Palm-lined boulevards, sun-kissed beaches, celebrity-filled pool parties: these are not the images that come to mind on a damp November afternoon in Wrexham. With its numerous charity shops and slate-grey skies, the north Wales town is the antithesis of Californian glamour, yet last week its inhabitants were living the Hollywood dream.
The news that the actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney had bought Wrexham Football Club had flashed around the world and left locals in a state of feverish excitement, or at least mild bemusement.
At the Turf pub, next door to the club’s historic Racecourse Ground, the oldest international football stadium in the world still in use, the landlord Wayne Jones was stumped when asked to name the last big news story in Wrexham.
“Crikey. Positive news? I’m struggling to think. There’s plenty of negative things I could tell you about.”
He painted a picture of a town that had suffered more than its fair share of bad luck, and a community that had got used to making fun of itself. “But Wrexham’s a great little town,” he said. “A working-class town. They’ll certainly be welcomed with open arms, that’s for sure.”
What will Reynolds and McElhenney make of the place?
“Depends how much they’ve had to drink,” said Darren Satti, a tiler, as he placed his order at the burger stand on the forecourt outside the ground.
The two actors have been routinely described as “Hollywood stars”. That certainly applies to Reynolds, the lead in the Deadpool superhero films, but McElhenney is best known for his role in the sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which is largely unknown in the UK.
Yet he has already made himself very popular hereabouts, after he contributed £6,000 to the GoFundMe page of disabled Wrexham fan Aiden Stott, who was raising money for a specialist bath.
Standing with her friends midway between Bargain Buys (“big brands, big discounts”) and One Below (“Everything £1 or LESS���) was Jessica Edwards, who works at the Racecourse ground. She thought McElhenney’s gesture was “amazing”. But next to her, Richard Pickering, was not impressed by Reynolds.
“Not being funny,” he said, “but the only reason he’s took it over is because he’s got the money.”
This raises the interesting philosophical question of whether it might be a more authentic act to take over the club without having the money. According to Rob Clarke, a diehard Wrexham fan who owns Mad 4 Movies in the Butchers Market, it was a shortage of money that had led to problems in previous regimes.
He ran through a litany of commercial setbacks and transfer mistakes that saw the club go into administration in 2004, relegated from the Football League in 2008 and fighting for survival in 2011. That was when Clarke set about raising £100,000 to save the club from expulsion from the National League. “We had people coming in with the deeds to their house,” he said. “There was one guy with his wedding fund. There were kids with their pocket money.”
In the event a supporters’ trust took over the club, and that’s where it has remained until, as Clarke puts it, the “Hollywood superstars” turned up. When he first heard rumours of the takeover, he was told someone famous was involved.
“I thought ‘Who’s famous who supports Wrexham?’ The only people you ever see is Ted Robbins off Phoenix Nights, Tim Vincent [a Blue Peter presenter from the 1990s] and Paul Burrell [former butler to Princess Diana]. Then it came out that it was bloody Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. Obviously having a DVD shop I knew all about Ryan Reynolds. I’d heard of It’s Always Sunny but I’d never seen it. I thought, well these guys aren’t going to want to knock the ground down and build a B&Q.”
The Hollywood pair have committed to investing £2m and have talked about turning the club into a “global force”. Like any fan, Clarke is not immune to fantasies, and hopes that one day the club might make it to the giddy heights of the EFL Championship, the second tier of English football. But right now, he’d settle for a “four-sided stadium”.
Back in the Turf, Peter Jones, a former chairman of the Wrexham Supporters’ Trust, explained that the Kop end of the ground had been closed for a while now because the concrete was crumbling and the barriers were not safe.
He spoke of a town that had once had mines and breweries but now had a centre that was “run down and in need of a boost”. But, he added brightly, “we’ve got one of the biggest industrial estates in Europe”.
Like many involved in the supporters’ trust, he had to sign a nondisclosure agreement during the takeover negotiations, even though the buyers remained anonymous. What did he think when their identities were finally revealed?
“I’d never heard of either of them,” he said, sipping his drink. “I’d never watched Deadpool. Then it came on Channel 4 the following weekend. I started watching it and I thought ‘What a load of shit’. It wasn’t my cup of tea.”
Still, he thinks the acquisition has “put the town on the map”, though what the two actors will do with the club, he said, was the “million-dollar question”.
There is talk of a documentary and some have suggested a feature film. This week Wayne Jones, the landlord, will be appearing on ABC news to discuss the effect on the town. Who would he want to play himself in the movie? “Mm, it would have to be someone handsome and well-chiselled. Matt Damon.”
In a drizzly corner of north Wales, all the leaves are brown and the sky is grey, and a forgotten town is California dreamin’.