Last winter two celebs bought a Welsh football club. But what happened next?
It sounds like something out of a fairytale, or a blockbuster movie.
Wealthy celebrity buys ailing sports team and brings it to new heights of glory, revitalising a poor neighbourhood. But to Wrexham AFC, a fifth-tier football club in a north Wales market town, it is a dream come true.
Earlier this year, Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney took ownership of the National League side – Wales’s oldest football club – and the eyes of the sporting world fell on Wrexham.
Via RR McReynolds Company LLC, the Canadian and American actors purchased the club last November, with nearly 99 per cent of the Wrexham Supporters Trust (WST) members voting in favour.
The actors reportedly told trust members that they wanted to make Wrexham ‘a global force’.
‘Our goal is to grow the team, return it to the English Football League in front of increased attendances at an improved stadium while making a positive difference to the wider community in Wrexham,’ they said in their mission statement.
A year later, they’re a long way to succeeding. Ryan, best known for starring in Deadpool, and Rob, of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame, have been both vocal supporters, promoting the club through social media when Covid-19 restrictions kept them from attending matches.
Although the pandemic has been disastrous for many sporting outfits, and financially perilous to lower-league clubs like Wrexham, when the takeover was completed in February the pair invested £2million of their own money – with £50,000 of that specifically earmarked to ‘enhance the women’s football programme and increase participation at all levels’.
In a nod to the power of this takeover, Wrexham AFC became the first ever non-league team to appear in FIFA’s ‘Rest of the World’ annual round-up, while in August, Ryan called it ‘the role of a lifetime’.
The team’s manager Phil Parkinson, who only joined the club this summer, admits that when he heard of the takeover ‘it did sound a bit unbelievable…’
After all, Wrexham AFC had been struggling financially as well as on the field, languishing in the fifth tier. Despite being the second-oldest professional football team in the world, Wrexham wasn’t well known on the global stage. An unknown underdog. So why would two such high-profile stars from across the pond buy it?
‘Why Wrexham? Why not!’ Rob is quoted as saying. Meanwhile Ryan has compared Wrexham, a large market town, to his blue-collar background in Philadelphia. But the real story is a little longer.
Nathan Salt, a south London-based sports journalist who began his career writing Wrexham fan columns for The Daily Post regional Welsh newspaper, has followed the club probably more closely than anyone. Even he was surprised, he says, by the celebrity takeover. ‘I think if you had written it as a fictional novel, it still would’ve been quite far-fetched,’ he says with a laugh.
Since the takeover, Nathan has co-hosted a weekly podcast on Wrexham AFC’s prospects called ‘Rob. Ryan. Red.’, and says he’s asked – why Wrexham? – every time. ‘That’s the million-dollar question. And there was no one specific reason. It wasn’t like they were sitting on their sofa and said, “We want to buy Wrexham AFC”.’
Nathan says that the pair put together a list of possible clubs that they might be able to purchase, ‘in rundown areas that needed new impetus, and some life put in’. They rated clubs based on fan base, growth and potential marketability, and apparently Wrexham scored highest.
Most relevant, perhaps, is that the price was right. Wrexham AFC has been owned by fans since 2011. Before that, the club nearly went out of business and was just hours from going bust until fans raised about £100,000, even reportedly using their own wedding deposits. They took over ownership, and since then cleared the debt. So when Ryan and Rob promised to invest £2million, the fans were able to legally write off the club ‘for a peppercorn’ – and sold it for £1.
At the time, there was also some rumbling that the actors had purchased the club because of the possibility of a documentary. Indeed, this season, a TV crew has been following the club to film them. The fly-on-the-wall documentary, Welcome to Wrexham, is being produced by FX – responsible for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and will be streamed on Disney+ in the UK.
Manager Phil Parkinson admits that he was also unsure of such a Hollywood move at first. But when the pair came to visit him and talked, off camera, about their hopes and plans for the club, he was convinced of ‘what a genuine passion they have to make a real success of this’.
And so far, so good. Regular attendance has greatly increased, despite pandemic disruption, and both fans and locals alike describe a renewed sense of hope.
Talking about his team, Phil says, ‘The lads dealt with the extra exposure well, I feel, they’re enjoying it. On the first day of preseason I told them this was a great opportunity to be part of a club which has the chance to go places, and this is the start of the journey. There’s a lot of bad news around at the moment, with the pandemic… But we’re a club with ambitious new owners, and it’s important that we enjoy the challenge.’
Journalist Nathan adds that he too felt there was a slight hesitancy from the team at the beginning about being the subject of a global documentary. ‘You know, when the takeover was going through, are we going to look like a bit of a freak show?, he says. ‘And I remember speaking to some of the players off the record, and saying, what do you think of the cameras? They said it was a little bit odd at the beginning but they got used to it, and struck up a good rapport.
‘A lot of fans are really excited. And I’m really excited, because sports documentaries are increasingly popular now – we’ve seen it with Netflix’s Drive to Survive, it brings in a whole new audience. I think when that drops, the club will realise it will go to a whole new stratosphere.’
Godfrey Groome, who has been supporting the so-called Red Dragons for 65 years, calls the takeover ‘the best thing that’s happened in my lifetime’. Fellow fan, Jeff Mort, also says it’s the best thing – since John Neal took over as manager in 1968.
Meanwhile Mark Jones, a 54-year-old Wrexham-based postman who’s been following the team for nearly 40 years, says the impact has been ‘unbelievable’.
They are serious about the infrastructure of the club and the town itself,’ he adds, ‘very serious people who have brought major sponsorship deals in.’
Last November Mark even wrote and performed a song about the takeover with his three-man comedy band, the Declan Swans, called ‘Always Sunny in Wrexham’. Ryan Reynolds then made a TikTok video using the song when he visited Wrexham, which gained more than a million likes. In turn, the Declan Swans have received an influx of streams and new bookings.
David O’Brien, a 52-year-old nurse, has been supporting Wrexham AFC since he moved to the town in 1994. Talking about the takeover, he says, ‘I was initially sceptical, but the more I listen and explore the details of the plan the more convinced I am that they have the club at its heart. Ryan and Rob have recognised the value in a club and town that many of us have known for decades. We are a proud club steeped in a long and passionate history that has been let down by previous owners, who only saw its financial value.
‘I have not been this excited about my club for a very long time,’ he adds. ‘I think Rob and Ryan have brought a buzz to the town. Wrexham has had it tough over the years, but it is such a proud town.’
David also says that the investment in the women’s game and inclusion football has ‘made a palpable difference’.
‘There is positive conversation about the women’s team, and promotion through social media presence on the website,’ he explains. ‘We now have weekly Dragon chat where men and women can talk about their mental health. There is walking football for older people and investment in disability football. We even have a dedicated section of the stadium for people with autism who can enjoy a less noisy game.’
Gemma Owen, is the business development manager and head of female football at Wrexham AFC and feels that since the takeover ‘things have been pretty surreal’.
‘The change in atmosphere, especially among the fanbase, is that of excitement,’ she says. ‘Fans are looking to see what the takeover can do for the progress of the club and how it will help to propel the club hopefully back into the EFL. Fans are allowing themselves to dream again of being a Football League club.’
Gemma adds the real impact is in the increase in interest from people around the world. ‘It’s very surreal, still, to hear of our club being discussed on very popular American talk shows and on major news channels,’ she admits. ‘It’s even more surreal to see Hollywood movie stars wearing Wrexham AFC merchandise! But it’s amazing.’
With the the actors being proactively supportive of the women’s teams and social media interest spiking, Gemma says ‘the future is very bright for our women and girls’.
‘The takeover has generated a lot of interest in the club from the people of Wrexham who are not football fans,’ she goes on to explain. ‘As the involvement of Rob and Ryan goes much further and deeper than just the football club; it goes into the heart of the community.’
Manager Phil Parkinson adds: ‘It’s great for the club and in all honesty, the Wrexham people and supporters deserve this, because of the tough times and a lot of years out of the league, some really tough times, and they deserve this. This great story.’
But have R&R bitten off more than they can chew? As journalist Nathan says, it’s ‘one hell of a league’.
‘I think going into the January transfer window, they’ll invest heavily, but I think they’re still learning how difficult it is to get out of the division we’re in,’ he explains. ‘Had they purchased a team one division up, it would’ve been a much simpler task with the resources they have, however to get out of the league where really the only way out is to win it… But money can do a lot, and it’s brought us far better players.’
Nathan adds that so far the interest is ‘sky high’ and nearly 8,000 fans a game is ‘immense’ for the fifth division – he says people are willing to be patient.
Phil also acknowledges that the historical and renewed support for the club is fantastic, ‘but the most important thing is to get a team on the pitch that can win games of football and represent the club in the right way’.
‘What’s key is that they [Reynolds and McElhenney] understand the short term, and long-term goals,’ he says. ‘Short term we’ve got to get the squad to win games. And long term is putting place to build the club going forward. And that’s what they’re trying to do, but as you know it doesn’t happen overnight.
‘That’s going to be a process which is going to take a while, but they’re not just skimming the surface and trying to win tomorrow. They’re trying to implement a sustainable football club.’
Nathan points out that the actors have already refurbished the Wrexrent stand at the Racecourse Ground, opened new kiosks and are working on the Kop end behind the goal, as well as looking to improve capacity. ‘They’ve got big plans, and I think they’re keen to invest without financial return at this stage,’ he says.
But Nathan, who grew up in North Wales, believes the most important regeneration is in the town – ‘It’s exactly what it needed, more than the club,’ he explains. ‘The town is just a different place when I go there now to watch. It’s just given people a bit of hope that better things are ahead.’
What’s clear, too, is that these Hollywood actors already understand that a football team is more than a financial investment – and that they’ll have to play the long beautiful game.
After they attended their first-ever Wrexham match, Ryan wrote on Instagram: ‘Football is a staggering, heartbreaking, gorgeous, tommy-gun of soul-deadening, evil and beauty – and I’m never sleeping again ever, ever.’
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