There’s a peculiar moment in the first episode of Welcome to Wrexham, the new football (soccer) documentary from FX. The viewer is suddenly thrown back into the limbo that was 2020, thanks to an unnamed chef at a food stand behind a flat-top grill just outside of Y Cae Ras (The Racecourse Ground), the oldest stadium still in use in the world.
“This is just a more surreal year than ever — COVID, Hollywood superstars takin’ over. I think with what’s goin’ on in the world, and the football not bein’ great, just keepin’ people’s spirits up — it’s just been a godsend, really,” the man says.
The man frying food cart hamburgers on the gray Welsh Monday morning is Wayne Jones, owner of the Turf Hotel and Pub, the founding site of the Wrexham Association Football Club.
“In the 13 years in owning here, I’ve only ever closed one day before the pandemic,” Jones said.
In Welcome to Wrexham, a sports documentary now streaming on Hulu, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney represent fresh hope in a world that’s fallen apart for a now a fifth-tier British football league squad. In 2020, the pair formed the R.R. McReynolds Company to purchase the Wrexham Dragons, Wales’ oldest soccer team, fallen far from its 1970s glory days. The arrival of “Hollywood superstars” on the scene represents a glimmer of hope after what’s been fifty years of hard times for the club and the town that worships them.
Though the setting is Wrexham, in northeastern Wales, there lie echoes in this tale throughout hollowed, former industrial hubs across the American continent, from the “cradle of industrialization” in Lowell, Massachusetts, to thriving timber cities turned ghost towns scattered across the Pacific Northwest. Depressed economically, Wrexham’s fan spirit survives even though the squad has been relegated to the semi-professional league.
“Wrexham is a town that battles against odds constantly. It really is a place where people deserve a little more than they’ve got out of life,” Spencer Harris, the volunteer director of Wrexham AFC, says in episode one.
This is something that resonated with McElhenney. The actor’s idea for purchasing the team arose from his own youth, growing up in South Philly as a long-suffering Philadelphia Eagles fan. McElhenney found a kindred spirit in the tough working-class town of Wrexham due to their intense love for their home team, despite its struggles over the last 40 years.
“The Philadelphia that I know… are people who work really hard for everything that they have,” McElhenney says in episode 1. “My whole family would love the Eagles. It was something that was a part of my life since I could remember. The team becomes an extension of the city. Even as a kid, I remember, that gave me something to identify with.”
McElhenney’s similar story, aligned with Reynolds’ money and star power, makes for a formidable offer, but, in the documentary, the pair still have to convince fans that this isn’t a fairy tale. At the beginning of Welcome to Wrexham, the club is 98% fan-owned. In order to approve the sale to the R.R. McReynolds startup, a 75% majority of fans have to give their thumbs up, and not all of them are convinced.
“We’ve heard it all before. It’ll go tits up — 100 percent,” a Dragons fan says in the show’s beginning.
Herein lies the show’s power. Though there’s obviously big production involved, the sincerity of each side is never in question.
“I just want to start by ripping the Band-Aid off and addressing the fact that this is all pretty wild,” Reynolds says over Zoom in an address to fan owners. “I’m sure it’s got to be a little disconcerting that a Canadian and an American are so interested in your club, but we want to assure everyone on this call that we are taking this venture very seriously.”
On the call are Dragon fan owners. This includes the director Harris, who we see roll into Wrexham offices in an Alfa Romeo. Though the man works “a really big day job for a major multinational company,” he puts in volunteer hours on weekends.
“I’ve given everything to the football club that I can. I’ve prioritized it over career advancement, over family…” Harris says in the documentary.
Welcome to Wrexham is at its best following the people who remain steadfast in the midst of a difficult context, optimistic in spite of the odds. Even the members of the Dragons deliver a dose of hope amidst the struggle to stay pro on a lower-level squad facing an uncertain future.
“Even playing at this level and gettin’ paid for it, is still livin’ the dream,” Dragons defender Tyler French says in episode one.
If you’re looking for a show to identify with, and a team to root for, Welcome to Wrexham is a buoyant narrative that elevates challenging circumstances, and its audience in the process.
“The one thing that we love more than anything is the football club,” Harris said.
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