WREXHAM’S dreams of a return to the Football League is in ruins.
A 3-0 defeat against Luton Town at The Racecourse in last night’s play-off semi-final first leg has given the Reds a mountain to climb in Tuesday’s second leg.
It was a woeful first half performance as Wrexham let all their good work this season go to waste as Luton built up a 3-0 lead in the space of 20 minutes.
Wrexham had had the better of the two games between the sides in the regular season, winning the home game 1-0 in November before earning a creditable 1-1 draw with an under-strength side in Saturday’s play-off warm-up.
But it was a different story in that one-way first half as nervous Wrexham just never got going and were left wondering what hit them.
Luton were too strong and simply too good as they caused plenty of problems for the Redswith their impressive attacking play.
Wrexham struggled to deal with wave after wave of attacks and after going behind in the 16th minute, they just capitulated.
Luton knew they had Wrexham on the ropes and were relentless in their pursuit of a decent lead to take back to Kenilworth Road for Tuesday’s return leg, going 3-0 ahead by the 35th minute.
Wrexham had been outplayed and it could have been more than three.
While it wasn’t difficult, Wrexham were much better second half, at least showing some fight as they attempted to get back into the game and reduce the deficit.
Luton hadn’t let Wrexham play the way they wanted to play in the first half but after building up a healthy advantage, they allowed the Reds to see plenty of the ball without letting them get into too many dangerous positions.
But the damage had been done and with little in the way of scoring chances created, Wrexham were unable to at least get a goal or two that could have been vital to their hopes of reaching the final at The City of Manchester Stadium on May 21.
If Wrexham are going to stand a chance of ending their three-year exile from the Football League, they will need to be far more assertive and take the game to the Hatters next week.
And Wrexham will definitely have to create more opportunites and get away more shots on target as they attempt to eat into Luton’s lead.
Thankfully away goals don’t count but it is inevitable Wrexham will have to have a go at Luton and there will be gaps at the back.
Whether Luton will allow Wrexham to come back into the tie remains to be seen, but the loyal Reds’ fans hoping to see their club in League Two next season need something to cling on.
Although the fringe team performed well at the weekend, it was no surprise that Saunders named his first choice side, injuries aside, as he made 11 changes.
Goalkeeper Chris Maxwell and a defence containing Curtis Obeng, Mark Creighton, Frank Sinclair and Neil Ashton, who had formed the backbone of the team in recent months, were brought back in.
Saunders selected his first choice midfield of Jay Harris, Chris Blackburn and Dean Keates while Nat Knight-Percival was named in attack, alongside Gareth Taylor and Andy Mangan, in the absence of Andy Morrell and Mathias Pogba, who had failed to recover from hamstring injuries sustained over Easter.
But midfielder Lee Fowler was named on the substitutes’ bench despite dislocating an elbow in Saturday’s dress rehearsal, and there was also a place on the bench for frontman Obi Anoruo who has completed a loan spell at Conference North outfit Vauxhall Motors.
Luton manager Gary Bradin, who named a stronger side than Saunders for the 1-1 draw, also had key players returning and he made six changes with right-back David Gleeson, midfielders Alex Lawless, Keith Keane and Jake Howells, wide-man Claude Gnapka and striker Jason Walker handed starting roles.
It was Howell who has the first opportunity inside 60 seconds but his shot was comfortably saved by Maxwell.
Luton had settled well but although there were signs of nerves, Wrexham began to come more into the game and Harris cleared the bar on 11 minutes after meeting Taylor’s flick-on from Obeng’s throw-in.
Winger Robbie Willmott, who was supporting striker Walker along with Gnapka, saw a curling free-kick tipped away by a stretching Maxwell as Luton attemped to make the most of a set-piece.
And the visitors took a 16th minute lead.
Blackburn appeared to have been fouled but Lawless broke free and unleashed an unstoppable drive that flew past Maxwell.
Luton should have doubled their lead two minutes later when Walker picked out an unmarked Howells who struck the underside of the bar and Lawless blasted the rebound over.
Wrexham were in disarray and only an excellent save by Maxwell, who went full stretch to keep out Keane’s effort following a defensive error, prevented Luton from doubling their advantage.
There was no sign of the pressure lifting with Wrexham on the ropes and Luton made it 2-0 after 28 minutes.
Wilmott teed up Gnapka who had time to line-up a shot before firing past Maxwell.
Just when it couldn’t get any worse for Wrexham, the visitors scored a third goal seven minutes later.
Wilmott’s corner reached an unmarked Ed Asafu-Adjaye who took a touch before smashing the ball into the bottom corner from just inside the area.
There was no sign of Luton relenting and Gnapka fired straight at Maxwell, while a rare effort on goal from Wrexham saw Taylor’s header fall wide from Keates’ cross.
Mangan’s drive was also deflected wide for a corner and Blackburn’s volley was blocked, but the Reds had been second best by a distance.
Wrexham had given themselves a lot to do but although there was an improvement in the second half, they found it difficult to dismantle a well organised Luton side who weren’t giving an inch.
Mangan slid a pass through for Keates who produced a dangerous delivery from the by-line across the six-yard box in the 59th minute but there wasn’t a team-mate on hand to take advantage.
Saunders threw on Onoruo for his first appearance of the season and Fowler in place of Knight-Percival and Blackburn respectively, but Luton should have taken a 4-0 lead in the 70th minute when Lawless fired over the bar with just Maxwell to beat.
Back came Wrexham and Keates set up Obeng whose shot was saved by keeper Mark Tyler, but Luton almost grabbed another goal when Keates cleared George Pilkington’s shot off the line.
Keane also brought another good save out of Maxwell but there was no change in the scoreline and Wrexham have still got it all to do in the second leg.