In November of 2020, a fairytale was about to be written about a neglected town in the north-east of Wales. A town called Wrexham. You know the story: a crumbling football team which was the shaky pillar of a 45,000 community had a mystery bid for ownership from a person or persons that were merely described as ‘famous’.
It soon transpired the people bidding for the club were Rob McElhenney of ‘Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ and Ryan Reynolds of ‘Deadpool’. McElhenney became inspired to buy a football club having watched the Netflix Documentary ‘Sunderland ’Till I Die’, which follows Sunderland AFC through 2017 to 2018, the season after they were relegated from the Premier League. Wrexham AFC needed a boost and so – after roping in the Marvel star — the third-oldest football club in the world became theirs.
A lot has happened to the town since then. The football team has gone from strength to strength, finding its way back into the Football League this season, currently sitting fourth in League Two, just behind Crewe Alexandra. The area is also doing well. Back in May 2022, Wrexham officially became a city, and at a time where the cost-of-living crisis is tightening pursestrings, it is bucking tourism trends across the country.
You’d imagine there would have been some reservation towards people from ‘Hollywood’ coming in and taking over The Racecourse, the oldest international stadium in the world. But there actually wasn’t a whole lot of it outside of social media discourse. Where it mattered, the takeover felt like a dream come true. Of the 2,000 people who make up the Wrexham Supporters Trust, just 26 voted against it. Nine abstained, but the other 98.6 percent of people were in favour – and given the team were promoted and the economy is relatively thriving, you can assume most of the sceptical 26 have softened their stance by now. ‘It’s brilliant news,’ says Paul, a butcher in Wrexham’s market who doesn’t tend to follow football very much due to working on the weekends. ‘It’s brought a lot of attention and money to the town. That can only be a good thing.’
Phillip Lynch, who has supported Wrexham FC for almost 60 years, added: ‘There’s no worry with them being famous, they seem genuine.’ Genuine is a popular word in the Welsh lexicon.
Meanwhile, Wayne Jones has gone from owning the only pub attached to a football stadium in the world, The Turf, which was already busy on match days, to managing one of the city’s hottest tourist attractions. As a result, he’s spent a lot of time with the boys over the last few years and is a frequent face in the docu-series ‘Welcome To Wrexham’ – which first aired in 2022 on Disney+ to very positive reviews, followed by a second series which came out this month.
‘Obviously there’s cynics out there that will say, ‘as soon as they do this documentary, they’re going to be off elsewhere,’ Jones says. ‘But I think by now, we’ve established that certainly is not the case.’ McElhenney has even gone as far to learn Welsh himself: a difficult language which isn’t exactly useful unless he plans to spend time in the community long-term.
The Rob and Ryan effect
Since Reynolds and McElhenney bought the club, a lot has changed. Not only is the men’s team back in the Football League, the pair have also helped to establish Wrexham’s women’s team – and they even got Kings of Leon to play a couple of dates at the ground.
But there is much more to the rise of Wrexham than football. The city’s biggest tourist attractions have nothing to do with the sport, and haven’t for decades. According to Wrexham councillor Nigel Williams and tourism manager Joe Bickerton, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – a huge 18-arched stone and cast iron structure carrying the Llangollen Canal across the River Dee – and the two National Trust properties, Erddig Parkland and Chirk Castle, are all more visited than The Racecourse and The Turf. However, Williams says that the stadium and pub are now among the top attractions in the area.
‘Pre-covid, our tourist sector was worth £140m, it went down to £50m in the pandemic, but recently we’ve had data showing it’s looking like £151m this year,’ Williams says. ‘We’re bucking the trend with regards to tourism, and we’re hoping to build on that again with the new series of ‘‘Welcome To Wrexham.’’’
According to Visit Britain, the average forecast for UK tourism in 2023 is down roughly eight percent from 2019, or ten percent when adjusted to inflation – which does suggest Wrexham is punching above its weight. Bickerton adds that the spend isn’t necessarily all up at Wrexham AFC-affiliated places, and that the top three attractions haven’t changed since before the takeover. But they both agree that bucking the current UK-wide trend is down to ‘the Rob and Ryan effect’.
Another change has been where tourists are coming from – and the general bizarre attention the area has started to get on a more global scale. ‘At the new visitor’s centre we have a log book, and within the log book, the tourist split was roughly a third from Wales, a third the rest of the UK and Europe, a third North American, and some Australians,’ says Williams.
Other anecdotes he mentions include the one person who flew to London, stopped in Windsor and then came straight to Wrexham by train. ‘There was also the person who got out of a cab, kept it rolling, went into The Racecourse store to buy a top, then had a pint at The Turf, and then got back in and headed for Heathrow,’ Williams says. ‘You couldn’t make it up.’
Since the takeover, the level of pride in Wrexham has been sky high
Bickerton, who like Williams has lived in the area his entire life, also feels a sense of newfound appreciation for the city. ‘Since the takeover, the level of pride in Wrexham has been sky high,’ he says. ‘We’re seeing people stop here who would have typically driven straight through to Snowdonia. We’re seeing people who would have come for a day trip staying overnight. These things make a massive difference. Everyone is a little happier.”
Bigger and better
Ambitions at the club aren’t stopping anytime soon. The stadium itself is due to be expanded: there’s another 5,500 seats coming, which is very much needed given the stadium gets near full capacity almost every home game. Attendance figures have more than doubled since the takeover, and if the stadium fills up with the additional seating, ticket sales will have tripled.
The city got close to winning the City of Culture bid last year. This year, the prestigious Tour of Britain cycle race ended there. In 2025, Wrexham will host the National Eisteddfod, an important Welsh cultural festival which happens annually. It seems that while the spotlight is still on the city, the local authorities are keen for Wrexham to make the most of the action. There’s also plans for McElhenney to submit proposals to create a new public ‘Ryan Rodney Reynolds Memorial Park’ on the city’s former Hippodrome cinema site (which will be a 47th birthday gift for his co-owner).
For the locals, though, it’s been more of a pinch-me moment of realisation that some attention has finally cast on what is a relatively deprived area of the UK. Wales, which has a GDP that’s only 80 percent of the national average, tends to get less of a look-in from the rest of the world compared to other parts of the country. When things do happen here, generally they’re localised in the south-east, near the two largest cities, Cardiff and Newport – or Swansea, a little further south-west, which is also thriving. Wrexham, and the takeover, is an underdog story in many senses. The fairytale is only just beginning.