This article originally appeared in our Elevenses newsletter.
Good morning. Red flares lit the streets of northeast Wales on Monday evening as thousands of Wrexham fans took to the streets to celebrate a double promotion for the club’s men’s and women’s teams. After spending 15 years in non-league wilderness, the men’s team will return to the English Football League to compete in League Two in the forthcoming season, with plans already in the works to mount a Premier League push. The women’s team, meanwhile, will compete in the Adran Premier, the highest league for women’s football in Wales, where they will be able to compete for places in the UEFA Women’s Champions League.
The three-bus trophy parade, which started and finished at the Racecourse Ground stadium and looped through the historic city centre, gave long-suffering fans the chance to get out and celebrate the Red Dragon’s success and revel in the upturn in the city’s fortunes that has accompanied it. As one local landlord put it, “Wrexham as an economy was going through a bit of a rough time” before the club’s revival put it back on the map. Like hundreds of other forgotten parts of Britain, it grappled with the transition away from the heavy industries it had been built to support to new, digital economies often centred around major cities. Queensway, which lies just two miles north of the football ground, was recently ranked by the Welsh government as the third-most impoverished area in the country, while the bronze statue in the city centre stands as a ghostly tribute to the area’s long-shuttered mines and steelworks.
Financial hardship has also never been far from Wrexham AFC, which culminated in one significant skirmish with administration a decade ago when supporters were forced to step in to raise £100,000 in seven hours to save the club’s place in the lowly National League. That is, at least, until Marvel Comic star Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney decided to swap the glitz and glamour of Hollywood for the wet and rugged landscape of the lower Dee Valley and pump both their money and their reputation into the club. The purchase and a subsequent docuseries called Welcome to Wrexham that tracked the club’s ‘ashes to glory’ journey brought them international attention seldom afforded to clubs outside of the Premier League. ESPN figures showed one fourth-round FA Cup tie against Sheffield United was the most-watched soccer game in the US over that weekend, while in some states Wrexham are more popular than Liverpool, PSG and even Real Madrid.
The impact of Reynolds and McElhenney on the club should not be denigrated. Between them, they have injected a new lease of life into club and city and have done it in a pretty selfless way, I hasten to add. But it’s hard to look at this and not see countless other places like Wrexham that are in dire need of a ‘Cinderella’ intervention with few, if any, likely to get one. Across the border in England, another steel city in Scunthorpe has a fight for survival on its hands after being relegated out of the Football League and (as of this season) out of the National League. In February, British Steel announced it would be closing the coking ovens at its nearby works with the loss of 260 jobs, adding insult to injury. Elsewhere, Bury FC went bust in League 2 and Yeovil, Coventry, Wigan and Southend have all shown signs they might be in financial trouble.
The truth is that in many post-industrial towns, where brass is short and interest in the town is scant, it’s increasingly hard to keep football teams – often the lifeblood of the area – alive. While success on the field is felt off it, misfortunes away from the club can also be felt just as strongly due to a symbiotic bond that becomes more pronounced the lower down the leagues you go. As the Guardian recently remarked, “everybody wants to ‘do a Wrexham’, but not everybody can.” I’d add that without intervention, there are increasingly few ways out for places that were once the pride of industrial Britain, both on and off the pitch. After years of neglect, there simply aren’t enough superheroes to go around.
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