Wrexham’s record deal falls through – injured Mullin can’t return soon enough

The morning after the night before and Wrexham were still waiting for the thumbs-up from the EFL.

A hectic deadline day had seen George Evans join from Millwall on a free transfer along with Arsenal goalkeeper Arthur Okonkwo, the latter putting pen to paper on a season-long loan switch just before 7pm.

That left Harrogate Town striker Luke Armstrong. Wrexham’s interest had been reignited late in the window after bubbling all month, leading to a bidding war with Milton Keynes Dons that eventually went the way of the Welsh club for around £500,000 ($630,000), plus add-ons.

A rush against time to get the paperwork done by Friday’s 11pm deadline was on, the EFL not having the safety net of the ‘deal sheet’ system used by the Premier League — whereby teams have an extra two hours to complete a transfer as long as agreement has been reached.

Confident things were in order, Harrogate tweeted the news of a deal that was not only a record for Wrexham but between two League Two clubs around 11.15pm. Wrexham believed the documents had been submitted in time but chose not to take to social media.

Such caution proved well founded, as the EFL ruled shortly before Saturday’s 1-0 win away to Tranmere Rovers that the deadline had been missed. Armstrong remained a Harrogate player, leaving Phil Parkinson hugely frustrated.

“The first I heard of a problem was about 12.30am,” the 55-year-old tells The Athletic. “A lot of work had gone into identifying Luke, as we looked at players across the board. I felt he would be a good balance to the strikers we already had in the building.

“Then we worked hard on getting a deal that suited us and Harrogate. It was held up because Harrogate wanted to get players in themselves. For whatever reason, the deal didn’t get over the line. In these situations, we analyse why it (paperwork) didn’t get through. I have my thoughts on it. But that’s life and we move on.”

Up to the Armstrong deal falling at the last hurdle, deadline day had been a positive one for Wrexham. Midfield had been a problem area even in certain away fixtures last season, and that lack of control in a key area had continued into the EFL. Evans, a late substitute at Tranmere, seems a good fit.

Okonkwo also arrived with a good pedigree, including 10 clean sheets at this level when on loan at Crewe Alexandra last season. Armstrong’s capture was an added bonus.

Wrexham had made their interest known in the 27-year-old before the season kicked off only to be rebuffed by Harrogate. Armstrong tried to force through a move by making himself unavailable for the opening two fixtures but his club stood firm — meaning Wrexham had to look elsewhere, including at Wycombe Wanderers forward Brandon Hanlan.

Mullin is still recovering from the injury he picked up on Wrexham’s US tour (Photo: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

By the start of the last week, Hanlan seemed the likeliest new face, providing Wycombe could get in a new striker. That only changed as deadline day approached and Harrogate’s pursuit of a possible replacement for Armstrong made a breakthrough.

Their deal for Stevenage’s Josh March, who had been on loan at Wetherby Road, meant Wrexham and MK Dons were back in the game for a striker who had netted 16 times in 2022-23 for a team who had only moved clear of relegation trouble in the spring.

But for the late paperwork, Parkinson would have got his man. As it stands, Armstrong is back in north Yorkshire until at least January.

Whether the deal can be revived come the start of 2024 remains to be seen. But Saturday’s 1-0 win was another example of why Wrexham were willing to spend big on Armstrong.

Ollie Palmer and Sam Dalby, partnered up front for the first time this season, put in impressive shifts. Their hold-up play was particularly good, allowing the midfield to swarm forward in numbers and pin back a distinctly limited home side for long periods.

But both were guilty of missing good chances when the visitors were on top, Dalby twice denied by goalkeeper Luke McGee’s reflexes during a first half that saw Palmer fire over when well placed.

There was also a drilled cross from Ryan Barnett that flashed across the face of the Rovers goal, just begging someone to tap the ball home.

Considering that Armstrong’s strength is finishing at close range — eight of his 16 goals last season for Harrogate came from inside the six-yard box, with another four just outside — it was tempting not to wonder, ‘If only’.

Likewise, Mullin could surely have been relied on to be in the right place at the right time to capitalise on excellent approach play from wing-backs Barnett and James McClean.

Spurned chances from close range have been something of a theme since returning to the EFL, a point underlined by Wrexham heading to Prenton Park with 15 goals in league and Cup but their expected goals (xG) standing slightly higher at 16.39, according to scouting system Wyscout.

The 1-1 draws away to AFC Wimbledon and Barrow can be placed in the ‘two points dropped’ category after gilt-edged opportunities were spurned.

Against Tranmere, Aaron Hayden’s first goal since returning from injury meant there was no such frustration this time around. Nevertheless, Wrexham’s forwards must now build on what Parkinson felt had been an encouraging afternoon as Mullin continues his rehab via non-contact training.

“They (Palmer and Dalby) were both excellent,” said Parkinson. “I felt in a local derby with the atmosphere, that we probably needed the experience and strength of those two.

“Sometimes you don’t know until people are given a chance and I thought their link play was excellent. Ollie was great. But Dalbs had probably his best performance of the season. He has taken a little while to get going. He did last year. But I felt there were really good signs from Dalbs.”

(Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images)

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