Wrexham AFC, a Welsh club in the fifth tier of the English league system, has vaulted into the consciousness of the soccer world over the past two years. To help tell their story, we spoke with soccer commentator (and lifelong Wrexham supporter) Bryn Law to learn more about the Wrexham AFC story.
After being purchased by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney in late 2020, curious fans from all over the world have kept a keen eye on the team from the National League.
In 2022, the documentary series Welcome to Wrexham premiered on FX to critical acclaim, and gained the club even more fans. Now they’ve boosted that profile even further with a deep run in the FA Cup.
But the story of Wrexham AFC goes beyond the recent spotlight. They’re a club rich with tradition. A history full of triumphs, heartaches, and struggles. It’s a big part of the reason why the club has endeared itself to so many people.
Early days of the Wrexham AFC story
Wrexham AFC has been kicking long before they became a household name. The club was founded in 1864 at the Turf Hotel, the pub that is still right next to the stadium. That makes them the third oldest professional soccer team in the world. Their stadium, the Racecourse Ground, is the oldest international soccer stadium on the planet that is still in use for international games.
The club won the inaugural Welsh Cup in 1878 (they’d win it again in 1883). The year 1883 was the first time they competed in the FA Cup as well.
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Life in the Football League
After spending their first five decades in competitions such as the Combination League, Welsh League, and Birmingham and District League, Wrexham was elected to the Third Division North of the Football League in 1921. They’d remain at that level for most of the next half-century, before spending most of the 1960s in the fourth tier.
A memorable moment from this stretch was their 1957 FA Cup game versus the “Busby Babes” of Manchester United. United thrashed Wrexham 5-0, but it was a crowd of nearly 35,000 people at the Racecourse, which is still a club record.
A return to normal form in the 1970s was capped by their first ever promotion to the second division in 1978. They would spend four seasons in Division Two (their highest even positioning) before dropping back to the fourth tier for much of the 1980s.
Wrexham would finish bottom of the Football League in 1991, but thanks to the reorganization of the leagues that year they were saved from relegation.
The following season brought one of the most remarkable moments in the club’s history. On January 4, 1992, Wrexham took on the reigning First Division champions Arsenal, and handed them a shock 2-0 defeat in the 3rd round of the FA Cup.
Bryn Law, a commentator for Leeds United TV, is a lifelong Wrexham fan. He was there when Wrexham beat Arsenal.
“I was in the Kop end behind the goal for that game,” Law remembered. “That was brilliant because at that time we were in the Football League, we were at the higher level. We weren’t very good, but we were in it. That was a brilliant day.”
The 21st century hasn’t been kind until now
At the turn of the millennium, Wrexham supporters found themselves at odds with the club’s chairman. Alex Hamilton acquired the team, but also the Racecourse Ground through a separate company, and was attempting to have the club evicted so he could redevelop the land. While Hamilton’s shady dealings were shut down in court and he was eventually ousted as chairman, the difficulties did not end there.
The 2008-09 season saw the Red Dragons relegated to the Conference (now National League), the fifth tier, where Wrexham remains today. And again the club was sold in 2011, but this time to the Wrexham Supporters’ Trust. A group of community members committed to the club, the Trust kept things alive for the past decade, until 2020 when, well, you likely know the story from there.
Reynolds and McElhenney bought the club in the fall of 2020, and have since embarked on improvements to the Racecourse Ground (including getting it back under club control). In addition, they’ve brought in new manager Phil Parkinson, and new players in a quest to return to the Football League and, maybe someday, all the way to the Premier League.
That, according to Law, is paramount for the club. The FA Cup run is merely a bonus.
“The FA Cup games are great,” Law said. “Now, though, there is only one priority for Wrexham.
“The FA Cup stuff is a glorious distraction, but it is no more than that. The only goal this year is that the football club has to get promoted.”
In fact, Law says that is where all the pressure comes from for the club. The monetary benefit TV rights deals and sponsorships with the Football League is immense. As a lifelong supporter, he doesn’t get stressed while watching the FA Cup games, but the league games do have that effect.
Americans are making pilgrimages to North Wales
With what appears to be committed, financially stable ownership and a new worldwide fanbase stoked on by a popular TV series, things are looking up in North Wales.
Law added that whenever he goes to a Wrexham game, he meets new fans. For instance, he met a whole group of Canadian fans that came over for a match, and they plan to do it again. He was once in the Wrexham Club Shop and saw people with suitcases. They were in the United Kingdom to watch the Manchester Derby, but had to pay homage to the Racecourse Ground.
“There’s a kind of pilgrimage element to it at the moment,” Law said. “People put [Wrexham] into their itineraries, even if they can’t get tickets. Wrexham is going to have to start thinking about how to accommodate all these visitors.”
Near misses in recent promotion campaigns and solid form so far in 2022-23 have a return to the Football League looking inevitable.
But whether Wrexham AFC gets promoted or not, the club will surely be making more history for many years to come.
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