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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Wrexham captain Keren Allen: ‘We are paving the way for the next generation of girls – that’s massive’

Wrexham Women captain Keren Allen isn’t necessarily one to court the cameras.

“I’m quite an awkward person so being in front (of the camera) for me is still a bit, ‘Whooah’,” she explains. She’s just been asked about life at a club whose every step is followed by the Welcome to Wrexham documentary crew.

“But then there are others, such as Rosie (Hughes, striker), who absolutely love it. She shines in front of the camera.”

Leaving her reticence aside, however, Allen is in no doubt as to the benefits that come from the team being in the spotlight. This includes the show’s ability to shine a light on important matters such as mental health. Her team-mate Lili Jones was featured in series two speaking with such poise and candour about her late father Gareth taking his own life.

“I remember just before the show went out and Lil was stressing at training, not quite knowing how she would come across,” says the 27-year-old defender, signed last summer ahead of the club’s maiden season in the Genero Adran Premier League.

“Credit to her because she came across absolutely amazing. The levels of maturity she has considering everything she has gone through.

“She showed it is about more than being a player. It was amazing to see. I think it is really important that young kids watching it see that side. That might be the same journey for one of them, meaning they will be able to resonate with it.

“As much as we had a laugh and a joke (as a team about being on Welcome to Wrexham), there is a really serious side to the show.”

The women’s team, who sit third in the top-flight table and are through to the semi-finals of the Bute Energy Welsh Cup, featured in two episodes of the last series. Both provided a fascinating insight into not only the dedication that runs through the squad but also the commitment of co-owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney to a setup that moved from amateur to semi-professional last summer.

Again, Allen is happy to see this being highlighted in the hope it can inspire future generations.

“Being paid to play was not even a thing when I was growing up,” says the former West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa defender. “It is why I went to uni if I’m honest. My thinking was, ‘If I carry on playing football, I don’t think it will be worth my while’. Better to focus on my education.

(Gemma Thomas/Wrexham AFC)

“Now, though, there is a genuine career pathway there for these young girls coming up. I say it to the girls all the time, ‘We’re so privileged to be in a club that supports us and wants us to be the best version of ourselves’.

“We are paving the way for the next generation of girls and that’s massive.”

When Allen joined Wrexham in the summer, thoughts about the captaincy never once entered her head. When manager Steve Dale’s name flashed up on her phone just days before the season was due to get underway, the defender had no idea what to expect.

“I actually thought I was in trouble,” she says with a laugh. “I’d not been here too long, so I’m thinking, ‘I must have done something wrong’. I was trying to work out what it was. Have I not paid a fine? Something like that.

“Steve explains they’d been talking among themselves about me being captain. He then asks, ‘How do you feel about it?’. I was a bit blown away.

“I’d never been a captain before and the players in my old team (Stourbridge) will tell you I’m a bit of a wind-up merchant. I used to like getting under people’s skin during a match, seeing it as a bit of extra fun. That’s not the role of the captain.

“I was also still very new to the squad at that stage. You can’t just rock up at a new club and be captain, but I told Steve how much I trusted him and how if he felt I was right for the role, then I’d go with it.”

The decision has proved a good one. Allen has led by example in a season when the team has delivered on the pre-season belief of Gemma Owen, Wrexham’s head of women’s football operations, that a top-four place was achievable despite being new to the division.

That particular target has already been ticked off. Sunday’s 3-2 last-gasp victory over Pontypridd United left the team in third place on 28 points, just one behind Swansea City.

Leaders Cardiff City boast 37 points with just one round of games in the regular season to play before the division splits for a run-in that will pit the top four against each other. Those sitting fifth to eighth also do battle.

Allen has started all but two of the 13 league fixtures, a bout of concussion suffered in November’s 3-0 win at Cardiff Met explaining her absence.

“We’ve proved a lot of people wrong,” she says about a club only granted a Tier 1 licence last summer after clinching promotion via the play-offs. “The view (from outside the club) seemed to be we’d won promotion but would probably go back down.

“If I’m honest, we weren’t looking great in pre-season. Things hadn’t clicked. But, as soon as the season started, I think it gave us a kick up the backside. Suddenly, it was all very real. We were in the Welsh Prem and had to show we deserved to be there.

(Gemma Thomas/Wrexham AFC)

“I’d say we have done that and I am really proud of all the girls. It is very intense. Not just the two training sessions per week. There’s also extra running we need to do and gym sessions as well. Lots of extra bits that go into it.

“The buy-in from all the girls is huge. If there wasn’t, we wouldn’t be where we are in the league currently. All these girls want to better themselves. There is a real determination to develop and that’s helped sculpt us.”

Sunday will bring the final outing of the regular season, as Cardiff Met visit The Rock, the home of Cefn Druids around seven miles outside Wrexham.

With points carried over into the next stage, plus next month’s Welsh Cup semi-final against The New Saints at Flint’s Essity Stadium, it promises to be an exciting end to the season. It is Allen’s first season back in the Welsh top flight since a spell with Llandudno when studying at Bangor University.

“We are in a great position,” she adds. “The top four felt like an optimistic ambition at first, whereas now I’d only be happy with a top-two finish. That shows how far we have come.”

Wrexham securing a top-four berth for the run-in has been made all the more impressive by the adversity that has had to be overcome along the way. Former Wales international Hannah Keryakoplis, arguably the club’s stellar signing last summer, recently retired after missing several months with a knee problem, while Allen’s defensive partner Louisha Doran has also been ruled out for the season due to a knee injury.

Then there was the stroke suffered by Gareth Owen, husband to Gemma and the women’s under-19s coach. Happily, the club’s legendary midfielder with 476 first-team appearances to his name from the 1990s and early 2000s is recovering well, no doubt buoyed by a gesture that underlined the togetherness of the women’s setup during the October win at Aberystwyth Town.

“It was the physio Lindsay (Morris) who had the idea,” explains Allen. “She had this T-shirt (with a message of support bearing Owen’s name) in the bag and said, ‘We’ve got to do it’. I said to the girls, ‘Whenever anyone scores, grab the T-shirt and go to the cameras so he can see it’.

“We also had a photo at the end. He is a big part of Wrexham. In terms of his tactical brain, it is off the chart. (He’s) a great asset to the team. We have such a good togetherness and culture that it is almost like a family.

“You don’t hate going to training. You actually enjoy it. To hear what everyone has been up to in the week. Just to catch up. Potentially (we’re) friends for life. The team is about more than just the players on pitch. It’s Gaz and all the backroom staff. We couldn’t do it without them.”

(Gemma Thomas/Wrexham AFC)

Whether this season’s finale can rival that of 2022-23 remains to be seen. Not only did the women clinch promotion via a play-off win over Briton Ferry Llansawel, but the team also got to play in front of a packed Racecourse Ground, including Reynolds and McElhenney.

Allen wasn’t at the club back then but she is already looking forward to both the run-in and watching series three of the documentary when it hits the screen during the spring.

“The cameras have been filming us throughout the season,” adds Allen. “It is so intense and once one game is over, we’re immediately focused on the next one.

“So, it will be really nice for the girls to watch it back and see how much they have come together as a team. A way of treasuring that first season in the Welsh Prem and how amazing their achievement has been.”

(Top photo: Gemma Thomas/Wrexham AFC)

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