Wrexham AFC is at a crossroads. Ask any young fan, twenty-something or under, and the story goes something like this: the road to the left inclines sharply; it is littered with depressingly familiar obstacles, Boreham Woods and Altrinchams and Solihulls. The journey has so far been an uphill struggle. Indeed, it has been difficult to reach even this passing reprieve. And in the far distance, barely visible, lies an endpoint, dimly lit: League Two, the pinnacle of the climb.
Make no mistake about it, Wrexham AFC is a committed Vanarama National League Club in all but mentality. We have become depressive, clinging on to faint memories of greatness; FA Cup runs in the nineties, giant killings in Europe. My personal take? I can barely remember life before the National League (or Blue Square Premier, or Skrill Premier, or any other variation). We think ourselves above Boreham Wood and Altrincham and Solihull, but they are a fixture of our existence, as we are of theirs. We salivate at the prospect of a Portsmouth or a Coventry rolling into the Racecourse, or even, dare I say it, a Shrewsbury. So at what stage does our history cease to be relevant? When there is no one left to remember the good times will we still be able to look each other in the eyes and say ‘we don’t belong here’?
We must acknowledge at this critical moment the limits of fan ownership itself. Even if we eliminate individual error – the appointment of Bryan Hughes or Graham Barrow, the splurging of the Danny Ward money, or the concealment of financial loans from Don Bircham back in 2016 – a grave question remains: how far can fan ownership take us? Perhaps with some luck, into League Two; perhaps without it, into the National North. It’s a close run thing, and recent history suggests we are as likely to exit the wrong way as we are to storm the title. We are, after all, a National League club with a National League budget. Our means are often no greater than those clubs we label as ‘tinpot’ or ‘inferior’. Under fan ownership, our fortunes depend upon precise, minute decisions: a transfer here, a sell-on-clause there, a clever tactical switch at the end of a game. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t. But the point is this: under fan ownership there is little room for failure, there is no platform from which to take risks.
I am by no means suggesting that fan ownership has been a negative for the club; it has ushered in a welcome period of stability in the aftermath of existential threats to the survival of our club back in the mid-2000s and beyond. But the line between stability and stagnation is thin, and we have strayed into the latter.
Say we pull together, the jigsaw clicks into place, and we ascend the incline to League Two. What then? What is the long-term ambition? Our uncontained bliss will soon hit a brick wall. League One seems an unlikely destination given our struggles in the National League. Our budget likely puts us in the bottom third of League Two. The reality of this is sobering, to say the least. A glut of clubs better equipped than ourselves have stagnated since promotion from the National League: Cheltenham, Forest Green, Grimsby, and Mansfield, to name just four. Of course, you could point to Bristol Rovers, or Lincoln, or Luton in opposition, but these are anomalies, clubs riding the wave of new ownership, or clubs for whom the National League was only ever a blip, a hitch in the process. For us, relegation battles are likely. Any hopes of promotion will depend more upon fortune than any conscious strategy. And if the worst happens, we come back to the crossroads, humbled and defeated, ready to start all over again.
Last season was a stark reminder just how far we are from even this vision of the future. The worst season in our history as a club, it compounded over a decade of disappointment, frustration and anger into something much worse: apathy. I don’t speak for everyone, but last season was a grim reminder of just how hopeless being a Wrexham supporter in ‘recent’ history has been. Every fan has a breaking point, and I fear we came close to hitting it for many. If this sounds fickle of me, then I can only reassert the statistics: one playoff campaign in seven years, itself the season we should have won the league. Stick with your team when the going gets tough, sure, but not when the going is tough, constantly. This is when questions need to be asked, when blind allegiance isn’t enough.
Hence the wave of fury that came battering down with (self-defeating) petitions to sack Dean Keates and to sack the board. The club is racked even now by a civil war of sorts, though it has lost some of its bite in the wave of optimism generated by the start of the 20/21 season: we have those who support the WST on one side (what we might call ‘the realists’), and those who demand change on the other (‘the progressives’). This divide is a predictable consequence of failure. If I may ‘get political’ for a moment, these ideologies engender neither constructive debate nor real action. The realists feel attacked, so shelter themselves against all forms of criticism. The progressives feel ignored, so attack all the more with increasing viciousness. That is not to say there can’t be rational people on either side – on the contrary, there are many – but as in anything, those with the least to say often shout the loudest. We have reached an impasse.
It’s all a matter of perspective: the realists still have nightmares of the early 2000s. For them, having a club to support is enough in itself. The enjoyment in supporting Wrexham is rooted in the present: waking up on a match day, celebrating a goal, enjoying a post-match pint with friends. These rituals define what it means to be a fan above and beyond infantile notions of greatness. The progressives think in more pessimistic terms: seeing ‘lesser’ clubs continually achieving success – take Barrow and Harrogate last season – leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. To these people (myself included), the club is directionless, floating with its head barely above water. After a while, even the rituals of a match-day seem more a chore than a pleasure. It seems inevitable that under the current system, conflict will persist in varying degrees of severity, unabated for years to come.
Step in Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds. Another road, an alternative, offers a miraculous escape route from the tiresome monotony of the everyday. The tarmac is smooth, the way clear. Red lights flash like beacons in the night. League Two looks suddenly much closer. Survival in the midst of a global pandemic is virtually guaranteed. Wrexham fans can unite in one direction again. This is all hyperbole, of course, but the point stands: assuming their intentions are true, there is no limit to what we can achieve, and not purely in footballing terms. Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds’ Wrexham AFC are unburdened, unrestrained. As the old saying goes, the sky’s the limit! In an ironic twist of fate, the worst year in many football clubs’ history could end up our best.
And of course, money is no guarantee of success. But money well-spent most certainly is. Rightly so, there is a unique anxiety amongst Wrexham supporters about private ownership. But we cannot let the mistakes of the past paralyse us into submission.
This may all be premature of me. This is assuming that the duo are well-meaning, that they don’t want to Americanize us, turn us into some soulless, capitalistic machine churning out win after win as our history and identity erodes by the day. That may not even sound unpalatable to some of you. But every fibre in my body tells me that this isn’t the case. Even cursory research confirms that these men are passionate, sincere, and focussed about their business projects. Reynolds, in his own words, only pursues those projects which he believes in ‘with every cell of [his] body’. Already, McElhenney and Reynolds are showing interest not only in Wrexham AFC but the wider community as a whole. This doesn’t scream corporate nihilism to me. And if that isn’t reassurance enough, we should not underestimate the gravity of Spencer Harris’ own endorsement of the duo. We are on the cusp of a magnificent new chapter, and even the WST knows it. So let’s wait with open minds and bated breath for this pitch of theirs. Now more than ever, we need a bit of hope.
Written by Euan Rice-Coates