Soccer is no stranger to unusual unions, particularly with clubs far away from the game’s upper echelons.
From former Brazilian captain Socrates turning out for non-league Garforth Town, to Burger King popping up on the shirt of fourth-tier Stevenage, the sight of playing icons and corporate giants associating with such modest teams has always brought bafflement and intrigue.
Yet February’s announcement that actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney had taken 100 per cent control of Wrexham AFC, a fifth-tier side from a working class town in north Wales, could very well top the lot.
The deal for the Red Dragons has already seen Reynolds, best known for playing the foul-mouthed, fourth wall-breaking Marvel superhero Deadpool, and McElhenney, star of US sitcom ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’, pump UK£2 million (US$2.8 million) into the club to create, as the pair described, “a winning culture”.
Quite why Hollywood chose to come to the game’s third oldest club is a question that has been floating around in the soccer ether since news of the proposed takeover first emerged last September. All eyes were on Reynolds and McElhenney to give answers. Their response proved both unsurprisingly ambitious and refreshingly sincere.
‘Wrexham AFC is only in a position to thrive because of the incredible efforts of the Wrexham Supporters Trust,’ the pair said in a joint statement back in February. ‘Their members are a fitting reflection of the integrity and spirit of the town and they will always have an important role at the club.’
Guiding the new owners’ vision is four principles: to protect Wrexham’s heritage, reinforce the values of the community, grow the club both at home and abroad, and create that aforementioned winning habit.
‘In addition, we are in the process of developing an outstanding team off-the-field by combining the know-how of the committed club staff and volunteers with new hires and experienced advisors,’ the statement continued.
‘Our CEO search is progressing, and we expect to have someone in place before the end of the season.’
That search led to the hiring of Fleur Robinson, who officially arrived from Burton Albion at the start of June after more than 26 years at the League One club. Upon announcement of her appointment in March, Robinson admitted there were few roles that could have pulled her away from Burton, a side she helped take from non-league to two seasons in the second-tier Championship. It was the prospect of being at the forefront of what she believes is “an incredible new era for the club” that proved too good to turn down.
“The key thing for me was that split support in terms of the success on the pitch and the equal importance of the local community, and the difference that the club can make to a local community,” Robinson tells SportsPro. “I think that is really important for all football clubs, to use their brand and their resources to make that difference. So that was key for me in terms of being persuaded to move over.
“It’s a really exciting time for the club. There’s been so much to do with the new ownership and everybody getting involved and coping with the demands that that new ownership produces. We’ve got a great team here off the field managing to cope with the demands. It’s fantastic.”
Wrexham have played at the Racecourse Ground since 1864
As Robinson mentioned, keeping Wrexham at the heart of the wider community was integral to Reynolds and McElhenney’s pitch when buying the club. Once the deal was wrapped up, funds were swiftly channelled into new initiatives at the club’s charity, the Racecourse Community Foundation. This included UK£50,000 (US$68,900) to enhance Wrexham’s women’s soccer programme and increase participation at all levels.
It’s all very principled and undoubtedly hands the owners an instant serving of good PR. However, tales of wealthy backers with seemingly good intentions but without the plans to follow them through are commonplace in the game. Reynolds and McElhenney’s affable charm and self-referential humour has been regularly on show. But one can’t help but wonder what the two are like when it comes down to business. Have they laid out a comprehensive vision cast in stone or, given their day jobs, are they happy to delegate to those well acquainted with the finer workings of English soccer?
“It’s a mixture,” explains Robinson. “Obviously they’re both equally very creative. It’s quite refreshing to have two co-chairman with such creativity.”
Adding to that is British actor, comedian and writer Humphrey Ker, the club’s executive director, who effectively serves as Reynolds and McElhenney’s voice on the ground in Wrexham.
“Humphrey was a great help to me when I started, making sure that I’ve settled in quite quickly,” Robinson continues. “I’ve had great support but, equally, they’ll admit themselves that they don’t know how to run a football club. So they’re happy to leave elements of that to the team we’ve got here who obviously do this day in day out.”
Wrexham, it’s always been the Hollywood of Europe, apparently…
��⚪️ #WxmAFC pic.twitter.com/fUDLFCamb0
— Wrexham AFC (@Wrexham_AFC) August 15, 2021
Even though community spirit will continue to be preached by the club’s hierarchy, most fans are likely to judge the new owners based on how Wrexham perform on the pitch. Reynolds, McElhenney and Kerr appear to have taken note. As well as the addition of Robinson, who has also worked on the Football Association (FA) council and the board of the English Football League (EFL) Trust, Phil Parkinson has been installed as manager. The 53-year-old has managed in the Championship and took fourth-tier Bradford City to the League Cup final in 2013.
The purse strings were also loosened to bring in Paul Mullin, the fourth division’s top scorer and player of the year last season, on a three-year contract. Had he stayed at Cambridge United, he would be playing in the third tier this campaign.
The fact that Parkinson and Mullin have joined Robinson in dropping down the divisions seems to be a ringing endorsement of the owners’ ambitions. Naturally, though, handling fresh expectation is not without its challenges. But, for Robinson, whether a team is in the Premier League or, in Wrexham’s case, turning out in the National League, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
“I don’t think it matters what level of the game you’re at. There’s always that pressure and that expectation,” she says. “I think we’ve all said that for this club to grow into its potential, and it’s got lots of potential, the foundations have to be right. It’s not just success on the pitch, it’s equally making sure that the team off the field are well equipped and have the experience to keep up with the growth that, hopefully, we’ll achieve here.
“It’s exciting times for us but it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. The demands and expectations of fans are the same whatever level you’re at. We’ve sold over 5,000 season tickets, which really just shows the interest that’s here locally and, obviously, we’ve got this global attraction with the owners. But it’s just as important we’ve got that local connection as well.
“Building a team on the field creates that interest externally but you need to have the foundations right in all the other areas of the football club to have that steady growth. Hopefully it’s not too steady but you’ve certainly got to have those foundations in place.”
Aviation American Gin and Expedia are among the notable brands to have partnered with the club
The most recent high-profile example of a non-league outfit making it into the EFL was Salford City in 2019. That club also boasts A-list owners of its own, with David Beckham joining other Manchester United icons including Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers with stakes in the Ammies.
The fact it took five years after the takeover for Salford to manage promotion to League Two – albeit from the eighth tier in the Northern Premier League – is proof that celebrity owners and their aspiring statements are not always a recipe for instant success. And even if it does come, the size of Wrexham and its infrastructure suggests the club’s planned ascent can only reach so far. Robinson, however, thinks otherwise.
“I don’t think you can put a ceiling on anything,” she says. “I look back at Burton and what the earnings were, building the stadium there to be adequate for league football. That surpassed everybody’s expectations.
“It’s about everybody working together as a team with that vision and direction from the co-chair and down to make sure that we know we maximise every opportunity here.”
We’ve got this global attraction with the owners. But it’s just as important we’ve got that local connection as well.
While Wrexham have to wait until 21st August for their first league game of the season – an away trip to Solihull Moors – the club has already made notable strides on the commercial front.
Short-form video app TikTok will adorn the front of the players’ shirts having penned a two-year contract in June, following its sponsorship of this summer’s Uefa European Championship. It is joined by Expedia, which also has a partnership with Premier League giants Liverpool, after the online travel agency secured back-of-shirt branding. Aviation American Gin, which Reynolds, as a co-owner, sold to beverage company Diageo last August as part of a deal worth up to US$610 million, will be Wrexham’s sleeve sponsor.
Closer to home, and in keeping with the new owners’ objective of acknowledging the club’s ties to the community, trailer manufacturer Ifor Williams will be continuing as the team’s primary local sponsor. That extension followed a November advert featuring Reynolds and McElhenney endorsing the company while also announcing their ownership of Wrexham.
“It’s fantastic for a club of our level to be attracting global brands such as TikTok, Aviation Gin and Expedia. It’s absolutely phenomenal in terms of that interest,” Robinson acknowledges. “But I think we need to be clear that the local business connections are equally as important. We’re pleased that Ifor Williams have continued their sponsorship, they’ve had a close association with the club.
“It’s vital that we obviously tap into the global elements of interest that are going to come our way by having owners in Rob and Ryan. But we also want to make sure that we’ve got those key local connections with our local businesses. That is where we can really make a difference locally to the community.”
But, with all this publicity, has it been tricky to strike a commercial balance between worldwide brands and local firms?
“No, it hasn’t been yet,” replies Robinson. “I’m sure there will be challenges. Every day there’s a challenge in football. I think we’ve got such a lot to offer across such a broad range of things. And, as we grow, adding to that, particularly including the Racecourse Community Foundation and the work and the delivery that they can do within the local community.
“We’ll be able to satisfy and find something for everybody with bespoke packages. We look to make sure that we’re happy but, more importantly, our partners are.”
Even if you aren’t a non-league aficionado, you may still end up catching a glimpse of Wrexham in action. A docuseries, appropriately titled ‘Welcome to Wrexham’, chronicling the hopes and dreams of the club will air on US pay-TV channel FX. The town’s transformation into one of the UK’s most talked about destinations continued with the recent appearance of a Hollywood-style sign overlooking the A483 road.
On this day 10 years ago, on the back of almost a decade of fighting to save our club, fans raised £100,000+ to ensure we could begin the new season.
Deeds to houses, wedding funds & life savings were thrown in to save us, and now we look forward to brighter days.
��⚪️ #WxmAFC pic.twitter.com/ZU7ji7318f
— Wrexham AFC (@Wrexham_AFC) August 9, 2021
How the people of Wrexham ultimately respond to this newfound attention is unclear, as is the club’s long-term fate on the pitch. Regardless of where Reynolds and McElhenney take the team, Wrexham have already been on quite the journey over the last decade. Fittingly, this month is the ten-year anniversary of when fans raised more than UK£100,000 (US$138,000) to save the club from going out of business.
Today, the club’s priorities have shifted as it chases a return to the football league after a 13-year absence.
“Promotion [this season] is the ultimate aim for all of us involved,” says Robinson. “But, in football, we have to be realistic. It’s been a short preseason for us with the last season ending so late. But with the manager we’ve got in place now, and the team that he’s building, it’s really exciting.
“None of us newbies here have seen the supporters at the Racecourse yet so we’re waiting with great anticipation to see the fans back.
“We’ll make sure that it’s a successful season and build on that to get that promotion at some point in the near future.”