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Sunday, 28 February 2016 21:06

The Wonders of Wales

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SATURDAY 27th FEBRUARY. Clappers Lane, dry and cold.
After the driest week of the whole winter, at last a weekend when postponements shouldn't be a major concern. Having (mistakenly, as it turned out) abandoned a trip to north Wales last week, I'm keen to make amends this Saturday, with a Huws Gray Alliance fixture my first choice.

Taking advantage of the last chance to use the Arriva Trains Wales fare promotion this winter, I head up from Cardiff to Wrexham on a busy morning service, arriving on time in Wrexham at midday. From there, it's a simple bus journey northwards to Gresford, which lies on the old main road to Chester. I've been to here once before, but that must have been about 25 years ago, when the Clappers Lane ground was pretty much undeveloped. I also can't remember much of Gresford itself, so I use the spare hour to explore. The village has a more remote, rural feel than those to the south of Wrexham, although it shares their mining heritage. There's a small pond, the church - whose bells made it into the old "Seven Wonders of Wales" rhyme - and a handful of shops; also three pubs, none appealing enough to divert me from my stroll. In any case, it's a pleasant afternoon, nowhere near as chilly as the weathermen's warnings of a severe wind-chill suggested.

At half past one it's time to head back to Clappers Lane, and I assume the entrance is from the road of that name. There's a way in (two in fact) here, but it turns out there are two more, hidden in the back streets, and it's one of these that I eventually find manned, with programmes on sale. The football ground is part of a larger recreation area, with bowling greens close behind the goal at the town end, and a cricket square on one side. All this makes access and development a bit of a challenge for the football club, who will need to move the pitch if they are to meet the new level 2 ground criteria in the next couple of years. Unfortunately that will also increase the distance from the modern changing room /clubhouse block which overlooks the field.

Gresford are enjoying a successful first season back in the Huws Gray Alliance, lying seventh ahead of this game, three places and two points behind today's visitors Holywell. Both sides are technically on the fringes of the title race, although the leading pair of Caernarfon and Cefn Druids will take a lot of catching. As befits a game between two successful sides on a fine winter's afternoon, a healthy three-figure crowd has gathered, with plenty of visiting fans in evidence. I suspect they arrive in optimistic mood, their team having suffered only one league defeat since October.

However, the early exchanges are inconclusive: both sides look confident, but the lack of recent games shows with 'rustiness' to blame for some misplaced passes and challenges. Gresford's style of play is attack-minded, with a confident midfield section hitting balls forward for front-runner Alistair Gibson to chase. Nothing quite comes off, though one early Gibson volley is cleared off the line. At the other end, veteran keeper Jon Hill-Dunt has to be sharp to keep out a couple of dangerous Holywell attacks in the first half, though one of these wouldn't have counted anyway, the lineman's flag already up for offside. Half time arrives with no scoring, and the game still anybody's, though I feel Gresford have had slightly the better of the half.

The second period is just as open as the first. It's end-to-end stuff, both teams trying to prise an opening in well-marshalled defences. Holywell seem to be posing more of a threat, but Hill-Dunt is rarely under real pressure as the home side soak up the pressure and launch counter-attacks.

It's all beginning to look like a goal-less draw, though, with the defences on top and the teams cancelling each other out. And, while they're both still searching for a winner, the sides would probably settle for a hard-earned point apiece. Then, three minutes from the end of normal time, Holywell concede a dangerous free-kick just outside the box (by no means the first of the afternoon) and Mike Latham finds a way through the wall and into the bottom corner of Mike Platt's goal. 1-0 to Gresford and Holywell must now step up the pace in search of an equaliser. Despite a generous amount of stoppage time, they can't find it, so Gresford leap-frog them into fifth place in the league table.

What a relief to get back to a 'normal' Saturday! The wonder of Wales today is that it hasn't rained, most games have been played, and my travels not confined to matches on 3G pitches, or worse completely disrupted like last weekend. Is spring maybe just round the corner?

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