THE death last week of former Wrexham centre back John Roberts at the age of 69 had me casting my mind back to the late 1970s, probably the greatest period in the history of the men from the Racecourse.
At the time I was on the sports desk of the Advertizer’s sister paper, the Wrexham-based Evening Leader – and being a fervent Shrewsbury Town fan, I felt like a real spy in the camp.
Privately, I likened my position to that of militant left-wing members of the National Union of Journalists writing pro-Maggie Thatcher leader articles for the Sun at around the same time.
Roberts epitomised the Wrexham team which won the third division title in 1977-78, which I have always thought was one of the three best I’ve ever seen over many years of watching third tier football.
He was an old-fashioned no-nonsense centre back, who hardly ever seemed to make a mistake.
Roberts joined Wrexham from Birmingham City for £30,000 in August, 1976, midway through a highly successful career which had seen him win a Division One championship medal with Arsenal in their double-winning season of 1970-71.
He went on to make 191 appearances for Wrexham, as well as playing 22 times for the full Wales side, and after his former international manager Mike Smith took him to Hull City for two seasons, he had a short spell as player-manager of Oswestry Town.
Wrexham went into that 1977-78 season with high hopes, but still reeling at the disappointment of missing out on promotion just a few months earlier.
They had looked home a dry in April 1977 when they went into their last two games, at home against Crystal Palace and Mansfield Town, needing just one point to book their place in Division Two.
But they lost 4-2 to Palace, conceding two goals in the last two minutes, and 1-0 to Mansfield.
A few weeks later manager John Neal left the club to take over as boss of Middlesbrough, and club stalwart Arfon Griffiths – still on the books as a player – was given the job.
Wrexham made an inauspicious start to the season – the first game saw them lose 2-1 at Shrewsbury on a day when I was playing cricket for Oswestry just a couple of miles away at London Road.
Ken Mulhearn, the Shrewsbury goalkeeper who was also a fine cricketer, was in the bar with us after our game, and told us how two mistakes by his opposite number Brian Lloyd had cost Wrexham the points.
Lloyd, a Welsh international, had fumbled a Graham Turner header over the line for Town’s first goal, and punched the ball into the net for the second.
It was Lloyd’s 266th and final game in goal for Wrexham – for the next match, a League Cup tie against Oxford United, 18-year-old Eddie Niedzwiecki was called up from the Reserves, and Lloyd was off to Chester.
It wasn’t until the fourth game, at home to Portsmouth, that Wrexham got their first win – by which time Les Cartwright had been signed from Coventry City.
Cartwright was an influential midfielder, whose silky skills were to earn him seven Wales caps.
Then came two more major signings which set the team off on a run that would leave all their rivals trailing in their wake.
Goalkeeper Dai Davies and goal machine Dixie McNeil both made their debuts against Swindon Town at the Racecourse on September 24.
Davies arrived from Everton, where he had spent seven seasons, and had already earned 24 Welsh caps. He went to play a further 28 times for his country, and was a huge settling influence on the Wrexham defence.
McNeil came to the Racecourse from Hereford United, where he had scored 85 goals in 129 games. It took him just 17 minutes to find the net in that debut game against Swindon, and he went on to be one of the most popular players in Wrexham’s history.
By the time he returned to Edgar Street in 1982, he had scored 54 goals in 167 games for the Reds, and he later returned to the club as manager.
The two reliable fullbacks in front of Davies for most of that season were Alan Hill and Alan Dwyer.
Right back Hill was a Chester lad who joined Wrexham on schoolboy forms in 1969 and went on to play 199 games for the club.
Dwyer was spotted when playing for Halewood Youth Club in his native Liverpool and started his career as a forward.
He was soon moved to the left back position, which he was to make his own. He was a great passer of the ball, but a succession of niggling injuries were to scupper his chances of a big move.
Alongside Roberts in the middle of the back four was a man I always thought was the best player in the team – the skipper Gareth Davis. Comfortable with the ball at his feet, quick in the tackle and possessing a meticulous positional sense, Bangor-born Davis was the archetypal “one club man”. He was an ever-present and Player of the Season in 1977-78, made 499 appearances for Wrexham, and should surely have earned more than the three caps he picked up with Wales.
Cartwright’s “partners in crime” in midfield were Mel Sutton and the legendary Mickey Thomas.
Sutton, who was the team’s player-coach and played in every game in 1977-78, joined Wrexham from Cardiff City and scored the only goal on his debut against Southend. He went on to play 360 times for the club, and eventually succeeded Griffiths as manager.
There’s little left to write about Thomas. Although he played for 10 Football League clubs including Manchester United, Chelsea, Everton – oh, and Shrewsbury Town – it will be with Wrexham that he is always associated.
The livewire midfielder was invariably a joy to watch, and no-one will ever forget his brilliant free-kick in the FA Cup win over Arsenal in 1992.
Wide on the right of that great Wrexham side was Bobby Shinton, another player at whom fans of other Division Three clubs would cast envious glances. Shinton was quick and skilful, and had an eye for goal – he was also ever-present that season.
Up front with McNeil was another real Racecourse favourite, Graham Whittle.
Whittle was a Liverpudlian, and Wrexham was his only Football League club. His 18 goals made him leading scorer in the championship season.
Wrexham clinched promotion in spectacular fashion with a 7-1 thrashing of Rotherham United at the Racecourse. Two games later the title was theirs after a 1-1 draw at relegated Hereford United.
For the last game of the season, against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough, Griffiths showed there is sometimes room for sentiment in professional sport when he named Niedzwiecki in goal.
It was the youngster’s 15th league game of the season, which meant he was entitled to a champions’ medal.
Others who played 15 games or more were long-serving defender Mickey Evans, Griffiths himself, and young striker John Lyons.
Lyons, born and bred in Buckley, went on to play for Millwall, Cambridge United and Colchester United, and took his own life at the age of 26 only hours after playing for Colchester against Chester.
lFor the record, the other two teams I consider the best I’ve seen in Division Three were the Hull City side of 1965-