Americans love a hero. Whether we’re talking caped crusaders at the box office or hawkish foreign policy initiatives, when the world needs saving, the US is there to play the saviour. Enter, then, actors Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds – the latter of whom is Canadian-born, but now as American as apple pie and air conditioning – dispatched from the comfort of their Hollywood homes to save Wrexham AFC, a historic British football club on the brink of extinction. Back now for its second season, which charts the club’s successful bid for promotion, the Disney+ documentary Welcome to Wrexham is possibly the most lavish PR stunt in the history of celebrity culture.
“Everyone is better off for it,” some poor Welsh stooge announces early on. “It’s one of the best things to happen in a long time.” The show has become self-aware, just as enterprises like Clarkson’s Farm have in the past. Civilians from the first series are now local celebrities, and the circus around McElhenney and Reynolds is now a recognised global phenomenon. Portuguese, Brazilian, Thai, Australian, and, yes, American fans are seen descending on north Wales. Dulcet Californian twangs are interspersed with Welsh lilts and Scouse accents thicker than liver bird foie gras. But these international visitors are as determined to catch glimpses of newly celebrated lower-league journeymen, like Paul Mullin and Ollie Palmer, as they are the men from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Proposal. Times have changed in Wrexham; so too must the show.
All the same, the nature of football – that frustrating, fickle mistress – means that the narrative is reset. Wrexham are back where they began the first series: in the National League, the top tier of non-league football, and desperate for admission to the sacred turf of League Two. “If this was happening to one of our rivals,” a local supporter muses, in a moment of reflection, “we’d hate it.” Because Wrexham, with their shiny documentary, have been able to convince players like Elliot Lee and Jordan Tunnicliffe to drop down the divisions to play for them. As heroes go, they’re more mercenary than the average dispenser of justice.
And while there are references to the economic disparities in the league, and the discomfiture of other teams, the show is overwhelmingly hagiographic. “I don’t know how you don’t root for a town like Wrexham,” Reynolds argues, introducing a sickly roll call of supporters from clubs like Bolton Wanderers and Dagenham & Redbridge who praise the Wrexham project. Episodes in this season are devoted to the women’s team – who became semi-professional this summer for the first time – and, more successfully, some of the club’s disabled fans. The series’ second episode, “The Quiet Zone”, follows both autistic fan Milly and striker Mullin, whose three-year-old son was recently diagnosed with autism. Sweet, compassionate, and moving, it proves that the football itself doesn’t matter as much as what comes with it.
But then, the football never really mattered to Welcome to Wrexham. The diehard Welsh fans might celebrate the team’s triumphs and endure their defeats, but the project has always been a fundamentally commercial one. Each weekend the XI turn out in shirts bearing the slogan of Chinese social media giant TikTok, while club staff are photographed, endlessly, in jackets emblazoned with the emblem of Aviation American Gin, a brand co-owned by Reynolds. There is a strong sense that we are watching, at best, a multi-layered advert. At worst, it’s a piece of vapid capitalist propaganda masquerading as a sports documentary. The series somewhat takes the gloss off Wrexham’s on-field endeavours, which culminate in an unprecedented 111-point haul.
Whether McElhenney and Reynolds bought Wrexham for the love of the game or because they sensed that it might make a compelling subject for a rags-to-riches story is beside the point. The impact on the community has been real and overwhelmingly positive. But Welcome to Wrexham, in its attempt to serve two masters – those who understand the offside rule and those who couldn’t pick Gareth Bale out of a line-up – ends up feeling blandly corporate. With the mud-and-blood world of non-league football at its mercy, that feels like missing an open goal.