It’s Saturday night in Wrexham and the BBC’s production trucks are already in town, parked up outside the Racecourse Ground next to The Turf pub, ready to screen Sunday’s FA Cup tie against Sheffield United.
According to Wayne Jones, the pub’s landlord, a space has been reserved for Gary Lineker, the BBC presenter and former England international, next to his burger van.
It is hard to know whether Jones is joking or serious. After all, anything seems possible at Wrexham these days.
“Night and day” is the expression Jones uses to describe the difference between Wrexham now and Wrexham before it underwent a Hollywood makeover.
Ryan Reynolds, star of the Deadpool film franchise, and Rob McElhenney, the co-creator of the long-running FX series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, bought the non-League club two years ago. It would be fair to say nothing has been the same in Wrexham since.
Average attendances at the Racecourse Ground have doubled to close to 10,000 — a figure higher than more than half the 72 clubs in the Football League, which is where Wrexham, top of the fifth-tier National League, are desperate to return after a 15-year absence.
Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent on players. A new stand is being built on the site of the old Kop, where the diggers have already moved in. The profile of the club has changed beyond all recognition. Wrexham are firmly on the map.
More about Wrexham’s revolution on The Athletic…
“They’ve done what they promised to do,” Jones says. “They are human beings with big, big hearts. Yes, they’ve got big bank balances but they’re down to earth, they get it and they’re genuine.”
Jones takes a sip from his glass and looks at the stadium behind us. “Wrexham Football Club is thriving,” he says. “The town is thriving.”
Reynolds’ and McElhenney’s autographs are on one of the walls inside The Turf and their names are also among the contacts in the landlord’s mobile phone.
“Eventually there will come a time when I put my foot in it and say something wrong,” Jones says, sounding like a man who fears that could happen.
“I Whatsapped Rob when we were winning 4-1 at Coventry (in the FA Cup third round). I said, ‘What the f*** have you created here? We’re not used to this’.”
Jones shakes his head. “What’s happening to Wrexham Football Club is weird. In The Turf, we’re sort of in the eye of the storm. Tonight the pub is full and 50 per cent of them are Americans.”
Jason Rosen, a 53-year-old from Washington DC, is among them. Rosen, who grew up playing American football and openly admits he had little time for “soccer”, describes how he was “captivated” by Welcome to Wrexham, the documentary series that was screened on Disney+ in August.
“Watching that was 100 per cent the catalyst for my interest (in coming here),” he says. “The only thing I knew about Wales before that was that the Prince of Wales has some responsibilities here and that Cardiff is a fabulous place to watch rugby. Other than that, and besides Tom Jones and Catherine Zeta-Jones, I didn’t really know too much about the country.”
Rosen smiles. “When you watch American TV, your perception… and I had this conversation today with a fairly-educated Welsh person — his favourite show was Cheers. Cheers doesn’t exist. Cheers is a fictitious bar in Boston.
“I said when I watch Welcome to Wrexham I’m watching Jordan (Davies) and Aaron (Hayden) in the team, and Wayne in The Turf. These are real people and real places. So my expectations and perceptions when coming here… I wanted to know what’s the rest of the story to what I just saw.”
Jones thinks he may already have the answer to that question. “I’ve had a few scotches — it’s my wife’s 40th birthday – and I’m sitting outside in the cold talking to you from the heart. Wrexham Football Club deserves what’s coming to it. And what’s coming to it is the absolute best — because we will win this league.
“But tomorrow we’re just going to sit back and enjoy it. It’s the FA Cup, it’s a free shot for us, and we have an opportunity to go out and show the world what Wrexham Football Club is.”
It’s tempting to wonder how Reynolds and McElhenney view the FA Cup. The priority — and it really is all that matters for Wrexham right now — is promotion from the National League.
At the same time, Wrexham have a rich history with the FA Cup, most notably their famous 2-1 victory over Arsenal, the reigning First Division champions at the time, back in 1992.
Wrexham’s 4-3 win over Coventry City, who are three divisions above them, was another special occasion for everyone involved at the club. There were 4,500 Wrexham fans in the away end. Reynolds and McElhenney must have regretted not being among them.
Instead, it was left to Humphrey Ker, the English comedy writer and the man responsible for McElhenney first becoming interested in owning a football club, after he encouraged him to watch the Sunderland Til I Die Netflix series, to show the two of them what they were missing.
“I sat in the stand with Humphrey at Coventry and he had them on his very clever phone where you can get both of them on FaceTime at the same time, and they were just ecstatic,” Les Reed says. “He was showing them the fans at the far end of the stadium, the way they were celebrating, and they were wrapped up in it.
“Because they are who they are, and because of the way they explore the cultural and historical side around Wrexham, they will know about the Arsenal game and would see the FA Cup as part of the patchwork of this story they want Wrexham to be.
“There’s a place in that story for things like that Coventry game and this Sheffield United game. They are in it for the romance and the story as much as anything else, so they went to live those moments.”
Reed, who was previously the English Football Association technical director and, prior to that, vice-chairman at Southampton, is at the Racecourse Ground for the Sheffield United tie. His involvement at Wrexham as an advisor to the board is intriguing and goes under the radar somewhat in the documentary.
Then again, it sounds like he has been keeping a low profile since day one.
“There was one game left once I’d agreed to do what they wanted, and that was Dagenham away,” Reed says. “I think a decision had been made that they were going to look for a change of coach if they didn’t get into the play-offs. I went to that Dagenham game in disguise, basically. I went with my son and we kind of went as fans, sat in the background, with a view to just casting an eye over the team and how the game went.”
Wrexham drew, missed out on the play-offs as a result, and Reed spent the next few weeks working 24-7, interviewing coaches and signing players. But not any players — Paul Mullin had just finished as the League Two top scorer and led Cambridge United to promotion. The striker was dropping down two divisions to sign for Wrexham.
“We were trying to put together a team that could win the league at the first attempt,” Reed explains. “That wasn’t a deadline. It was, ‘Can we give it a go?’ So we were buying players who had that experience at a higher level. A few, if you like, marquee players.
“The Paul Mullin one — it’s that balance between making a statement by signing Paul Mullin and getting yourself in trouble because everyone thinks, ‘Wow, what have they paid Paul Mullin?’ I did have a chat with Barry Fry (Peterborough’s director of football) at a game at Wembley and he was convinced we were paying him £14,000 a week.”
Reed breaks into laughter. “Come on, Barry!”
Listening to Reed, who has been around professional football since the 1980s, it is clear he is consumed by Wrexham’s story and the rollercoaster ride that it has been.
“Every game is an event,” he says, smiling. “Even last week when we beat Maidstone 3-2 after being 2-0 up… how many goals we’ve scored in injury time — it just adds to that fairytale effect, ‘They’ve done it again’.”
The Maesgwyn, a Ben Tozer long throw away from the Racecourse Ground, 3pm.
Every table is full and it has been like this for a while — and not just because Wrexham are playing a fourth-round FA Cup tie for the first time in 23 years. Trade has rocketed in these parts on matchdays. Much like hope.
“The owners have given us everything that we’ve been lacking for the last 25-30 years,” says Graham Tocque, who has been following Wrexham since 1977. “Yes, they put the initial money in to kickstart us, but they’ve also given us the profile around the world we’ve never had.
“When we used to win the Welsh Cup, that was a passage into the old European Cup Winners’ Cup. We got to the quarter-finals of that in 1976 and lost to Anderlecht. So we’ve had profile in Europe before. But what they’ve given us now in the USA, Canada and I don’t know where else… it’s just immense.
“People complain and say they can’t get tickets any more for matches. You turn the clock back a few years and there were 5,000 spare tickets. Now they’re like gold dust.”
Tocque and the others around his table could tell stories for hours about Wrexham, both the good times and the bad, on the pitch and off it. What shines through more than anything, though, is that the football club is the glue that keeps their friendships intact.
“You see the likes of us, who live 10 miles away, we’re all coming together, like 10-12 of us every week,” Dave Knowles adds. “Wrexham is a big area but not compact. A lot of cities have big populations within. Wrexham is spread quite wide. So now you are getting mini-buses, taxis in from all these areas, outlying villages, every week. You’re seeing fans you haven’t seen for years. Everyone’s got a buzz. It’s like the town has woken up again.”
Alun Williams nods. “Because of the club’s geographical location, on a Tuesday night you can get a coach from 70 miles away coming here. No other club, or a town of this size, can attract support from that far away. And that’s a unique thing about Wrexham. It’s a representative of north Wales, not just Wrexham. We’ve got a massive catchment area and the potential is extraordinary.”
Williams looks over his shoulder, in the direction of the Racecourse Ground. “We could double that attendance.”
Nobody can accuse Ryan Reynolds of lacking ambition.
“In 10 years’ time, the plan is, now and has always been, Premier League,” Reynolds told the BBC on the eve of the game. “I can’t really put a date on that. But if it’s theoretically possible to go from fifth division to Premier League, why wouldn’t we? Nobody’s ever done anything great in this world thinking like, ‘We want to go halfway’. We want to go all the way. And we believe we can do that.
“We believe we can expand this incredible stadium — the oldest international stadium on earth — to something that can support international matches. To something that can support a Premier League team. That is what we want. Call us crazy if you want, but that is what we want to do.”
It doesn’t take long to realise that Reynolds has totally fallen in love with Wrexham. He described co-owning the club as “the greatest experience of my entire life”, and made it sound as though everything he does now revolves around a football team that is more than 5,000 miles from his home. “I love it because it’s a project that is going to be multi-decades,” Reynolds said.
In other words, Reynolds and McElhenney are here to stay.
One thing is for sure, they will not be short of material from this pulsating cup tie against Sheffield United when it comes to the next documentary series. It was an FA Cup classic, a game that was full of drama and had a little bit of everything — unfortunately for Wrexham, that included an injury-time equaliser.
Reynolds had not long taken his seat when Sheffield United took the lead after only 63 seconds. With less than 10 minutes on the clock, Wrexham had lost two of their defenders through injury too, and at that point, it had the makings of a long afternoon for the Welsh club.
— The Athletic | Football (@TheAthleticFC) January 29, 2023
“For the team to reset as well as it did was outstanding,” Phil Parkinson, the Wrexham manager, said. “A lesser team would have lost four or five-nil.”
Fuelled by an electric and raucous atmosphere inside the Racecourse Ground — who knows what this place will sound like when the rubble behind one of the goals has been replaced by a new stand — Wrexham regrouped and took the game to Sheffield United.
Tozer’s long throws caused chaos and yielded reward, but Parkinson was right to talk about moments of quality from his players. Mullin, in particular, was outstanding and could have been forgiven for thinking that he had scored the winner when he calmly converted with four minutes of normal time remaining.
We’ve got Mullin, super Paul Mullin, I just don’t think you understand, he plays in red and white, he’s f****** dynamite, we’ve got super Paul Mullin.
Those words reverberated around the ground, to the point it genuinely looked as though everyone supporting Wrexham was on their feet and singing along, including Reynolds, who had been shaking his head in disbelief moments earlier when Ollie Palmer’s shot cannoned off the crossbar.
But then John Egan decided to stray from the script. The Sheffield United defender effectively pulled the plug out of the Racecourse Ground stereo, tapping in at the far post from a corner to silence the home support with a 95th-minute goal to make it 3-3.
When @RMcElhenney and I got into this it all felt so impossible. But impossible is @Wrexham_AFC’s favourite colour. That was one of the most exciting things I’ve EVER seen. Thank you each and every Wrexham supporter who came out and aimed your heart at that pitch tonight ⚔️🏴⚔️ pic.twitter.com/s4dbCDJS7W
— Ryan Reynolds (@VancityReynolds) January 29, 2023
Several Wrexham players collapsed to the pitch at the final whistle. Reynolds was there to pick them up moments later.
“Ryan came into the dressing room afterwards, I’d just finished my bit, and he said some great words to the lads,” Parkinson added. “That meant a lot to the team. They gave everything today.”
(Top photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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