I have a confession, and it’s one that usually shocks the people who know me. I have only ever seen two episodes of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and that number will never grow beyond that. If I wanted to feel like I got yelled at for half an hour, I’ll check in on my social media DMs that have been filtered out of my inbox or walk into any bar in Wrigleyville and declare loudly that Pearl Jam sucks (which I don’t even really believe, but is fun to do). So I have no familiarity with Rob McElhenney. Seems like a decent enough guy, who’s having a pretty great time doing what he wants to do.
So does Ryan Reynolds, and I love Deadpool. He behaves exactly like a guy who has made one franchise that most everyone loves, has all the money he’ll ever need and allows him to do only things he enjoys, and is married to one of the most beautiful women in the world. Reynolds has been in his “I don’t give a fuck anymore” mode for a while, and can get by simply being Ryan Reynolds. “Free Guy” was better than it had any right to be, though I’d probably watch Jodie Comer read the phonebook (despite being a bluenose). More power to both of them.
However, Welcome To Wrexham seems like only a vehicle to show off what gregarious guys these two are, while only pawing at what Wrexham AFC means to the tiny community that it calls home. Some of this is colored by interviews that the two did before the premiere where McElhenney admitted that what he was most interested in was making a sports documentary. But Wrexham isn’t a toy, it’s not a prop. After hearing that, it’s hard to take what the pair say about really connecting to the club and supporters completely seriously, no matter how genuine they may seem.
Welcome To Wrexham is not a show for soccer diehards. Which is fine, as there are plenty of docs out there for them if they want. The All Or Nothing series on Amazon can give fans a look behind the scenes at big clubs. If you want the big club down on its luck story, there’s Sunderland Til I Die. This is clearly a story about two guys who do mean well, almost certainly getting in over their heads with something they don’t fully understand.
Which is a good story, and one we’ve seen several times in fictional films. But as the non-fictional show does go out of its way to point out, there are real-life consequences to this. The third episode spends a great deal of time with Shaun Winter, a Wrexham resident, and fan who has recently gone through a divorce and makes it very clear that the time he gets at The Racecourse Ground with his sons is just about the only thing that’s keeping him going. Sure, every team has fans like this, but as we see through the stories of the guy who runs the pub attached to the stadium or the elderly ladies having tea or other scenes, the point is that this club, and soccer clubs in general, mean something more to their fans. The show started with McElhenney talking about how much Philly sports, especially the Eagles, mean to him, and then is clearly trying to demonstrate how Wrexham and its supporters are on a different level than that.
McElhenney and Reynolds know enough to know that they have to get promoted to the Football League and out of the English National League, and while there are references to their vision and plan, we never hear any of it. The season’s third episode spends a few minutes on the two securing Fleur Robinson as chief executive or Phil Parkinson as manager, without ever showing us what Reynolds and McElhenney told them to sell them to join a club that was a division or two below where they were working. Was it just working for celebrities? That’s fine, but it would be good to know.
We also see in the second episode how the pandemic season finished for the club, only a few months after the Hollywood duo took over. They lose the last game of the season to miss out on the National League playoffs and any chance of promotion. We learn at the end of the episode that the manager we just met and half the playing roster was let go after this game. But who made that call? Did McElhenney and Reynolds make that call? Were they simply advised to and rubber-stamped it from the people they had in place? They had to sign off on it, right? But we never see that, and it feels like we never see it because we can’t see Reynolds and McElhenney as the villain in the slightest. But we do see them agreeing to throw a very large amount of money, for the division Wrexham are in, at striker Paul Mullin merely off the suggestion from Twitter. Hey look, they really care what the fans want! But they don’t fire anyone. People just…lose their jobs. We’re really only getting one side of it.
That said, things start to turn a bit in episode four. Their first full season as owners starts, and we also get a glimpse of the dynamics of what their money does mean. On the one side, their celebrity does provide them an advantage, financially, over the rest of the division, and we see that at the team shop and how the two are using their social media following to get sponsorships and income that only they can provide.
Most intriguing, we see how contract dynamics play out within a team. We see four Wrexham teammates living as roommates, because they have to, and not exactly thrilled with the salary they are hearing that Paul Mullin makes. The next scene is Mullin in his much more comfortable home than they have, but explaining that he couldn’t be away from his family anymore and how much it means to him to get to live with them full-time now and why he took what was offered (and their delightful Scouse accents and Liverpool-supporting ways. Take that, Jodie!). It is a glimpse of how these things work in a dressing room, and if you think it’s just at this low level, you’re fooling yourself. That’s a story we don’t often get to see this vividly.
There’s also some hint from the fans, as Wrexham struggles out of the gate, that Reynolds’s and McElhenney’s charm-filled honeymoon will only last so long if it doesn’t translate to results. And the two acknowledge this freely. Still, the first portion of the episode focuses on the need to replace the field, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for these two having to shell out just north of $350,000 on it. That’s the job, kids, and we know you have it. The episode ends with Reynolds illustrating in a phone call with McElhenney just how much they didn’t know and how hard it’s been and why what they’re doing makes no sense.
Well, yeah. And the stakes are high for a lot of people. You don’t get vetted as a saint simply by showing up. This is a living, breathing thing. It requires a lot, and the supporters expect, demand even, that the owners put in the work. They don’t get extra points for discovering it was more than a guy’s weekend.
The show is at its best when it shows what being a fifth-division club truly is like for everyone in and around it. Hopefully, the rest of the season will spend less time trying to get us to like Reynolds and McElhenney more than we already do.