English National League

Sam Ricketts, Wrexham and Loyalty in Football

Sam Ricketts has left his position as manager of Wrexham AFC to join Shrewsbury Town in League One, ending the strangest managerial switch I've ever known as a Dragons fan.

From the news emerging on Friday night that Ricketts was close to agreeing a deal at Montgomery Waters Meadow, to the decision on Saturday morning that he wouldn’t take charge of Wrexham’s FA Cup match against Newport later that evening, it’s been a surreal story to watch unfold.

Ricketts only took charge at the Racecourse in May after the Wrexham board plucked the former Welsh international out of the Wolves academy, where he was their under-18’s coach. He went on to build upon the record-breaking defence assembled by predecessor Dean Keates – adding more creativity and control in midfield – and led Wrexham to the top of the National League table and into the second round of the FA Cup by early November.

During the same period, over the border, Shrewsbury Town were regressing from play-off finalists to relegation candidates under the guidance of John Askey. I was at Askey’s final game in charge of the Shrews – a 1-1 draw in the first round of the FA Cup at home against Salford. Following the result, large sections of the Salop faithful made it very clear that they’d seen enough from their manager and demanded he left the club. I had no idea that it would start a chain of events leading them to poach our gaffer.

Even when news first emerged that Ricketts was among the favourites to take over at Shrewsbury, I didn’t believe it would happen. It didn’t make sense for anyone. Shrewsbury had just sacked the last National League-winning manager – a task that took Askey five years to achieve at Macclesfield – while Ricketts was only four months and 20-odd games into his entire first-team career. I truly believed that one, if not both, of the parties would conclude that he’s not yet ready for the step up. How very wrong I was.

Ricketts’ departure is now the second time a Wrexham manager has left for a League One club this calendar year, following Keates’ move to his boyhood team Walsall in March. Although I felt heartbroken when he went, I understood Keates’ reasons for going. Walsall are probably the only team he loves more than Wrexham and I know it was a difficult decision for him to make. He even sent a message to the supporters saying he’d pay his club membership for life.

With Ricketts, I’m not heartbroken at all. I never really warmed to the guy other than when we beat Gateshead to top the table and he gave a double-handed celebration to the crowd. That was the only sign of passion I saw him give. Yes, he was vocal on the touchline but it felt more professional than anything emotive. His interviews were much the same. He never seemed to be as gutted about losing as I was. It frustrated me but I trusted his abilities and the progress we were making.

Now that frustration is my lasting memory of Ricketts and, in the bigger picture, reflects my feelings towards football as a whole. Loyalty is seemingly dead in the modern game and it’s not just from the managers either. I know that if Ricketts had been struggling at the bottom end of the table six months on from his appointment, in all likelihood, he would have been relieved of his duties by the club. Askey suffered that very fate having taken over at Shrewsbury in the summer and then getting sacked months later.

Sam Ricketts during his short spell at the Racecourse

Nowadays, it’s very rare to find managers with long stints at one club. A craving for instant success has been built across the footballing spectrum that’s killing the fun. Take, for instance, the so-called ‘top six’ in the Premier League. Each team wants to finish in the Champions League spots, yet there are only four places available. That means when two, inevitably, don’t make it, their season is deemed a disaster and their manager is often replaced. It’s such an unsustainable approach and there are similar scenarios happening in divisions further down.

Based on this, it’s no wonder Keates and Ricketts took the opportunity to work higher up when they had the chance. With a lot of managers sacked after a poor run of results, the threat of being forgotten about is only five or six defeats away. But how do we stop this managerial merry-go-round?

One suggestion I’ve seen from a fellow frustrated Wrexham fan, is introducing a rule where you can’t leave a position until a certain percentage of time is up on your contract – and making sure that applies to those who wish to remove a person from their job as well. So, for example, if someone signs a three-year contract, they can be guaranteed the role for 12 months. After that, it’s fair game.

It seems a shame to have to force loyalty like that but there would be more thought process in moves for everyone involved. Clubs would have to really do their research in deciding who they’d want to bring in rather than hiring stop-gaps. Meanwhile, on the flip side, a manager or player wouldn’t feel the need to jump ship so quickly if they’re guaranteed a certain amount of time at a club they’ve also thoroughly mulled over.

I’m not a legal expert so I’m not even sure if it’s possible to set this up. There would probably have to be clauses for bad behaviour or how many appearances a player makes for the first team but, in principle, I could see it working. But then again, maybe it’s more fulfilling to see a situation such as Sean Dyche’s at Burnley, where both the manager and club stick together despite the lows of relegation and the highs of reaching Europe. Either way, for a Wrexham board that’s given two managers the chance to build a successful career from scratch, it’s surely time to see their faith rewarded.

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