A League 1 view from Wrexham

Dave Parkinson

Along with another 399 hardy souls I ventured to Queensway Athletics Stadium in Wrexham at the weekend.

As far as Crusaders are concerned it is home, and the third home that the club have had in the town since joining the league following the collapse of the previous North Wales club.

As indicated by the title it is predominantly an athletics ground with a running track around the pitch. Fans filtered into the two stands pitchside and eventually North Wales were able to win the Welsh derby.

The game included a sparkling second half from prop Warren Thompson. The former Rochdale Hornets forward had the time of his life, monstering the visiting pack and making a sparkling break.

What struck me was how low profile everything about the game was and how the club is almost totally reliant on volunteers.

These volunteers are the lifeblood of the club and deserve much credit for running the bars, preparing changing areas and putting sponsorship signs up. It is a million miles away from St Helens and Warrington for example, but there is also something very honest about the set-up.

My last visit to cover a game in Wrexham came three years ago when over a thousand fans were at the Racecourse Ground and this is a club, like many in League 1 that has had to adapt.

While all the focus of the last two years has been about the “two ‘Ts'”  – Toulouse and Toronto – with their vast backing behind the scenes, many other clubs operate in a similar way to Crusaders.

Headed by Mike Grady, Crusaders are battling every week. Whilst it is tough and players aren’t maybe as big or quick as you find elsewhere, they are playing rugby league and flying the flag for the sport.

Despite the sparseness of the crowd, Crusaders now appear to have renewed roots in Wrexham and the local community after a few games were played at Chester Rugby Union Club last year.

One such example is the way they have taken six year-old Jaxon Langford to their hearts. The youngster was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma in 2015 and has become a regular face at the club.

On Sunday Jaxon was given squad number 35 with the Crusaders and it was heart-warming to see him presented with his jersey and lead the team out despite being in obvious discomfort.

Gestures like this go a long way to showing understanding, care and compassion.

Part of this is also inspired by the man in charge. The morning had seen boss Mike Grady on the touchline watching his son in action while the afternoon brought his Crusaders family into focus.

I asked his thoughts on the game: “The first half wasn’t what I expected: said Grady. “We were out enthused and we didn’t stick to gameplans, but we put that right at half-time and came out and had a really good second half.”

“There is plenty of potential and that’s the frustrating thing. We’ve been inconsistent.

“We’ve had close defeats with Hunslet, All Golds and lost by a point against Workington, and again the League One Cup Final, we were ten points in front and lost.

“The frustrating thing for me is our inconsistency. It is a bit of a rebuild this year, but going forward we’ve got a great nucleus of a squad here and I’m excited by the challenge in the next couple of years.”

Looking at the league and discounting the top three or four sides, there isn’t a lot between a whole host of clubs.

“It’s very tight this league this season,” added Grady. “It’s probably the closest and most competitive it’s been. It seems to get a lot more competitive each year. A win or two here and there can put you up a couple of places in the league.

“I couldn’t tell you where we are going to finish. My aim this year as I mentioned at the start is just to be competitive week in, week out, and if we finish in that bottom half, then so be it – we’ll have a good go!

“It’s exactly the same if we finish in the top eight. My aim is to finish these last three games with wins.”

Looking at the remaining fixtures, Crusaders travel to Oxford and Coventry before hosting Whitehaven.

“Obviously they are teams that we can get beat by, but with respect to all three, they are also teams we can beat, but as I’ve touched upon, if you aren’t switched on, on gameday you will struggle, but I am confident,” he said.

Listen out for the next edition of the Loverugbyleague.com podcast which features more from Grady.

Crusaders make the trip to Oxford this Sunday, kick-off 2.00pm.