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Senior Research Fellow, Dr David Webber, has been following the sporting fairy tale of Wrexham AFC’s return to the English Football League (EFL) after a fifteen-year absence.

22nd April 2023
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As someone who hails from Wrexham, Dr David Webber, a Senior Research Fellow at Solent University, Southampton, and lecturer on the BSc (Hons) Football Studies degree, has been following the sporting fairy tale of Wrexham AFC’s return to the English Football League (EFL) after a fifteen-year absence. But while Wrexham’s fortunes have been transformed, what of the rest of football?

Three years ago, the future of the North Walian club looked bleak. Amidst the Covid pandemic, with turnstiles shut, fans were locked down and out. Unable to draw down upon the television revenues and lucrative commercial deals enjoyed by the gilded Premier League, the then fan-owned Wrexham, like many lower league clubs, were starved of their most important stream of income. An existential crisis loomed.

But in 2020, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny’s successful offer to buy the club from the Wrexham Supporters Trust was the start of a new and scarcely believable chapter in Wrexham’s long history. Its serialisation in the docuseries, Welcome to Wrexham, screened on Disney+ here in the UK and FX in the United States, has quickly attracted a global audience with new fans following the team’s fortunes from across the world.

“Rob and Ryan appear to be a new type of football club owner. Hands on and clearly passionate about their new club and the local community, I’m not surprised that Wrexham’s fans – both old and new – are enjoying this journey,” says Dr Webber.

“However, there are economic and cultural elements of the takeover that are problematic. Reynolds and McElhenney’s retelling of the Wrexham story has, to borrow from the economic sociologist, Karl Polanyi, ‘fictitiously commodified’ the rich working-class history and culture of the club and its town, turning both into a multi-million-dollar enterprise.”

“Yet politically, their entry is a refreshing change from the often very distant Russian oligarchs, American venture capitalists, and Arab petrostates, all of whom have arrived to take over clubs in the Premier League. In this respect, Reynolds and McElhenney have an altogether different and unique relationship with their club and its fans.”

“With sell-out crowds, a return to the Football League, and approval secured to build a new stand at the Racecourse ground, the future of the club looks bright.”

However, Dr Webber argues that rather than the sporting fairy-tale portrayed in the media, the Wrexham takeover in fact highlights the structural financial inequality that exists right across the football pyramid - a microcosm of which has itself played out in the National League and will continue to do so when Wrexham are promoted into the EFL.

“Even before Covid struck, many clubs outside of football’s wealthy elite were being pushed to the brink of extinction. More than half of all clubs across the league pyramid over the past thirty years have experienced at least some form of financial distress. Now, during a cost-of-living crisis, many, if not even more now, still are.”

“This injection of Hollywood money, however, has enabled Wrexham to not only weather this economic storm but outspend their promotion rivals in the transfer market. Players like leading goalscorer Paul Mullin, who fired his previous club Cambridge United to promotion to League One only a few seasons ago, have been convinced to drop down into the National League.”

“By outspending their rivals and finally securing promotion, Reynolds and McElhenney’s gamble is paying off. But the reality is that while Wrexham plan for life in the EFL, many other clubs continue to fight for their very existence.”

For Dr Webber, football’s economic crisis mirrors that seen in wider society. It is not that there is not enough wealth. There is. The problem is that the lion’s share of this prosperity is sequestered by the already wealthy few.

“While Wrexham may not yet be part of football’s own ultra-wealthy elite, their recent history, indeed the very globalisation of Wrexham itself, points to a far brighter financial future than many of its current rivals. The harsh reality is that too many clubs are being pushed to the very brink of extinction.”

According to Dr Webber, Wrexham simply hit the jackpot.

“Reynolds and McElhenney could have picked any number of clubs. After all, there are plenty of post-industrial towns and cities across the country whose football clubs are struggling to survive. And fans of Wrexham should know because until very recently they were one of them.”

For Dr Webber, economic solidarity should transcend on-the-pitch rivalries. What these smaller clubs really need is a larger share of football’s enormous cash revenues to be more equitably distributed across the league pyramid.

“The entry of Hollywood owners into the English game tells us a great deal of the economic crisis that football faces. The real plot twist to this drama is that clubs like Wrexham shouldn’t need two wealthy actors to survive. But neither should clubs need venture capitalists, oligarchs or Arabs with boundless resources and nefarious human rights records.”

“What makes football is its clubs and its fans. Everything else is ephemeral. To sustain this fundamental social contract, football needs a fairer distribution of cash. More financial equality and greater political and economic solidarity across its league structure.”