A potted history of Wrexham goalkeepers in the non-league era paints something of a Jekyll and Hyde scenario (and yes, sadly thirteen years is long enough to constitute an ‘era’). While it’s often too easy for football fans to fall back on extremes – “He’s great”, “He’s useless,” etc. – when it comes to our recent history of keepers, these over-simplified declarations have often rung true. Think about it. There’s no need to name and shame because we all know who falls in to which category.
With that in mind, we can count ourselves lucky that Rob Lainton might just be the best of the lot. A beacon of consistency, he remains the club’s prized asset. Looking back, it’s easy to forget the levels of scepticism surrounding his arrival from Port Vale in July 2018. There was no fanfare – few had even heard of him – and he was immediately tarnished with an ‘injury prone’ asterisk next to his name. We are always warned not to write off players before a ball is kicked, even if in recent years our initial doubts usually turn out to be correct (especially where Gary Mills and Bryan Hughes were involved!). But on this occasion, we were all dead wrong.
In Rob’s first season with the club, he didn’t just dispel the ‘injury prone’ myth, he shattered it completely in the form of clean sheet after clean sheet after clean sheet – 21 altogether in the league – crucially playing in all but 2 of 46 National League fixtures. Wrexham finished four points off the title and Lainton was awarded the club’s 2018-19 Player of the Season award. Out of contract, his departure back to the Football League seemed inevitable. Therefore, it was a huge surprise when Rob signed a fresh two year contract to stay at the Racecourse. Fans were jubilant – and with good reason – it was a complete contrast to his arrival a year prior. It’s also one of the few concrete examples the outgoing Wrexham board can point to and say “Look, this is what the Danny Ward money was used for. It wasn’t completely wasted.”
As good as Rob is, it’s the extent to which he is missed when not playing that really underlines his importance. Injured for the first 16 games of the previous campaign, the club endured a wretched start, one which ultimately cost Bryan Hughes his job. Had he been fit, it’s almost certain the Hughes nightmare would have been prolonged for a few months longer. A perverse silver lining, perhaps? His return to fitness happened to coincide with Keates’ return to the dugout. Even though Wrexham’s alleged ‘improvements’ weren’t always clear to see or reflected in the league table, Rob was back to his reliable self. With an assist from covid, Wrexham were able to avoid the most unthinkable of relegations. Subsequent rumours of his departure this summer seem to have quelled, though his absence from the club’s final two pre-season friendlies will be a concern to Wrexham fans.
His second in command, Christian Dibble, is one of two players in the squad whose father played in Wrexham’s last promotion campaign all the way back in 2002-03. Despite initial signs of promise, Dibble – “the penalty saving specialist” – struggled to fill the massive shoes of Lainton at the start of last season, keeping just one clean sheet in the opening 16 games. A handful of game-changing howlers in quick succession – a dropped ball against Stockport, a silly flap against Notts County, and a Hollywood-style horror show away to Fylde – must have been demoralising for a keeper who is otherwise very popular behind the scenes.
In fairness to Dibble, he would not have been helped by the naivety in which the team set up under Bryan Hughes at the start of the 2019-20 season, and it would have been interesting to see how Lainton fared under the same circumstances. Dibble won’t be expecting much league action this season but will hope to carve out a niche as the club’s FA Trophy specialist (even if Keates’ managerial record in the competition is truly shocking, losing all three first round games by a cumulative score of 7-0).
Third choice Dawid Szczepaniak has already been loaned out to Cefn Druids and made his first appearance in a 1-1 draw with Cardiff Met on Saturday, usurping ex-Reds keeper Michael Jones. Tipped as relegation candidates in the Welsh Premier, Szczepaniak might have a busy time of things at The Rock this season. Barring an injury to Lainton or Dibble, it is unlikely he will feature for Wrexham at all.
Summary: Despite a promising summer of acquisitions overall, Rob Lainton’s presence in goal is essential to any success this season. A long-term injury would need to be rectified immediately in the loan market with a new first-choice quality keeper.