Wrexham’s first preseason trip with fans was two hours from home and ended in a 5-0 win. Nearly a thousand supporters made the trip. Courtesy of Wrexham AFC
Nobody really knows where Wrexham AFC are heading under the control of superstar actors/owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, but all journeys must start somewhere, and 1,193 spectators will be able to say “I was there” on the day this sporting adventure really clicked into gear.
On Saturday, Wrexham were visiting The Lamb, a tiny non-league ground in Tamworth, England, which is as far removed as you can imagine from the showbiz glamour that Wrexham’s Hollywood owners have brought to their new team. If Wrexham make it to the English Football League and climb the ladder all the way to the Premier League thanks to the backing (100 percent control, completed from Wrexham Supporters Trust, and a £2m investment in the club) of Deadpool star Reynolds and McElhenney, the creator of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the 5-0 win at The Lamb, a ground nestled between a railway line and a shopping mall, will mark the moment when it all started.
Although Reynolds and McElhenney completed their takeover of Wrexham in February, halfway through the club’s season in the Vanarama National League (English football’s fifth tier), COVID-19 restrictions meant that Saturday’s preseason friendly against Tamworth was the first time that supporters have been able to watch their team since the two actors became involved with the Welsh club, which made the game feel like an official lift off.
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Of the 1,193 fans inside the stadium, 950 had travelled the 70 miles from Wrexham — they even had to endure the toilets being closed at half-time due to a pipe blockage in the visitors’ section — so it is fair to say that excitement and anticipation has really taken hold among a fan base that’s waited desperately for their team to escape England football’s non-league and return to the Football League (EFL) for the first time since being relegated in 2008.
“There aren’t many clubs at the EFL level who would take so many supporters to a friendly game, so it does show magnitude of the club and the challenge we have taken on,” Phil Parkinson, Wrexham’s newly-appointed manager, told ESPN. “There is an expectancy, but we have to big enough and strong enough to take that.
“We have to deal with and embrace it — that’s what playing for a big, ambitious club is all about. No job is ever easy, at whatever level you operate, and this one will certainly pose many challenges along the way.”
Parkinson’s very appointment by Reynolds and McElhenney highlights the ambitions they have for their team. The 53-year-old has managed over 800 games, with clubs including Sunderland and Bolton Wanderers and, in 2013, he took fourth-tier Bradford City to the EFL Cup final with wins against Arsenal and Aston Villa along the way. As an established manager with a strong reputation, attracting Parkinson to Wrexham is a coup and a statement by Reynolds and McElhenney, as is the summer signing of striker Paul Mullin, who scored a League Two record 32 goals in 46 games last season to help Cambridge United win promotion.
“I spoke to Rob [McElhenney] prior to coming onboard and have had several chats in the last week or so,” Parkinson said. “He’s interested in what players we are looking at, and I explain the certain targets and why we need them, let him know where we are in negotiations. He is in America and very frustrated that he hasn’t been able to get across as yet, but he is very interested and is liaising with Ryan in terms of the things I’m passing on to him.
“They are very involved and very passionate about bringing success to the club. I came here because it gives me the chance to build a club back up.”
Several fans to make the trip brought banners professing their appreciation for their new owners. Courtesy of Mark Ogden / ESPN
Sources have told ESPN that following a detailed search for a European football club, Reynolds and McElhenney bought Wrexham because McElhenney saw similarities between the town and his home city of Philadelphia in the sense of both being working-class regions with a passion for sport. And Wrexham is something of a sleeping giant in lower league terms, so the club has potential to grow and potentially even climb as high as the Premier League.
The Welsh side reached the European Cup-Winners’ Cup quarterfinals in 1976 and played against Manchester United in the same competition in the 1990-91 season. In 1992, they produced one of the FA Cup’s greatest-ever upsets by defeating reigning champions Arsenal in a 2-1 win at the Racecourse Ground. Although North Wales has long been a hotbed for fans of Everton and Liverpool given their proximity, Wrexham still command a large and loyal fan base, as shown by almost a thousand supporters making the two-hour journey to Tamworth.
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“We’re still pinching ourselves about Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds’ takeover of our club,” Ian, a Wrexham fan, told ESPN. “The Supporters Trust ownership model felt right at the time, but we were sliding into real obscurity. If the 2019-20 season hadn’t be terminated early [because of COVID-19], we might well have been relegated to the National League North.
“The Americans have brought a sense of humour to things. Their social media output shows they don’t take themselves too seriously, which is a good thing, and the new management team and players show good ambition. But all that said, I don’t want to see the club become corporate and to lose its soul. I don’t want us to become the lower-league version of Manchester City, a vehicle for a Gulf state to promote themselves.
“All the success in the world would not be worth it if the soul of our club is lost.”
Another fan, Gary from Ruabon, believes that the Reynolds-McElhenney takeover is only good news for the club.
“It’s an amazing story for us,” he said. “Most of us had begun to accept that Wrexham were destined never to get back into the EFL. It’s been heartbreaking at times to see the club struggle since relegation in 2008. But if nothing else, Ryan and Rob have brought joy back to Wrexham. They’ve given us hope and excitement and it’s all so surreal.
The hiring of Parkinson is another sign of Wrexham’s intent given his pedigree far higher up the ladder of English football. Ian Horrocks/Getty Images
“Having Hollywood stars in charge of your club is bizarre, really.”
Wrexham flags incorporating the American and Canadian flags — Reynolds is originally from Vancouver — were dotted around The Lamb on Saturday. One bore the words “Hollywood Fancy Dans,” with another saying “R.R McReynolds: Making Wrexham Great Again.”
The impact of having Hollywood A-listers in charge of the club can also be seen on Wrexham’s shirts, with TikTok signing a deal as kit sponsor and Expedia paying to have the company’s name on the back of the kit. It’s difficult to imagine any other non-league team being able to sell their shirt space to two multi-billion dollar companies.
At Tamworth, Wrexham played in their new green and grey away strip chosen by McElhenney as a tribute to the Philadelphia Eagles NFL team, which wears the same colours. But away from the glitz and celebrity, the only way for Reynold and McElhenney to ensure the Wrexham story sticks to the script is by making sure that they win. The ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ documentary that the two men are overseeing promises to be an access-all-areas insight into the rise and rise of a lowly football club, but while Tamworth was a promise of things to come, the real business of winning promotion starts when the National League season kicks off with a home game against Yeovil on Aug 21.
“You want to win things, you’re not in football to lose games,” defender Shaun Brisley, a summer signing from Port Vale, told ESPN. “The main aim is success at the end of it and that is promotion back to the Football League.
“I didn’t really know much about the owners, but if they are pulling in a manager of Phil Parkinson’s calibre, you know that they mean business this year. They are trying to get this big club back into the Football League and I just want to be part of that.”
It’s always sunny in Philadelphia, but they want some of that sunshine in Wrexham too.