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Wrexham crack America with Chelsea and Man Utd games but questions grow closer to home

Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney have overseen a huge transformation in north Wales but, as manager Phil Parkinson prepares the team for its first season in the Football League since 2008, rifts are beginning to appear among fans and questions around club’s finances remain unanswered

 

 

Welcome to Wrexham, a League club once again. From a distance the world’s third-oldest professional football team appears to be the planet’s happiest: they are the authors and viewers of a script befitting of the big screen, never mind the small.

 

 

Manager Phil Parkinson has a squad capable of securing consecutive promotions this season, those players will wear the logos of United Airlines, HP and Expedia on their shirts, and the global interest in a fourth-tier team has never been seen before.

 

 

Their ascent is likely to remain rapid and the credit, more often than not, goes to Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney – the stars of screen who raised eyebrows and suspicion when they bought the club from the supporters’ trust in early 2021.

 

 

These A-List backers, admittedly clueless when they rode into town, have enabled Wrexham’s return to the EFL for the first time since 2008 but also brought relentless media attention and a docuseries that has led to fans across America viewing a working-class patch of north Wales as a new tourist destination.

 

 

Now the team heads Stateside for real. And, as manager Phil Parkinson and his players prepare to face the second strings of Chelsea, Manchester United and B teams of MLS sides LA Galaxy and Philadelphia Union, the question has to be asked.

 

 

Can a football club really be a source of unqualified joy?

“The commitment they’ve shown and everything they do for the community has been phenomenal,” Barry Jones, the supporters’ trust’s chairman, says of Reynolds and McElhenney. “We couldn’t ask for better owners.”

Yet a quick scratch under the surface suggests such impressions are not unanimous. Tension is not quite simmering but it may not take too many defeats for murmurs to become loud groans.

 

 

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Wrexham expect and are expected to be pushing for a play-off spot again this season but, as one source says, there are concerns that playing a quartet of friendlies against kids from glamour clubs while coast-hopping in America up to six days before their League Two campaign is not quite optimal preparation.

 

 

It’s going to be a great trip for us,” Parkinson said last week. “The profile of these games are a different level in terms of the anticipated attendances and obviously the experience of being in America where the club’s documentary has been well received.”

But that reception is leaving folks closer to home feeling distanced. There is an increasing strain between lifelong local fans and the arrivistes that is beginning to appear at odds with the community-first image curated by Reynolds and McElhenney.

 

 

It is a consequence of success that has afflicted many clubs but lifelong devotees are finding it hard to get tickets and there is a feeling of foreign visitors with deeper wallets being given preferential treatment.

The launch of a reframed membership scheme earlier this month has caused consternation. Fans have been asked to stump up £30 for the ability to enter a ticketing ballot. The club says that 150 tickets will be available for each home game for UK members, 75 for those from abroad and the idea also means season ticket holders, who have seen prices rise, will now only be entitled to 70% of away tickets.

 

 

Social media reaction has been unsurprisingly furious and, in response to a query over whether they might reassess, the club said it had consulted the club’s advisory board, which has fan representation.

“We have and will always listen to fans about all matters relating to the club,” a spokesman told Mirror Football. “The decision to increase the cost of membership was taken after an assessment of the benefits that fans would receive including access to the priority period to purchase tickets and the new ballot, ticket exchange processes we have put in place.”

 

 

Still, it all jars a little when the team is hosting an open training session in North Carolina today where tickets are being resold for $300 and top seats for Wednesday’s game against Chelsea, a 50,000 sellout, were $550 face value.

That the Racecourse Ground, or Stok Cae Ras as it is to be known this season, holds a little less than 11,000 at full capacity is a problem. But it is easy to understand why some who were there during the dark days feel they are being priced or locked out.

 

 

Redeveloping the ground is a key part of the owners’ plans and £25m of funding from the Welsh government has been ringfenced. Work on the new Kop, with a 5,500 capacity that includes 500 corporate seats near the back, is set to commence and the aim, one source says, is to make it a “US-standard venue.”

But Reynolds and McElhenney are also pushing to buy the lease for the Racecourse from the supporters’ trust, who have 92 years remaining. The matter is currently with the legal experts and both parties have agreed to seek an intermediate opinion from a King’s Counsel, with the costs being covered by the club.

“Obviously we’re not going to tell the club in 2045 that they’ve got to go. We’ve fought tooth and nail to keep the club alive,” Jones says. “We’re currently in negotiations with the owners’ solicitors to extend that sublease or put in place legal guarantees that give the club the security of the Racecourse.

“We’re in discussions with their legal team to make sure that the long-term future of the club is assured. They’re aware of the legacy of this club. They are certainly not in it for a quick five years and then run off.”

There are different frustrations among local businesses. At least one company made an offer to sponsor a match last season only to be met with silence by the club and others feel jettisoned now global corporations are front and centre.

But those grumbles of discontent are swept aside by the owners’ regular and wholly admirable gestures of kindness – from GoFundMe donations and buying kits for local children’s teams to bar tabs and social media messages.

There is much to be appreciated around the wide lens view they have taken to being the club’s custodians. Plans are afoot to reopen the club’s academy, with the eventual hope of stopping the best local talent from joining the Liverpool or Manchester clubs, and finding a permanent training base is another priority.

Then there is the parallel successes of the women’s team, which will be back in the Welsh top tier this season and long-term aim to become the country’s first representatives in the Champions League. The women’s team, overseen by Gemma Owen, is transitioning from amateur to semi-professional and clinched promotion last season in front of a record attendance of 9,511.

Owen’s involvement at the club far precedes Reynolds and McElhenney but she was immediately impressed and convinced by their vision and commitment to growing the women’s game.

“It was really welcomed,” she says. “When they spoke to us about it initially, it was clear they really meant what they were saying. It was really nice to hear for me and the staff who’ve been involved in the women’s side of the club for years prior to the takeover.

“I’m keen to get it out there that the women and girls’ section didn’t start at the time of the takeover but what it has done has given us the platform to continue growing and thriving. They see the value in what we’re doing and women’s football. That’s half the battle really.”

The club’s number of employees more than doubled from 80 in 2021 to 195 in 2022. Except not all has gone swimmingly with those who run the club day to day. One senior figure has been accused of forcing a number of staff members to resign because they have been “rude, uncaring, arrogant.” In a Facebook post, a former employee wrote of the official: “I can guarantee that you’d have to go a long way to find somebody so horrible to work for.”

The ex-staffer, who is one of several to quit the club since the takeover, did not want to elaborate on those comments when contacted by Mirror Football.

In a lengthy response, the club spokesman said it “has been through enormous change … that has meant introducing a host of new working practices … we understand this has meant staff members have had to accept massive adjustments in the way we work and we have been delighted in the way that has been embraced by so many people at the football club. But it’s inevitable that some employees would struggle with big change.”

The spokesman added that the club has offered “continual support, understanding and patience” to employees, are “naturally disappointed when staff members move on” and they “operate an open, listening environment where all issues can be raised freely and without prejudice.”

But such moments of tension not feature in Welcome to Wrexham, of course.

From the start there were concerns about the documentary becoming a form of “poverty porn”, where an American audience would find entertainment from seeing inside the lives of blue-collar people who are proud of their humble roots.

That McElhenney was inspired to buy a club after watching Netflix’s Sunderland Til I Die series fed initial fears. Yet the common feeling is that Welcome to Wrexham was a fair portrayal and, as McElhenney put it, “a love letter to working-class communities.” There are, he has said, comparisons to be made with his home patch, Philadelphia.

“They got the essence right,” Jones, who featured briefly, says. “Wrexham is a working-class town and the reason I’m in London is because there were no jobs in Wrexham. We export people, we’ve done it for ages.”

It remains unclear how lucrative the documentary has proven because the club’s most recent accounts, ending May 2022, did not provide any details. But a board member has claimed turnover will have exceeded £20m for the current financial year – and that will be a more than 300% increase compared to 12 months previous.

However, questions remain around why a loan provided by the owners carries interest 3% above the rate set by Bank of England and, according to last year’s accounts, accrued £43,679 in the past financial year. “The interest rate on loan monies was agreed at the time the funds were introduced below the rate that the club could have secured the funding from elsewhere in the commercial market.,” the club spokesman said. “Interest is accruing on the loans and no repayments have been made as yet, not is the club under pressure to do so.”

Yet it remains a curious element considering the owners’ otherwise philanthropic approach.

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