They say the sequel never quite lives up to the original, but that kind of logic doesn’t apply to Wrexham AFC.
Hollywood star owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney might have preferred a different ending to the club’s FA Cup fourth round replay against Sheffield United on Tuesday, but there was certainly no lack of drama or tension as the team’s cup adventure finally ran out of steam.
The history books will record the outcome as a 3-1 defeat at Bramall Lane against a Sheffield team that sits in one of the promotion spots from the EFL Championship to the Premier League, and it might have been expected as 72 places separate the two clubs in the English football pyramid. But the scoreline only tells a fraction of the story.
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Nine days earlier, these two teams played out one of the most exciting FA Cup ties in recent memory, with defender John Egan’s equalizer six minutes into stoppage time snatching a 3-3 draw for Sheffield United and denying Wrexham a place in the fifth round and a tie at home to Tottenham.
“It was like a fever dream,” Deadpool star Reynolds told ESPN Sports Center when describing his emotions during the game. “It was truly one of the most exciting 90 minutes I’ve ever had in my entire life.”
Reynolds and McElhenney didn’t make it to Sheffield for Tuesday’s replay, opting instead to watch the game at home in the United States, but the “anxiety” that Reynolds said he experienced while attending the first game will not have been any less intense during the rematch.
The first game had everything, and this one almost did as well.
After Paul Mullin equalized from the penalty spot on 60 minutes, ten minutes after Anel Ahmedhodzic had given United the lead, it looked as though Wrexham were going to pull off a major shock and book a fifth round against Harry Kane and Spurs. Wrexham team played as though they were United’s equals, not a side that is fighting just to get onto the bottom rung of the EFL ladder by winning promotion from the National League.
Mullin is the Erling Haaland of the National League, with the striker taking his tally for the season to 28 goals in 34 appearances with his spot-kick. And when he was fouled by Oliver Norwood for a second penalty on 71 minutes, it seemed inevitable that he would put Wrexham ahead.
But after firing his first penalty straight down the middle, Mullin went to goalkeeper Rob Lainton’s right and his shot was saved. Just like Kane for England against France in the World Cup quarterfinal in Qatar, Mullin discovered that taking two penalties in one game doesn’t always end well.
It was a blow for Wrexham, but when Mullin injured a thigh while challenging United’s Sander Berge moments later, it was potentially even worse. Mullin had to be substituted and the big worry would have been that their star striker misses crucial games in the club’s battle for promotion.
Mullin’s injury was dismissed after the game by Wrexham manager Phil Parkinson as no more than a cramp, but the brief period of concern underlined why this replay was not at the top of either team’s agenda.
So proud of these boys. And the 4000 plus away supporters who gave it all. @Wrexham_AFC
— Ryan Reynolds (@VancityReynolds) February 7, 2023
Despite the prize at stake — that money-spinning, televised home draw against Tottenham — the team selection by both managers suggested that this was a replay that neither was too interested in winning.
United manager Paul Heckingbottom rested three first-choice players, including goalkeeper Wes Foderingham, while Parkinson went even further by making seven changes to the side which started Saturday’s 2-1 National League victory at Altrincham.
With both clubs chasing promotion to their respective Promised Land — United are on course to be promoted back to the Premier League, while Wrexham’s priority is a return to the EFL for the first time since 2008 — there was a sense that this game was an unnecessary inconvenience.
For Wrexham, the big concern is a fixture pile-up caused by their unexpected FA Cup adventure. Parkinson’s team sit three points behind leaders Notts County having played two games fewer than their closest promotion rivals and they could have erased the gap by beating Yeovil Town at home on Tuesday, but that game had to be postponed to accommodate the game against Sheffield United.
With fourth-place Chesterfield — one of only two teams to beat Wrexham in the league this season — due at the Racecourse Ground on Feb. 28, the prospect of that game also being postponed in order to play Spurs 24 hours later was perhaps a significant factor in Parkinson opting to rest half a team for this tie.
But no matter who pulls on the Wrexham shirt, there is no drop-off in commitment and endeavour. Parkinson has a squad of players who are capable of performing way above the level they are operating at right now and United were taken all the way.
Just as in the first game, United needed a goal in stoppage time. This time, United’s Billy Sharp and Berge prevented the replay from going into extra-time and the possibility of a penalty shoot-out.
So for the first time since October, Wrexham suffered defeat. Their 22-game unbeaten run finally came to an end against a team that will, barring an unlikely collapse, be a Premier League side next season.
All that matters now for Wrexham is that they also secure promotion this season. They will still be leagues apart from Sheffield United, but over 180 minutes, they have played like their equals. And they have given their Hollywood owners more drama than they could ever have imagined at the same time.