NEXT WEEK’S big derby against Chester will be Dean Keates’ 50th league match as Wrexham manager, and a look at the statistics shows that there’s a lot to admire in what he’s achieved, writes MARK GRIFFITHS.
The figures only tell part of the story though. When you consider the context of his appointment to the job, the numbers stack up even more impressively.
The squad he inherited was threadbare, lacking in quality and in a tailspin.
If he hadn’t been able to squeeze some decent performances out of it and then augment it effectively last January, it might have been us dropping down to the National League North, not York City.
The comparison between Keates and his predecessor, the man at the helm when York went down, is impossible to avoid. Gary Mills dumped a mess in Keates’ lap, and he deserves massive credit for averting catastrophe.
The back four Keates fielded in his first match was Kai Edwards, Hamza Bencherif, Martin Riley and Sean Newton.
That shows clearly what he inherited: none of them would get into our current side. Similarly, the bench featured four youth players, none of whom had made their senior debuts, despite only two of the squad being unavailable.
Despite the wealth of talent Mills could field in his first season in charge, his loss percentage is five per cent worse than that of Keates, and since John Neal, only Andy Morrell and Dean Saunders have lost less frequently than the current gaffer.
Jack Rowley is the only other Wrexham manager in the history of the club who lost less frequently than Keates.
Under Keates we’ve won an average of 1.45 points per match, and again, that’s the best figure since Neal with the exception of Morrell and Saunders.
The pleasing thing for me is that the side is still clearly a work in progress.
It doesn’t cohere properly yet, being extremely solid defensively but not creative enough yet. Why would that please me?
Because there’s clear evidence of methodical, deliberate progress under Keates, and therefore good reason to expect that he’ll be able to maintain the improvement in his side as time continues to pass.
He looked to address the matter last Saturday, in a match which will have given the coaching staff plenty of food for thought.
All season he’s heard fans demand he should give his midfield a more attacking slant, either by giving Marcus Kelly his head as a central playmaker or fielding both wingers at the same time.
Until the Leyton Orient game he’d only adopted those approaches as a second half attempt to chase a game, but on Saturday he tried both tactics from the start for the first time.
We did score a couple of goals and create other chances, but we also looked more vulnerable than usual.
It’ll be interesting to see whether this was a turning point, and he’s willing to take this bold approach from the start of his 50th league game, or stick to what he knows works.
Of course, his thinking might be coloured by that hal centurygame just happening to be Chester away!
Keates has limited experience of the cross-border derby.
He missed the first one to be played after he joined Wrexham as he was injured, and we collapsed to an awful 2-0 home defeat.
He played in the return match, which was a particularly drab goal-less draw at The Deva Stadium, and came on as a second half substitute in each derby the following season, a 2-1 away defeat and a 1-0 home win.
The feisty 1-1 draw in Chester last season was his first experience of the fixture from the bench, and he was rightly disappointed not to emerge with all three points from an impressive performance.
It’s tempting to look at Keates’ combative qualities as a player and assume that he’s the ideal manager for the derby.
Of course, that’s specious logic. Being able to snap into a tackle doesn’t help you manage a squad. The quality Keates has which suits him to derby management is his meticulousness.
Should we triumph next week, his ability to recognise the need for leadership on the pitch, and act upon that observation, will have been crucial.
Plenty of his predecessors have feared having strong characters in the changing room: rather than feel a strong leader could undermine him.
Brian Little moved in on the likes of Neil Roberts and Danny Williams; and Keates himself was underused by Kevin Wilkin.
By contrast, Keates looked at the squad he inherited forty nine league games ago and realised he needed more leadership and character.
If Keates’ strength of character is useful to us now, it’s not because he used to enjoy a tackle in his time; it’s because he’s not scared of surrounding himself with similarly strong characters.
He might not have 50 league games under his belt yet, but he has the manner of a man who has been through many battles already. He has, in that respect, constructed a side in his image.