Almanac Review: ‘Welcome to Wrexham’


“I’ve only been the owner of a football club for a short time, but so far I’ve found it to be very time consuming, emotionally exhausting, financially idiotic, and utterly addictive.”

  • Ryan Reynolds, co-owner, Wrexham AFC





There’s an early scene in Welcome to Wrexham, the FX docuseries currently streaming on Disney+, seemingly trivial but which, for me at least, coloured my initial perception of the show. Actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney are seeking to buy Wrexham AFC, a proud football club in northern Wales that has fallen on hard times and currently languishing in the National League, the fifth tier of English football. In order to take over the club, Rob and Ryan (that is how they are most often referred to in the show) need to gain the endorsement of the Wrexham Supporters’ Trust, a fan collective that had purchased the club when it faced financial ruin and, in so doing, assumed its day-to-day management.


Reynolds is the effortlessly charming Canadian film actor most closely associated with Marvel anti-hero Deadpool and McElhenney is a television actor on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (which he also created and co-writes). The latter was the initial driving force behind the venture. A sporting obsessive, although one largely confined to US sports, he came to be interested in owning a football club after watching Sunderland ‘Til I Die, a somewhat similar docuseries that, in its first season, charted Sunderland AFC’s disastrous 2017/18 EFL Championship season. While successful in his own right, McElhenney lacked the financial heft for such a purchase, and thus looks to Reynolds, with whom he developed a friendship over the internet (remarkably, the pair had not met in person until after they decided to purchase the club). Reynolds is a genuine global celebrity and, as his soon-to-be business partner correctly points out, is sufficiently wealthy to fund the endeavour and the ongoing expenses. Like McElhenney, he was unfamiliar with football, but was apparently convinced to go along with the plan anyway.


Having done their due diligence and decided on Wrexham, the pair sought the Wrexham Supporters’ Trust’s imprimatur. For their part, the supporters were alive to the possibilities and benefits of a high-profile takeover, but were also slightly wary, based on previous experiences under unscrupulous or incompetent owners. As such, the Trust organised a Zoom chat in order to let Rob and Ryan explain their motivations and give supporters the chance to ask questions. Once the meeting was over, Reynolds mentions that when someone asked about the documentary they planned to make, a large camera was clearly visible behind McElhenney, who quickly acknowledged that they were indeed intending to make a documentary out of the experience. It was a meta moment: the whole exchange, and the image of the cameraman, made me hyper aware that I was watching a documentary produced by the central figures it portrays.


I enjoy a good sports documentary. I especially enjoyed the superb first season of Sunderland ‘Til I Die. The manner in which it weaved its narrative between players, club staff, executives and supporters painted a vivid and compelling portrait of a town and club down of its luck. While acknowledging that no documentary can be truly neutral in telling its story, by drawing attention to the fact that the producers of the documentary were also those buying the club, it was clear that everything we were about to see would be filtered through a very specific point of view.


Suffice it to say, Rob and Ryan were successful in convincing the Wrexham Supporters’ Trust to allow them to purchase their club, and the paperwork was signed on November 2020. Throughout the series we see Rob and Ryan make various attempts to market Wrexham in order to increase its exposure and revenue. Yet the greatest effort is the docuseries itself. Creating an 18-episode series to tell the Wrexham’s story and, in so doing, advance the club’s interests is a perfectly worthy endeavour for two football club owners (it has been suggested that Sunderland ‘Til I Die was also an effort by the club’s then owners to increase its profile before it was sold).


Yet the fact that Rob and Ryan are protagonists, producers, and occasional narrators of the show colours everything we see, because I as a viewer am aware that I am being sold Wrexham, as both a football club and a town, as well as the benevolence of their stewardship. I do not expect a no-holds barred account. Again, I would not expect anything less from a project of this nature. Yet it takes away a sense that I might see something truly unexpected. That was the beauty of Sunderland ‘Til I Die, the first season of which went in a direction none of the producers (or the owners) could have expected.


As a result, during much of the series I was constantly suspicious of what I was seeing. Take, for instance, an obvious question which is repeated throughout the show: why Wrexham? The question is directly raised at multiple points but never, to my mind, satisfactorily addressed. The answer we are most commonly presently with, either directly or through inference, is that the Wrexham club and its community is special and deserving of more than it has received, particularly under previous owners. In buying the club, Rob and Ryan aim to restore its fortunes and, buy extension, revitalise a town that has been on its knees since de-industrialisation saw its coal pits closed one-by-one throughout the twentieth century.


While noble, this rationale could be applied to many down-and-out football clubs in the United Kingdom with sufficient roots in the local community. It does not answer the question of why they have chosen to buy Wrexham specifically. It can be assumed were other calculations at play that made Wrexham an appealing prospect: playing in the National League and run under fan ownership likely made it relatively inexpensive. If true, it would not invalidate the broader and more noble aims of the takeover, or diminish the character and heart of the Wrexham community, but it would have added a realistic layer of understanding concerning Rob and Ryan’s decision making.


It is clear, however, that both owners are incredibly earnest in the community restoration aspect of their project and what a transformed football club could mean for a downtrodden town in northern Wales. Growing up in Philadelphia, McElhenney followed the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL, from which he could appreciate how a sporting club was a reflection of a community and a significant source of meaning. Early on, the show takes us back to McElhenney’s childhood home, seemingly to establish his working-class origins and bona fides, despite now living an affluent Los Angeles lifestyle.


Rob and Ryan are seemingly genuine in their interest to do what is best for the club and the local community. This is emphasised in Episode 6, which contrasts our protagonists’ intentions for Wrexham with that of a previous owner, property developer Alex Hamilton. Yet as a viewer I am conscious of the dichotomy being established and the point being made. As such, it took me some time to look past my initial concerns that I was being sold a product.


Perhaps I was being too cynical, as there is a real warm-heartedness about the way Welcome to Wrexham explores both the club’s supporters and players. We meet the local publican, Wayne Jones, whose sales at The Turf on a Saturday afternoon are no doubt tied inextricably to Wrexham’s fortunes. We are also introduced to a variety of rusted-on supporters, each with their own daily struggles but each of whom unite around their love for the club and what it means to them and their family. They are our window into the community and express, with varying degrees of success, what the football clubs means to them. We even get a brief glimpse into football hooliganism and the attraction it holds for a certain type of young man.


One typical supporter is Shaun Winter, painter by trade, like his father and grandfather. He is recently separated from the mother of his two boys and he loves Wrexham. His life is repetitive and, like the paint he applies to the walls of council homes, colourless. Until, of course, Saturday afternoon rolls around and he gets to the Racecourse Ground. It is probably going too far to say that the club gives his life meaning (he is shown to be devoted to his two boys) but it is clearly important to him, both for the emotional high it can give but also because it is a link to his father and through him to his sons. In the penultimate episode, which steps away from the narrative to example the importance of football (and sport) as a means to allow male bonding (whether by friends or by fathers and sons), he goes to the park with his father and sons, where his father explains that being invited for a pint and a game of football by his son makes him happy: ‘I can’t ask for anything more than that.’


This point is driven home by McElhenney, who is often seen watching Wrexham games at his LA home with his son. He talks about being competitive with his father playing basketball, although he later realised that winning or losing was not what made those memories special. ‘I don’t remember any specific game’, he admits, choking up a little, ‘I just remember playing with my Dad.’ This sentiment is transposed over several fathers and sons highlighted in the episode (it is silent on other forms of bonding around football, such as father/daughter dynamics, but there may not have been any to draw upon when filming).


Seeing into the lives of the Wrexham community is one of the joys of the show, but it also raises the stakes for Rob and Ryan; by showing us how much the club means to the supporters, we know what the consequences will be should they lose interest or fail in their venture. When meeting supporters at The Turf they acknowledge that they have become increasingly aware of the deep connections between the club and the community. ‘We cannot do anything to fuck this up,’ Reynolds confesses. ‘Your heart’s in the right place’, Annette Gardener, a club volunteer, reassures them on another occasion, and after Reynolds tells a customary self-effacing joke, she adds, ‘it better had be’ – part joking but probably totally serious at the same time.


We also meet many of the players. Here Rob and Ryan are playing with live ammunition, something brutally exposed in Episode 2 with Paul Rutherford. Following his sending off in the final game of the 2020/21 season and the club’s failure to secure promotion, we are informed that he was released the next day, much to his evident distress, along with ten of his teammates. Their predicament is pointed out to McElhenney by Humphrey Ker, his English friend who is an executive director at the club and who acts as something of a representative for the owners in Wrexham. In a discussion with Rob, he passes on something Shaun Pearson, one of Wrexham’s defenders, had said to him: ‘this takeover is great for the town, and it’s great for my kids because I live in this town, but I don’t know if it’s great for my football career, because you guys are going to want to probably get different players in.’ These are lower league players who might have stayed at the club for several years had Rob and Ryan not come along, and, unlike those in higher leagues, lack vast reserves of wealth to fall back upon.


We do learn, however, that the gravity of such decisions weighs heavily on the club’s new owners. An interesting confession comes from McElhenney in Episode 11 when he is talking to Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of his hometown team the Philadelphia Eagles. He admits that when he was just a fan he and his friends would casually suggest who should be benched or which coaches should be sacked. Now that he owns a club, he realises that those are real people, with real implications for such actions.


The unseemly but necessary act of dispensing with players and coaches was done in the first episodes, such that by the time the show really gets going it is forgotten about. Instead we invest in those who will propel the club forward. Two players, prolific striker Paul Mullin and towering number 9 (and dressing room character) Ollie Palmer are brought in on big money deals and have the desired impact. Local lad Jordan Davies endures the truly heartrending experience of losing a child during his partner’s pregnancy, but receives a well-deserved contract extension at the end of the season. Goalkeepers Rob Lainton and Christian Dibble have an interesting dynamic, as they are both competing for the No 1 goalkeeper position but appear to be genuine friends. Aaron Hayden is the defender injured at a crucial period in the season and is frustrated by his inability to help the team when it counts. There is even the brief portrait of a young defender, Cameron Green, who is not getting a game at Wrexham and only wants to be playing football. With the additional of several staff members, this is the closest the show comes to mimicking Sunderland ‘Til I Die. Yet for all the focus on the manager and players, on field matters, other than results and injuries, are not the main focus.


While community is clearly what Rob and Ryan wish to emphasise, money – and possibly the lure of being drawn into the orbit of Ryan Reynolds – sits behind everything. When Ollie Palmer signs in January, he is presented with paperwork for him to sign for his likeness to be used in the latest FIFA game iteration. Told Wrexham are the first non-league club to be so honoured, he simply remarks: ‘The power of Ryan Reynolds, eh?’


Money is raised explicitly by several players when high-profile signing Paul Mullin. The issue is addressed directly by Mullin himself, although he dismisses it as his primary motivation for coming to Wrexham. Instead, he wants to be able to spend more time with his daughter, and playing at Wrexham will allow that. We may well ask why Phil Parkinson, who had a pedigree managing more successful clubs, agreed to manage Wrexham after his predecessor, Dean Keates, was unceremoniously sacked after the 2020/21 season? He may have bought into the Reynolds/McElhenney vision, but I would be surprised if it was not accompanied by a reasonably lucrative contract as well.


When the complexities of running a football club emerge, the man who presents the most compelling answers is Shaun Harvey. His formal title is Advisor to the Board, although he had previously been the former Chief Executive of the English Football League and seemingly acts like the CEO. He often acts as the voice of cold financial reason. When introduced, he recalls his first conversation with McElhenney: ‘It was more about how can we benefit the community and make a positive difference than it was: “do you think we could be playing in the Championship in three years?” I said: “Have you got that in writing for when this all potentially pans out and they genuinely don’t make any money”.’


Harvey has a way of getting to the crux of issues. The discussion around signing Palmer in the January transfer window, for instance, sees him neatly articulate the problem: acknowledging that Rob and Ryan, and their financial support, were great for the club, he goes on to state that they are also a weakness, ‘in that’, he notes, ‘they create a level of expectancy and financial ability that other people believe we have.’ It is an insightful observation. He also often establishes the stakes if Wrexham are not successful. Promotion will mean greater financial potential, while remaining in the National League means ongoing costs for the owners. When asked whether remaining in the league with the current wage bill was sustainable, Harvey simply replies: ‘It’s sustainable as long as you’re willing to pay for it.’


Harvey is the lynchpin of this entire endeavour. While Rob and Ryan have the vision and the capital, Harvey is the one who can bring his experience and industry gravitas to bear in order to make the entire project workable. It does not matter how far he buys into the broader community rehabilitation aims, but in order for the project to succeed, he does not need to. Indeed, for all their community-orientated aspirations, if the club does not run effectively and remains stuck in the National League, the entire project will stall. The overt tension that this creates is well known to any sports fan: football is unpredictable (Jeffrey Lurie tells McElhenney as much during their conversation) and despite Rob and Ryan not wanting to disappoint the town, and for all they invest in the club, they cannot really control the most important aspect – what takes place on the pitch for 90 minutes.


Throughout, the new owners insist that their intentions are nothing but honourable, and nothing we see contradicts that claim. Initially, however, every time they talk about the local community, it is jarring because, apart from the initial scenes in the first episode, they are never there. At the start, there is a large gulf between Rob and Ryan and Wrexham. This was, in part, because the pair had never visited the ground and attended a match before they purchased the club.


As the series goes on, it builds to the moment Rob and Ryan are introduced to the fans and get to experience the gratefulness of the Wrexham community. As an aside, their first game watching the club live was an away match at Maidenhead, and I did appreciate Reynolds’ first exposure to terrace banter in the form of a ‘Ryan Reynolds, you’ve bought the wrong club’ chant, in which he was visibly startled that he was being addressed directly through the medium of song. The ensuing visit to Wrexham proper allows them to engage with several key supporters (many of whom are already well-known to the audience as key figures that the show has been following). The actual connection with players, staff and supporters grows from there.


It likely panned out this way, but it is also a canny piece of documentary filmmaking. At the beginning of the show, there was a noticeable sense of divergence between Rob and Ryan and the people of Wrexham. There was also a lack of success on the pitch. Slowly, those two issues are resolved. Indeed, the course of the season helped the overall narrative, starting slowly by building to several highs, such as an appearance at Wembley for the FA Trophy Final or the 3-0 home victory over league leaders Stockport County in Episode 15 to keep Wrexham’s faint hopes of finishing on top of the table alive.


One of the genuine highlights, for me at least, was Episode 14, when Reynolds pays a surprise visit to the club to film an advertisement for 1Password, but also to attend the FA Trophy Semi Final against Stockport Country. Until then, Reynolds never seemed to embrace the project emotionally as much as McElhenney does. The game ends in a 2-0 win for Wrexham, sending them to Wembley. More importantly, it is the moment Reynolds admits to finally understanding the magic of football. The scenes of the crowd realising that Reynolds is at the game and then serenading him with ‘There’s only one Ryan Reynolds’, followed by the jubilant 91st minute winner (and the 96th minute sealer) lead to the ultimate revelation from Reynolds: ‘I was so into this endeavour as just like a zoomed out, macro project that involved a club, a business – which is also the club – and a community and how those kind of intersect. I didn’t expect to take the “red pill” with respect to Wrexham and really kind of go down that rabbit hole with them and start to understand the actual fabric and DNA of their passion and love for this club that sort of transcends wins and losses.’ It is joyous because of the time spent with the community and the chance they get to celebrate a genuine achievement together.


By the end of the show, I was more or less won over. Rob and Ryan might not know everything about running a football club (see, for instance, the offside rule in Episode 16 or extra-time in Episode 18), yet they do know the entertainment industry. If nothing else, it shows that the pair know how to make an enjoyable documentary. The production of Welcome to Wrexham, while hokey in parts and needing to cater to a US audience unfamiliar with football, is ultimately top rate. The final episode is a tour de force, drawing all manner of threads together during the course of one crucial and ultimately doomed game. Welcome to Wrexham really does capture the essence of why people love football clubs and why they are important for a community. It also manages to take something that should be inimical to most British football fans, the purchase of a traditional football club by rich North Americans who do not know the game and have no existing connection to the club or the community, and turn it into a celebration of why many of us are football supporters.


What’s more, Rob and Ryan sell hope, which is the key difference between their show and Sunderland ‘Til I Die. The beauty of it, beyond having been drawn into investing emotionally in the fortunes of a Welsh National League club, is that the failure to gain promotion makes the viewer more invested in their plight going forward, which is perhaps what Rob and Ryan were hoping for all along. It is an unfinished project, and, having spent so much time in and among the people of Wrexham, you cannot help but come away wanting them to finally taste success.


More from William Westerman can be read Here.



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About William Westerman

Canberra-based historian. Author of 'Merger: The Fitzroy Lions and the Tragedy of 1996' Available here:


  1. Thanks William. Really enjoyed your discussion of this and especially how you kept probing the deeper purposes of the documentary. I note they’re still in the 5th tier.

  2. Thanks William.

    It is definitely on my ‘must watch’ list.

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