If there’s one thing we Wrexham fans have come to know all about, it’s what makes a really good National League centre half. From Mark Creighton, Nat Knight-Percival, Martin Riley and Chris Westwood all the way through to Manny Smith, Curtis Tilt and, of course, Shaun Pearson – it’s the only thing our revolving door of managers have tended to get right with any consistency. Not all have been a success – the thought of Hamza Bencherif in a Wrexham shirt is still the stuff of nightmares – but on the whole we have been spoiled. It’s a good thing then that one of our best is still here…
What more can be said about Shaun Pearson? He’s already our club captain. He’s already our leader. In fact, he’s held in such high regard by the people of Wrexham, he’s the only player I can think of who’s had an entire ‘Day’ held in his honour. Yet despite all of this, he is not a legend. Not yet at least. But if Wrexham are to gain promotion this season, thirty years from now it’ll be Shaun Pearson’s name that fans are first to recall. Infallible for much of his time here, he was the heartbeat of a side which set formidable defensive standards in both 2017-8 and 2018-19, equalling the club record for clean sheets in a season. More recent blips under the mismanagement of Graham Barrow and Bryan Hughes have done little to sour the towering reputation he has earned both on and off the pitch. A model professional, Pearson made national headlines for his conduct during lockdown, and will be hoping to make similar ones this season for footballing reasons.
It says a lot then, that for the first time since his arrival in 2017, he just might have some serious competition for a starting berth. New signings Theo Vassell and Fiacre Kelleher began last season as Macclesfield Town’s primary centre back partnership, and we shouldn’t read too much into Macc’s eventual relegation from League Two. They got off to a reasonable start and would have likely finished mid-table had it not been for the club’s crippling off-field issues. Kelleher captained the side and was expected to remain in the Football League, while a transfer embargo prevented Vassell from reuniting with Sol Campbell at Southend in League One. These are encouraging signs for us. In particular, Keates will be hoping the pacey Vassell can fill the Manny Smith shaped hole that has not been addressed for two years. If called upon to play together, these two should have no problem rekindling a partnership that has already held its own at a higher level.
This gives Keates a number of (welcome) headaches. Would he really bench his captain in favour of Kelleher and Vassell’s pre-existing chemistry? You can’t read too much into pre-season friendlies, but recent line-ups suggest he may well do. If not, would a League Two-quality captain really come here just to sit on the bench? And finally, given he’s the only one of the three with pace, can he afford to leave Vassell out at all? It’s going to be a long season and you get the feeling all three are going to play a big role, but it’ll still be fascinating to see which two get the nod on Saturday.
Youngster and first year pro Max Cleworth rounds out the centre back options, whose only previous first-team experience came in Wrexham’s bizarre foray into the Scottish Challenge Cup last season. At just 18, Cleworth won’t expect to see much league action this season.
That’s the centre halves covered, but what about full backs? After news of James Jennings’ departure to Stockport County, Keates wasted little time recruiting former Solihull Moors left back Jamie Reckord. Strong and quick, Reckord has always impressed in games against us in recent years and looks equally adept going forward as he does dealing with his defensive duties. How long before that is drilled out of him at Wrexham? Alongside the likes of Zaine Francis-Angol (Boreham Wood) and Jordan Cranston (Solihiull Moors), he has to be considered one of the strongest left back options in the league. So despite not wanting to lose Jennings, Keates may have lucked out and actually upgraded the man he wished to keep.
Right back Reece Hall-Johnson will be less familiar to Wrexham, having spent the last few years in League Two with Grimsby and Northampton. His most recent National League experience came down the road at Chester, playing 11 times in an impressive loan spell back in 2017-18. Hall-Johnson is another full back with pace who will look to supplement his defensive responsibilities with an attacking edge. As long as he isn’t stifled by the negativity of this management team, Wrexham could be very dangerous in wide areas going forward this season.
Mark Carrington is back for his eighth season in a Wrexham shirt, edging ever closer to a deserved testimonial (Wrexham haven’t had one since Kevin Russell’s in 2005). Equally dependable in a number of positions – right back, left back, centre mid, even centre half on occasion – Mark is a versatile addition to any squad. But he will be desperate to have something tangible to show for his lengthy service to Wrexham, and will view this campaign as a real opportunity to do just that.
Like Carrington, James Horsfield is another lumbered with the tag of ‘utility man’, though neither should view this as a negative. The former Man City youth prospect looked good in his three appearances here last season, before a horrendous cruciate ligament injury curtailed his loan spell from Scunthorpe. Having proven his fitness to Keates over the summer, Horsfield will fancy his chances of overtaking someone in the starting eleven, but whether that’s at right back or centre midfield remains to be seen.
Summary: On paper, we have recruited well. Very well. The new signings arrive to good reviews and there is depth across all positions. Keates seems to have the profile of players on board to try and replicate the formula which served him well in 2017-18. However, we now have full backs capable of delivering offensively as well as defensively, which raises the question: Will Keates be brave enough to unleash them?