It’s been 10 years since the fans of Wrexham AFC put everything on the line to save their club. Wedding plans went on hold, life savings were donated and one mystery individual even offered the deeds of his house.
“I actually know who did it,” says Evrah Rose, a poet and Wrexham fan, “but it’s quite cool to keep that part secret.” It’s hardly worth probing. Revealing their identity would undo one of the many elaborate twists in the ornately woven folklore of Wrexham AFC, the third oldest professional football club in the world, which in the Racecourse Ground, also boasts the world’s oldest international football stadium in continuous use.
A club that once competed in Europe, Wrexham were the first team ever to have points deducted after falling into administration. They dropped out of the Football League in 2008 and have stayed there ever since, despite four agonising play-off campaigns and clocking up the highest points total recorded without promotion. (A certain Jamie Vardy led the Fleetwood Town side to glory that year, making the “chat shit, get banged” marksman something of a hate figure in the town.)
Last November, another chapter of the Wrexham story began in earnest, starting life as a takeover rumour rumbling along in the murky depths of Twitter. “I heard it was Harry Redknapp,” says Danny Gruff, a music producer living in Manchester who spent last autumn navigating the rumour mills. “Then it was definitely Russell Crowe because his grandad’s from Wrexham or something.” There was even talk of Wrexham’s own Robbie Savage putting his hand in his pocket. But one thing was clear: a takeover of some sort was definitely on the cards. As negotiations progressed, even members of the Wrexham Supporters’ Trust were in the dark as to the identity of the club’s new suitors.
Of some two thousand Trust members, 98.6 per cent voted in favour of the takeover. And so, on 16th November 2020, the Trust, who had salvaged the club from financial ruin, handed over control of their beloved club to Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia creator Rob McElhenney.
The global heat map of Always Sunny streams surely glowed brightly over North Wales following the announcement, as fans balanced the random Deadpool costumes seen about the town by racking up hits on McElhenney’s long-running sitcom. “I think I managed the whole fourteen series in two and a half weeks – claimed to the missus’ that I was doing it for research,” says Simon Cooke, a season ticket holder associated with the Trust. While Reynolds is more famous than his Wrexham co-owner, fans have warmed slightly more to the lesser-known McElhenny, particularly after he paid for a disabled fan’s much-needed bathroom adaptations. “His support towards the club has been more vocal than Ryan’s. Everyone loves him at the moment,” says Gruff.
Accompanying the takeover is a documentary. Welcome to Wrexham is slated for release on Disney+, along similar lines as other fly-on-the-wall football documentaries, such as Amazon Prime’s All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur and Netflix’s Sunderland ‘Til I Die, the series McElhenney was so moved by that he decided to buy a club himself. Yet, the fairy-tale narrative arcs of reality TV are yet to materialise for either club – Tottenham’s constant transfer ponderings obscure a club treading water and Sunderland is far from “where they belong” as they shape up for their fourth year in the third tier of English football.
There’s a new force fuelling Wrexham fans’ pre-season trepidation: a sense of no-holds-barred urgency. “I think promotion this season is very, very realistic, but I think if we don’t get it, there’s going to be pitchforks,” says Rose. Not only does the weight of twelve years spent in the Conference feel especially leaden this time around, but their embarrassment of riches at times also seems exactly that – an embarrassment, sudden and unexpected, that must be justified as quickly as possible.
What gives the Wrexham takeover its edge is of course the global celebrity of McElhenney and Reynolds. The two actors have no historic or biological connection to the area and yet they’re effusive in their praise of the long-suffering fanbase, expressing humbly the privilege bestowed upon them by the town. All signs suggest they’re actually happy to be there. It’s a stark contrast to beleaguered Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley, a man who has become a symbol of what we’ve come to expect of football club owners – shady, elusive and disconnected from the supporters.
There are unavoidable comparisons with other clubs that have received celebrity takeovers though. Salford City is one; taken over in 2014 by the local lads of Manchester United’s “Class of ‘92”, Salford became the Football League’s pantomime villains after a series of questionable financial and moral decisions. On mention of Salford, Cooke bites back, Wealdstone Raider-style. “Everyone’s on social media saying ‘all the bad stuff will come to you’. We’ve had the bad stuff already. We’ve earned this. And we’re different to Salford because they haven’t got any fans, they’re not a real club. They’re not going to get five thousand fans buying season tickets.”
Although “Rob and Ryan” have agreed to not score the moral own-goal of changing the club’s colours, kits and badge à la Salford City, there are some similarities. New manager Phil Parkinson’s previous job was at League One Sunderland (maybe he just loves documentaries…), recent additions to the squad include persuading League Two Player of the Year Paul Mullin to drop down a division – much to the consternation of Football Twitter – and the club’s first-ever sleeve sponsor is Aviation Gin, another of Reynolds’ many business ventures. “The fear is that it might become more of a brand than a better football team,” says Gruff, although recent summer signings put them in a strong position to dominate the League.
As far as ticketing goes, Wrexham is certainly a savvy investment. They’re the only professional football team in North Wales playing in the English leagues and, with a catchment area rivalled only by Plymouth Argyle, it’s hoped that coachloads of converts from this rugby-mad part of the world might end up in the Racecourse “Kop” (currently under renovation).
Fans like Gruff provide a model for others who might be attracted back too. After moving away for work, he fell out of love with football, turned off by some of the scuffles he witnessed at games (Wrexham was never really his “main club” anyway, more his hometown team). “It does feel like Wrexham is on the up again,” he says of the town as well as the club. “Now I love going back – mainly because of family – but absence makes the heart grow fonder.” It certainly makes a hometown return easier when the town is buzzing with new investment, a boost that’s set to increase as thousands of fans travel into the town every fortnight.
That new investment also extends to women’s football. Recent signing Rosie Hughes scored four goals in an impressive 6 – 1 win at the Racecourse Ground against Northop Ladies in pre-season, all celebrated with gusto online. “It’s quite refreshing really,” says Rose. “Women’s teams are often forgotten. Often more investment goes into the male youth teams than the women’s first teams,” she concedes. Shortly after the game, McElhenney used a grateful tweet from the Women’s Team to outline their vision for the club: “One town. One team. One Wrexham”. Cries for a movement towards gender parity come from the very top.
“Don’t get me wrong, if it all goes horribly wrong, we’ll be left with egg on our face with it all being played out so much in public,” concludes Cooke. “But Ryan Reynolds was on The One Show last week talking about Wrexham. Our owner reads the bedtime story on CBeebies.” On the rollercoaster ride that is Wrexham, it’s harder than ever for the fans to get off. At least this time though, it’s a case of “scream if you want to go faster”.