How Reynolds and McElhenney turned Wrexham into FA Cup giant-killers: Pushing ahead with a new 5,500-capacity stand, paying EFL stars double the average National League wage and planning for a new training ground show Hollywood effect behind rise
- Wrexham pulled off a stunning upset of Coventry in the FA Cup third round
- The non-league team ran out 4-3 winners to beat a team three leagues higher
- It is the latest highlight of Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds’ ownership
- They’re rebuilding the stadium, investing in players and sorting a training ground
In the hours that followed Wrexham’s agonising 5-4 play-off semi-final defeat to Grimsby – condemning the Welsh club to a 15th year in England’s fifth division – co-chairman Rob McElhenney made a promise that defeat was nothing more than a small bump in the road.
Along with Ryan Reynolds, the Hollywood pair’s first full season in charge in North Wales brought a second-placed finish, a Wembley final for the FA Trophy, a special exception made to restore them back to the FIFA video game series and the conclusion of filming for season one of an access-all-areas documentary.
Still, for McElhenney, this was merely the first step.
Wrexham produced a famous FA Cup upset of Championship side Coventry City on Saturday
After a 4-3 win was secured, co-chairman Rob McElhenney tweeted ‘we’re just getting started’
‘Congratulations to @Wrexham_AFC for a magical season. The supporters embraced this club with everything they had and the team fought to the end,’ he tweeted in the hours that followed the Grimsby defeat.
‘Thank you for welcoming @VancityReynolds and me into your community. We’re just getting started. Up the Worldwide Reds.’
Fans salivated at ‘we’re just getting started’, it became something of a buzz phrase around the Racecourse ground on matchdays and in the surrounding pubs. In terms of work to do – on and off the pitch – the list remained exhaustive.
Wrexham had no bespoke training ground, the club didn’t own the Racecourse ground – that was owned by the neighbouring Glyndwr University – and the squad showed a lack of depth when the pressure bit at the end of 2021-22.
Wrexham have built what is viewed internally as a squad littered with League One players
There was also a craving for an FA Cup run, something that was brought to an immediate halt last season at a rain-soaked Harrogate Town, where Wrexham lost 2-1 in round one.
When McElhenney and Reynolds were negotiating a deal with the Wrexham Supporters’ Trust (WST) it was the FA Cup that formed part of the WST’s sales pitch. Games against Arsenal, West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Brighton and Stoke all spring to mind in Wrexham’s rich FA Cup history.
And so on Saturday, under the lights at the Coventry’s CBS Arena as Phil Parkinson’s side produced one of the upsets of the round by beating Championship side Coventry City 4-3, there was another box being ticked.
There were 4,500 Wrexham fans packed in behind one of the goals and now Sheffield United will pitch up in North Wales for round four in what many in North Wales are viewing as a winnable tie.
‘We’re just getting started,’ McElhenney tweeted, a clear nod to his same message of hope after losing to Grimsby.
Only two starters at Coventry remained from the 2-1 defeat to Harrogate and just five started that play-off eliminator.
But what have they done to equip Wrexham with a giant-killing ability in the cup again? What does the future hold off the pitch and what impact has the documentary had? Sportsmail takes a closer look…
At the end of last season McElhenney vowed they were ‘just getting started’ in overhauling
Jordan Tunnicliffe – FREE
Elliot Lee – FREE
Anthony Forde – UNDISCLOSED FEE
Mark Howard – FREE
Jacob Mendy – UNDISCLOSED FEE
Sam Dalby – UNDISCLOSED FEE
Andy Cannon – UNDISCLOSED FEE
One of the immediate realisations in the summer was that while Wrexham, on the pitch, were not a million miles away, they needed to strengthen.
Depth was lacking and an injury to star centre back Aaron Hayden – who has 10 goals so far this campaign – in a 6-1 win away at Weymouth in the run-in was widely viewed in North Wales as a key contributor to their downfall.
Using last season’s FA Cup match with Harrogate as a measuring stick, eight of that matchday squad have since moved on; one of them, David Jones, is now on the coaching staff.
In came goalkeeper Mark Howard, who started his career in Arsenal’s academy alongside Cesc Fabregas and Nicklas Bendtner, as well as defenders Jordan Tunnicliffe, Anthony Forde and Jacob Mendy.
Howard arrived as Carlisle United’s Player of the Season, Tunnicliffe was in the 2020-21 League Two Team of the Year while Forde was more than happy to drop down from League One.
Further forward Elliot Lee – who coaching staff initially thought was out of reach, even with the Hollywood investment – arrived from Championship side Luton and in a bid to freshen up in attack, Wrexham pieced together a deal to triple the wages of Sam Dalby, with Jake Hyde going the other way on loan to Southend United.
All of this landed in the same calendar year Wrexham broke their transfer record in a £300,000 move for striker Ollie Palmer, with midfielder Tom O’Connor, who emerged through Southampton’s academy earlier in his career, also pitched up back in January for a six-figure fee.
Goalkeeper Mark Howard was brought in after being crowned Carlisle’s Player of the Year
In January of 2022 Tom O’Connor dropped two divisions in a six-figure deal and he is thriving
The wage bill had rocketed from under £1million under fan ownership to north of £2.3m by the end of last season.
Key, too, was Wrexham escaping the clutches of arbitrary transfer window restrictions.
Previously all deals done by Wrexham have had to go through the Welsh FA and so have been bound by FIFA rules, which limited them from making any moves outside the summer and January windows, something which did not impact other teams in the fifth division.
Sportsmail understands Shaun Harvey, special advisor to Reynolds and McElhenney, made it a priority over the off-season to get Wrexham on a level playing field in that respect. He succeeded – which paved the way for the arrival of another Championship midfielder in Andy Cannon last month to round out a 2022 which brought total overhaul on the pitch.
STADIUM FOR THE NORTH
When Wrexham’s first attempt at an away game at Aldershot Town last season was shelved due to a waterlogged pitch, a fuming McElhenney tweeted – before later deleting – ‘we need to get out of this f***ing league’.
And so for obvious reasons much of the focus, and investment, has gone on improving the quality and options on the pitch.
But central to transforming the club – and the community – has been their relentless pursuit of overhauling the derelict Kop stand, which has stood empty and left barren for almost 15 years.
The stand conjures up great memories for many of standing there to see Wrexham beat Arsenal in 1992, or even earlier than that when taking on Porto in the Cup Winners’ Cup.
But overgrown weeds peeking through and barriers ripped out, it was a metaphor for the steady decline the club, and the town, had been going through. For McElhenney and Reynolds, redeveloping the ground has been a top priority.
Work is already underway to transform the derelict Kop stand, which has been empty for years
Reynolds and McElhenney are eager to deliver elite facilities and restore to four stands
Harvey, Reynolds, McElhenney and executive director Humphrey Ker, a comedian, actor and writer for McElhenney’s show ‘Mythic Quest’, have a WhatsApp group where they discuss finite details of stadium work updates – which once included a surreal conversation about an order for the wrong set of nails.
There has been licks of fresh paint in parts, toilets tidied up and the concourse under the University End given a makeover – but the Kop has always been the significant ‘Phase One’ of their big plan for the club.
McElhenney and Reynolds made an undisclosed but ‘significant’ investment towards getting the ball rolling on a new 5,500-capacity stand – adding to the £1.2m of equity invested into the club over the summer by way of shares.
In November Wrexham Council’s planning committee gave the green light to the Kop stand proposals, which will raise the capacity of the stadium to 15,500, and work has already begun in ripping down what remains of the stand’s skeleton.
When King Charles and the Queen Consort visited recently they were introduced to the players from the men’s and women’s teams before McElhenney ran them through their bolds plans for the new stand, as well as their ambitions for the rest of the stadium as and when Wrexham climb the pyramid.
Come the end of the season there is hope internally at Wrexham that progress will be well underway on a new Kop stand, international-standard floodlights will have been installed, Wrexham will be promoted to League Two and serious discussions can be held to prise a Wales international match out of Cardiff.
They also made it key to buy back the freehold of the stadium, after it was sold off years ago
Another key area in the overhauling of the club is the work going on behind the scenes to deliver a bespoke training ground.
Staff are currently working in offices at the stadium or out in one of the two stacked Portakabin’s near the club shop.
Players get sessions in at a local gym, as well as rotational uses of five sites: Carden Park, Colliers Park, Lex, Nine Acre and Cefn Druids’ 4G pitch.
Wrexham used to own Colliers Park, which was famously used by Barcelona before a Champions League fixture many years ago, but it was sold off to Glyndwr University as part of the asset shift in 2011 to help free up costs.
The Football Association of Wales took it on and unlike the stadium it has not been purchased back.
Sportsmail understands executives pinpointed two sites at the end of last season and paid for experts to conduct research on the drainage and other key contributing factors of the quality of ground with which they would build on.
McElhenney and Reynolds’ vision is to deliver premium products on and off the pitch – and a training ground is falling as a close second to the new Kop stand internally.
Wrexham have become a global phenomenon, trending No 1 in the US in the Coventry win
McElhenney and Reynolds have been enthusiastic supporters of their team since taking over
A key line in Reynolds and McElhenney’s mission statement once they gained control of the club was to transform Wrexham into a ‘global force’.
It seemed an impressive sound-bite if nothing else for fans. Wrexham and global force felt like two forces pushing against each other.
But their hit docu-series ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ has been a revelation and has delivered thousands of new fans, opening up more lucrative sponsorship opportunities and an unprecedented demand for merchandise.
Insiders have estimated that the documentary earned $400,000 per hour of content – equivalent of two episodes.
Season One won a critics’ choice award and season two is halfway through filming.
On a recent podcast McElhenney detailed how he is already trying to secure a deal for seasons three and four.
Wrexham’s player registrations stood at £10,000 in 2019-20, before Hollywood arrived and that number is now being dwarfed by international shirt sales alone.
The hit documentary ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ helped them land live match coverage on ESPN
ESPN2 broadcast the club’s FA Cup fourth qualifying games against Blyth Spartans, while ESPN+ has picked up games against Oldham, Farnborough and Coventry in the three rounds that have followed.
Conversations with sources at ESPN has revealed to Sportsmail that a huge spike in their early FA Cup viewership is largely down to Wrexham.
A successful campaign to deliver streaming across the National League has further opened up commercial opportunities for Wrexham and interest has taken the club’s Twitter account beyond 300,000 followers – leaving them just shy of former Premier League side Blackburn Rovers, for example.
Wrexham are ‘just getting started’ and know a promotion is as key to anything referenced above. But the city of Wrexham are daring to dream and at odds of 750/1 to win the FA Cup… people are now rooting around to find a pound.
Share this article
Source: Read Full Article