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Wrexham: An intoxicating tale of Hollywood glamor and sporting romance

“It’s an underdog story,” says Gene Warman, an Ohio native sitting in a bar with his son in a city neither had heard of this time last year. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

Warman and his 22-year-old son Andrew are on a four-day trip from the US to watch their new-found love, Wrexham AFC. They flew into London the previous day and embarked on a four-hour, 183-mile drive to the northeast of Wales. Jetlag cannot be countenanced on a sacred trip such as this.

In an often brutal and bleak world, the recent resurgence of Wrexham, the city as well as the soccer club, lifts the soul. Tourists smile when asked for their thoughts on this small industrial city near the English-Welsh border, brought to the world’s attention by the soccer club’s owners, actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.

Locals have always loved talking about their club, the beating heart of this working-class community, but now there’s a confidence and, crucially, optimism, when doing so.

In loaning the club their money – over £3 million ($3.7 million) according to the club’s accounts – and the offshoots of their fame, Reynolds and McElhenney have brought hope to a city and its people. The future is exciting when you’re no longer fighting for survival.

Falling in love
Grey clouds cocoon the city on the eve of the biggest match in the club’s recent history. The nearby mountains contributing to the rain threat that never materializes. It is not an April day for the outdoors, but a perfect one for what has arguably become the most well-known pub in Wales, the No. 1 stop on the Wrexham tourist trail.

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The Warmans have yet to venture into the center of the city, instead heading first to the Turf, a pub where the club was founded.

Those who have watched “Welcome to Wrexham,” the TV documentary which follows the owners’ 2021 takeover and first season in charge, need no explanation as to why this pub a few steps away from the main entrance of the stadium is a must-see for visitors.

The Turf pub is a must-see for Wrexham fans. Here fans are pictured outside the venue ahead of an FA Cup tie in November 2022.
The Turf pub is a must-see for Wrexham fans. Here fans are pictured outside the venue ahead of an FA Cup tie in November 2022.
Nigel French/PA Images/Getty Images
From the first episode, landlord Wayne Jones and his customers are held as an example of how Wrexham AFC is woven into the fabric of people’s lives.

The pub looks much like it does on television: the food van in the parking lot, the painted red-brick wall with fans’ signatures, framed football shirts and other soccer memorabilia hanging from walls and pictures of Reynolds and McElhenney dotted around.

What has changed, as is the case for a lot of businesses in the city, is that there are more customers than ever. Trade has, Jones says, “practically doubled” since the documentary was first aired. A city that was struggling economically, especially when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, is now, he says, thriving.

“I dread to think where we would’ve been had Ryan and Rob not come in,” says Jones, a man who has become accustomed to interviews, this being his fourth of a day that has just become afternoon.

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The Turf is full of life, locals mixing with tourists who want to drink at the pub they know from the show. Jones, a season ticket holder, says he scoffed at warnings from McElhenney to prepare for tourists once the documentary was aired. “As much as I love this town, we are just a small industrial town in northeast Wales,” he says. “But they’ve nailed it.”

Standing at the bar, sipping beers bought for them by a regular, are Los Angeles-based businessmen Rajat Bhattacharya and Arun Mahtani. The pair have tickets to watch Liverpool play the next day and felt they had to visit Wrexham. At a table a few meters away are husband and wife Thania and Jeff LaMirand from Washington, making Wrexham part of a short trip to Europe which will also encompass a few days in Madrid, Spain. There are no longer run-of-the-mill days at the Turf.

Jones says on a quiet day about 20 to 30 tourists visit the pub. “It’s every day, without fail,” he says, breaking out into a disbelieving smile.

“It’s a bit bonkers that we’re getting people from Colorado and Texas. There are five chaps just walked in now from Alabama. There’s a guy on the plane over from Alabama.

“The people that I’ve spoken to have said they fell in love with the documentary.

“The majority of them said they fell in love with the community, and it’s quite clever from Robert and Ryan because they could have just made another pure football documentary … But they focused on the town and Rob said to me, ‘I knew that if I could get Americans to see the town, they could relate to the people and then they’d want to be a part of it.’ And that’s exactly what’s happened.”

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It is a long, sometimes bloody history; 200 years of English invasions and Welsh revolts before the country was completely conquered and, though peaceful for hundreds of years, the relationship between the two neighbors is still complicated. They are different countries sharing common laws, friends for the most part despite cultural differences, yet like for many a once conquered nation, the past is not forgotten.

There is a sense that the focus has always been on the south, almost everything is there: the capital city (Cardiff), the Senedd (the Welsh Parliament), the national stadium, the country’s two biggest cities and, in fact, most of the population. And there is no major highway from Cardiff to north Wales, just a winding trunk highway – an often-beautiful route, but not a quick one.

But now, there’s Wrexham with a story that, in hindsight, feels as if it was just waiting for Hollywood. The oldest soccer club in Wales, the third-oldest professional club in the world, saved from the brink by its fans; the club that was once in the higher echelons of the English football league system before it tumbled into the fifth tier of the English game, its fortunes taking a downturn both on and off the pitch. Then came Reynolds and McElhenney, with money, a plan and stardust.