“It’s an underdog story,” says Gene Warman, an Ohio native sitting in a bar with his son in a city neither had heard of this time last year. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
Warman and his 22-year-old son Andrew are on a four-day trip from the US to watch their new-found love, Wrexham AFC. They flew into London the previous day and embarked on a four-hour, 183-mile drive to the northeast of Wales. Jetlag cannot be countenanced on a sacred trip such as this.
In an often brutal and bleak world, the recent resurgence of Wrexham, the city as well as the soccer club, lifts the soul. Tourists smile when asked for their thoughts on this small industrial city near the English-Welsh border, brought to the world’s attention by the soccer club’s owners, actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.
Locals have always loved talking about their club, the beating heart of this working-class community, but now there’s a confidence and, crucially, optimism, when doing so.
In loaning the club their money – over £3 million ($3.7 million) according to the club’s accounts – and the offshoots of their fame, Reynolds and McElhenney have brought hope to a city and its people. The future is exciting when you’re no longer fighting for survival.
Falling in love
Grey clouds cocoon the city on the eve of the biggest match in the club’s recent history. The nearby mountains contributing to the rain threat that never materializes. It is not an April day for the outdoors, but a perfect one for what has arguably become the most well-known pub in Wales, the No. 1 stop on the Wrexham tourist trail.
The Warmans have yet to venture into the center of the city, instead heading first to the Turf, a pub where the club was founded.
Those who have watched “Welcome to Wrexham,” the TV documentary which follows the owners’ 2021 takeover and first season in charge, need no explanation as to why this pub a few steps away from the main entrance of the stadium is a must-see for visitors.
From the first episode, landlord Wayne Jones and his customers are held as an example of how Wrexham AFC is woven into the fabric of people’s lives.
The pub looks much like it does on television: the food van in the parking lot, the painted red-brick wall with fans’ signatures, framed football shirts and other soccer memorabilia hanging from walls and pictures of Reynolds and McElhenney dotted around.
What has changed, as is the case for a lot of businesses in the city, is that there are more customers than ever. Trade has, Jones says, “practically doubled” since the documentary was first aired. A city that was struggling economically, especially when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, is now, he says, thriving.
“I dread to think where we would’ve been had Ryan and Rob not come in,” says Jones, a man who has become accustomed to interviews, this being his fourth of a day that has just become afternoon.
The Turf is full of life, locals mixing with tourists who want to drink at the pub they know from the show. Jones, a season ticket holder, says he scoffed at warnings from McElhenney to prepare for tourists once the documentary was aired. “As much as I love this town, we are just a small industrial town in northeast Wales,” he says. “But they’ve nailed it.”
Standing at the bar, sipping beers bought for them by a regular, are Los Angeles-based businessmen Rajat Bhattacharya and Arun Mahtani. The pair have tickets to watch Liverpool play the next day and felt they had to visit Wrexham. At a table a few meters away are husband and wife Thania and Jeff LaMirand from Washington, making Wrexham part of a short trip to Europe which will also encompass a few days in Madrid, Spain. There are no longer run-of-the-mill days at the Turf.
Jones says on a quiet day about 20 to 30 tourists visit the pub. “It’s every day, without fail,” he says, breaking out into a disbelieving smile.
“It’s a bit bonkers that we’re getting people from Colorado and Texas. There are five chaps just walked in now from Alabama. There’s a guy on the plane over from Alabama.
“The people that I’ve spoken to have said they fell in love with the documentary.
“The majority of them said they fell in love with the community, and it’s quite clever from Robert and Ryan because they could have just made another pure football documentary … But they focused on the town and Rob said to me, ‘I knew that if I could get Americans to see the town, they could relate to the people and then they’d want to be a part of it.’ And that’s exactly what’s happened.”
‘The searchlight has changed’
Wales was conquered by England in the 13th century, but the two countries would not be united politically until the 16th century.
It is a long, sometimes bloody history; 200 years of English invasions and Welsh revolts before the country was completely conquered and, though peaceful for hundreds of years, the relationship between the two neighbors is still complicated. They are different countries sharing common laws, friends for the most part despite cultural differences, yet like for many a once conquered nation, the past is not forgotten.
For north Walians, there is an added twist. Not only have they often felt a shadow looming over them from the bigger, more powerful neighbor to the east, but a disconnect with compatriots in the south, too.
There is a sense that the focus has always been on the south, almost everything is there: the capital city (Cardiff), the Senedd (the Welsh Parliament), the national stadium, the country’s two biggest cities and, in fact, most of the population. And there is no major highway from Cardiff to north Wales, just a winding trunk highway – an often-beautiful route, but not a quick one.
But now, there’s Wrexham with a story that, in hindsight, feels as if it was just waiting for Hollywood. The oldest soccer club in Wales, the third-oldest professional club in the world, saved from the brink by its fans; the club that was once in the higher echelons of the English football league system before it tumbled into the fifth tier of the English game, its fortunes taking a downturn both on and off the pitch. Then came Reynolds and McElhenney, with money, a plan and stardust.
“The searchlight has changed,” says Elen-Mai Nefydd, head of Welsh medium academic development at the city’s university, named after the medieval Welsh nationalist leader Owain Glyndwr.
“There hadn’t been much interest in us [the area], to the point where lots of people who live in Wrexham in the past would have preferred to say, ‘I live in northeast Wales, not far from Chester’ … to the point where people would almost bypass the name.”
Nefydd talks of there being an “energy” among the locality, mainly thanks to the soccer club, but also because of the city status given to Wrexham in 2022, plans to redevelop the city center and the “Wrexham Gateway project,” which aims to regenerate an area of the city that includes building a new stand at the club’s Racecourse Ground, which will increase the stadium’s capacity to over 15,000.
“There’s a proudness around saying now that you’re from Wrexham and that’s a huge shift, isn’t it, to be in a position where you’ve almost masked where you’re from to being proud of where you live and work,” she says.
A Welsh speaker, Nefydd talks passionately about the language, which is spoken by nearly 30% of the population, according to the 2022 Annual Population Survey (APS), which is around 900,600 people.
Throughout the documentary, soccer terminology is explained in English, American English and Welsh. One episode solely focuses on Wales’ history, all of which, says Nefydd, has “highlighted the importance of the language” and contributed to an “exceptional” confidence in the country for its language and culture.
“What Rob and Ryan have done is they’ve opened people’s eyes to the fact that we are not a dying language,” she says. “We’re a language that’s alive. People socialize in Welsh, they are educated in Welsh, we work in Welsh. If it takes two Hollywood stars to do that, then fantastic.”
‘A hymn to the working class’
Mark Griffiths is an English teacher and for nearly 40 years has been commentating on Wrexham games in his spare time. His voice can be heard on matchdays via the club’s website, and features in the podcast, ‘Final Whistle,’ and the local radio station, Calon FM.
For years, Griffiths has been overseeing the hashtag ‘Ask Wrexham’ ‘#askwxm’ on Twitter to generate interaction with listeners. For the most part, the same diehard 20 fans would take part, he says, and on matchdays there would be no questions at all because everyone would be at the match. But now, times have changed.
“The hashtag is completely out of control,” the 54-year-old says, explaining that he struggles to answer all the questions he receives even after introducing a one-hour weekly podcast specifically for that purpose.
It will come as no surprise to read that Griffiths has featured in “Welcome to Wrexham.” In 18 episodes, the show has managed to get viewers “hooked” on the city, he says, describing the show as McElhenney’s “hymn to the working class.”
“There was a concern … ‘Will we be made to look stupid?’ You know, the big-time guys coming in from civilization and pat the cave dwellers on their heads and save them and we all look like fools, and they haven’t,” he says.
Griffiths was a member of the Wrexham Supporters’ Trust which helped raise money to stop the club from going out of business. He was one of the 98.4% who overwhelmingly voted in favor of the American-Canadian takeover.
When Reynolds and McEllhenney put forward their proposal to the trust, Griffiths says they talked about having stewardship of the club, rather than ownership. They used, he says, “the right language.”
“I’m very cynical,” says Griffiths. “I like the idea of fan ownership. I like the idea that we don’t end up at the whim of one or two wealthy people. But this is that rare occasion that they are just clearly in it for the right reasons.
“I feel strongly about fans being the only people you can trust with a club, but these guys are for real. They’re amazing.”
In the shadow of the Racecourse Ground is the city’s university campus and, every Friday evening, its sports center is bustling. Spirits are high tonight and laughter fills the air; coaches are yelling orders, sometimes they tease when a challenge doesn’t go quite to plan. Three coaches scoot around the perimeters of the court, chasing balls which go out of bounds, as the players, who are all in electric wheelchairs, move around at quite some speed.
These are weekly sessions which have been made possible because of investment from the club.
Kerry Evans, Wrexham AFC’s disability liaison officer, is on the sidelines every week, overseeing a junior and adult team. When the powerchair teams were formed last August, Evans had intended to play, but there is too much to organize, she says; always a call to make, or a ringing phone to pick up, questions to answer, plans to be made.
The owners were, Evans says, “very prominent” in setting up powerchair football in the city and it has, she says, transformed lives.
“We’ve got players that come that say it’s what gets them up on a Friday,” she says.
Evans jokes she is the club’s go-to person for media interviews because, she says, her role is wholly positive. She became a full-time employee at the club last March but prior to that had been volunteering for about six-and-a-half years, doing what she does now, which is making the stadium more accessible and welcoming for people with disabilities.
Wrexham is the first club in Wales to fund a powerchair team, says Evans. Playing on an indoor court, a team consists of four players – a goalkeeper, a defender, a midfielder and an attacker – and they compete using a larger ball than your typical soccer ball, while goalposts are two upright posts six meters apart.
Caio Jones is a 22-year-old wheelchair user from Bangor, a city in the northwest of the country, about 69 miles from Wrexham, or a 70-minute journey one way. He is one of a few in the group who is ready to play competitively from next season.
For 12 months, Evans investigated the feasibility of bringing powerchair to Wrexham before making a proposal to the club’s board. Once approved, the club’s community trust coaches had to be trained, and chairs needed to be purchased. New, each chair – which have bumpers at the front to allow players to travel with the ball – costs about $5,000 to $7,500, says Evans.
“Rob and Ryan offered brand new chairs, which I did turn down in the beginning … I felt we really needed to prove that this was going to take off and be a thing,” she says. “We’re now struggling to keep up with the level of demand with the chairs that we need. It’s grown and grown.”
It is quite the change from the early 2000s when there were fears the club would be evicted from its stadium, or nearly 12 years ago when the Racecourse Ground and training facilities were sold to the university and fans raised more than £100,000 (almost $162,000 at August 2011’s exchange rate) in a day to save the club.
“I was around when fans were bringing in deeds to their houses to keep our club alive … without those people many years ago, we wouldn’t have a club now to even be discussed with Hollywood owners,” says Evans.
No one speaks negatively about Reynolds and McElhenney because their investment has made a difference; to the women’s team which was promoted this season to the Welsh first division, to the fans in wheelchairs who can now go to some away games thanks to a wheelchair accessible bus the club provides, to families of children with autism who have a quiet zone in the stadium available to them on matchdays.
“Wrexham football club would not have survived Covid due to the fan ownership,” says Evans. “Reading about people losing their business all across the UK [because of the impact of the pandemic] and Wrexham suddenly had this hope and excitement about it.
“We were one of the luckiest towns, as it was then, to come out of Covid with so much to look forward to, and both owners brought that to our town.”
Finally. Forty-four games into the season, and today is the day Wrexham could get promoted. No club has been stuck in the National League for longer. Fifteen often dreary years in the fifth tier; some nearly-there seasons, some never-come-close seasons.
Five times Wrexham has qualified for the playoffs since 2011 but each occasion ended in failure, which explains why seeds of doubt are hard for some to rid. But Wrexham should beat its opponent Boreham Wood at home, which would secure automatic promotion and the league title.
“Being an old-school Wrexham fan, I can’t get too carried away, I’ve seen a lot of disappointments over the years,” says Rob Clarke, the owner of mad4movies and another who features in the documentary.
Clarke’s DVD shop is in the city’s market hall. About 10 stalls are in business – selling dog food, sweets, plastic flowers and such – while the rest are empty. There is a sadness to a silent shopping quarter on a Saturday afternoon. Not everywhere in the city can thrive.
Clarke says he could make more money in another line of work, but over the last 17 years in business, his shop has become a hub for anyone wanting to talk about Wrexham AFC, and there’s nothing he loves doing more than that. “Usually put the world to rights on a Monday morning after the weekend results,” he says.
The documentary was first aired last year, and Clarke is still struggling to come to terms with its impact. “It’s crazy,” he says with a shake of the head and a smile.
“I’ve had people taking pictures of this place … Not even I take a picture of this place!” he says. “People are coming from all over, the American fans coming in and they’ve bought the DVDs. They know they can’t play them over there because it’s a different format, but they want a souvenir or something.”
Joyful chaos under the floodlights
Magic can happen under floodlights. A pitch becomes a stage, providing vivid color to a dark night. Bright lights, big emotions. The atmosphere crackles.
Wrexham is leading 3-1, the silence that greeted Boreham Wood’s first-minute goal long since replaced by over 10,000 delirious, singing fans. One delivers his farewell soliloquy to what he calls this “awful, awful, league,” with a few expletives thrown in for punctuation.
Five minutes into stoppage time and fans are rising to their feet, increasing the decibels, preparing for the full-time roar. And then the whistle blows.
Thousands pour onto the pitch, even though they were warned not to before kick-off. The heart rules during an intoxicating hit to the senses such as this. Players disappear in the red mist of flares; some are carried on the shoulders of fans, and joyful chaos ensues.
The pitch is now a metaphorical therapy couch, years of frustration and disappointment released and replaced with ecstasy.
Cameras capture McElhenney crying in the stands. Reynolds embraces his friend, a moment captured by Paul Rudd, the star of Marvel’s “Ant-Man” franchise, another Hollywood A-lister visiting the city. McElhenney would later say he “blacked out” during that moment.
The pair later joined the team on the pitch, jumping as if they were on pogo sticks when the trophy was lifted. Promotion to League Two achieved and done in style – over 100 points accumulated in a season for the first time in the club’s history, an unbeaten campaign at home, more than 100 goals scored and a record number of points collected in a single National League season.
And for the first time since 1988, four Welsh clubs will now play in England’s football league, with these clubs competing in the English system by virtue of the Welsh football league system having not been created when they were founded.
An end of a chapter, but not the story.
In its 158-year existence, the club has experienced nothing quite like these last two years. An unprecedented 24,000 of this season’s shirts sold by last December, turnover soaring, global sales accounting for 80% of merchandise sold. A (now former) National League team with a worldwide following. And not a negative to report, other than the £2.91 million ($3.61m) in losses for the year to June 2022, Reynolds and McElhenney’s first full season in charge.
Wrexham’s owners have charmed the city and its inhabitants and, in turn, the earthiness of the city’s people and their passion for the club has captivated, seduced almost, the rest of the world.
Celebrity combined with sporting romance is a heady mix. Season Two and League Two lie ahead.