Ryan Reynolds is used to being popular. His performance in the Deadpool films has earned him a Golden Globe nomination, as well as loyal fans and a small fortune. So it was a shock when he found himself at a pub in Wales having to win over a suspicious community. Not content with Hollywood stardom, Reynolds was there because he had bought the local football club for $2.3 million, with his fellow actor Rob McElhenney from the television show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
“The challenge was people looking around and thinking: ‘What are these guys doing here?’” McElhenney says. They battled hostility from fans (and Reynolds’s wife, the actress Blake Lively, who didn’t understand why he had spent so much on a Welsh football team), and were teased for not knowing the offside rule. Now their story of winning over a failing team they bought in November 2020 is the subject of Welcome to Wrexham, a moving and funny six-part documentary on Disney+.
There are parallels with Clarkson’s Farm — the presenter knew nothing about agriculture before buying the land and making a documentary — and shades of the Apple TV+ drama Ted Lasso, in which an American coach gets used to the workings of a British team. And there is precedent for football clubs with celebrity owners. Delia Smith bought a share in Norwich City in 1996, Elton John has longstanding financial connections to Watford, and Alan Sugar was part-owner of Tottenham. But Reynolds and McElhenney are different. For one thing, they had no idea about British football. Now they are hooked.
“The age-old tale of addiction is that you go into it with this casual approach and then you come out completely changed and ravaged,” Reynolds tells me, with a smile. “Football has done that to me. For better and for worse. I think they should make some sort of patch for it.”
Cynics may object that the plan was always to make a documentary rather than focusing purely on Wrexham. McElhenney was inspired by the Netflix documentary Sunderland ’til I Die, about the club’s relegation from the Premier League.
They battled hostility from fans (and Reynolds’s wife, the actress Blake Lively, who didn’t understand why he had spent so much on a Welsh football team).
Its story of people coming together to save a club struck a chord — he was born working class in Philadelphia and supports the NFL team Philadelphia Eagles. “I knew those people, I grew up with them,” McElhenney explains. “The thing that crushed me was the theme song of the Sunderland documentary — written by local singer Martin Longstaff about his grandfather.”
The lyrics are: “All your life you worked your fingers to the bone, you worked hard for every little thing you owned.” He turned to his wife on the sofa and told her that he was going to buy a football club.
The problem, as he says, is “I’m only in TV. I needed a movie star with millions.” He thought of Reynolds, whom he had met only once, on a photo shoot, and who is a businessman (he owns a gin company and a phone company). He sent him a message on Twitter. “I think Rob thought of my gin as a sponsor first,” Reynolds says. “But I said, what if we just drove off the cliff together?”
The fans were harder to win over. Wrexham was at that point one of the country’s unluckiest football clubs, languishing in the National League after years of mismanagement. What good would two celebrities from the US with no idea about football be?
“We thought it was a joke,” says Andy Gilpin, who runs a Wrexham fanzine and podcast. “Wrexham fans are programmed to expect failure. We’d had owners drive the club into administration, try to sell the ground, get us relegated, and the fans had taken over running the club after one bidder became the first person to fail the FA’s fit and proper persons test. Why would the guy who plays Deadpool want a struggling football team?” A young fan in the documentary sweetly suggests that it is because Wrexham’s strip is red, like Deadpool.
While many fans rejoiced at the new owners, singing “we’re f***ing rich” at games, others, like Gilpin, wanted evidence of a plan. “The question I kept asking was: ‘Are you making a documentary or are you buying a football club?’ It was 50-50 for me, but the thing that tipped it in favor was the appointment of Phil Parkinson as manager.”
Parkinson, who has made a career of getting clubs promoted, turned them down at first, but the documentary touches on a long call with McElhenney that persuaded him. “From the outside you think: ‘What’s that all about?’” Parkinson says. “But when we spoke, he understood the competitiveness of the division and how the squad needed a complete rebuild. They let us get on with the game. If we got the feeling they were just into the money we would have walked away.”
Gradually, affection built. Welcome to Wrexham follows Reynolds and McElhenney as they transform the Racecourse Stadium (the world’s oldest football stadium in use), secure TikTok as the lead kit sponsor and, particularly for the unsuspecting Reynolds, fall into the bitter ecstasy/despair relationship that every football fan knows.
“I had no football knowledge beyond playing as a kid,” Reynolds explains. “Slowly but surely, I engaged in everything from admin to community building and the business side, which I understand. Now my week is built around when Wrexham are next playing.” He brought his wife to watch Wrexham lose 1-0 to Bromley in the FA Trophy final in May.
“We went into this expecting a fair amount of cynicism and caution,” McElhenney says. “If a Hollywood star bought the Eagles I’d expect the same. We welcomed it. If you’re not fully invested in a club you won’t care. Of course, the fans should care and ask a million questions. We realized that we could say everything, and it doesn’t mean anything until we deliver.”
That night at the Turf pub near the ground was a bonding experience. “My recollection is foggy,” Reynolds says. “Things got progressively more bananas.” “I like to drink, I believe I can keep up,” McElhenney adds cautiously. “But they drank.”
“When Ryan came in at first it was a business opportunity,” Gilpin says. “But there was a Dover game where we were 5-2 down and we won 6-5 — for the next game he got a private plane over to watch. He’s hooked.” Gilpin talks about gifts from the stars — signed DVDs from Reynolds and his wife, a birthday message for a fan. McElhenney donated almost $12,000 to a four-year-old Wrexham fan with a brain tumor.
Many fans rejoiced at the new owners, singing “we’re f***ing rich.”
The Wrexham fans, however, still want results — especially after coming so close to promotion at the end of last season only to lose 5-4 to Grimsby in May after a devastating 119th-minute goal. The British comedian Humphrey Ker, who is a friend of McElhenney’s and recommended the Sunderland documentary, has a warning for the owners: “I had to explain that no matter how successful the team is someone will come up to them and call them a c***. The first game they attended at Maidenhead they received abuse, and I think they actually enjoyed it.”
So are they in it for the long term or is this just a documentary-making exercise? McElhenney insists they are committed and have their sights set on the Premier League. It’s ambitious. Reynolds’s net worth is $150 million and McElhenney clocks in at $50 million. They paid the supporters’ trust $2.3 million for the club, hired a new executive team, manager and players and had to replace the pitch, for £300,000 (about $354,000). “I forget to do the foreign exchange conversion,” McElhenney says. “When they say 300,000 I think dollars. That’s always a tough one.”
According to Oliver Nash, co-director of the National League club Maidstone, the average squad salary is “north of £1 million [about $1.2 million] not including staff, physio and so on. And that’s the average — you’ve got newly financed clubs like Oldham, Bromley and Notts County. I’d be surprised if Wrexham’s playing budget is less than £2 million [$2.3 million] a year. If they’re aiming for the Premier League — those club owners are almost entirely billionaires.”
If they are promoted, the rewards will reach the whole town. When Brighton & Hove Albion were promoted in the 2016-17 season the economic contribution to the city’s economy was $254 million for the 2017-18 season.
Reaching the FA trophy final was an achievement, despite losing to Bromley. “That was the highest point for me,” Reynolds says, to my surprise. “So many fans stayed in the stands singing and tipped their hats to me and Rob, even though we lost.” I confess that I was raised in Bromley. McElhenney sighs. “It’s devastating that we lost, but if you walk around upset at others’ success you will be miserable for the rest of your life.” He pauses, then the real football fan emerges. “I want to kick the shit out of Bromley this season though.”
Welcome to Wrexham is now streaming on FX in the U.S. and Disney+ in the U.K.
Stephen Armstrong is a freelance journalist who writes for The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The New Statesman, GQ, and Esquire. His first book was The White Island: The Colourful History of the Original Fantasy Island, Ibiza