The soccer club bankrolled by the actors Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds won its league over the weekend. Here’s what comes next.
The players thrust their fists in the air, then immediately disappeared, swallowed up by the thousands of fans pouring onto the field. Flares sent smoke into the dark Welsh sky. The team’s owners, up in their private box, shared a hug and then wiped aside tears.
The made-for-TV tale of Wrexham A.F.C. finally had its happy ending.
WE ARE CHAMPIONS!
AFTER 15 YEARS, WE ARE BACK IN THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE!
🔴⚪️ #WxmAFC pic.twitter.com/8crPfDlwqs
— Wrexham AFC (@Wrexham_AFC) April 22, 2023
Wrexham’s story is hardly a secret by now: a proud Welsh soccer team acquired by the actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, who brought in Hollywood money and Hollywood storytelling and cast the club, a fixture of English soccer’s lower leagues, as the hero of its own FX documentary, “Welcome to Wrexham.”
The journey that the actors, their team and their city have been on for two years reached its apex Saturday night, when a Wrexham victory on its home field clinched the National League championship and promotion to the next tier of England’s soccer pyramid.
One need not have watched the FX documentary series or even seen a Wrexham match to understand the emotional value of that story line. But now that Wrexham’s narrative of chasing promotion has reached its goal, here’s a quick catch-up on what the team has achieved and the lowdown on what lies ahead.
What happened over the weekend?
Wrexham, which has spent most of the season at the top of the National League, the fifth tier of English soccer, clinched the title on Saturday with a 3-1 victory against visiting Boreham Wood.
As champion, Wrexham will be promoted to the English Football League — League Two, to be specific — for next season. The team has not played that high up in the English soccer system since 2008.
Wrexham was stalked and chased and pushed all the way this season by Notts County, another storied and century-and-a-half-old British team. With one game to play, Wrexham has 110 points, Notts County 106 and third-place Chesterfield only 81.
Wrexham and Notts County are the first teams in England’s top five divisions to reach 100 points since Manchester City in the Premier League 2017-18. Notts County still has a shot at promotion, too, but to earn it the club will have to survive the promotion playoffs.
What a great underdog story.
Well, it’s not a pure up-by-the-bootstraps tale. In addition to the Hollywood star power in its owners’ box — another actor, Paul Rudd, was a guest of Reynolds and McElhenney’s on Saturday night — and the A-list sponsors that glamour brought on board, Wrexham benefited from a budget far larger than many of the teams in its league. That allowed it to sign players and staff members who were out of reach for many of its National League rivals.
Wrexham goalkeeper Ben Foster, for example, once played for England. The team’s star striker, Paul Mullin, was the National League player of the season the year before he signed with Wrexham. Manager Phil Parkinson recently led Sunderland in the third tier.
What happens next?
Season 2 of “Welcome to Wrexham” most likely writes itself now. Much like the “Rocky” or “Bad News Bears” franchises, agonizing failure in Season 1 will be washed away with triumph in Season 2. Look for the first episodes to be released in August or September.
Season 3’s story line, however, is very much up in the air. In League Two, Wrexham will be playing bigger, better financed teams than it has the last two seasons.
But recent history favors Wrexham. Over the last five seasons, none of the 10 promoted teams from the National League have been relegated straight back down the next season. One, Tranmere in 2018-19, was promoted to the third tier in its first season in League Two. (Stockport could repeat that feat this season.)
And while the costs of doing business will undoubtedly rise in League Two, the higher tier may not be as much of a financial stretch for Wrexham as it might be for other teams. Wrexham has averaged just short of 10,000 fans a game this season. That is tops in the National League and would put it in the top three in attendance in League Two. Plus, there’s plenty of money behind the club and a chance that victory will bring in even more.
So the success story will just continue?
That’s not a lock. Many newly promoted teams wind up in midtable in League Two while they make the adjustment financially and competitively. Whether a .500 season makes for good TV remains to be seen.
What is the ultimate goal?
While Reynolds and McElhenney have made many reasonable statements about growing their team organically, they also have bigger goals.
“We say this all the time, but we want to be in the Premier League, as crazy as that sounds to some people,” Reynolds told ESPN in January. (To most soccer people, it does in fact sound crazy; Wrexham remains a small Welsh club, and the Premier League is one of the richest domestic competitions on earth.) Yet he and his partner remain undaunted.
“If it is theoretically possible to go from the fifth tier in professional football all the way to the Premier League, why wouldn’t we do that?” Reynolds said. “Why wouldn’t we use our last drop of blood to get there?”
So can Wrexham succeed at even higher levels?
There is a looong way to go, and there are enormous hurdles ahead.
Although ownership has been improving the Racecourse Ground, it still holds only 10,000 people. The biggest Premier League stadiums hold more than 70,000. Wrexham itself is a city of 60,000, and a long way — in every way — from London, Liverpool and Manchester.
Reynolds and McElhenney believe that their celebrity and the documentary will help. There has been far more interest in Wrexham over the last two seasons in the United States. Metrics like online page views and social media followers have produced Premier League-like numbers, but those are not simple to translate into pounds — or dollars. Someone who enjoys a documentary and has a warm feeling for a team thousands of miles away is not as valuable an asset as a fan who resides nearby and buys a season ticket and a new jersey every year. Wrexham has those fans, for sure; it just has a limited number of them.
McElhenney has joked that he has “TV money,” while Reynolds has “movie money.” Most Premier League clubs are owned by people with the kind of cash that makes “movie money” look like a pittance. At least two, Manchester City and Newcastle, now boast nation-state money.
A better point of comparison for Wrexham might be a team like A.F.C. Wimbledon, which was founded by fans when Wimbledon F.C. moved away. With a built-in fan base, A.F.C. Wimbledon quickly climbed up the leagues, crushing outmanned and outfinanced rivals and eventually reaching the third tier. But it was relegated last season and now seems to have found its upper limit.
Reynolds and McElhenney are dreaming big, and why not? Their success is undisputed, and now official. But the realities of soccer most likely mean that their dream of Premier League glory remains a long shot.