Wrexham beware! Notts County and 'the non-league Erling Haaland' out to spoil Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney's promotion dreams

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Macaulay Longstaff Ryan Reynolds GFX
The National League season is set for a thrilling finale as the top two meet at the Racecourse Ground on Easter Monday

While eyes will inevitably be drawn to Old Trafford, Anfield and Celtic Park, arguably the most significant game of this Easter weekend will take place on Monday, as Wrexham and Notts County battle it out at the Racecourse Ground.

Already billed as the biggest non-league fixture ever, it is a meeting of the world’s oldest professional club and perhaps its trendiest, and with free-scoring strikers on the pitch, Hollywood owners in the stands and a place in the Football League up for grabs for the winners, there is certainly no shortage of narrative.

Wrexham, of course, are big news at the moment, interest in the Welsh club having rocketed following the arrival of actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney as owners in February 2021, and aided significantly by the subsequent ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ documentary series on FX.

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The best sporting stories, though, come when two heavyweights go head-to-head, and that has certainly been the case in the National League this season. In County, one of England’s most historic and storied clubs, Reynolds and Co. have found a more-than-worthy adversary.

The teams head into Monday’s game level on points - 100 points - but with County top of the table by virtue of goal difference - +70 compared to +67. Wrexham still have a game in hand, but defeat would leave them as underdogs when for so long they had looked destined for promotion.

More twists and turns, naturally, are to be expected, but ahead of this most dramatic and meaningful of fixtures, GOAL caught up with the men trying to spoil the Wrexham party…

  1. The non-league Haaland
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    The non-league Haaland

    If Notts County are to finish the job, then the goals of Macaulay Langstaff are likely to be key.

    The 26-year-old has been in sensational form this season, and in Friday’s 3-0 win over Wealdstone set a new National League record of 41 goals in a single season. Remarkably, all of them have come from open play.

    Such accomplishments have, inevitably, seen Langstaff labelled “the non-league Haaland”, a tag the former Gateshead striker wears lightly.

    “I embrace it,” Langstaff says. “To be named in the same sentence as the legends of the game, to see your face or your name alongside theirs, it’s special. 

    “Obviously it’s a bit of fun, because we are levels apart, but it’s still good to see. I can’t say it isn't. To see your name next to a player like Haaland, it gives you confidence.”

    Teeside-born Langstaff has spent his entire career in non-league football, working briefly as a labourer having been released by Middlesbrough as a teenager. His only Football League experience, he jokes, came when he was a ball-boy at the Riverside Stadium.

    But after shining at Gateshead last season, he has shot to prominence this season. He grabbed the winner in Notts’ 1-0 win over Wrexham in October, and while Haaland and Jamie Vardy are, for different reasons, obvious points of comparison, and the likes of Mark Viduka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink are heroes from his days watching Middlesbrough, while Langstaff has told GOAL of his admiration for another legendary Premier League striker.

    “[Sergio] Aguero is one of my favourites,” he says. “I think he’s a little bit similar to me, being a box player and trying to get tap-ins and things like that. 

    “But I watch as much football as I can, because I always want to learn. Haaland is the best in the world for me at the moment. I don’t have his physical attributes, but what I can do is look at the positions he takes up in the box to get tap-ins at the back post, things like that. If it’s good enough for the best player in the world, it’s good enough for me!”

  2. Living in Wrexham's shadow

    Living in Wrexham's shadow

    For County boss Luke Williams, this season can already be deemed a success. 

    The 42-year-old is, like Langstaff, in his first season with the club, having previously managed Swindon and been assistant to Russell Martin at both MK Dons and Swansea. It is fair to say he has made a big impact.

    His side have lost only twice in 42 games, winning 30, and have scored 106 goals along the way. 

    So does it grate, perhaps, that it is Wrexham who have grabbed all the attention in terms of National League coverage?

    “Not at all,” Williams says, admitting he has both watched and enjoyed the Wrexham documentary. “Football is the biggest spectator sport in the world, and people want to watch it and feel emotion when they watch it. They want to see theatre, drama.

    “So how exciting is it to have big players, players that have incredible form, with Hollywood owners and a famous, incredible club like Notts County? There’s a lot of very good ingredients for a great story and for great theatre, and we are very fortunate to be involved in the production of this. 

    “We have to enjoy it, of course we have a determination and desire to win, but ultimately football is about people being able to experience emotion, and everything is there for that.”

  3. Mutual respect
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    Mutual respect

    Clearly, despite the pressure and the high stakes, there is big respect between Notts County and Wrexham, and the two sides appear to have pushed each other to great heights this season.

    “People always ask me about Wrexham,” Langstaff admits. “But we have played to that narrative, because we’ve pushed them all the way. Both teams are going to get over 100 points, which is unbelievable. It’s been a mad season but a really enjoyable one.”

    Williams agrees, pointing to the classy message sent by Reynolds following the shock, sudden passing of Magpies chief executive Jason Turner recently as evidence of the clubs' mutual respect and cordial relations.

    “If we are happy with our level, which we are, then we have to look at Wrexham, who are potentially better than us,” Williams says. “So it would be incredibly disrespectful for us not to talk about them in a positive manner, because they are quite clearly a very good team of players, who are quite clearly very well coached and managed, and that deserves respect.

    “You cannot be that lucky for that long and get that return. There’s nothing flukey about what they’ve done.

    “Having watched the doc, I’m really impressed with the way their staff and players deal with it all. It’s very invasive, but they seem to really take it in their stride. 

    “Parky [Wrexham boss Phil Parlknson] has tremendous experience, far more than me, and he is really able to just be himself and not feel affected. I would struggle with that.”

  4. Planning for Mullin

    Planning for Mullin

    Wrexham, of course, have their own goal machine, striker Paul Mullin having scored 34 times this season.

    The Scouser, clearly, will be the Red Dragons’ dangerman in Monday’s game, but Williams says there will be no special plan to stop the 28-year-old.

    “Honestly, I don’t know,” he says. “How do you prepare for Macca [Langstaff]? I don’t know! The reality is, there isn’t an easy way to do it. 

    “The guy is a really, very good player. He’s outstanding. We have one of those players too. You cannot be lucky 40 times in a season, so I don’t think they have a quick fix to stop Macca either. We’re talking about lots of very good players, and the only thing we can do is perform at our top level and hope it’s enough.”

    Langstaff, smiling, dismisses any suggestion of a rivalry between the two marksmen.

    “I’ve only really spoken to him once, when we played at Meadow Lane,” he says. “He came up to me just before kick off and was really respectful. He said ‘you’re flying at the moment’, which was really nice. There’s no rivalry, but maybe we push each other on in a positive way.”

  5. Time for a rule-change?
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    Time for a rule-change?

    Whatever happens on Monday afternoon, one thing is clear; both of these sides deserve to be promoted come the end of the season.

    But with only one automatic spot available, the reality is that a team that has earned 100 points and scored 100 goals, that has laid waste to the rest of the division, will instead find themselves negotiating a tricky play-off system, along with the likes of Woking, Chesterfield, Barnet and Boreham Wood.

    It feels unfair, and has led to suggestions of a rule change in the National League - perhaps that a second-placed team with a 15 or 20-point advantage on third place should go up automatically - but Williams and Notts County are quick to move away from such discussion.

    “I learnt very young that life is not fair, and once you get your head around that, it’s easier to function,” he says. “The big concern for me has been having a victim’s mentality, because when you are concentrating your energy on blaming a decision, the set-up of the league, the structure of promotion, it takes away from your focus and performance. 

    “Of course I have my personal opinion on it, which is very biased and should be taken with a fistful of salt, but we have to turn our attention away from it.”

    Langstaff is a little more forthcoming.

    “I personally think there should be two automatic spots,” he says, “and I would have said that at the start of the season, but what can we do? We just have to make sure we finish at the top if we can.”

    Win on Monday and they will take a huge step forward in that regard. The script may have been written for Reynolds, McElhenney and Wrexham, but Notts County are ready to provide an alternate ending to a thrilling story.