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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Under the Hollywood spotlight, a fading Welsh town is reborn


A mural promoting the FX documentary “Welcome to Wrexham” near the home stadium of the soccer team featured in the show.

By Euan Ward


In the Welsh language, the virtually untranslatable word “hiraeth” (pronounced here-ayeth) describes a blend of nostalgia and longing for a time that can never be recreated.


For Wrexham, a working-class town in northern Wales, it was a feeling that came to define a postindustrial malaise that descended in the 1980s as the last coal mines shuttered their rickety gates and, later, the furnaces at the nearby steelworks ran cold.


Only the beloved soccer club, Wrexham AFC, remained: the oldest team in Wales, a perennial also-ran but still an indomitable source of local pride.


“We went through so much as a town,” said Terry Richards, 56, a lifelong fan of the club as he sat at home in the team’s bright scarlet jersey. “Those were difficult times.”


Wales has its legends of heroes returning to save the day, but few could have predicted that an unlikely pair of Hollywood actors, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, would waltz into town just over two years ago and buy the ailing club. That set off a chain of events that catapulted the town out of the doldrums and into the international spotlight, casting the residents as the main characters in their own Hollywood reality show based around the soccer club, “Welcome to Wrexham.”


Few could have predicted that the two famous actors would walk into the town in the first place. But McElhenney, an American who had binged on sports documentaries during lockdown, conducted an exhaustive search for a down-and-out soccer team with growth potential, landing on Wrexham AFC, and persuaded Reynolds to join him in his pet project.


After paying the bargain sum of around $2.5 million, they moved into town (the Canadian-born Reynolds even bought a house) and began overhauling the team’s operation. They revitalized the training facilities and upgraded the roster, offering comparatively enormous salaries that attracted established players from the upper levels of English soccer.


Last Saturday, that Hollywood story finally got its very own Hollywood ending — the team’s promotion after its winning season into the English Football League, the next tier of England’s multilevel soccer pyramid, after a 15-year absence. As the referee blew the final whistle, generations of teary-eyed supporters leaped from the stands onto the rain flecked field in joyous celebration.


In that moment, a town was reborn, and that lingering “hiraeth” was no more.


“The doom and gloom has lifted,” said Richards, still nursing a headache after days of celebration. “It’s hard to put into words.”


“It’s a new Wrexham,” he said.


The glamour of the town’s new honorary residents appears at stark odds with Richards’ neighborhood of Caia Park, a long deprived corner of Wrexham that came to epitomize the town’s decline. But few in the area find that contrast jarring. They are more than happy to bask in the Hollywood spotlight, especially when it comes with the fittingly Hollywood finale that shook the town last Saturday.


“They’ve brought a bit of sparkle with them,” said Richards’ partner, Donna Jackson, 55.


Richards’ son, Nathan, 34, who played professionally for Wrexham in his teens, agreed. “You don’t need to be a football fan to see that.”


It is a sparkle that has lit up the underserved neighborhood, including at a local boxing gym that tries to keep disadvantaged teens out of trouble.


“This is known as a bit of a fighting town,” said Gareth Harper, 43, the gym’s coach. “But after that match, with all of them fans and each pub being crammed, there was not one arrest. Everybody is just on such a high.”


As his students shadow boxed alongside him, he added, “I think we’re almost getting a little bit used to it now.”


Not everyone has made the adjustment. But Wayne Jones, the sleep-deprived, 40-year-old owner of the Turf Hotel, the pub made famous by the FX documentary, is not complaining.


Knowing what was coming, he tried frantically to stock up on supplies before the big game last Saturday, but the crowds just kept on coming. And on Sunday, they came back again. By night’s end, the pub had been drunk dry, and he was left with no choice but to shut down for the first time in 15 years.


“I didn’t ask for any of this. It sort of fell into my lap,” he said, while staring into his coffee cup with weary eyes. “But I don’t think I have a big enough vocabulary to describe what they’ve done for this town,” he said of the new celebrity owners. “If the football team is doing well, the town is only going to prosper.”


While American entrepreneurs paying billions for clubs like Manchester United has bothered some British soccer fans, Wrexham’s acceptance of outside ownership has surprised even the new owners themselves.


That is not to say there weren’t some suspicions at first.


“Is this the 7th Cavalry coming over the hill? Or is it just, you know, somebody looking to make a quick buck,” Geraint Parry, the club’s longest-serving staff member, recalled thinking when the town first caught wind of the actors’ proposed purchase.


But Parry, who has been attending games at the Racecourse Ground, the club’s stadium, since 1974, soon put those doubts to rest — even if he still struggles to comprehend the North American accents increasingly heard around town after the tourists began to roll in.


“I’ve got enough maple syrup to last me a lifetime now,” he joked, referring to gifts some of the tourists brought from their home countries. He added: “You can tell wherever in the world they are showing the series next, because suddenly you start getting emails from Brazil, Poland and Thailand.”


At times, the meeting of cultures seems straight out of an outdated sitcom script. At the club’s fan shop this week, a tourist from Pennsylvania was met with puzzled looks when she asked to use the restroom. “You want the err … toilet?” the shop assistant asked.


The town’s museum is in the process of building a soccer section to cater to the growing public interest in the team. Amid the building’s archives, however, the despondent days of the past are never far removed.


“Everything looks so grim,” said Mark Taylor, the museum’s assistant archivist, as he stared at the old newspaper snippets splayed out in front of him.


“END OF THE ROAD,” read one headline documenting the closure of the town’s brewery.


“I’LL SHUT THIS CLUB DOWN,” another front page blasted, a window into darker days at Wrexham AFC less than 20 years ago.


It all appeared alien to the glory now emanating across global airwaves and the team’s dressing room (which, after the club’s promotion last Saturday, took five hours to clean).


Back in Caia Park, Jackson reminded Richards that they had yet to marry. As a setting sun streamed through the blinds, he promised they would get around to it next year, but on one strict condition — the ceremony must take place on Wrexham’s soccer pitch.

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