Carling Cup: Morrell leads fight but Wrexham fall at the last
Wrexham 1 Brighton & Hove Albion 1 (aet; Brighton win 5-4 on penalties): Not quite echoes of the January day precisely 20 years ago when 13,000 packed the Racecourse to the rafters to see the Football League's bottom side defeat the reigning champions Arsenal, but here was a night to add to Wrexham's rich tapestry of FA Cup occasions.
Brighton took the win, converting their full set of penalties after Wrexham's Dean Keates had missed the first of the shoot-out, but Wrexham took the night by every other indicator – goalkeeper Joslain Mayebi's loopy Bruce Grobbelaar-style routine at the death encapsulating the energy they had delivered. The last non-League side in the competition certainly did not deserve to leave it.
They at least took away goal as resonant of Mickey Thomas' legendary strike against George Graham's side. It was struck from the right boot of player-manager Andy Morrell, just a few paces to the left of the spot where Thomas hit his free-kick, to give his side the lead they held for almost an hour. "That's the furthest I've ever scored from. I didn't know I had it in my legs," Morrell joked late last night, though he was selling himself short. Leading the line at the age of 37, his influence lasted until he departed to an ovation on 104 minutes.
Morrell, more than anyone, knew what a fourth-round home tie with Newcastle United would have meant. The economics of this occasion were much the same as the day Arsenal were sent packing when Wrexham's then chairman, Pryce Griffiths, told Brian Flynn's players that a win would buy a stronger squad. The club's still fragile hold on existence meant that fans stumped up £250,000 for a bond assurance last summer, to ensure the side could get their Blue Square Conference registration. The money was repaid only this week by a club now taken over by the Wrexham Supporters Trust.
The ambition displayed last night showed why, amid such uncertainties, that club have still risen to the top of the Conference and the burly Danny Wright did the early damage. His pace was consistently too much for right back Romain Vincelot, though it was Inigo Calderon left sitting on the turf when Wright bisected two men and laid back for Morrell to unfurl his exquisite, curling 25-yard shot into the top right-hand corner.
Jay Harris and Adrian Cieslewicz made big names for themselves, too, though the balance shifted when Wright was carried from the field just before the hour with a dislocated elbow. His replacement Glen Little might have immediately extended the lead but blasted over the bar after Morrell's precise lay-off.
There were other chances too. Mark Creighton called down a save of the highest order from Peter Brezovan after rising to meet a corner, before a deflection took a shot from the influential Little fractionally wide. Harris, a force all night, rose to head a cross, agonisingly, against the bar at the end of extra time.
"It needed that last touch that shot on target or header on target," Gus Poyet, the Brighton manager, said of Wrexham, yet he knew he had escaped. "It was a Cup tie, a proper one," he added. "Some times players don't like them but you need to be in [this country] to know what it means." Morrell, heading back to his car-and-mouse chase with Fleetwood at the top of the Conference, tried to look ahead. "We've got bigger fish to fry getting out of this league," he said. "This should kick us on now."
Wrexham (4-2-3-1): Mayebi; Obeng, Creighton, Knight-Percival, Ashton; Harris, Clarke; Cieslewicz, Tolley (Keates, 100), Wright (Little, 59); Morrell (Hunt, 104). Substitutes not used Maxwell (gk), Clowes, Anoruo
Brighton & Hove Albion (4-4-2): Brezovan; Calderon, Dunk, Hall, Vincelot; Buckley, Bridcutt, Navarro (Barnes, 66), Sparrow; Mackail-Smith, Hoskins (Agdestein, 66). Substitutes not used Ankergren (gk), Harley, Kasim, Sampayo, Rodgers.
Referee C Webster (Tyne & Wear).