“Welcome to Wrexham” is finally here and with it, we get the first real peek behind the curtain of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney’s master plan to buy a Welsh team in the fifth division of English football and turn it into a global force.
Or, at least, the peeks we are allowed to see. This is a documentary series made by its subjects, after all. And the fact that both Reynolds and McElhenney’s respective dispositions are so similar to some of the characters they portray in film certainly won’t do much to dissuade those people who are still suspicious of their takeover at Wrexham; nor will it dampen those critics who feel it’s more of a publicity stunt than an earnest love affair between Hollywood actors and a working-class Welsh town.
Despite that potential pitfall, Disney and FX’s “Welcome to Wrexham” doesn’t shy away from either the comedy or the seriousness inherent in its premise. And, as it winds its way through the first couple years of the club’s North American ownership, the picture painted is one that lays clear just how intertwined Wrexham and Wrexham AFC really are.
A North American Tale
While there will be plenty of scenes and moments to please the most seasoned fans of the game no matter where they hail from, this is a show firmly aimed at North American audiences, with little context for British football and its setting. English and Welsh slang terms are translated into their American equivalents, which is handy. There’s an explanation of the promotion and relegation system. There’s the simple-yet-necessary statement of fact that while the world’s biggest star players are paid kingly wages, the majority of Wrexham and their rival teams pay their players salaries comparable to your average 9-to-5 job.
It’s clear that part of the joy of the game for Reynolds and McElhenney was the learning process itself, however, and that is reflected in how the show is made. McElhenney even explains how the unique nature of promotion and relegation, a feature absent from all major American sports, helped get him hooked on the idea of owning a club in the first place.
There is a sense while watching the show that while this North American duo professes to have no idea what they’re doing, they have still been captured by the British system’s romantic possibilities, and that it’s possible for the viewers watching at home to catch their bug in the same way. At the very least, they’re going to learn where Wrexham is on a map.
Life in the National Football League is a hard one
The time spent looking at life outside of the Football League is unflinching. Even while the club and its fans adjust to their new celebrity owners, the harsh realities of the team are quickly laid bare. A healthy majority of the team and its coaching staff are on contracts that run out at the end of the year. The ground is well-worn, to put things politely. The dressing rooms are small and cramped, and the closest thing these players get to a medical treatment room is a bench placed in the middle of that dressing room.
Beyond the physical realities are the mental and emotional ones. In the second episode, viewers meet veteran Wrexham midfielder Paul Rutherford. They see pictures of his family and see him playing with his kids while he talks about his hopes and dreams for the future with Wrexham in the midst of the new ownership coming to be. In nearly the same breath, you hear the thought process of a player who knows exactly how the promotion and relegation system works: “I want to be part of it. But going forward, you have to be realistic about things. And I’m an elder statesman in the group.”
The documentary certainly isn’t callous in how it presents its subjects, but those subjects are shown at both their highest and lowest points in equal measure. And while the joy and hope that the promotion and relegation system can enable in fans is present in the series, so are some of its most crushing realities.
Despite the star power, the main character is Wrexham itself
There’s a featured band in “Welcome to Wrexham” named The Declan Swans. For the purposes of the show, at least, they practice and play just one song, over and over again:
Less than a mile from the center of town
A famous old stadium crumbling down
No one’s invested so much as a penny
Bring on the Deadpool and Rob McElhеnney
It’s clever and catchy in the way many songs designed to be sung by crowds of drunken football supporters are clever and catchy. The only difference for The Declan Swans is that people are actually singing it. “Nobody’s ever sung any of our songs before,” drummer Mark Jones tells the camera, smiling a little in disbelief.
The song that “Welcome to Wrexham” sings over and over again is a love letter to the town, its people, and the supporters, staff and players that come together at The Racecourse Ground, the unofficial heart of the city. While the owners and stars of the show here are larger-than-life, the players and fans are anything but. And the show shines brightest when it drills down into the minutiae of those people’s lives: their family troubles, their professional triumphs, their medical scares. For what feels like the first time, someone is singing their songs, too.
That’s not to say the show is completely without a sense of show business and obviously scripted bits, and those will most likely rub some people the wrong way. For that matter, the entire enterprise of how the series came to be is certainly not above criticism: is it morally right and correct to become owners of a team knowing that you want to turn the process into content?
For their part, Reynolds and McElhenney make no bones about wanting to make owning Wrexham into a documentary series, and even say as much in their pitch to the Wrexham Supporter’s Trust before the group votes on whether to sell the club to the pair or not.
But your answer to that first question will most likely determine how you feel about the show. Can you trust the men making a documentary about themselves? And does making the documentary in the first place negate what they have done for the club?
If there is one thing to say for the acting pair, it’s that they are not the stars of “Welcome to Wrexham.” Wrexham is. And through it all, there’s the sense that Wrexham AFC will be the ship that carries the town through the swells of life. No matter how simple or complex the day-to-day becomes, the team has the power to guide its followers through those storms.
And even in the fifth division of the English system, there are moments of hope, times to dream, a beacon appearing through the fog. That wisp of hope fanning into something more is the joy of “Welcome to Wrexham.” And if Reynolds and McElhenney’s team can replicate that feeling on the pitch as well as they’ve presented it in the docu-series, it would be difficult to say their ownership tenure isn’t off to a successful start.