Postcard From Portugal
It has been a while since Wrexham last played on European soil. Twenty-two years to be precise. The date was August 24, 1995. The venue was the Stadionul Ilie Oană. The opposition was Romanian side Petrolul Ploiesti.
After holding Wrexham to a goalless draw at the Cae Ras in the first leg of the preliminary round of the European Cup Winner’s Cup the ‘Oil’ sneaked past our heroes in Red thanks to a powerful stooping header from an inrushing defender. Goalkeeper Andy Marriott, one of seven Welshman in the starting XI had no chance. ( go to 3:14 on these highlights to see the goal. https://youtu.be/9VPU4yUuJrY)
Wrexham, battled gamely against their yellow-shirted opponents in front of 12,000 fans.
Fast forward to around 4.30pm on July 11, 2017. Fifth division Town are gearing up to play Louletano DC. This time the colours are reversed. Apparently DC’s average gate is less than karaoke night at the Old Swan in Wrexham.
A few flags have already been draped over the only stand at the Estadio Municipal de Loulé. There will be more up by the time kick-off comes around - approximately SIX HUNDRED die-hards have made the trip over..but not all have arrived direct from Gogledd Cymru.
A couple of exiled Mold Reds have travelled from Luxembourg. The enigmatic Mr David Lee has come from his summer bolt-hole in Protaras, Cyprus. There are probably many others who have racked up the air miles and passport stamps.
Reds boss Dean Keates – the only Brit on the Algarve who can pull off the shorts/long socks/trainers with any credit – and coach Carl Darlington are already surveying the pitch and finalising a game plan that has been four days in the making.
I tack my flag up and head into Loulé itself to seek out the rest of the Red Army. After ten minutes exploring the quaint town’s streets we encounter our brethren drinking a cafe bar dry.
Bottles of Superbok are squeezed precariously atop tables and more flags offer some minor respite from the relentless afternoon heat. The bellies are out and the 200 or so are in fine voice as the aghast locals watch on with nervous anticipation and utter bewilderment.
In amongst the usual repertoire of songs is a new ditty penned specifically for this brief getaway, a sly dig at the corresponding pre-season trip enjoyed by our Walled City neighbours.
"We know what it’s like to be Chester/we know what it’s like to be small/Wrexham are in Portugal/you’ve got Ellesmere Port".
It won’t get the Poet Laureate seal of approval ( there is another Chester in-joke there) but it amuses us.
We’re reliably informed that beer is now being served at the ground for the princely sum of €2 a pint. Most of us leave and like a wobbly line of fire ants we make the brief journey to the ground, a cavernous concrete bowl with a cycle track separating pitch from punters. The floodlights, however are still bigger than those helping illuminate tiny sections of turf at Bumpers Lane.
The players emerge from the tunnel. The Red roar greets the lads resplendent in the new away kit - lifejacket yellow shirt with red trim, reverse colourway on the shorts, yellow socks and all the colours of the rainbow boots.
The home team are bedecked in red and white stripe shirts also supplied by Macron.
Wrexham start well and soon go through the gears. They’ve been whipped into shape at the plush Vale do Lobo resort in the 48 hours preceding the match.
One of those training sessions was attended by 150 fans eager to see if this new squad was more Band Of Brothers than Big Brother. There was no hint of a squabble, only solidarity.
The mingling of players with those in attendance merely strengthened an already blossoming ‘all in it together’ mantra championed by Keates.
Back to Loulé and the players are feeding off the energy of the noisy away contingent, moving the ball with speed and intent.
DC goalkeeper Bruno Lucio denies Marcus Kelly either side of ‘Jimmy’ hitting the post.
The mystical French trialist then glances a header onto the post before Mark Carrington crashes his follow-up effort against the bar.
It’s then time for Chris Holroyd’s angular bonce to meet another Kelly cross but the ball is hacked off the line.
We’re going to walk this. I mean, one of these chances has to go in, right?
It does....but at the wrong end. Chris Dunn is forced into breaking a sweat for the first time but our lads dawdle momentarily and it’s poked in at the far post. Lucky bastards. And it was a mile offside.
With more alcohol consumed, friends reunited and pictures taken at the break Wrexham emerge for the second half.
They carry on where they left off - dominating possession.
Ntumba Massanka steamrollers his way though two defenders before sidefooting the ball home. Sagres spills into the sky. 1-1. Game on.
More chances go begging before super Leo Smith copies James Jennings’ textbook header at Cefn Druids four days prior for a well-deserved late winner.
The final whistle is greeted by all the fans swarming pitch-side to congratulate the lads who now look like sweat-drenched Baywatch extras.
They are mobbed like heroes, a snapshot of scenes we hope can be replicated on a grander scale come the end of next April.
Bewilderment has been replaced by excitement, the hopeless replaced by hope.
Whisper it – Wrexham could finally be back.