James Kelly was just about the only Wrexham supporter allowed to pass through the Huish Park turnstiles on Saturday. Here, he tells us all the things that a YouTube live stream never could:
I awake at 6:50am to check the forecast. Highs of 14°C, and it looks like the Napapijri is coming out.
Wearing jackets adorned with Norwegian flags is standard for away days. A face mask and on-gate temperature checks are not. I was extremely fortunate on Saturday to be able to travel to watch Wrexham play Yeovil, owing to a good mate’s involvement as commentator for their media team. He’d messaged me last Wednesday asking if I was keen to help out, and I didn’t need to think twice.
Having met up and got a taxi to Huish Park, once inside some aspects of the usual pre-match build up were there. A playlist of songs that were big in 2015 on a dodgy PA. The majestic bald head of Carl Darlington setting out training cones. An overenthusiastic announcer butchering pronunciation of the odd player. Two days later, I’m still trying to work out who Jamie Reckford is.
But that was it. As the teams appeared for kick-off, an expressionless handful of cardboard cut-outs were the sole spectators. They included fans young and old, and some ingenious sod who’d paid £35 to install a four-foot-high David Brent. The Thatchers Gold Stand behind one goal looked like an ode to our own Kop, reduced to a series of abandoned concrete steps longing for the soles of Adidas.
Getting to Huish Park almost three hours before kick-off gave me a lot of time to contemplate what has happened this year. The last time I watched Wrexham was in this exact stadium. In case you’d forgotten, we were dreadful that day in late February and lost 3-0. Granted that wasn’t exactly unusual last season, but a particularly odd performance from Rob Lainton made it a day to forget (see below).
To my right was the same away end that I had stood in some eight months previously. That day I’d brought two mates from uni who had never before had the joy of watching the town, and another from Turkey who was at his third Wrexham match. I’ve always loved bringing people along to our games. Showing them my love, like a teenager taking his girlfriend home for the first time, nervous whether they’d rate us.
Those butterflies were absent, as was the camaraderie. Greeting fans you recognise and have known for a period of time you can’t quite recall as it’s been that long. Those faces you associate with the weekend as much as a lie in or Friday night pint yet are unaware of their name. And then those few who you’ve never seen before but are instantly connected with just because you’re standing on the same side of a field.
And from there it begins. The chants that have soundtracked so many ups and downs through the 156-year existence of Wrexham AFC. I might have only been born in 1997, but I still know what happens after Marriott throws the ball to Hardy. On Saturday, besides the narrations of my fellow commentators and expletives of Jay Harris, it was just wind. As hard as it tried, the Somerset gale couldn’t nail the tune of Men of Harlech.
Into the game, there were still similar sensations. The adrenaline of that first chance, corner and tackle. The cursing of the ref, the linesman and their inability to understand the offside rule. It’s all instinctive, but it was also all muted. In my head I was thinking, “We’re in business here” as Reckord and Reece Hall-Johnson marauded down the flanks and Kwame Thomas was like an air traffic controller helping the ball land.
In my role as co-commentator, I couldn’t express such bias, which ironically reflected the scenario perfectly. When Thomas slid in at the back post for what proved the winner, I had to limit myself to a fist pump underneath the desk and mouthing of “Get in there”. In my head I wanted to celebrate as I have done for over two decades, but I couldn’t. The 2D fans would have cast particularly dirty looks in my direction.
I’m not Boris Johnson or Matt Hancock (thank god for that) so am not going to cover fans being let in too much. However, from my position at Huish Park I can say the idea that the protagonist of The Office represents 10% of the attendance at a football match outdoors is daft beyond belief.
Back to what I experienced on Saturday, and it was just strange. Even going for a piss I had to wear a purple hi-vis to walk along the stand. Inside the toilet were three different types of soap, some hand sanitiser and a poster instructing me how to wash my hands. Until this point of my life, I’ve been doing it wrong. Don’t forget to clean your thumbs.
That eeriness followed me out of Yeovil. The train station identification of a red shirt or scarf and ensuing conversation about how crap or good we were wasn’t there. The only colour now uniting my fellow commuters was the sky blue splashed across their jaws.
Some things however remain in your control, pandemic or not. When I go on away days, I tend to listen to a mixture of Oasis and house. And as the drums of Supersonic begin, a sense memory. Wrexham had just won 1-0 at Yeovil. We’d got the three points. Leaving Yeovil Junction, that smugness of an away day triumph – so absent for most of 2020 – was as strong as ever.
We came, we saw, we conquered. A Saturday afternoon invasion of a far flung town had turned into a successful day out. After two hours of battle, we’d triumphed over the locals to depart feeling superior. Some things will never change. How I’ve missed my town.
James Kelly is a senior writer for These Football Times whose work has also featured on The Guardian among many others. He is also a Wrexham Supporters Trust board member. Keep up to date with all of James’ great work by following him on Twitter: @jkell403