How it started: newly laid pitch, new section for disabled fans, newly refurbished stand, new corporate suite, new international signing, new owners in the centre circle, one of them speaking Welsh, new dawn, new hope, new, new, new.
How it’s going: an 84th-minute equaliser for the visitors, a third draw in five home league games, dropping to 13th in the table, that old feeling that maybe promotion is not on the cards this season and a chorus of, “You can stick your f*****g Deadpool up your arse” from the 200 or so travelling fans from Torquay.
Welcome to Wrexham.
It was, as football folk say, a day of two halves. But nobody ever said this would be easy — it would be a pretty boring documentary if it were.
For those waking up from a coma, Wrexham, the Welsh club that have nearly gone bankrupt twice since 2004 and have just started their 14th straight season in English football’s fifth tier, are now owned by actor, director, producer and screenwriter Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds, the star of Deadpool and several other smash-hit films.
McElhenney is pretty famous in the US for his role in the long-running comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and is a respected figure in the TV industry. Reynolds is Ryan bloody Reynolds.
Yes, it is bonkers that these two pals bought Wrexham earlier this year but there they were in what nobody can call the posh seats at Maidenhead United on Tuesday, roaring themselves hoarse. Then again on Wednesday in The Turf, the pub plumbed into Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground, meeting fans, downing shots and joking about sneaking onto the pitch. Their pitch.
Wrexham fans have been waking up from nights like that, slapping their faces and saying, “Yes, we really have been bought by Hollywood stars and everything is going to be amazing” ever since the takeover was first mooted, almost a year ago.
Since then, there have been several “this is really happening” moments. The initial proposal to the supporters’ trust, which owned the club; the almost unanimous vote to approve the deal; the pair’s first viral video on social media; big-money signings; global sponsors; a new manager; investment in Wrexham’s famous but faded ground. But there can be absolutely no doubt about it now.
Their new, gloriously unlikely owners have tasted defeat on a cold night in southern England, Wrexham Lager in The Turf and a gut-wrenching draw at home. They have been initiated. And they appear to have loved it.
Just how much “Rob and Ryan”, as everyone connected to the club calls them, are enjoying themselves became clear on Thursday when they held their first press conference since buying the club. Like everything else to do with Wrexham these days, it was a bit different.
There was so much interest in Wrexham’s latest custodians that the press conference took place in the stands: Rob and Ryan standing on the stairs, a scrum of reporters and camera crews covering half a dozen rows, fanned around them. There were at least four different BBC outlets represented, as well as Sky Sports, BT, Talksport radio, S4C — a free-to-air Welsh-language TV channel — and all the newspapers, including, just in case anybody forgot where they were, the Non-League Paper.
But because this revolution is being televised via a documentary in the style of Sunderland Til I Die, cameras were pointing at the media, too. After the stars of the show went upstairs to check out the new Aviation Gin Suite, staff from the “Welcome to Wrexham” team appeared with release forms for us extras to sign “just in case” our incisive questioning makes the final edit.
There was also a completely different set of cameras at the ground that day, filming an advert in The Turf’s car park. Not that anybody was batting any eyelids. Why would they? Wrexham have TikTok on the front of their shirts, Expedia on the back and Aviation Gin, another of Reynold’s investments, on the sleeve. When you are owned by a man with 39 million followers on Instagram, it is amazing who wants to be your friend.
And who wouldn’t want to be friends with this double act right now? They are box office.
Reynolds, taller, more famous, more tanned, takes the lead. Witty and self-deprecating, he gets the most laughs, too.
Asked what it was like to be heckled by Maidenhead fans, he said he only usually gets that treatment at home. Responding to a comment about Wrexham being the National League’s “oil money” club, he quipped “I have olive oil at home”.
When asked how long they intend to stick around, McElhenney started by saying the club “had been around for 160 years and will be around for another 160 years”, before Reynolds jumped in with “unless there’s a meteor and then we’re all fucked”. That went out live on BBC Wales. Nobody minded, though — it was Ryan Reynolds.
But it was McElhenney, wearing a Wrexham cap, jacket and scarf, who delivered the most compelling lines.
McElhenney explained he has not done this because he knew anything about football or was a frustrated athlete. He did it because he is a sports nut and he “recognised the people in the stands — I know those people, I am those people”.
Reynolds had already given us the headline we needed when he said — only half-seriously — that their long-term goal was promotion to the Premier League but it was McElhenney who provided the context.
“You realise you started by saying, ‘We’re going to take Wrexham to the Premier League?'” he said to Reynolds, pretending to be disappointed. “They all recorded that, that’s what they’re going to report.
Rob and Ryan have been speaking to the press this afternoon ?
— Wrexham AFC (@Wrexham_AFC) October 28, 2021
“But that’s the way we’ve been talking about it the whole time. Maybe it’s our naivety but, if that is the way the (promotion and relegation) system works, couldn’t we theoretically get to the Premier League? Why not dream big?
“Obviously when we talk about the Premier League, we’re giving ammunition to every supporter of another club in this league. But, as a fan, I would want the owner of the (Philadelphia) Eagles, Flyers, 76ers, to say we’re going to win the championship and we’re going to be as big as we can be, and we’re going to do it this year and next year and every year because I want that level of ambition.”
The feeling that McElhenney gets it was underlined in his last answer, too.
He and Reynolds had already said they could not wait for their first home fixture and how special they thought it would be, but another question came in, asking them to compare what it would be like to other sporting occasions they had attended.
“I’ve seen the Philadelphia Eagles, who I love, win the Super Bowl for the first time, the only time, and it was one of the best days of my life,” said McElhenney. “I think this will surpass that.”
Wrexham versus Torquay: better than the Super Bowl, ladies and gentlemen.
McElhenney, Reynolds and most of the 9,813 fans packed into the Racecourse Ground on Saturday nearly had a perfect first date.
After three days of typically autumnal weather in north Wales, the sun put his hat on and bathed the ground in Los Angeles-like light. In the Wrexham Lager Stand, jackets were removed and those with caps pulled them low to shield their eyes. To our right, the newly reopened Wrexent Stand was bouncing, having just been opened by Rob and Ryan.
What a reception ?
— Wrexham AFC (@Wrexham_AFC) October 30, 2021
Behind the press box — a row of seats with a desk covered in bird poo — the home fans were in high spirits as the team’s new anthem, “Bring on the Deadpool and Rob McElhenney”, broke out every other minute.
Then they appeared, striding out to the middle, while the players warmed up. Torquay’s players did their best to ignore them but it was not easy.
“Last night Rob and I got to walk around the Racecourse Ground without a single soul in here and I can honestly say it was one of the most magical, awe-inspiring things I’ve seen in my entire life, until right now — this is very different,” said Reynolds, microphone in hand.
“I think I speak for both of us when I say the history, the tradition, the legacy of this community, this club, none of that is lost on us and it’s something we hold incredibly dear…”
It was then that Torquay’s alternative Deadpool anthem was heard for the first time.
“I think that might be the away squad,” noted Reynolds, and we all laughed but, reading the room, he got on with it.
“We just wanted to say thank you so much to this community for opening up your hearts to us these last few days. We’re so grateful, it means the absolute world to us, so let’s have a great match.”
Now, a rumour had gone around the ground beforehand that McElhenney, whom Reynolds had described as the Celine Dion of the pair, was going to sing Land of My Fathers in Welsh. On Thursday, he had the crew from S4C in raptures by telling them he was learning Welsh, in Welsh, and then perfectly pronouncing “Llanfairpwllgwyngllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch”, the longest place name in Europe.
But he bottled it. OK, that is a bit harsh. He did say “Croeso i Wrecsam, Croeso i’r Cae Ras” — “Welcome to Wrexham, Welcome to the Racecourse” — and then “Come on you Reds! Come on you Reds!”
We then had a wreath-laying ceremony and minute’s silence, as Wrexham are not at home again until after Remembrance Sunday, and the game kicked off.
“Is this when it all goes wrong?” joked a fan sitting behind me.
But four minutes in, Torquay put the ball out of play after a Wrexham attack down the left.
This put the ball in Ben Tozer’s hands, level with the edge of the area. Tozer was player of the season for League Two champions Cheltenham Town last season and is one of several players in the Wrexham squad who are probably playing two divisions below their level. He also has a howitzer of a throw and this time he fired it straight to defender Harry Lennon’s left foot, who smashed into the net from just outside the six-yard box.
Boom! Rob and Ryan had only just made it to the posh seats at the top of the Macron Stand, the ground’s newest, but were jumping about like everyone else.
And then… well, not much. Wrexham were the better team, marginally, but they did not look like scoring the second goal every pundit sat behind me kept saying they needed.
There are two main reasons for this. One, although they have signed plenty of English Football League-quality talent, they have only just done so and the team is a work in progress. And two, one of the players, Paul Mullin, was missing, in slightly unusual fashion.
Wrexham lost the game at Maidenhead on Tuesday because they conceded two early goals and then went down to 10 men after half an hour. Bryce Hosannah was shown a red card for throwing an elbow. Except it was not Hosannah, it was Mullin.
Mullin had fired Cambridge United to promotion from League Two last season with 32 league goals, winning the division’s golden boot along the way. So when he signed for Wrexham this summer, eyebrows were raised across the National League as the 26-year-old was believed to be a solid League One player. They were wrong, he is probably a Championship player.
But the National League corrected Tuesday’s case of mistaken identity late on Friday, which meant Mullin was sat in the Wrexham Lager Stand on Saturday and his team missed him. And the longer they missed him, the more confident Torquay grew.
So it was not much of a surprise when Torquay’s Chiori Johnson wriggled free down the right and crossed from the byline. It was a peach and Wales Under-21 international Connor Lemonheigh-Evans gave it the treatment it deserved: a thumping header into the back of the net.
I was immediately reminded of something Shaun Harvey said on Thursday. The former EFL chief executive is acting as an adviser to the board — they also have ex-Liverpool CEO Peter Moore and the FA’s former technical director and Southampton head of football development Les Reed to ask for pointers — and was a conspicuous presence at the club this week.
“I’m just here to bring a bit of control to things… well, all the bits you can control,” he said, with a knowing smile.
After the match, Wrexham manager Phil Parkinson, another high-profile addition, said he was disappointed with the result and suggested the referee had missed a clear penalty in the second half “because sometimes referees try too hard to look like they’re not being swayed by the crowd”.
He also admitted, however, his team had just not created enough chances.
There were no boos or huge shows of displeasure at the whistle, though: this story has started too well for that and there is so much more to come. Reynolds plucked some grass from the pitch to take home and McElhenney marched over to say goodbye to the players before the pair left for the airport.
The crowd of 9,813 — Wrexham’s best ever in the National League — went home, too, still smiling.
There was one slightly sour note, though, that suggests this is a learning experience for the new regime at the club. Torquay’s 242 supporters went home in a dark mood, despite their equaliser. The problem was that they had been housed in the bottom tier of the Wrexham Lager stand, whereas away fans usually take the top corner in stadia.
This meant they were regularly hit with drinks and rubbish from the seats above. The Athletic witnessed a heated post-match debrief between the away fans, Wrexham’s stewards and the police. It would be fair to say the stewards and police sympathised with the visitors and several said the decision to move the away section was a bad mistake.
The club stated on Sunday afternoon saying they are reviewing footage and those identified “are not welcome” at the Racecourse Ground.
Turns out nothing is perfect. But what is happening at Wrexham is still pretty amazing.
As I walked back to the car park, I saw a group of fans signing the same release forms we journalists had signed on Thursday. They had just been interviewed for the documentary. I asked them how they thought the day had gone.
“I’ve been coming here since 1968, so more than 50 years,” said Paul Griffiths, a fan from Rossett, a village a few miles outside Wrexham.
“We’ve had some good moments but we’ve also had a lot of… nothing. But it now feels like something magical is about to happen. It feels like the day before Christmas.”
This article was originally published on The Athletic. Follow @theathletic and @theathleticuk on Twitter.
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