in the last chance saloon
The Hatters will have to shoot themselves in the foot three times to lose the title now. It all comes down to this.
Shoot-out on the National League frontier
As the curtains come down across the football divisions in the UK and the season credits start to roll, supporters have started taking stock of the main characters in their respective stories.
Some QPR fans are getting a tad teary at Mark Warbuton’s departure. A chunk of the furious Gillingham faithful have sworn allegiance to Neil ‘I’m-just-as angry-as-you-are’ Harris following an impassioned speech about his terrible team. And Bradford City supporters are still trying to figure out how they have Mark Hughes in charge… and why they’re still locked in the Football League basement.
Over at Stockport County, though, there are no mixed emotions. No doubts about the man in charge. No debates about leadership. In this little section of the sporting world, the manager is being hailed as the messiah.
And it’s easy to see why. Dave Challinor’s quest to guide the Hatters to the promised land of League Two is apparently written in the stars.
“[Dave] can’t lose a game without winning” a smug County supporter accurately pointed out recently, as Challinor’s champions-elect cocked up three times in two weeks and still managed to avoid any consequences.
Just a couple of extra Wrexham victories would have cast doubt on Challinor’s reputation as The Second Coming incarnate. But our glitzy team of stars got stage fright on the box and folded to a cheap deck of Cards in Surrey before dropping points at Boring Wood on Bank Holiday.
Fine wins in between over Weymouth and Southend weren’t enough to change the rankings, and Challinor has inched closer to the kind of deity status in Edgeley that used to be exclusively reserved for Jimmy Gannon. He is one win away from going down in history as the man who ended the dark ages in Stockport and led this famous old club - the second best in Greater Manchester once upon a time – back to the Football League.
It’d be a fine achievement. And it’s within touching distance, now.
But he’s not there yet. Not quite.
A handful of sunny-minded Reds are constantly reminding us that if Stockport can stumble three times once, they can stumble three times again.
And that’s exactly what we’ll need to happen for any chance of us snatching the title.
Wrexham meet the Quasi Mancs for the Final Duel in the Last Chance Saloon this Sunday knowing that anything less than a win would leave our automatic promotion hopes murdered in cold blood.
A Reds victory would prevent the painful sight of several-hundred Shaun Ryder dopplegangers bursting loose onto the hallowed Welsh turf. But it would be a mere flesh wound for Challinor’s team, and we’ll still have to hope they shoot themselves in the foot twice against Torquay and Halifax, whilst we find a way to win at in-form Dag & Red on the final day.
It just sounds like too much to have to cross your fingers for.
Still, the fact we pushed County so close deserves credit. A few weeks back, most were predicting this Wxm-Stockport fixture would be little more than a Hacienda-style post-promotion party for some ecstatic Hatters. What we have instead is a battle on the National League frontier between the two best non-league teams in North-West - fighting it out to reach the oasis of The 72 sat tantalisingly on the horizon.
Granted, we’re not exactly in the best shape for the conflict. It’s been a long, hard journey to get this far and it’s showing, now. Fatigue is kicking in and we’ve lost a couple of our best men en route - with Lainton and Hayden both out for the season.
But if any team is good at triumphing late against the odds, it’s us. Just ask Halifax, Wealdstone, Dover, Eastleigh, or even Stockport themselves - all of whom have been beaten in the dying embers by this never-say-die group of Reds.
Before we all buy tickets to the playoff screenings, we might as well stay until the end of the show. This has been a Hollywood season full of little miracles. There might be time for one more yet.
Hyde and seek: The missing man back in action
Magic moments have come from all over the pitch in 2021/22. Pele pearlers. Coedy Assassin curlers. Throwzer thumpers.
We’ve scored more times than any other team in the division: A staggering 88 league goals, so far (and over 100 in all competitions).
It’s been bloody great to watch. The last time we were treated to such prowess was the era of Pogba, Wright, Speight and Mozza. Back then, in 2012, Ollie Palmer was just a big lump at Havant & Waterlooville, Max Cleworth was a kid in primary school, and Pele Mullin was still being designed in a Liverpool laboratory somewhere. Now, they’re all playing their part in the best attacking Wrexham team for a decade.
But if Jake Hyde had stayed fit, that goal tally might have been even bigger…
The 31-year-old ex-Halifax striker was one of the first pieces of The Parky Puzzle and he started well - scoring three goals in his first six games (plus another strike which was chalked off his stats when the infamous Aldershot Mopgate fixture was abandoned at 2-0).
However, rotten luck with injuries left Hyde sidelined in December, and his replacement - Billionaire Bulldozer Ollie Palmer - has been such a boisterous success that Hyde has been forgotten by many fans.
But Parky still rates him.
Hyde was favoured over fellow forwards Jordan Ponticelli, Dior Angus and Kwame Thomas (who are, as far as we know, are all fit and available) for the striker’s bench spot at Boring Wood, and did make his first appearance of 2022 (although a dream goalscoring return ultimately eluded him).
With another year left on his contract, Hyde will want to prove he’s not just in Wales to come on for Pele in the 90th minute and run the clock down.
He’s got goals in him. And he could still write his name into Wrexham folklore just yet.
Cleworth > Camavinga
Back in August, when Phil Parkinson closed his eyes, he had a vision of how his first season at Wrexham AFC was going to go.
He saw Jake Hyde alongside Pele Mullin in the top goalscorer charts. He pictured Dave Jones gracefully pinging the ball around midfield like a National League Modric. He imagined Harry Lennon and Shaun Brisley forming a formidable, enduring partnership that no forward line could penetrate.
Things didn’t quite turn out that way. But even as his treasured signings were struck down by injuries and the promotion plan changed shape, Parky didn’t have cause to grumble. He was too busy being treated to the sight of a local teenager morphing into a Wrexham favourite right in front of his very eyes: Max Cleworth.
The acquisition of five defenders in the summer transfer window suggested there wouldn’t be a place for Cleworth in the 2021/22 Wrexham campaign - with talent from two leagues above providing a solid bedrock for the goalscorers in front. There were too many big names here now for an academy graduate to steal the headlines.
But somehow, that’s exactly what Max Cleworth has managed to do.
Looking like the youngest player on most football pitches, Cleworth has been repeatedly selected as a bullying victim by opposition sides, but the teenager has often got the better of them, oozing a confidence that has led to him performing step-overs that could fill a whole showboating reel on Soccer AM.
His reputation is growing by the week.
Many social media users rushed to heap praise on Real Madrid’s classy Camavinga for his performance in the Champions League semi-final, marvelling at the fact he was only 19 years old. But as our Transatlantic Translator Humphrey Ker pointed out: “So is Max Cleworth.”
In a frantic season of delirious and painful surprises aplenty, one of the most unexpected pleasures has been the rapid evolution of Cleworth from boy to man.
He recently put pen to paper to stick around Y Cae Ras until 2024, and if The Lads are serious about taking this club right to the top, don’t be surprised if Cleworth is still in the picture beyond his current deal, leaving Championship defenders eating grass as he sashays up the pitch.
In the meantime, there’s the small matter of the biggest game of the year to focus on.
Maybe Cleworth - a defender who’s nonchalantly defied the odds all year - can help? Either way, it’s going to be a Sunday for young Max - and the rest of his team and the town - to remember.
Here we go…