Less than five minutes into the premier episode of the new docuseries “Welcome to Wrexham” on FX, incoming club owner and television multihyphenate Rob McElhenney gives the crew a tour of his working-class origins in south Philadelphia.
With his father, McElhenney drops in on the well-worn, modest row house where he grew up just a few blocks from Dickinson Square Park. Virtually nothing about the place has changed, he says. As he shows his young son the shoebox of a bedroom, McElhenney comments on the hardscrabble lives of so many of those who make the city home.
“The Philadelphia that I know, and the Philadelphia that identifies itself, are people who work really hard for everything they have,” McElhenney says.
McElhenney stands in the raucous crowd at a home Eagles game — no fancy luxury box for him, even though the television powerhouse could certainly afford one. For McElhenney, the Eagles offer more than just a diversion for Philadelphians. Fandom is a badge of identity, a collective faith that brings a disparate community together.
In North America, a professional sports team is a civic institution. But in the United Kingdom, a team is a public trust — quite literally in the case of Wrexham A.F.C., a club that was founded in 1867 and stands as the oldest in Wales, and one of the oldest in the world. Beginning in 2003, the team fell on hard times not unlike its post-industrial locality. Wrexham is mired in U.K. football’s fifth tier — the lowest professional league in the nation and outside the 92-team football “pyramid.” The team has been desperate to return to league play among the top four leagues, where it hasn’t competed in a dozen years.
Until recently, McElhenney was a traditional American sports fan, indifferent to the game we call soccer, if not outright confused by its appeal. It wasn’t until he observed the obsessive attachment to British soccer of his close friend and Englishman Humphrey Ker — an actor-writer on McElhenney’s show “Mythic Quest” — that McElhenney develops his own curiosity about football. He’s charmed by many of the parallels to Philadelphia fandom and floored by the high-stakes promotion and relegation system of British football. The more McElhenney learns, the more he realizes he could get really into this exotic, tantalizing pursuit.
A monster sports fan who now has the resources to possibly own some kind of minor league team, McElhenney decides that British soccer — with its working-class qualities — might be the perfect place to scratch that itch.
McElhenney enlists A-list movie star Ryan Reynolds, a man as passionate about interesting entrepreneurial investments as McElhenney is about pro sports. With the help of Ker and Inner Circle Sports, a firm that brokers the purchases and sales of pro sports teams, the pair identifies Wrexham as ripe for acquisition. The club is struggling to stay afloat under the ownership of its fan base, an entity long on loyalty, but short on cash. A marriage of convenience featuring the strangest of bedfellows is born, with McElhenney and Reynolds playing the roles of saviors.
As Reynolds and McElhenney stroll one fall afternoon across the pitch of Wrexham’s historic Racecourse Ground, Wrexham’s home venue and the oldest active football stadium in the world, they digest what they’ve gotten themselves into.
“There is a version of the story where we are villains,” says McElhenney.
“That’s usually the story in my head,” Reynolds says, before pivoting to defiant optimism.
COVID restrictions kept McElhenney and Reynolds from attending their first match at Racecourse Ground until Oct. 30, 2021, almost a full year after acquiring the club. It was a brisk Saturday afternoon, a packed house watching Wrexham face off against Torquay United, another team with financial issues that’s been in and out of the professional pyramid in recent years.
In the stands, a nurse, Julie Birrell, 63, sits alongside her son, Sam, 29, a welfare benefits officer who wears a Philadelphia Eagles jersey. “A tribute to the chairman,” Sam tells me. The Eagles’ “midnight green” quickly became an unofficial alternate jersey for Wrexham, one that can be seen on locals as they stroll the narrow promenade of Hope Street. (Their official away jersey for 2021-22 was also midnight green.)
Birrell attended her first Wrexham match in 1972. Her father, 97, who sits a couple of rows back, is the oldest living Wrexham season-ticket holder, and has been a fan since 1931. As a kid, she and her dad would crowd into the “Kop,” the terrace at the far end of the pitch where die-hards stood for the entirety of the game.
Initially, Julie and Sam cast a jaundiced eye toward Wrexham’s new monied North American owners. “Was this some kind of rich man’s toy?” Julie wondered. “Will they get fed up in a couple of years and abandon us? We’ve been there.”
For his part, Sam found it difficult to square Wrexham’s working-class roots as an old mining and manufacturing market town with the personae of a couple showbiz hobbyists. “Are Hollywood movie stars really interested in the working people of Wrexham? Do they represent us?” But after watching McElhenney and Reynolds operate — pouring cash into the parched operation, reaching out to the fan base on social media, learning some Welsh as a gesture of respect to Wrexham’s heritage — the Birrells bought in quickly.
“You realize they’re normal people who got rich, rather than being rich people,” Sam says.
Buying Wrexham A.F.C. is certainly an act of noblesse oblige on behalf of a community that hasn’t sipped from the chalice of globalization that’s enriched London or Los Angeles. It also provides the ultimate sim exercise: Take a fifth-tier Welsh soccer club and transform it into a profitable competitive endeavor with global appeal. Ready, go. That entrepreneurial component certainly appeals to Reynolds, who has enjoyed his ventures into mobile technology — he has a substantial stake in Mint Mobile — and artisanal spirits (Aviation American Gin). There’s also a degree of vanity in the exclusivity that accompanies owning a sports team, something few humans on Earth have the wherewithal to do.
Owning a football club allows those owners to exist vicariously through professional athletes. When McElhenney and Reynolds live and die with every attacking run, diving save and set piece when Wrexham take the pitch at the crack of dawn on Saturdays, Los Angeles time, they’re more aligned with the denizens of Wrexham, their adopted home — than with Philadelphia.
Early in the 2021-22 season, McElhenney and Reynolds encounter their first rude awakening as owners when they learn that the £100,000 pitch they installed prior to the season is defective — and resodding will cost £200,000. Such is life as a club owner, an indignity that’s even more onerous in the National League because there’s virtually none of the broadcast revenue that fills the coffers of big-time sports franchises.
When asked during their first week in Wrexham, back in late October, whether they’re prepared for the money pit that is franchise ownership, they insist that for all of the necessary capital investments and bankroll required to give the club a fighting chance for promotion, there is a way.
“If you really break down the economics of this, there’s a way to do this that’s different than any way that it’s ever been done,” McElhenney says. “Does that mean that we don’t hit a certain point where we’re writing big checks and we’re scared to write them? Of course not. We’ve already done that, and we’re about to do that a couple more times, but that’s just like any other investment.”
McElhenney then alludes to Tom Werner (co-owner of the Boston Red Sox) and Jerry Jones (principal owner of the Dallas Cowboys) as evidence that it’s not inordinately difficult to avoid losses. As incongruous as those parallels are, it speaks to McElhenney’s infectious ambitions for the club. Despite Ker’s attempts to temper his expectations, McElhenney deeply believes that, over time, there’s a path to the top of Britain’s football pyramid for Wrexham if ownership and management execute their strategy and believe in the right things.
It’s nearly impossible to find anyone in the town who doesn’t regard McElhenney and Reynolds as agents of good — I couldn’t find a soul in five days that week. As easy as it would be to see the story as a couple of slick carpetbaggers using a treasured civic institution as a plaything, Wrexham A.F.C. supporters have wandered in the wilderness far too long to not recognize sustenance and relief when they see it. For Reynolds, the economic imperatives of running Wrexham as a solvent football club are indivisible from the human value of the project. If the good people of Clwyd are drawn to their new patrons’ optimism, Reynolds says he’s drawn to the narratives embedded in their lives.
“There’s a lot here to honor,” Reynolds says. “That’s part of the reason we’re making a documentary around the club. The last few days that I spent in this town, it is quite literally raining stories. We need a titanium umbrella because there are people hitting it. Everywhere I look, every person I speak to away from the camera or on camera, they have something to say that is just unbelievable.”
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“Welcome to Wrexham” on FX — owned, as ESPN is, by the Walt Disney Company — is well-situated both to highlight a compelling story of a town and its venerable football team and to leverage that storytelling into broadcast revenue, of sorts, that can be reinvested into the club. In that sense, the docuseries is branded content of the highest order — a win-win, provided things go well.
McElhenney and Reynolds are undoubtedly the protagonists of “Welcome to Wrexham,” but the most demonstrative locals are its soul. The most compelling figure of the early episodes is Wayne Jones, the boyish landlord (what Americans might call manager) for the past 14 years of The Turf Hotel — known as “The Turf” — a pub established in the 1840s that sits adjacent to Racecourse Ground. Jones is such an integral part of the universe of Wrexham AFC that his five-year contract extension with the pub’s owners to remain King of the Turf is worthy of a tweet.
On the Sunday evening following a disappointing 1-1 draw against Torquay United, the Turf is dark, though a few patrons still inhabit it. No cameras or crew from the show are present, as Jones explains that the power had been cut to the pub. The Turf had just shelled out £60,000 on a new roof, but it was “still pissing water,” Jones says.
He immediately offers a pint to anyone who’ll endure the darkness, and among those sitting at the bar is “Half-Dead Trev,” an affable, bald middle-age man with a white beard wearing a black hoodie. Jones boasts that the pub is 180 years old, and that “Trev helped build it.” Jones is a benevolent insult comic with love for the die-hards he teases, whether behind the bar or serving breakfast baps and chips and gravy out of the Turf’s “Butty Van,” its version of a food truck, during daylight hours.
The ancient adornments of the place are still visible in the darkness: the sign on the wall that reads “nobody gets out sober,” the framed tributes to famed Wrexham clubs of old, signatures of some of the greats scrawled beneath those photos, “Here They Come the Mighty Champions” proudly italicized above an arch, the Welsh flag with “THE TURF” in black tape above the red dragon and “WX MFC” below, plaid carpet the likes of which you’d likely never find even in Southern California’s most ironic venues.
Despite the goodwill for McElhenney and Reynolds bathing the village, the regulars haven’t liked what they’ve seen on the pitch. Not only is the team underachieving, but the style of play has been unimaginative, and some grumble that manager Phil Parkinson is too conservative. Asked what he thinks of the lush, new sod, Jones squawks, “It’s all well and good having a nice-looking pitch, but then you have donkeys running about [on Saturday].”
Kvetching is par for the course at any pub at any level of British football, but there’s nothing that could dissuade Jones or any of those standing in line on Friday at the team shop desperate to pick up a ticket to Saturday’s match from centering the team in their collective life of Wrexham. As Reynolds is fond of pointing out, Wrexham is a “global underdog,” even if the club is enjoying an infusion of outside investment. To wit, the village voted to leave the European Union in 2016 by a 59-41 margin.
“Welcome to Wrexham” touches on Wrexham’s history, civic life, the character of the residents, the plight of the team’s aspirational players and the workaday tasks of managing a club. But for all of the quaint local flavor, the series is ultimately about what it takes in sports today to lift a team mired in mediocrity to improbable heights.
Goodwill, passion — and cold, hard cash.