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Before Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, the world's third oldest professional club was known for one thing – the biggest FA Cup shock of all time.
Wrexham had finished 92nd in the Football League the season before they met reigning champions Arsenal at the Racecourse Ground on January 4, 1992.
This was not an FA Cup giant-killing over reserve and youth team players. The Gunners were at full strength, while Wrexham had a smattering of veterans and youngsters – led by a free spirit who soon after was implicated in a money-laundering scandal.
Maverick Mickey Thomas' free kick is lasered on to people's minds as he cancelled out Alan Smith's opener for the Gunners. But it was local lad Steve Watkin who actually made history with the winner.
Here Wrexham players on that day – honest pros, loyal servants, workhorses and mavericks – tell the Fearless in Devotion fanzine in their own words just how they managed the impossible…
Meet the lads
Mark 'Carlo' Sertori (defender): “In football and life you’ve got to get your non-negotiables right – your attitude, pressing and not throwing in the towel. You fight until the very end. I’ve been at Man City for 13 years and Pep has those non-negotiables.
That is the formula all the top teams in the Premier League look for. Good non-negotiables stay with you all your life and it’s hard to play against a never-say-die attitude.
“Manager Brian Flynn, his assistant Kevin Reeves and all-round legend Joey Jones instilled that attitude into us at Wrexham. It’s the little things – be punctual, do the right thing, have continuity in your training. A passion and desire not to give in, once you have that formula it’s hard to beat.
“We were a young, energetic team. We were a modest bunch of working-class lads who had a fantastic work-ethic, no dickheads. A group of us even used to run into training."
Gareth Owen (midfielder): “We would often take on teams in the Welsh leagues. When we used to go to places like Llay Welfare, Johnstown and Gwersyllt, if you were not at it you’d usually end up leaving the game hurt. If you could face up to these seasoned lads on their own pitches then taking on Arsenal at home was a breeze in comparison.
"Those types of games were the ideal preparation as they made you grow up very quickly as you were coming up against players who wanted to prove a point. They were very intense. If you didn’t know where you were going before you received the ball then you had problems. You either swam or you sank.
“I remember playing Llay Welfare and there was this lad called Steve who had a little moustache and was smaller than me. We both went in to challenge for the ball and he went over the top of it and raked his studs up my shin, up my thigh and his boot ended up just below my belly button.
"I had two feet of stud marks on me and it hurt like hell but I didn’t show him that."
All about the prep
Gordon Davies (striker): "When the draw was made everyone thought ‘wow, what a fantastic draw’. Then after the elation came ‘wow, that’s going to be some game and some atmosphere. Around 30 seconds later reality kicked in – we’re going to be on the pitch with the reigning champions of England.
“During the week of the game we did a lot of work trying to set up a stall where we wouldn’t get hammered seven or eight-nil. The aim was to compete and we worked as hard as we could to do that.
“The gameplan was to keep our younger players on a level playing field and said to them ‘it’s just a football game, 11 versus 11.' Forget they are international players – do your job as best as you can’.
Gareth Owen: “The day before the game our training started off quite low intensity and the gaffer cut it short on purpose because he knew it would make us hungry for the Saturday. He was right."
The hours before…
Waynne Phillips (midfielder): “Before the game we did something we only did for away trips that were more than three hours away – we stopped overnight in a hotel on the Friday. We stayed at the Rossett Hall Hotel and I remember watching some clips of recent Arsenal games, which scared the life out of me.
“To be fair to Flynnie he allowed us to have a drink the night before but only in half pint glasses, never pints. It was his way of helping us relax a bit and the lads were sensible enough that night. “Before the game Flynnie said ‘enjoy it because it will go by so quickly. These days don’t happen often’."
Gordon Davies: "When it got to 2.30pm on the day of the game the reality was setting in. That was the only time the lads started to show their nerves. I thought to myself ‘I’ve got to break this level of fear in the changing room’.
"I went over to the corner where we had this big metal tea urn. I poured myself a plastic cup full to the brim of boiling hot tea. I turned around and some spilled on my fingers. I said ‘hang on a minute lads’.
"I walked across the room with the cup shaking in my hands and boiling water was going all over the place. ‘I’m an experienced player and I’m not nervous at all’, I said. The lads just all burst out laughing.
"Flynnie was laughing and said to me ‘you stupid idiot’. I dropped the cup on the floor and said ‘bloody hell, that was hot!’. It broke the ice and helped calm a few nerves.
"Another thing I remember before the game is Joey had brought along one of those full-face old man masks. I went to the toilet before the ref’s whistle went and put a towel over my head. I came back into the dressing room with my head still in the towel.
"All I could see were the football boots of the lads. Joey comes over, puts his arm around my shoulder and says ‘come on Gordon, give it everything’. I put my head up – I had the mask on. “Jesus christ!’ shouted Joey. ‘The game is affecting me Joey!’ I said."
Steve Watkin (striker): “Pryce Griffiths (club chairman) came into the dressing room before the game and said to us ‘all the best lads. If you get a good result today we can go and get some decent players’. What a teamtalk that was. He wasn’t even trying to be funny!”
Gareth Owen: “Before the game I remember Joey kept on going to us ‘are you for the cup mate?’ every two minutes. You could also hear him shouting ‘don’t look at them!’ from inside the dressing room whilst we were in the tunnel getting ready to go out."
From a tonking to a victory
Mark Sertori: “The game was a bit like a Rocky film. I remember Merson going down the line and I thought the by-line was closer behind me. He’s beaten me, crossed and they’ve scored."
Andy Thackeray (defender): “They had given us a bit of a tonking in the first half but the message from Bri, Kev and Joey was to get closer to them to give ourselves some momentum. It worked as Arsenal didn’t create a lot in the second half whereas we turned them a few times via quite a lot of long balls.
“I remember having a few choice words with Paul Merson as he went in late on me after I cleared the ball. But he could run faster with the ball than I could without it. He was a fantastic player and like the others in that team you really noticed the difference in physicality between them and us – as lower league footballers we didn’t realise how strong they were until you ran into them.
“We never, ever gave up. Our squad had the perfect mix of young and old – the likes of Gareth Owen and Steve Watkin alongside Mickey Thomas and Gordon Davies. I was 24 at the time so I was somewhere in the middle."
Tale of the tape
Goals Smith (43), Thomas 82, Watkin 84
WREXHAM: O'Keefe, Thackeray, Carey, Sertori, Hardy, Thomas, Owen, Phillips, Connolly, Davies, Watkin. Subs: J Jones, Kelly
ARSENAL: Seaman, Dixon, Adams, O'Leary, Winterburn, Carter, Rocastle, Hillier, Merson, Campbell (Groves), Smith. Sub: Linighan
Referee: Kevin Breen
Waynne Phillips: “Anyone who knows Mickey Thomas knows you needed two balls on the pitch as when he played as he wanted one to himself. When we won that free-kick I barely touched the ball when Mickey said to me ‘leave it to f**king me’.
"Mickey has played at the highest level and thrived on that sort of pressure, so there was no way I was going to argue with him.
“Flynnie never put names on free-kicks – he left it down to you. Mickey obviously felt something about taking that kick and he executed it to perfection. He had to in order to beat one of the best goalkeepers in the world at the time.
“I knew it was in as soon as he hit it. If he tries that 15 more times then they probably end up towards Collier’s Park."
Gareth Owen: “Despite missing my chance in the game the moment I thought to myself ‘we are going to win this’ was in-between our goals. David Rocastle went to play a pass and he ended up putting the ball straight out of play. They were rattled."
Mark Sertori: "When we equalised I thought we might hold out for a replay and then Steve goes and scores the winner. The last 10 minutes felt like a very long time and I remember booting the ball from my own half right into the far corner just before the ref blew his whistle."
Waynne Phillips: “At 1-1 I was excited about the prospect of going to Highbury for the replay before my best friend in football Steve Watkin had other ideas. I was delighted for Steve – the moment never changed him.”
Some low key celebrations
Gordon Davies: “I was 36 at the time and I’ll always be grateful to Flynnie for giving me the chance to play the game at the end of my career whilst helping the younger lads coming through.
“Some of the headlines at the time branded me, Mickey and Joey as the ‘Wrexham Wrinklies’ as the combined age of the three of us was about 118. The game is a lifetime ago now but it’s great that it’s still there in the minds of so many people.”
Gareth Owen: “After the game a few of us went back out to salute the fans. I went over to the kop and amongst the thousands of fans there was one lad climbing the fencing and the police were stopping him. I looked a bit closer and it was my best friend from school, Lee Bellis!"
Andy Thackeray: "A memory that stays with me was the disabled fans and their carers right next to the pitch. I went over at the final whistle and one of the lads, Steve, just wanted to kiss and hug me – that is how much it meant to everyone.
“After the game we went into our players lounge and all the lads bought their own drinks at £1 a go. The Arsenal players, who were generous in defeat, came in and bought a couple of crates for their bus journey home.
“I left the ground after the game at 6.30pm and got home to Huddersfield at 7.45pm. I was in my local pub, The Sands House by 8pm.
"My wife Joanne and I sat in the corner and just had a couple of drinks. I thought to myself ‘what just happened there then?’ I don’t think she treated me to a pint though – she never has! "We didn’t even watch the game back on Match Of The Day that night.”
Steve Watkin: “The club made a lot of money from that cup run and it helped us kick on the following season. Flynnie brought in some decent players like Gary Bennett, Mike Lake, Tony Humes and Mel Pejic, good pros and experienced lads, whilst the younger lads kicked on again. All of that resulted in the club kicking on to promotion and stood it in good stead for the next eight seasons or so.
“The training ground was built in 1997, we had some more decent cup runs and were probably only a few players short from going up to what is today’s Championship.
“The Arsenal game kick-started everything."
Mark Sertori: “I was with England for 10 years (as a physio) and worked with Gary Lewin. I didn’t realise he was Arsenal’s physio that day. I phoned him up and he said to me “yeah, I know. I didn’t want to tell you!”
“Some people say we were lucky. I don’t give two sh*ts. We beat Arsenal in 1992. That's all that matters."
- The full version of this article and much more on the famous game are in the Fearless in Devotion fanzine available here
- FA Cup
- Premier League
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