Wrexham AFC

A footballer making a run, but take away the fervour of a matchday crowd, the company of teammates and opponents, and the prospect of just maybe being the one to put that finishing touch on a move. It suddenly became a familiar scene for players from far and wide last year, with pavements the best bet for many seeking fitness in the absence of gyms and training pitches. It may be some 15 months on from that initial shutdown of the game, with the gradual return of fans the most uplifting development yet, but it was out and about, getting the miles in the legs, where you could find Elliott Durrell just prior to this conversation.

In this case, though, it is just about ensuring he is primed and ready for his next port of call. This past season took the Macclesfield Town favourite back to the fond surroundings of his former club Wrexham, six years after his initial departure. In a headline-making campaign for the Reds away from the pitch, however, the absence of in-stadium support, plus a sense of never really getting to fully hit his stride, made his Racecourse return a tale of what might have been for the attacking talent.

Having mutually agreed to depart in April, attention now concerns what – and where – lies ahead. A mere ten months since bathing in play-off glory with Altrincham, the appetite to get right back on the winning trail is undeniable…

 

Without pressing you on specifics of what may be in the offing, what’s important for you looking ahead to next season and your next club?

Well, I’m 31, and I don’t feel like an old 31. I don’t feel that my body’s slowing up or anything like that, so I still feel good, still feel fit and I’ve still got so much to give. At whatever level I decide to play at next, I’ve still got plenty of fire in my belly to be as successful as I have in the past, and aim for more promotions, ultimately.

So, does going somewhere that you can be valued and enjoy what you’re doing take precedence over the standing of the club and the level that you may go to?

Yeah, I think so. I sort of learned that again last season. If you don’t enjoy it, it goes hand in hand with performing, and I think the top players in the world say that you’re at your best when you’re playing with a smile on your face. I don’t think that’s a false statement at all, so for me, enjoying it is huge. As you do reach 30, you don’t know when your last game’s going to be, so I don’t get why you should want to play when you’re in a team where you’re not happy or you don’t enjoy it. So it’s important wherever I go next that it’s the right move and it’s the whole package really.

Being back at Wrexham this season, how much of it could you properly enjoy, without fans and the full experience overall? Was it almost like a diluted version of what you remember from last time because of that?

Yeah, very much so, it was tough. I had a great reception when I signed initially in 2014, and that sort of carried on through my whole career until I rejoined. The response that I got when I rejoined was almost identical to when I first joined. A lot of the fans still say that I didn’t get a fair crack of the whip first time around and they were happy to have me back, and just as happy as I was to be back, but for whatever reason, it didn’t really work out how I wanted it to there. That’s football and these things happen. I think fans saw what I was capable of, I just don’t really think we played to my strengths as much as we probably could have, which ultimately would have brought the best out of me, as has been proven elsewhere in my career.

What prompted leaving a little bit before the end of the season, was it something you’d decided on?

I’d found myself out of the team; probably a little bit later than I should have come out of the team, to be honest. I was one player from anybody really that could have been taken out of the team and couldn’t really have said anything, but I was then starting to turn my form around, and then I came out of the team, which obviously I found a little bit strange. I had various conversations with the gaffer (Dean Keates) and he said ‘you’re doing everything we’re asking in training, you’re pushing the lads that are in the team and you’re knocking on the door again’. I think it was about five or six games I was out of the team, and credit where it’s due, the lads did great. I got back in the team, and the gaffer said to me before the Bromley game, ‘since you’ve got back in the team you’ve been a different player, you’ve adapted your game, you’re doing the dirty side a little bit more and you’ve been our best player’. Then the next sentence was ‘I’m taking you out of the team today because I need to go with someone with a bit more height’.

Obviously straight away that’s very dejecting, and hard to take in one breath that you’ve worked hard to get back in the team and you’ve been the best player in the team, but ultimately, it’s not been enough to keep you in the team. So it was just one of those things, and we had a conversation, and at that stage, I couldn’t go out on loan. I just want to play football, that’s all I’ve wanted to do my whole career. You look wherever I’ve been, I’ve always played. That’s just the way I am and that’ll only stop when the legs tell me it’s got to stop. So it was best for both parties that we parted way, there were no grudges or anything, and it was disappointing on the last day to see them miss out on the play-offs. It would have been great for the lads to make the play-offs and then you never know, because the hard work that’s gone on through the season, with COVID and another stop-start season, there’s a lot of work that people don’t see that goes on in the background.

This past year or so since the restrictions first began has also included most of your time at Altrincham. In terms of that dressing-room spirit and camaraderie, how much of that can you really maintain or establish from scratch when there are so many restrictions?

I joined Altrincham and it was just before everything kicked off with COVID, and the first couple of weeks before the lockdown, it was a normal changing room. Everything stopped, and being Conference North at the time, there was no indication of whether it was going to be completely null and void or not. When it was decided they would play the play-offs, that was when the team spirit sort of comes through. Altrincham was a brilliant changing room. I was only in it for a short period of time but the lads were superb. Everybody ultimately wanted the same thing, they were willing to go that extra five yards for their mate, and if one lad made a mistake, the other ten lads were there to get them out of trouble, and that ran through the team. The football that they play under Parky (manager Phil Parkinson) and Sorvs (assistant Neil Sorvel) is some of the best I’ve played in, and that was in the Conference North. We played them this year in the Conference and they did exactly the same. I’ve been back since to watch them and they’re lovely on the eye.

To answer your question, it’s tough. When I went to Wrexham, you weren’t really able to do any team-bonding, it was just strange really. It just typified the year; you were very isolated. The last time I was at Wrexham, we used to all sit and eat together, it was a time where you’d bond. This time, it just came down to: turn up at the ground, have a quick temperature test and then you’d go your different ways to training. You’d train, go back to the ground and get your food, and then you’d all go, so there was no real time to bond. We did do quite a lot of overnight stays, which was great, because we were in a hotel then which was pretty much personal to us, because I don’t think they were open to anyone else at the time. We did get times where we could bond a little bit but it was nothing like your normal season and your normal changing rooms where you get to go on a few nights out or team-bonding sessions. It was quite subdued again.

Briefly switching all the way back to growing up, who did you support?

I was a big Man United fan, and not for the reason a lot of people would say at that time, glory-hunting and all that. My footballing hero was David Beckham, so every haircut, every pair of boots, I sort of followed suit! (Peter) Schmeichel was the same; when I was younger, I had bright blonde hair so I always had the Schmeichel goalie kit. I was a big Man United fan, and obviously I was at Shrewsbury Town, so I supported Shrewsbury. It’s a lovely, family-orientated club, so I still look out for their results now, being a Shrewsbury lad.

You’ve had meaningful spells with the likes of Hednesford as well, but I think I’d be right in saying Macclesfield was your happiest time overall. Celebrating that National League title (in 2018), tell me it wasn’t just a quiet one and then off you all go until you see each other again in pre-season!

No, we dragged it out as long as we could, to be fair! We obviously had big celebrations on the coach on the way home, and it carried on back at the club. I think it went on for that whole weekend, we were partying until the Monday. We had a great group of sponsors around the club at the time, and they said ‘we’ve put together this amount of money, it’s yours, what do you want to do?’ So in between Saturday evening and Monday, we booked to go to Magaluf, all the lads together. There was probably 15-18 of us that went out, the manager and all the coaching staff came out, and it carried on. I think we were there for five or six nights. Then we got back from Magaluf and there were a couple more of us that ended up flying out to Marbella for a few more days. Then I went on a family holiday with my missus and my two kids, so it was a great summer, I don’t remember spending too much time in the country!

Is there anything that sticks in your mind from that time away together celebrating, maybe something funny or just a good memory of that team enjoying what you’d achieved?

To be honest, the whole season, we just laughed constantly. There was never a dull moment in the changing room, we had some superb characters. We went through a hell of a lot with the financial difficulties, because they started in the January. We got paid late in the January, then I think we went to Fylde that month and got thumped 6-0, so we really could have gone under; a lot of teams probably would have. We had a really deep conversation at the training ground about how we play this situation, with the financial problems. We said as a group, ‘we can refuse to play until we’re paid’, but we said all along, after the first couple of weeks, ‘we’ve got a chance here’, because we played great football, had a great team spirit. The longer it went on, it was only going to affect us if we did start refusing to play. We ultimately got what we deserved from that season, and it’s the best team that I’ve been involved in, and the best group of lads, by some distance.

That goal for Macc with the outside of the boot from the edge of the box against Maidstone, is that your favourite from the collection through the career?

Yeah, that’s certainly one that sticks in my mind. I’ve scored quite a few good goals that have ended up being on videos that are on social media, but the one at Hednesford from the halfway line, where I took the Bradford (Park Avenue) team on, that was a different goal but sticks with me just as much. My first Football League goal against Crawley at home, I think that was a volley from about 35 yards out; I know it was wind-assisted but they all count!

What kind of approach from a manager through the years have you found gets the best out of you?

I’m a bit of a mixed bag, to be honest. I’m happy to take a rollicking when I need one, and that does get me going a little bit. I’m a player that’s always played on the edge, and there’s a fine line between getting them on that edge and not pushing them over it, and I think that John Askey was perfect for that. His demeanour, he seems very quiet and subdued, but we had a couple of run-ins on the training pitch and he’d make it more than clear if I wasn’t pulling my weight. That sort of told me everything I needed and that was the best time I had in my career, the most successful I was. I do put a lot down to John Askey, he was great to work under. I think he just knew how to get the best out of me; he knew when to give me a rollicking and he knew when to put his arm around me.

You’ve grown up in a time where Sol Campbell is someone you’re watching for England at tournaments, in the Premier League, scoring in a Champions League final etc. When it came to working with him (as Macclesfield manager), would there be a certain distance between him and the players, or would he get amongst it with the laughs? Did any of the lads ask him about his career?

Yeah, he was right in the mix. When we’d do rondos or boxes, anything like that, you could see he was itching to get involved. One of the lads would drop out with a little niggle and he’d be like ‘right, I’m in!’ He was like ‘back in the day, I’d be flying around this box!’ He was good. He’s obviously been used to working with world-class players, and I think at times, he struggled to get his head around why we weren’t able to do what the players he’d played with could do. I’ve seen he’s been linked with the England Under-21s job and I think that’d be perfect for him.

For any club, are there any teammates in particular that you’ve felt really strongly on the same wavelength as on the pitch?

Yeah, there’s a couple. The one that sticks out most for me is Jamey Osborne, at Solihull now. We played for a couple of years at Hednesford and the kid’s frightening when he’s on it. He could easily have played in the Championship, for me. He’s so hard to get off the ball. When he runs with it, he just glides. I think the season I moved to Wrexham, I’d scored 26 by the January, and he must have got me 14 penalties. He was great to play with, great lad. He’s had a tough couple of seasons with injuries but I’m hoping he can put that behind him and kick on again, because he’s some talent.

My time at Macc, there was loads of players. Danny Whitaker – unbelievable. Benjamin Button; you just forget how old he was! He was another one, he just glided around the pitch, and if I ever gave the ball away, it was always him that was sweeping up behind me. I was thinking ‘you were just in front of me and now you’re there behind me – you’re almost ten years older than me, how does that work?!’ I learned so much from Whits. He was very similar to John Askey, very quiet, he wasn’t a massive vocal influence on the pitch, but he just did everything he needed to do with the ball, he was so calm. Another one who was just brilliant to play with.

What about individual opponents that you remember the battle with, either for how they tested you, what they did, what they said?

Against Crawley for Hednesford in the FA Cup, I think it was the first time that we’d got to the first round for years at Hednesford, since they played Middlesbrough, and there was a lad from the Birmingham area, James Hurst. I don’t think he played full-back at the time, but they told me before the game that they were putting him there to try and mark me out of the game, and he was very, very good that day. He kept me very quiet; I know I scored a penalty again but that was Ozzy (Jamey Osborne) going on his mad runs. Hursty was very good that game and that’s one player who sticks in my mind. Another one was my car-school mate at Wrexham this year, Recks (Jamie Reckford). The year we won the league (with Macclesfield), we played Solihull and they did similar to what we did at Macc (in League Two), the great escape. They came to our place with about ten games to go and we thought ‘right, Solihull, they’re down the bottom, this will be a walk in the park’. Mark Yates put a great team together that got them out of it and Recks was unbelievable, up and down, and every time I thought ‘I’m in here’, he was just there. I think I got in behind him once, and the keeper at the time, Max O’Leary, who’s at Bristol City, made an unbelievable double save.

If the answer to this is no then you’ve been very lucky by now! Have you ever had to sing when you’ve joined a new team?

When I came back to Wrexham, I sang Robbie Williams ‘Angels’. I didn’t get to sing at Altrincham because of COVID and all that sort of thing, but we had a right old sing-song on the way back, so the lads definitely heard me sing. We stopped at a KFC somewhere and we just turned the KFC into a karaoke bar, it was brilliant. The whole staff were involved, we were whacking trays off tables playing the drums and stuff! Chester, I remember singing Blue; partial to a little boyband song, so I remember that.

Knowing what you know now, from all you’ve seen of the game, good and bad, what would you tell that teenager who was playing for Telford?

I’d say enjoy your football. Play football, don’t be one of those players that’s happy to sit on the bench for a season, or season after season, just because you’re at a good level or whatever. If it means you drop down a level to move forward two levels in the future, that’s one of the biggest bits of advice I can give. The other one is just enjoy it, because football’s a cruel game, you never know when your last game might be. There’s all sorts that can happen, you can get injured, you get older, so it’s about enjoying your football and playing with a smile on your face.

Finally, parenting’s obviously a big one, but what else do you enjoy away from football? Whether it’s interests, ambitions, what do you need in your life to redress that balance?

I’m a big family man. I love spending time with the kids, getting out on the bikes, playing football with the little man. He’s just gone on trial with Shrewsbury Town so I’m sort of living what my dad did all those years ago. I’ve been blessed as well with my career that I’ve been able to watch the two of them grow up so closely and spend so much time with them. My little girl’s ballet mad and gymnastics mad, so I get to take her there as well. It’s just important to me, family, it’s everything. We’re rarely at home doing nothing, we’re always out and about doing something, and enjoying quality time with each other. We like to go on holiday; it’s obviously been different the last year or so, so we’ve got some catching up to do. We make the best out of a bad time and we’re always laughing. That’s a big thing to me in life, your family, and if you’re happy and having fun with your family, there isn’t anything better than that.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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