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.

The trials of a nomadic existence

GRAYS Athletic play at a very nice stadium. Brand spanking new, great facilities and a football-friendly artificial surface that performs very well. The only problem is, the club is ground-sharing at Aveley, a town of 8,000 people some four miles from Grays.

They’re in their second year of a two-year agreement, and like most tenants, there is a degree of uncertainty about the future. Grays have been away from their home town for eight seasons now and the club’s loyal band of followers are hankering for a return to the town. As nice as Aveley’s Parkside ground is, as the old song goes, “there’s no place like home”.

The longer Grays are away from their ancestral seat, the links become more and more frayed. Of course, if and when the homecoming takes place, a “rebirth” exercise can rekindle public interest, but as fan bases get older and memories start to fade, any club that lives on the road runs the risk of an extinguished flame. Slough Town, a bigger club than Grays, went travelling for some time, playing at Beaconsfield in their latter years as tenants, before returning to an excellent new ground. If you have to borrow a ground, the Aveley stadium at Park Lane, on the fringes of Belhus Park, is as good a location as any – Glyn Balmer, a club director (until after the game I attended when he tendered his resignation), showed me around the stylish backrooms with no small degree of pride. “Wherever we go next, it will be hard to live up to this – we’re getting too used to it.”

Grays, as a town, has changed quite dramatically in the past decade. EssexLive reported in January this year that Grays South was the “most dangerous place in Thurrock” , but interestingly that same report listed Upminster (in Havering) as the fourth most intimidating area. As someone who knows Grays of old, and spent many hours in the Thameside Theatre and State cinema (the latter a classic of the 1930s), the town was never pretty, and a little hard at the edges, but never what you would call “dangerous”. Admittedly, my father was thrown through a shoe shop window in 1944, having been mistaken for a German (he was Danish and landed at Tilbury on a boat from Norway, fleeing the Nazis), but safety in Grays was never an issue when I lived in Thurrock.

But there’s no denying the area has its social problems. It is no coincidence that Nigel Farage, the pop-up Brexit opportunist, was frequently pictured speaking in Thurrock and the borough’s “leave” vote was in excess of 72%. Everywhere I went, the same message was delivered, “too many foreigners and not enough jobs”. If Grays return to the riverside town of 30,000-plus, they may find it a somewhat different place from when they were last there.

In places like South Ockendon (the village/town of my youth), Aveley and Grays, the soundtrack has become very multi-cultural, with voices from central and eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. It does make you wonder if football clubs could actually leverage this by getting, for example, some Polish or African players from this influx to tap into local interest?

Regardless of sensitive politics and demographics, Grays officials like Glyn Jarvis are hopeful that people who have expressed an interest, or have temporarily suspended their allegiance, will throw their weight behind the club once more. At present, they are not forthcoming, but at a new ground, with a new focus, perhaps corporates and individuals may come forward. “The thing is, we need them now,” said Jarvis, with a hint of concern.

On the field of play, Grays are also in limbo. Now in the Bostik League North Division, they are perched behind the play-off zone but have found it hard to win at home. A week before I attended their game in the FA Trophy against Sevenoaks, they had picked up their first victory of the season at Parkside against Great Wakering, almost throwing-away a three-goal lead before winning 4-3. “The story of our season, we cannot play for 90 minutes,” said one Grays fan.

They’ve certainly had some disappointment already this season, losing 5-0 at home to Maldon & Tiptree and also going out of the FA Cup very cheaply at FC Romania of the Essex Senior League. Crowds have been lack-lustre, with two of their league games falling below 200. However, with October 13 being Non-League Day and a bright, sunny afternoon, the conditions for a decent crowd were in place. With only a few people from Sevenoaks – who were playing their first-ever FA Trophy tie – the crowd was 206, which was 18 people more than watched Aveley, Grays’ landlords the night before. Two games in two days, such are the benefits of an artificial pitch.

The match was an excellent advertisement for the non-league game. In the first half, Grays went two-up thanks to a couple of fine goals from their impressive Portuguese winger Joao Carlos. The wind may have assisted with the first strike, a free-kick from outside the area, but it was a spectacular effort all the same.

Sevenoaks had a tough task to turn it around, but their manager, Mickey Collins, said he was still confident at half-time that his team could come back. Collins, a chirpy character, turned out for Millwall, Charlton, Gillingham and Dartford in his playing days and has an infectious personality that clearly rubs-off on his players.

In the second half, Sevenoaks played superbly, pulling a goal back in the 55thminute through Kevin Sawyer and then equalising in the 72ndwhen Alec Fiddes shot home after Grays’ defence was found wanting. Another defensive lapse gave Sawyer the chance to put the visitors ahead two minutes later, and finally, in the last minute, the same player secured his hat-trick after breaking through the middle. Final score 4-2 in Sevenoaks’ favour.

Grays were, naturally, disappointed with the outcome, but they had played their part in an entertaining game that as Collins commented, “if you had paid to watch, you’d be pleased.” How very true.

So what does the future hold for Grays? As mentioned, they are in their second year at Aveley and they have to see where they go beyond that. They need their own ground, be it in Grays or close to home. Just a mile or so from Parkside, Thurrock’s old ground lies dormant, but has a big price tag attached to it. That would be a ground, but it wouldn’t be Grays. Neither would any possible tie-up with Tilbury. And there’s ongoing talk of a site on the north side of the town.

In the Grays programme, the club revealed its projected financial position and the reality of being a community-owned non-league club. Such transparency is refreshing at this level, although it also serves to underline the challenge of running a club – Grays have an expected gap between income and expenditure of around £ 500 per week. That runs in at £ 20,000 for a season – it is not difficult to see how clubs can find themselves, over a period of a few years, in difficulties, unless they are bailed-out or propped-up by individuals. Against this financial backdrop, Step 4 is something of an achievement in itself, let alone promotion.

It’s clear to see there’s frustrations at Grays, they’ve not been dealt a particularly good hand of cards and they’re in a borough that has got more than one football club – it is difficult for Thurrock to show support for any one club. However, this is a football institution with a long history and it represents the largest town in Thurrock, where a lot of football-loving, working class people still live. I’ve got a soft spot for the Blues as it was the club that introduced non-league football to me, and what’s more, I was born and raised in the area. It saddens me to see a club like Grays continually worry about their prospects. Once the people that hold it together start to drift away or become disillusioned, then the real problems begin. I sincerely hope that never happens and that by the time I next visit GA, there’s more positive news on the horizon.