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.

Football Media Watch: Brexit – the blinkers are on

NATIONAL League club Boreham Wood scored a PR own goal this week with their somewhat bold message to Britain’s MPs, urging them to “do your duty” and vote down Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal. The bizarre release, coming just days after Cardiff manager Neil Warnock made clear his views on the European Union, calls on the country to adopt the spirit of Winston Churchill. “We can take whatever obstacles, red tape and barriers that Europe wishes to throw at us and overcome. So we implore our MPs, please do your job – vote down this deal and please stop scaremongering us all about a NO DEAL.”

Boreham Wood’s release, which had no names attached, adds: “We must not let the failing Euro super powers bully us – sorry Germany and Mrs Merkel, sorry President Macron and the French franchise. We’ll leave you guys to get on with solving your own problems with the growing and repulsive far right and the destructive left wing yellow vests. It’s now time for Europe to let our Great British democracy sail off and if we fail, then we fail.”

Boreham Wood, incidentally, have a Dane, a Frenchman and a Guyanan international in their ranks at the moment. Arsenal Ladies and Watford reserves both use the club for games.

Meanwhile, Forbes outlines a number of issues the Premier League faces in the aftermath of Brexit. “Needless to say, the level of upheaval and instability that could potentially result from a no-deal Brexit is untold….The existing laws concerning immigration by skilled migrants to Britain tend to centre around how much money the migrant makes, but there are a range of other hurdles for non-EU footballers that would theoretically come into effect should the UK leave without a deal.” According to FiveThirtyEight, over half of EU players transferred into the Premier since 1992 would not have qualified for a work permit at the time of their transfers.

On the other hand, Forbes reports that the Premier could become even more international. It could be argued that players from the EU have received an unfair advantage in moving to the UK. Currently, work permit rules make it more likely that a player from Brazil, for example, would move to an intermediary EU country such as Portugal, which has different work permit laws. Should all foreign players, regardless of EU or non-EU origin, be subject to the same work permit tests, then perhaps more would move directly to the Premier League than South America?

Economically, Brexit could change the face of European football, resulting a loss of competitiveness for the Premier. Should the legions of foreign players leave the UK under Brexit-enforced conditions, it is perfectly feasible that broadcasters will also look elsewhere. Leagues such as Italy and Spain, will be watching with a keen eye, said Forbes. “The falling value of the pound against the euro could see players eschew the Premier and stay within the Eurozone. A pound was worth € 1.26 the day before the referendum, but is now hovering around € 1.1, with the trend going in one direction.” Forbes added: “Factor in the increased difficulty of getting work permits, the unstable political situation and loss of glamour and the Premier League could find itself in real difficulty.”

Not that Neil Warnock will care too much. His comments, reported in the Independent, underline the deep divisions within the UK regarding the calamity awaiting the nation. Asked about Brexit, he said: “I can’t wait to get out of it, if I’m honest. I think we’ll be far better out of the bloody thing. In every aspect. Football-wise as well, absolutely. To hell with the rest of the world.” As the Indy cautioned, Warnock’s reaction might raise eyebrows at Cardiff, both in the boardroom and dressing room. Cardiff City are owned by Malaysian businessman, Vincent Tan and the squad includes players from Canada, Denmark, Gabon, Iceland, Ivory Coast, the Philippines, Ireland and Spain. As a city, Cardiff voted to stay in the EU.

Photo: Matt Brown via Flickr CC-BY-2.0