Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? The underestimated diamonds in the rough emerging as rising stars. Concurrently, who does an underdog story better than Hollywood? Wrexham AFC boasts a proud history as the third-oldest football club in the world. Now, it’s steadily on its way to becoming the most well-known.
In 2023, renowned Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny bought the oldest club in Wales, Wrexham AFC. The venture started with the intention of rebuilding the prospects of both the club and the community. Despite its stagnant history, Wrexham has showed steady acceleration in just two years after the takeover. After 15 seasons of playing in the semi-amateur National League, it finally won a promotion to the Football League.
Predictably, Wrexham’s dedicated supporters have only heightened the club’s rising fame and excitement.
Wrexham’s A-list investors
At the peak of pandemic 2020, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny showed interest in buying the National League Club. Since 2011, the North Wales’ club has been fan-owned. Over 98% of the votes cast by the Wrexham Supporter’s Trust, approved the takeover.
Wrexham has garnered international appeal since the takeover. The actors saw the true appeal and potential held by Wrexham AFC, and they understood that a little support was all it needed to make a monumental breakthrough.
The actors initially invested $2 million, which later increased to $3 million. McElhenny and Reynolds used their own money, fame, and marketing to provide full support to the rising team. During the initial bid, the high-profile duo outlined their vision to make Wrexham “a global force” during an online meeting with supporters.
“Together with the players, the staff, the fans, and the local community, we can now pursue our goal to grow the team and return it to the EFL in front of increased attendances and in an improved stadium, while making a positive difference to the wider community in Wrexham,” the actors said.
The third oldest football club in the world
Founded in 1864, Wrexham AFC has always had a consistent fan base. Their commitment and hard work (recognised by many at this point) have always been the pride of North Wales locals.
Despite the noted obscurity of the club’s presence in the grand football arena, the team had won the Welsh Cup a whopping 23 times. Furthermore, in the early 90s, the club knocked the famous Arsenal FC out of the Football Association’s Challenge Cup.
The team that was playing second-tier football in the English League back in the 1970s slowly slid down to lower leagues as it lost the ability to stay competitive. It was only backed by a close-knit, passionate fanbase. Finally finding their footing in the fifth division, they have been strenuously fighting against clubs like Barnet, Eastleigh, and Aldershot Town for league positions.
While takeovers in the football circuit are more common than not, not many expected the takeover of an often-looked-over group in the fifth tier of the English football league. Yet this particular takeover shadowed many famed ones, like Sheikh Mansour’s 2008 purchase of Manchester City FC. The bid by renewed A-list Hollywood celebrities gathered the exact level of publicity one would expect.
Path to Movie-like Fame
Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney have become household throughout the globe due to their numerous film and TV roles. Ryan Reynolds famously plays Marvel superhero Deadpool, while McElhenny’s magnum opus is his production and starring role in the US sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In Hollywood fashion, the initial promotion of the merger was kicked off with a documentary series called “Welcome to Wrexham”. It catalogued the events of the takeover as told by the two actors.
Since the takeover, Wrexham’s stock has seen exponential growth. The football club has been consistently promoted by the duo on their respective social media pages to their millions of followers. The club has also seen record ticket sales and sponsorship deals from leading social media platforms like TikTok. They were also the first club ever from a fifth-tier league to be included in the FIFA video game franchise.
Despite the investment and the buzz around the take over, Wrexham’s start under the ownership of the new owners was tumultuous to say the least. In the final game of their existing season, Wrexham had the chance to win the match and enter the playoffs in a bid to earn promotion, but were hampered by a red card to Paul Rutherford and ended up drawing the game and finishing eight.
Ryan and Rob had to take the tough decision of axing the manager, his backroom staff and about 12 players from the existing team in order to compete for promotion in the next season.
In a bid to rebuild for the 2021-22 season, the club manage to onboard Phil Parkinson, a highly successful coach with 3 promotions under his belt. They also convince the top scorer of League 2, Paul Mullin, to drop down to the 5th division with Wrexham and play non league football.
Despite the rebuilt, heavy investments into the staff and infrastructure, and sponsorship deals with Tik Tok and Expedia, Wrexham struggles to find its footing in the early season.
Similarly, there were issues around the ownership of the famed club ground, the Racehorse. Back in 2004, when the club is sold to businessmen Alex Hamilton and Mark Guterman , it becomes clear that the two treat the club merely as a business asset, and concoct a plan to turn the club’s legendary stadium, the Racecourse Ground, into real estate. Press and fans accuse Hamilton and confront him to no avail.
Fans eventually organize a city-wide protest against Hamilton and pressure him into resigning; the club is then turned over to the Wrexham Supporters Trust, making the club fully fan-owned. While the fans view this positively, and in 2014 the supporters fundraise £127.000 in a day to keep the club from going under, it soon transpires that the Trust doesn’t have the funding or focus to be able to push the club forward, and both the team and the stadium begins an inextricable slide down in quality, with one of the stands, the “Kop“, being in such state of disrepair that it can no longer safely host audiences.
The attempt by the new owners to regain ownership of the ground is bogged down by bureaucratic nightmares, but the months long effort is eventually successful, resulting in the club regaining the ownership of the ground.
Despite the media and fan fare, the club is struggling on and off the pitch. On the pitch, the team is yet to find any real chemistry and off the pitch the owners and management staff are struggling with financial woes.
To top it off, the manager identifies that the team needs a new center forward, a high profile signing, that will cost even more money to enable them to compete for promotion. The clubs owners and the fans alike are not completely sold on the performance of the coach, Phil Parkinson, and deliberate whether to go ahead with his demands.
Eventually, it is decided to monitor the team’s performance for the next 10 games and take a call based on the progress. The team finally comes true in this period, winning 7 games, drawing 1 and losing 2. The results catapult Wrexham to 3rd place on the table, and the team finally sign Ollie Palmer.
The $300,000 investment, Ollie Palmer, hits the ground running, racking up goals and establishing an effective chemistry with Paul Mullin. The team goes on an incredible run, reaching the FA Trophy final to play in the hollowed Wembley ground and reaching the top spot in the league.
But, ultimately, they fall short of their goal and fail to qualify for promotion to league football. Despite the setback, there is an expectant buzz of hope around the club and the city.
Monumental success in 2023
The next season, Wrexham beat Coventry City in the third round of the 2022–23 season and entered the fourth round of the 2022–23 FA Cup. It became the only National League team to do so. They were knocked-out by Sheffield United in a replay. Still, their first game, which ended in a 3-3 draw, was ESPN’s most followed game across its digital platforms.
In April 2023, the Hollywood duo celebrated heartily as the underdog club secured their first league title in 45 years. Following a 3-1 win against Boreham Wood, they were promoted to the English Football League Two after a 15-year gap.
A football club that was reportedly ‘on the brink of collapse due to mismanagement’ with the fans ‘starting to fall out of love with it’ has achieved great recognition in the just two years. While their success still lies in their capabilities on the field, it cannot be denied that Hollywood luck supported them throughout.