Wrexham’s Hollywood takeover proves so much more than a publicity stunt
Ryan Reynolds delivered a line at the end of the ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ documentary series as if he was channelling his inner Deadpool.
“I’m really protective of Wrexham now,” said the Hollywood A-lister, best known for his portrayal of the super-antihero based on the Marvel Comics character.
“When somebody asks the question ‘why Wrexham?’ the veins in my neck start to pop out a little bit.”
What many considered a publicity stunt when Reynolds and his co-owner Rob McElhenney, the creator and star of American TV comedy series It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, announced their intention to buy Wrexham in September 2020 has turned out to be something quite different.
Through 18 episodes of the FX series, the fortunes of a football team competing in England’s fifth tier (although Reynolds and McElhenney are always keen to stress that Wrexham is indeed Wales’ oldest club) are woven between people engaged in the local community.
Those stories were as compelling as Reynolds and McElhenney watching games from afar in their New York and Los Angeles mansions, or the cameos from celebrity pals David Beckham and Will Ferrell.
In the end it was the mix of two worlds colliding that made Wrexham’s story stand out from football’s swollen number of fly-on-the-wall documentaries and resonate with a worldwide audience.
On Tuesday, father and son Ryan and Damon Hopkins were in The Turf – the pub adjacent to Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground and a regular feature of the documentary – having travelled from Australia to watch the Dragons play Maidenhead.
“Of course, Ryan Reynolds draws you into the programme,” says his namesake as Damon proudly predicts a 2-1 Wrexham win, with top scorer Paul Mullin – another star of the series – tipped to get both goals.
“You’ve seen his movies and you like his characters. But it quickly becomes more than that. You see that the community in Wrexham has had a hard time and you want to root for them.”
Reynolds has proclaimed Wrexham as an “underdog story” since becoming joint owner of a club formed in 1864 and whose ground remains the oldest venue to still stage international football.
The club joined the Football League in 1921 and has had its moments in the sun, most notably in the 1970s when Joey Jones and Mickey Thomas brought fun and quality in bucket loads before moving on to Liverpool and Manchester United.
There was European football courtesy of Welsh Cup triumphs – Wrexham even knocked Porto out of the Cup Winners’ Cup as a Fourth Division club – and memorable cup runs under Brian Flynn in the 1990s.
But Wrexham soon fell on hard times, fell out of the Football League and almost fell into oblivion. The club’s decay mirrored the decline of traditional coal and steel industries in the town.
The Racecourse resembled an ancient relic more than an international football stadium and visits from the Wales national team all but stopped.
Enter Reynolds and McElhenney. Exactly a year has now passed since they made their way through excited crowds in the town, Reynolds rolled on the Racecourse turf, and the ambition of reaching the Premier League was stated.
That might seem a tall order when you are currently spending your 15th successive season in the National League, but the evidence suggests the pair are in it for the long haul.
Much has changed over the last 12 months or so. TikTok has replaced Ifor Williams Trailers as the main shirt sponsor and the club is working with the Welsh Government to promote Wales abroad.
There has been heavy investment in Phil Parkinson’s squad, similar financial backing for the women’s team, and the launch of Powerchair Football, with Wrexham the first club to offer it in Wales.
The next step is the development of the derelict Kop and a new 5,500-capacity stand that will see the national team return to the town where the Football Association of Wales was founded in 1876.
“What the owners have done has been wonderful,” said Wrexham folk hero Thomas, who still attends games at The Racecourse.
“It’s been massive for the fans, but it hasn’t just changed the football club. It’s changed the community, and the town and wider area is thriving.”
So, too, is Parkinson’s team. A 1-0 win victory over Maidenhead, ironically the opponents Reynolds and McElhenney first saw Wrexham play last year, was their ninth successive home league win and moved them to within a point of leaders Notts County.
As Wrexham found to their cost last season, when the promotion dream died in the play-offs, escaping the National League is notoriously difficult. Only the champions are guaranteed automatic promotion.
Parkinson said: “We had the favourite tag and I felt we needed to evolve as the season went on.
“This club had no investment for a long time and it takes two to three transfer windows to get the squad as competitive as it is now.”
McElhenney ended the season one finale promising promotion would be achieved and a second ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ series will be out next year.
Only maybe this time with a proper Hollywood ending.
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Money can buy success in football, and Wrexham AFC were incredibly fortunate to get two well-heeled and positive-minded North Americans to not only act as fairy godmothers with the money but to have a business plan that wasn’t based on exploiting the club for personal financial gain. The town owes them a massive debt of thanks.
…and accept what they offer with both hands, such motives are almost unheard of in professional football…