For anyone who's interested in the world of football, it's been impossible to ignore the rise of AFC Wrexham since Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney's takeover in November 2020. Despite the pair's lack of footballing knowledge prior to getting involved with the Red Dragons, it's clear that they've fully bought into the project, becoming passionate about Wrexham and determined to give the town's fans the success and entertainment they deserve.
For that reason, most neutrals were pleased to see the North Wales club finally achieve promotion back to the English Football League last month. Their National League title win crowned a glorious campaign in which the club amassed a staggering 111 points, ensuring that next season they'll be playing professional league football for the first time since the 2007/08 season. But how exactly did they do it?
In this article, we'll be guiding you through the key factors that helped Wrexham achieve their promotion to the EFL, and the key moments that have made this story so fascinating. We'll also be examining what the future holds for the Hollywood-owned club, exploring what their ceiling is and ultimately answering the question: is Wrexham's promotion to League Two just the beginning?
FX and Disney+ documentary Welcome To Wrexham has shown sports fans from the USA and further afield just how important association football is to local communities across the UK. By transforming the faltering club's fortunes and using this documentary to provide the town and its team with an unprecedented level of worldwide fame, Reynolds and McElhenney have led Wrexham on a pretty unique journey. But ultimately, none of the glitzy behind-the-scenes stuff matters if the first team aren't performing well on the pitch. That's why here, we're going to take you through some of the most pivotal factors that have contributed to their 2022-23 National League title win.
One of the key criticisms levelled at AFC Wrexham in recent times is that they've only been able to win the league by massively outspending other National League clubs. It's an understandable point — since the Hollywood takeover, the club's budget for transfer fees and wages has become far bigger than most other sides in the division, and the ownership have utilised this advantage fully, signing some players that have the quality to be playing at a far higher level. Talismanic striker Paul Mullin — a man now beloved by home and opposition fans alike for his prolific goalscoring and warm, charismatic persona — was signed from Cambridge United after scoring 31 League Two goals and gaining promotion to the third tier. He dropped down two divisions to play for Wrexham, and while moving closer to his family was a key factor in this decision, the sizeable wages offered by the Welsh club would certainly have been a big factor.
The same could be said for fellow forward Ollie Palmer, signed from League One Wimbledon in January 2022 for a club record fee of £300,000, and Elliot Lee, a highly experienced EFL midfielder with over 100 appearances for Luton Town, Charlton Athletic, and Oxford United. These EFL-quality players have unsurprisingly shone in the National League, making the difference and ensuring that their team is lifted to a level more suited to their talents. However, credit must go to Wrexham's recruitment team, who have done an excellent job in finding talented, affordable, hard-working professionals in the Football League who are willing to step down and join a project with an exciting long-term vision.
Managing a squad full of talented players like Mullin, Palmer, and Lee is no easy task. The first few months of Reynolds and McElhenney's reign at Wrexham was a time for settling in and getting to know the club; but their first full summer, in 2021, saw them make several significant changes at the club. Players like Mullin and Ben Tozer, a towering central defender who led Cheltenham Town to the 2020-21 League Two title, were brought in, and key switches were made off the pitch. Manager Dean Keates departed, and in came Phil Parkinson, an experienced English Football League coach with a strong CV including stints at Charlton Athletic, Bradford City, and Bolton Wanderers.
Before joining Wrexham, Parkinson already had three EFL promotions on his record, as well as an extraordinary cup run that saw him take League Two Bradford City to the 2012-23 League Cup final. However, it took time for the former Bury and Reading midfielder to have the desired impact; they ended the 2021-22 season strongly, but struggled at some periods throughout the season, with the naming of one Welcome To Wrexham episode 'Sack The Gaffer' highlighting how close Parkinson actually came to losing his job. The club stuck with him, however, and they got their reward. The emphatic 2022-23 title win had Parkinson's fingerprints all over it, with his man management skills and tactical accumen playing an instrumental part in Wrexham's rise to League Two.
All of Wrexham's success hinges on one core group: the fans. Without supporters, football clubs are nothing (a fact that was brought home by the lifeless nature of televised matches during the Covid-19 pandemic), but the Red Dragons are blessed with one of the loudest, most committed lower league fanbases in the UK. Wrexham's 10,771-capacity Racecourse Ground (reputedly the third oldest association football ground in the world) is filled up every week, and even when the club was at its lowest ebb, languishing in mid-table in the National League, the place would still be packed with diehard supporters helping bring that extra edge to each game.
In fact, Wrexham's very existence has those fans to thank. In August 2011, when the Conference threatened to kick North Wales' only professional club out of the league if it didn't raise a £250,000 bond to prove financial stability, supporters clubbed together and raised an incredible £100,000 in just a matter of hours. It's a remarkable testament to their dedication and love for the club.
The pitch invasion at the Racecourse Ground following the title-clinching 3-1 win over Boreham Wood on 22 April captured the intense levels of jubilation, triumph, and above all, relief felt by fans of the club at this massive achievement. None of it would've been possible without those supporters piling through the turnstiles each week.
Football club owners can be a mixed bunch. They can cause mass frustration and protest from fans (just look at the Glazers at Manchester United, for example), but they can also have a hugely positive impact on a club and their fanbase (Tony Bloom's spell at Brighton & Hove Albion being a great example of this). At Wrexham, the owners definitely fall into the latter category.
Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney seem to have got the balance just right. They've massively bought into the local community, engaging with people who live in the town and investing substantial funds into the club they love, and they've attended a large number of games at the Racecourse Ground (particularly in the past few months). However, they haven't interfered too much with the day-to-day running of the club, appointing experienced football industry professionals to make all the important technical decisions, from scouting players to hiring staff and developing lucrative commercial partnerships. This hands-off approach has clearly worked, and it would be a surprise to see the owners veer away from a dynamic that's been super successful so far.
Given the strength of the fanbase, the capability of the coaching team, and the substantial funds invested in the playing squad, it's easy to imagine Wrexham's promotion to the EFL only being the start of this story. The club's owners have ambitions of playing Premier League football, and while the top flight is still a long way away, it's certainly feasible that they could make it there in a few years' time. Look at the rise of similar-sized clubs such as Brentford and Bournemouth, for instance — why can't Wrexham be the latest to join the list of Premier League newbies?
A recent survey commissioned by sports travel company Sportsbreaks.com asked English football fans how they expected Wrexham to fare in the EFL now that their promotion had been secured, and the results were revealing. 13% of surveyed fans believed that the club would be in the Championship within 5 years, a feat that would require them to achieve a further 2 league promotions in that timeframe.
It's worth stating that given how difficult it is to gain promotion from the National League (there's only one automatic promotion spot, with fellow 2022-23 title chasers Notts County missing out on the top spot despite amassing a remarkably impressive 107 points), teams tend to be so strong when they join League Two that they regularly survive comfortably and often challenge for a successive promotion. Last season's National League winners, Stockport County, for example, go into the 2022-23 League Two play-offs as favourites to go up. This precedent means it wouldn't be too surprising to see Wrexham bounce up again.
The same survey also found that 5% of fans thought Wrexham would be in the Premier League within 5 years. Most overwhelmingly, when asked whether the Red Dragons' upward trajectory is a positive thing for English football, 85% said yes. According to Amanda Brandariz, Head of Sportsbreaks.com, "It's no surprise to see growing belief among football fans that the Wrexham rise will continue throughout the English football pyramid. It's been a remarkable season in the National League and we're looking forward to seeing just how far Wrexham's fairy tale can go." On this current trajectory, it seems as though the sky's the limit.