Wrexham AFC and the long road back

IT’S HARD to believe, but Wrexham have been in non-league football for 14 years and although they are chasing a play-off place, it seems a lifetime since the club reached the last eight of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup and playing in English football’s second tier.

The size of the Racecourse Ground tells you Wrexham is a club that has played at a higher level. It is also the oldest existing international venue as it hosted Wales versus Scotland in March 1877. 

Wrexham, founded in 1864 at the Turf Hotel attached to the ground, are the sixth oldest club in the world after such names as Sheffield, Notts County and Stoke City. It wasn’t until 1921 that they became a Football League club and their membership ended in 2008 when they were relegated to what is now the National League.

The first thing that hits you when you arrive at Wrexham General station is the old-school floodlights, towering over the neighbourhood like alien structures from a sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells. They’re a dying breed and the Racecourse Ground lights may one day become redundant. Nevertheless, there’s something very comforting about seeing those pylons, hanging in the winter sky, beckoning you to the match.

The club does not own the stadium, though, but if Wrexham’s owners, the actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, get their way, the freehold of the Racecourse will be secured from Wrexham Glyndwr University.

Reynolds and McElhenney (one’s Canadian, one’s American) acquired the club a year ago, a rather curious transaction but one that could make them heroes in North Wales and forever part of folklore. There was no great logic in the duo becoming football club owners, but their arrival gave long-suffering Dragons fans fresh hope after a rather grim period in their history. 

They have made the right noises, talking of “dreaming big” and “emotional investment” and buying 365 drinks for fans at the Turf to celebrate one year in charge would undoubtedly enhanced their image.

They also paid out £ 300,000 for giant bearded striker Ollie Palmer in January 2022 when Wrexham persuaded the 30 year-old to drop down to National League level from AFC Wimbledon.

The pandemic has hit them hard at Wrexham; in 2019-20 the club made a loss of £ 740,000 compared to a profit in 2018-19 of £ 755,000 which was, admittedly, boosted by a one-off transfer fee. This underlines the challenge the new regime has in restoring Wrexham’s fortunes. 

The club is not the only entity to suffer over the past two years, the local economy lost around £ 40 million in the first year of the pandemic and local tourism plummeted by 60%. They are fighting back and the town recently launched its bid to be the UK City of Culture for 2025. Firstly, Wrexham have to secure much-coveted city status. In October 2021, Wrexham was placed on a long list for the next British cities to be upgraded from town status. 

Just to be back in the Football League would be a good start for the club and they are hanging on in seventh place, but it is a tough field – no less than 12 clubs in the National League top division have Football League heritage of some sort. You only need to look at some of the names – Grimsby, Stockport, Notts County, Chesterfield and Southend – to realise history counts for nothing if you flirt with the trapdoor too often. 

Non-league football has had its compensations, though, for Wrexham won the FA Trophy in 2013 and were runners-up two years later, in two Wembley finals. The FA Trophy is what attracted Game of the People to the Racecourse and the tie with Boreham Wood, who had made national headlines in giant-killing Bournemouth in the FA Cup a week earlier. They will meet Everton in the fifth round at Goodison Park.

The Racecourse Ground was empty at two ends and only partly used along one side. The famous Kop terrace is now crumbling and mossy and has been decommissioned, but Reynolds and McElhenney are committed to redevelopment.

Boreham Wood, one of the best managed clubs in non-league, are not well supported, so their small band of fans were perched in one corner of the upper tier of the stand, claiming they were the “Wood Army”. The home crowd seemed to have a slight Scouse accent and it was obvious some Liverpool fans were present as their team was playing on Sunday at Burnley.

Wrexham played very well, opening the scoring with a powerful header from Palmer and then Jordan Davies hit a super left-foot drive on the run past the Wood keeper to give the Dragons a 2-0 half-time lead. The game was finished off in the final seconds with a glancing header from Aaron Hayden. Boreham Wood, who had lost just twice in the league before travelling to Wrexham, may have had their minds on other things. 

As for Wrexham AFC, returning to the Football League is important to put the club back on the map, but a trip to Wembley could act as the springboard. Understandably, the priority is not the FA Trophy, because it is so easy to be forgotten when you’re no longer part of the 92 and 14 years is long enough. The club’s upbeat owners won’t be anticipating prolonged life in non-league football, so Wrexham will surely be back – perhaps very soon.

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