In the days leading up to Wrexham AFC’s third-round FA Cup match against Coventry City earlier this month, Ryan Reynolds wanted to believe an upset was coming.
For the Red Dragons, who play in the fifth-tier National League, a win against a team from the Championship — three levels higher on the English soccer pyramid — would stand as the team’s most significant achievement since the A-list movie star known for the “Deadpool” franchise and fellow actor Rob McElhenney (star and co-creator of FX series “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) secured ownership of the Welsh club in 2021.
“You always hope that you’re going to rout the big boys in some amazing fashion,” Reynolds told ESPN. “But honestly, I was hoping we would score.”
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When Sam Dalby scored to put Wrexham up just 12 minutes in, Reynolds’ nervous energy didn’t exactly go away. Watching from his New York City apartment — joined by his wife, actor Blake Lively, and their three young daughters — the early goal might have made the whole viewing experience even more stressful. Especially when a second followed just six minutes later and the idea of Wrexham getting through to the next round of the world’s oldest national soccer competition suddenly morphed into something that felt real.
“I was pacing around like some sort of rabid drug-snorting tiger,” Reynolds said.
With his family on the couch, Reynolds continued pacing around the coffee table — screaming and yelling at the TV — as Wrexham built a 4-1 lead and, exhaustively, hung on to win 4-3.
“Part of my indoctrination of the sport is being around others who have been passionate about it since they exited the womb,” Reynolds said. “That’s kind of rubbed off on me and I think that rubs off on my own family now.”
It’s gone much further than that. In the two years Reynolds and McElhenney have owned Wrexham, the oldest professional soccer club in Wales and the third oldest in the world, it has managed to attract global attention in a way that ordinarily wouldn’t — or even shouldn’t — be possible. On Sunday, Wrexham has another massive opportunity in the spotlight when it hosts Sheffield United — which sits comfortably in second place in the Championship and is on pace for Premier League promotion — in a fourth-round clash for the FA Cup (11:30 am ET, stream on ESPN+).
Quantifying Wrexham’s newfound reach is an inexact science, but consider this: In September 2019, the Wrexham AFC Wikipedia page was visited 16,181 times. In September 2022, that number grew to 809,410, a rise of 4,902%. The spike in views that month almost certainly was a direct result of the release of the FX documentary series “Welcome to Wrexham,” which started airing its 18-episode first season on Aug. 24.
Over the past year, Wrexham’s Wikipedia page has averaged 266,573 monthly views, and while that isn’t as many as the traditional “Big Six” teams in the Premier League over the same period (Manchester United 657K; Chelsea 482K; Liverpool 453K, Manchester City 413K; Arsenal 400K; Tottenham Hotspur 293K), it’s more than every other current team in that league. In the National League, no other team is remotely comparable. Notts County, Wrexham’s primary promotion rival this season, averages about 38,000 views a month.
By October 2022, two months after “Welcome to Wrexham” had premiered, Wrexham had reached a combined one million followers across its various social media platforms. The club now has 320,000 followers on Twitter and 577,000 on TikTok (compared to Notts County’s followers at 88,000 and 2,750 respectively).
Reynolds is used to being stopped on the street. Such is life as one of the most recognizable people on the planet. But in the past few months — and particularly since the FA Cup win against Coventry — the approaches in New York have been different.
“They’re not stopping me to talk about ‘Deadpool’ or anything else [movie] project,” he said. “They’re stopping me on the street to talk about Wrexham. I got so many people fist-bumping me saying, ‘Congrats on the Coventry game.’ That was wild to see.”
On their own, things like Wikipedia page views or anecdotes from an owner might be easy to brush aside as somewhat inconsequential, but as that type of evidence mounts it’s hard to deny it reflects something special. Last year, Wrexham’s first under the stewardship of Reynolds and McElhenney and the club’s 157th season, was mostly a success. The team finished the league season in second place — six points off the pace for automatic promotion to League Two — before losing 5-4 in the playoff semifinal to Grimsby Town. Had they won, it would have put them 90 minutes from securing promotion.
Wrexham also played for the FA Trophy (a tournament akin to the FA Cup that features only lower-league teams), but came up short in a 1-0 loss to National League rival Bromley. But with David Beckham and Will Ferrell joining Reynolds and McElhenney from the suites at London’s Wembley Stadium, it only added to the buzz surrounding the team.
On the field, Year 2 has been even better. The club is on a 15-match league unbeaten streak and sits atop the table in the National League. In total, Wrexham has 20 wins (with five draws and two losses) in league play — with its last defeat coming on Oct. 4 — and has a three-point lead over second-place Notts County.
As for the off-field success, it wasn’t a guarantee that “Welcome to Wrexham” would be received as favorably as it has been (8.3/10 rating on IMDB; 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but it was always a major part of the plan to leverage Reynolds’ and McElhenney’s fame and standing in the entertainment industry to benefit the club. Their association makes the club more attractive to brands for sponsorship opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise been available.
“That’s what you see from Premier League clubs, Championship League clubs,” Reynolds said. “We want to walk the walk, even as a fifth-tier club. We say this all the time, but we want to be in the Premier League, as crazy as that sounds to some people. If it is theoretically possible to go from the fifth tier in professional football all the way to the Premier League, why wouldn’t we do that? Why wouldn’t we use our last drop of blood to get there?”
“We’re in it for the ride. This is a multidecade project,” Reynolds added.
They’re not alone, either. While Wrexham’s core group of supporters will always be the people who live there, Reynolds said he thinks they’ve tapped into a group of fans — mostly through the show in the United States — who have adopted Wrexham as a second team of sorts. Fans who have a primary team they support, whether it’s in the Premier League, in another league in Europe or domestically in Major League Soccer, have also become invested in what Wrexham is building.
The emotional attachment both famous owners have developed for the community is perhaps an unexpected byproduct. Before taking over the club, they had a conceptual understanding of the club’s importance to the town, but having experienced it for two years has provided a level of appreciation that would have been impossible to conjure from thin air. After the heartbreaking defeat to Grimsby last year, Wrexham fans hung behind after the winners’ on-field celebration was over and continued to sing for another 20-30 minutes.
“I genuinely get choked up thinking about that right now because it says everything to me,” Reynolds said. “It speaks to the hope that they had, it speaks to the trust that they’ve placed in us — to take care of this incredibly cherished club that is an institution in this town and something that has been a big part of their lives for over 150 years.”
To get where Wrexham wants to be — promotion to the next league — league play is what matters most. But the FA Cup’s knockout format and its surrounding pageantry have provided broader access to watch Wrexham play than is usually available for league games.
A win against Sheffield United, the decisive favorite, would make Wrexham just the 11th fifth-tier side in FA Cup history to reach the round of 16, and for this match, Reynolds won’t be pacing around his living room. This is one he couldn’t envision not being there for in person.
“Two years ago, I didn’t have this kind of passion for the sport, and in some ways, I see it as a plague,” he said. “In other ways, I see it as the greatest introduction that’s ever been made to me, at least from a sports perspective. It’s wild. I wish it didn’t dominate as many of my thoughts and deeds as it does these days, but you don’t make anything great without enthusiasm, they say.”