Hollywood makeover breathes new life into Welsh club
WREXHAM, Wales (AP) — It has been described as a "crash course in football club ownership" and the two Hollywood stars who bought a beleaguered team in English soccer's fifth tier with the lofty aim of transforming it into a global force are certainly learning on the job.
"I'm watching our PLAYERS MOP THE FIELD to continue the game," read a tweet last week from Rob McElhenney, an American actor and director who was the creator of TV show "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and now makes up one half of the new ownership of Wrexham AFC.
"I've never seen anything like it."
The residents of Wrexham have been rubbing their eyes in disbelief for a while.
It's nearly a year since McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds, the Canadian-born actor best known for starring in the "Deadpool" movies, completed their out-of-nowhere $2.5 million takeover of Wrexham, a 157-year-old club from Wales that has fallen on such hard times since the turn of the century that its supporters' trust twice had to save the team from going out of business.
Once the seed was planted by friends about buying a European soccer team, they sought out advisors to recommend a club that had history, was in a false position, and played a big role in the local community. Wrexham fitted the bill.
After all, it's the world's third oldest professional club that used to attract attendances of 20,000 in the 1970s — and had some big wins in the FA Cup in the 1990s, including over then-English champion Arsenal — but has been languishing at non-league level, where some teams are semi-professional, since 2008. Located in an industrial town of about 65,000 people near the northwest English border, it is not too far from the soccer hotbeds of Liverpool and Manchester.
To the amazement of everyone involved in English and Welsh soccer, the purchase went through and McElhenney and Reynolds immediately made some big promises: improvements to the stadium, playing squad and leadership structure; a major investment in the women's team; and to "introduce the club to the world." They've stayed true to their word, making Wrexham stand out at a time when many clubs below the lucrative English Premier League have plunged into financial turmoil because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
"I remember when it all first broke on the news, it seemed a bit surreal," Wrexham manager Phil Parkinson told The Associated Press. "But since I've spoken to them, you understand how serious they are in terms of making a success of this club and leaving a legacy."
Walking through the tunnel and onto the field at the Racecourse Ground, it's impossible to not notice the giant stand — known as "The Kop" — to the left that is being renovated and currently is covered in a huge red banner. On it are Wrexham's new sponsors, TikTok, Aviation Gin and Expedia, globally recognized brands that typically have no place at this level of the game.
Season-ticket sales have nearly trebled, from 2,000 to around 5,800, and attendances have been more than 8,000 for home games, better than many clubs get in the third and fourth tiers and a figure virtually unheard of at non-league level.
For the first full season under Reynolds and McElhenney, the men's squad has been enhanced — one player was signed for 200,000 pounds ($270,000), nearly a club record — and there's a new coach and chief executive with decades of experience working in the English Football League, the three divisions below the Premier League.
Behind the scenes, there are advisors acting as conduits between the board and the new owners who have held important leadership roles in British soccer: former Liverpool CEO Peter Moore, former Football Association technical director Les Reed and former English Football League CEO Shaun Harvey.
Meanwhile, the push to put Wrexham "on the map" in world soccer is ongoing.
It recently became the first non-league team to be included on the popular video game, FIFA. Reynolds (18 million) and McElhenney (700,000) use their large Twitter following to promote the club — and even to comment on the team's games as an incredulous McElhenney did on Saturday when Wrexham's match was abandoned because of a waterlogged pitch.
And in what could perhaps be the biggest game-changer, Wrexham is the subject of an access-all-areas TV documentary charting its transformation under the new ownership. A two-season order of "Welcome to Wrexham" has been placed by American channel FX, with Reynolds and McElhenney the executive directors of what could prove to be something like a real-life version of Emmy Award-winning U.S. comedy "Ted Lasso."
FX has said the documentary will explore "the club, the town, and Rob and Ryan's crash course in football club ownership." Camera crews have been at the club for much of the past year.
"Everywhere you go, there's a camera," Wrexham captain Luke Young said. "However many times the crew say, 'Be yourself and do what’s natural,' you do to an extent but you then think, 'Should I say this?' But they've said they're not going to hang you out to dry."
So, is Wrexham simply being used as a vehicle to produce a reality TV show, as some skeptics will say? The scale of the transformation and the money being spent by the new owners on all areas of the club suggests otherwise.
How long Reynolds and McElhenney stick around is up for debate. But, for now, Wrexham — both the soccer team and the local area — has been given a lift by the presence of famous new owners and the exposure that is providing. Fleur Robinson, the recently appointed CEO, said the club has new members "from Los Angeles to New York" and especially from Philadelphia, the city where McElhenney is from and the inspiration for Wrexham's new green away uniform.
The owners have been on chat shows in the U.S., talking about their new project.
"There hasn't been a day gone by when the football club hasn't been mentioned in some way on a national or global scale," Robinson said.
Reynolds and McElhenney have promised to come to Wrexham once pandemic-related travel restrictions are lifted and watch the team, which is currently halfway down the National League standings after nine games.
That visit could be anytime now, and they could be in for quite the reception.
"There is a such a buzz about town so this is what everyone is waiting for, to see them," Robinson said. "They've bought a club and not seen it for themselves. I'm sure they are just as excited as the people in Wrexham to come here."
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80