It was only briefly sunny in Coventry. It was otherwise rain-lashed and windy. Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, Wrexham’s owners, had stayed away, presumably waiting for a Premier League club in the next round.
In their absence, their team prevailed in a chaotic, dramatic Cup tie. A famous win will doubtless make for high-quality streaming content in showing off the old competition’s finest win-or-bust essence. A non-league club, even if one with Disney financing, will be in this year’s fourth round. Now, does that count as a giant killing?
The Coventry Building Society Arena, these days owned by Mike Ashley and Wasps’ home until the rugby club’s demise, was nowhere near full. If this match was being streamed at brunch time for an audience in the US, it was because of the star duo that own Wrexham. In previewing the match, Wrexham’s Ollie Palmer had said: “Coventry isn’t overly appealing to the lads to be honest.”
Such are the refractory qualities of celebrity; a National League player turning his nose up at opposition within four points of a Championship playoff position, even if it is true to say Wrexham have firmer financial foundations than Coventry, and promotion to the EFL as their primary target.
It also ignored the FA Cup pedigree of the opposition club and manager. The 1987 winners are managed by Mark Robins, whose history-changing third-round Manchester United goal against Nottingham Forest was scored 33 years ago to the day.
Not that Wrexham lacks cup magic. Their manager, Phil Parkinson, was the architect of Bradford City’s 4-2 win at José Mourinho’s Chelsea in 2015, while Mickey Thomas’s 1992 rocket against Arsenal is firmly in the competition’s pantheon. Meanwhile their fans, around 5,000 having traveled from north Wales and making a racket, clearly saw this as a big occasion.
The price of Palmer’s disinterest was being benched for Sam Dalby, a striker without a goal since early November replacing 22-goal Paul Mullin’s regular partner. Robins had left out leading scorer Viktor Gyökeres and star midfielder Gustavo Hamer to offer a reminder that Coventry themselves have loftier targets.
Wrexham began brightly and after Michael Rose had missed a big chance from Fankaty Dabo’s cross for Coventry, the visitors soon had the lead. Luke Young, the captain, crossed to Dalby, who rewarded Parkinson’s selection with a fine header, pounding between two defenders.
Kasey Palmer rattling a free-kick off the post suggested Coventry’s latent threat but then Elliott Lee drifted in a cross that beat everyone, including keeper Simon Moore, caught on the wrong foot.
Wrexham – and owners – could start dreaming of visiting a Premier League club in the next round but Robins was able to bring on Gyökeres when Fábio Tavares broke down. Within seconds, Martyn Waghorn’s flick had set up Ben Sheaf to bring Coventry back into the tie. Waghorn might have equalised, only for Mark Howard to make a low save as Coventry piled on serious pressure.
Yet Wrexham entered the break with their two-goal advantage restored, Tom O’Connor nodding past Moore after Ben Tozer’s throw was flicked back across by Jordan Tunnicliffe, Coventry’s defending again statuesque.
That looked to set up the second half as a test of Wrexham’s defending, and Coventry began by pinning down the visitors in their 18-yard box. Behind them, the away contingent pressed on every tackle and header.
But then Coventry’s lack of defensive discipline came into play. Tozer again launched a missile of a throw-in, the second ball bounced loose and Max Cleworth’s goalbound shot was handled by Jonathan Panzo. Tom Nield, the referee, saw Panzo’s offense as deliberate, and awarded a penalty and a red card. Mullin gleefully joined the party by scoring from the spot.
When Gyökeres scored after Palmer had blazed down the right to set him up, the nerves could set in again for Wrexham. Palmer, the one-time Chelsea youngster, then nailed a 77th-minute free-kick from the edge of the area to leave time for a comeback.
Even with 10 men, Coventry’s superior fitness and knowhow began to overwhelm Wrexham. Howard made a sprawling save from Gyökeres, then another from Todd Kane, as cramp began to affect the players in red. Palmer, sliding in and blazing over, missed the final chance for Wrexham to be denied.