Welcome to Wrexham, where celebrity ownership follows years of decline and false hope

Date published: Tuesday 10th January 2023 7:58 - Ian King

The scoreboard at the end of the match between Wrexham and Coventry in the FA Cup Third Round

Wrexham made headlines around the world after beating Coventry in the FA Cup, but the story of their 21st century so far hasn’t been especially happy.

With an hour played at The Coventry Building Society Arena on Saturday evening, Wrexham were leading Coventry City 4-1 and playing against ten men following the sending-off of Jonathan Panzo for the handball that had led to the penalty-kick from which they’d extended their lead. Thirty minutes to play with a one player advantage and a three-goal lead should have been pretty straightforward, shouldn’t it?

Well, not quite. Viktor Gyokeres pulled one goal back for Coventry with a little over 20 minutes to play. Seven minutes later, Kasey Palmer scored their third. They hit the post. There were goalmouth scrambles. Over on ESPN, who were streaming the game in the USA, the lights went out altogether with a minute to play.

But eventually, after what felt like an eternal period of stoppage-time, the whistle blew and Wrexham had knocked Coventry City out of the FA Cup. Not for the first time in their history, they’d caused a pretty huge surprise in this competition.

For the last decade and a half, Wrexham have been a non-league football club, having been relegated in 2008 after a Football League stay that had lasted the previous 87 years. Despite the fact that automatic promotion and relegation between the League and the non-league game had been in place for two decades by 2008, that loss of prestige, that loss of status, still hurt.

This would be the case at any football club with a lengthy history in the Football League, but when the town has already been in steady decline for decades to the almost blanket indifference of the outside world, it hurts all the more.

The crumb of a silver lining that always accompanies relegation is the hope that playing at a slightly lower level may at least, after years of struggle, provide a better chance of winning more games, but this didn’t happen for Wrexham and the reasons for this pre-dated falling through the trapdoor.

Alex Hamilton and Mark Guterman had taken ownership of the club in March 2002 with little interest in its wellbeing. For Hamilton and Guterman, there was a clear end goal that didn’t even really involve a football club still existing. 

Three months after taking ownership, they quietly transferred ownership of The Racecourse Ground, the oldest international football stadium in the world, into the name of Hamilton’s company. In June 2004, the club was given a year’s notice to leave its home of the previous 140 years.

Guterman had previously been the owner and chairman of Wrexham’s arch-rivals Chester City and had taken them into administration in 1999. Hamilton’s name wasn’t even originally listed on any paperwork. He only became a director later.

In November of the same year, the club was put into administration with debts of £2.6m. Normally this would be a catastrophe for a football club, but on this occasion it might just have saved them. The administrators, David Acland and Steve Williams of Begbies Traynor, investigated the ground deals and decided they could be challenged on the grounds that Guterman had breached his director’s duty to act in the club’s best interests. Hamilton too had not dealt with the club in good faith because he must – or should have – known that Guterman had not informed the club’s board of what was being done. The administrators won their case in court and a subsequent appeal. Wrexham were sold, and consequently saved. 

Fatally undermined by another malignant owner, Chester City folded in 2010 and their supporters were in the process of setting up a new club, Chester FC, when Wrexham fell into a similarly life-threatening state to that of their rivals. In January 2011, the club was put up for sale, but The Racecourse Ground wasn’t.

Although only the owner since 2006, Geoff Moss had put almost £5m into the club through loans and the stadium, it turned out, was the collateral. In June 2011, Moss stated that the money had run out. Two months later, The Racecourse Ground was sold to Wrexham Glyndwr University. 

In the meantime, Wrexham fans were ‘treated’ to a parade of tyre-kickers masquerading as potential future owners of their club before the Wrexham Supporters Trust finally secured the purchase of the club at the end of September 2011. But the scale of the challenge was laid bare by the 2011/12 season itself. Wrexham finished that season with 30 wins from 46 games and 98 points, but this wasn’t enough to get them back into the Football League. The money being poured into Fleetwood Town got them to 103 points, pushing Wrexham into the play-offs, where they were beaten by Luton Town in the semi-finals.

That season would turn out to be something of a canary in the coalmine for Wrexham’s next decade because a conflation of circumstances was acting against them. Clubs promoted into the Football League had proved stubbornly resistant to getting relegated back, meaning that a backlog of former League clubs was building up in the fifth tier. With only two promotion places, one of which was decided through play-offs, it wasn’t impossible for former League clubs to get back, but it was becoming increasingly difficult.

Wrexham, without the deep pockets of a sugar daddy owner, started to fall away again. In 2013 they won the FA Trophy at Wembley, beating Grimsby Town on penalties, but when they returned there six weeks later in the National League play-off final against Newport County they were beaten 2-0.

By the time they next reached them in 2019, the National League play-offs had been extended to six clubs and Wrexham were beaten at the first hurdle by Eastleigh. The following year, when the whole of football ground to a halt on account of the pandemic, the season was curtailed with them in 19th place in the National League table, just a point above the relegation places.

It wasn’t so much that the Trust was bad at running the club, more that the odds were stacked against them from the outset. By 2020, they were coming under increasing fire from supporters and the feeling persisted that they’d taken the club as far as they were able. The Kop end of The Racecourse Ground had stood derelict for 15 years and was by this time overgrown, while promotion back into the League felt no more likely than it had when they took ownership of the club.

Furthermore, with supporters still not allowed back into grounds for the start of the 2020/21 season and no benefactor to keep the club on an even financial keel, the risk that the pandemic could even sweep Wrexham AFC away altogether felt very real indeed. But the new owners were offering £2m in investment into the club, and that couldn’t be overlooked.

The identity of those new owners, of course, couldn’t have been much more surprising and it’s easy to be cynical about their motives for getting involved. The level of attention given to the club is disproportionate in comparison to others at the same level, and it’s entirely possible that having secured a deal to follow the club around for a television series, that they will turn a handsome profit on the venture.

They’ve said exactly the right things since before their ownership – which had to be voted on by supporters trust members themselves – was finalised but… they’re actors, right? They’ll have come into this already fully aware of how to create the right impression, won’t they?

These are valid concerns. Heck, football has certainly had its fair share of egotists and chancers over the years, not least at the sort of level at which Wrexham have been plying their trade for most of the last 20 years. And considering the number of clubs who’ve torn straight past established names in recent years with substantial private funding, it is completely understandable that their supporters should roll their eyes.

And it should go without saying to mention that Wrexham AFC means an enormous amount to its community and cannot afford to be kicked around and used as the plaything by a group of people who could up sticks and leave the club back in the lurch at any moment.

Is it right to be ‘concerned’ about the takeover of Wrexham by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney? Well, perhaps that’s the wrong way to phrase it. Mindless cheerleading is a bad thing and a critical mindset is important. It certainly was when fans protested the mismanagement of the club in the past and as custodians of an institution that has been serving a community for almost 160 years, there is no question that the actions of any new football club should be considered without a distracting fog of fanboyism.

But at the same time, what more could they say or do that would win over naysayers? The Racecourse Ground is back under the ownership of the club since February last year, with covenant over the freehold to ensure that the stadium will remain their home until at least 2115, unless a move away is necessary because the stadium can no longer meet the club’s requirements. There are solid plans to renovate The Kop end. Money has been spent on the team. These are good things.

They have admitted that they didn’t know anything about the club or really the game itself, but this hasn’t affected how it has been operated since they’ve been there. And while it’s easy to get caught up in matters of ‘control’, it remains the case that 94% of Wrexham Supporters Trust members voted for this, and that after more than a year those fans seem no less enamoured with the new owners than they were when the news of their interest first broke.

None of this is intended as criticism of the community ownership of football clubs. For fans to own their club is – or at the very least should be – the most desirable position in which a club can find itself. But while football in this country continues its love affair with the wild west extremes of turbo-capitalism, it is becoming increasingly difficult for clubs under community ownership to remain competitive.

In an ideal world, perhaps this country would be looking at enshrining the sort of ownership model that exists in Germany, but the likelihood of that ever happening, even with the promise of a new independent regulator for football, is practically non-existent.

So, what sort of football club owners do we want? Local? Well, Mel Morris was local, and we all know what happened to Derby County. Fans of the club? Yeah, he was one of those, too. Wealthy? Well, they kind of have to be, these days.

In honesty, it’s not always possible to spot a bad football club in advance, all the more so when they’re new to the game. Very experienced owners can make mistakes or lack innovative thinking, and each club’s set of circumstances is different. Some of them aren’t difficult to see coming, but it’s not a precise science.

In the UK, community ownership has worked best where a club has crashed and burned completely and there may be no-one else prepared to pull anything from the ashes, where there were no other credible buyers who could be trusted to manage a situation that required a deep care for that club, or where there was a reason or desire on the part of fans to break away from an existing club and plough their own furrow. There is a clear legal framework, and control rests with the membership.

But Wrexham weren’t the first club to make a journey from community to private ownership. Portsmouth were rescued by a consortium led by their supporters trust in 2013, but when it became obvious that only private investment could further re-grow the club upon promotion from League Two in 2017, they were sold. They have remained in League One ever since.

Notoriously, the Notts County Supporters Trust membership was sweet-talked into handing control of their club to a group which promised the earth but ended up being confirmed as the front for a convicted fraudster in 2009.

Even if we work to the assumption that there is a possibility that Reynolds and McElhenney are playing a role with their enthusiasm for Wrexham because they’re actors, an assumption which feels flawed by its own cynicism, what else are we to do? They’re not perfect. Again, to keep a critical mind is important.

But if they feel that bond with the club, if they’re sincere in having the best of intentions for it, and if they’re prepared to take the financial risk and literally put their money where their mouths are, then that can only be a good thing, can’t it? God knows football club ownership in this country could do with a better calibre of owner.

Perhaps we’ll all look back on this one day with the benefit of hindsight’s 20/20 vision and see that the obvious flaws were hiding in plain sight all along. But until Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney start to make the sort of mistakes and misjudgements which damaged Wrexham AFC so gravely in the past, we should take them at face value. They certainly seem to have boosted the profile of the club enormously in North America. The club is a happier place. That should be enough.

Their first season at Wrexham finished with a cold blast of how tough the task ahead might be. On May 8, in second place in the National League, they beat Stockport County 3-0 in their penultimate league game to keep the title race open until the last day of the season. But this was as good as things got for them. The following week, they lost 3-0 at Dagenham and the league title went to Stockport instead.

The week after that, they were beaten 1-0 by Bromley in the FA Trophy final. And then at the end of the month, they were beaten 5-4 at home by Grimsby Town in the play-off semi-finals.

Sheffield United are their opponents in the next round of the FA Cup, while in the league they are in second place in the table, five points behind Notts County with two games in hand. That race could well be as tight as last season’s, but at least this time around Wrexham have the benefit of experience.

Wrexham had a wobble at Coventry, but they came through it. With top of the National League looking as tight as ever, we shall see how the second season of Welcome to Wrexham ends up with a happier ending than the first.

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