ryan reynolds wrexham afc rob mcelhenney
Life

How Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney Ended Up Owning Wrexham AFC

While a non-league football club in north Wales might not seem like an obvious investment for two Hollywood actors, Wrexham has untapped potential.
November 23, 2020, 4:27pm

It started like every good fairytale starts: with a promotional video for Ifor Williams Trailers.

After months of faintly unbelievable speculation, here were Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney deadpanning their way through an advertisement for horse boxes on behalf of Britain’s leading trailer manufacturer. This was their way of announcing that they had just become owners of Wrexham AFC, whose kits are sponsored by the company.

Advertisement

Football throws up some surreal stories, but few more surreal than Deadpool and Mac from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia deciding to buy a non-league football club in north Wales.

“It’s been quite the week,” laughs Ifor Williams Trailers spokesman Ceidiog Hughes over the phone. According to company director Carole Williams, who spoke with the pair after the announcement, “Ryan and Rob are not taking their responsibilities lightly… they are utterly serious about revitalising the club and transforming it into a global force, but without forgetting its roots.”

As a local firm, most Ifor Williams employees are diehard Wrexham fans and have been happy to indulge the world’s media suddenly descending on them. If they are worried about Fight Milk or Wolf Cola replacing them as sponsors, they aren’t showing it.

Those at the club first started to suspect who their would-be investors were during preliminary discussions back in May. “I was aware of the show [It’s Always Sunny],” Wrexham director Spencer Harris tells VICE. “While I hadn’t watched all 14 seasons personally, I was aware of who [McElhenney] was and the fact that he was a very funny guy.” 

Initial talks were held via Inner Circle Sports, a boutique sports investment bank based in New York, which gave the club’s directors confidence that it was a serious approach. “They’re used to handling very high-profile deals, including Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Roma and clubs of that ilk,” says Harris. “When you’re talking to people and those are the sorts of deals they do, it automatically gives the conversation a sense of validity.”

Advertisement

While Wrexham currently play in the National League – the fifth tier of the English league pyramid – the club has a storied history and has traditionally competed at a higher level. As the third oldest professional club in the world, their home, the Racecourse Ground, has a claim to being the world's oldest stadium that still hosts international football.

Wrexham are already well supported, but as the only club in north Wales competing in the English league system, many feel they have untapped potential. Hampered by disastrous mismanagement and exploitative owners in the early-2000s, the club dropped out of the Football League in 2008, was bought by the Wrexham Supporters’ Trust in 2011 amid ongoing money problems and, despite achieving financial stability under fan ownership, has remained at the non-league level ever since.

Wrexham’s tumultuous backstory is one of the things which appealed to Reynolds and McElhenney. “They want to go on a journey with the club,” says Harris. “I’m sure they could have bought a football club several rungs higher than where we currently find ourselves, but then they would have missed out on that.”

rob-and-ryan.png

Left: Rob McElhenney. Photo: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo. Right: Ryan Reynolds. Photo: Jason Mendez/Everett Collection

When they started to negotiate with Reynolds and McElhenney, Wrexham’s directors were impressed by their detailed knowledge of the club.

“Rob, over the last few months, has done a heck of a lot of research, even as far as watching the video for our 1977-78 [Division Three] championship-winning victory parade around the town,” says Harris. “That’s where he picked up, looking at the fans, that he could see similar faces and similar people in Wrexham to what he sees in his hometown in Philadelphia.”

Advertisement

In a Zoom call with fans earlier this month, McElhenney suggested that Wrexham’s status as a “blue collar”, working-class town helped him to identify with the club.

That Zoom call was the prelude to a vote on the two actors’ proposed takeover, with the pair essentially making a pitch to Supporters’ Trust members before fielding questions from fans. While its fan ownership made Wrexham an attractive proposition for Reynolds and McElhenney – in that the club is debt-free and, rather than spending millions acquiring it from a private benefactor, they can instead pledge cash as investment – it also came with its own hurdles. 

“With their reputations and all the public scrutiny on it, they’ve taken a big risk,” says Harris. “It’s not like it was a 50 percent hurdle: 75 percent of those voting had to vote ‘yes’. So they’ve taken a real risk in putting themselves forward to take over the football club.”

Talking Ten Years of 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' with Two of Its Stars

In the end, Supporters’ Trust members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the takeover. With a 91.5 percent turnout, 98.6 percent of those who took part backed the resolution to sell the club. Subject to final agreement, league and FA confirmation, it’s now a done deal.

“[The] thing that feels positive about this takeover is we know who Rob and Ryan are, and how they’ve made their money,” says Wrexham fan and Podcast Pêl-droed contributor Leon Barton. “These guys are charming as fuck and made their millions from acting, writing and wise investments… they’re not Sheikh Mansour or Roman Abramovich.”

Advertisement

While many fans were convinced by the pair’s track record in business – Diageo recently agreed to buy Reynolds’ Aviation American Gin brand in a deal worth up to $610 million (£452 million) – there were other considerations at play. Reynolds and McElhenney have made hard promises to invest in the club’s infrastructure, keep fans on an honorary board and continue Wrexham’s community work. 

They have also guaranteed that the club will not be relocated, renamed or rebranded, which – given their struggles with rogue owners in the past – has helped to win round wary supporters. On top of all that, there was an uncertainty associated with the pandemic that has plunged other non-league clubs into financial limbo, and a feeling among fans that, if they passed up this opportunity, they may never get such a good offer again.

While Wrexham haven’t had the success they might like under the fan ownership model, there is still a sense of satisfaction in having guided the club this far.

“At the time, when the Supporters’ Trust took over, there was no white knight coming in to save us,” says Tim Edwards, editor of Wrexham’s Fearless In Devotion fanzine. “There is definitely a sense of pride in the Supporters’ Trust, to sit here and think: ‘I’ve co-owned this football club with so many thousand people.’ For people to go above and beyond for the club and do everything that they did, you can look back and go: ‘They made mistakes, but they also made up a lot of ground.’”

Some fans feel intensely conflicted about relinquishing ownership of the club. “I voted for it, but my reasons for voting for it were really about the boost to the economy locally,” says Ap Dafydd, editor of the “antifascist, socialist, republican” SHAGZINE. “When the club’s buzzing, like when I was a kid, it’s brilliant for the town… but, for me, the soul of football resides in fan ownership, and certainly in non-league, at present. The idea of selling our football club to someone else – well, I voted yes with a heavy heart, if I’m honest.”

Once the takeover is officially certified, Reynolds and McElhenney will face the prosaic task of getting the club promoted from the National League. That won’t be easy, with only two sides going up to the Football League each season. Ultimately, they will be judged on their ability to live up to the ambitious promises they have made to supporters.

That will mean bringing success to Wrexham, but also custodianship worthy of a club that has been saved more than once by its fans.

@WF_Magee