Welcome to Welcome to Wrexham season two! It’s a treat to be back here talking about Wrexham AFC, the historically significant football team that just might make it after all. If you haven’t watched the first season of this fun little sports docuseries, no worries; here’s an explainer I wrote last year, and the series premiere will give you a nice little recap and a bunch of stakes-establishing moments throughout to bring you up to speed. Shall we?
The premiere refocuses on Wrexham AFC, a storied football club that has languished for the last 14 years in the fifth tier of English football, but they’ve got tons of potential and a deeply invested fan base. Significant and repeated injections of cash by Hollywood big shots Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney have yielded some strong results, thanks largely to the team’s renewed ability to attract talent from the higher tiers of football. Last season, the most notable additions were new manager Phil Parkinson, forward Paul Mullin, and striker Ollie Palmer. Within the context of the show, Parkinson is most notable for his enthusiastic and frequent deployment of F-bombs; Mullin for being a localish lad and scoring machine (low whistle of appreciation for his 79 goals for Wrexham to date); Palmer for, well, hotness. Ryan and Rob point out that Palmer has a bunch of female fans, likely due to his never keeping his shirt on, which is accompanied by a lingering shot of the abs Mr. Palmer has invested so much time and care in developing.
Okay, okay, Palmer is also an excellent player, having scored 33 goals over his first two seasons with Wrexham. There’s a little montage of a whole passel of new players, but the only one we spend time with in this episode is new goalkeeper Mark Howard. Much more on the other new guys later, I’m sure.
On top of the fafillion pounds invested in roster improvements, Rob and Ryan have also spent £200,000 on replacing and then rereplacing all of the grass on the team pitch. Unfortunately, their prior investments didn’t quite yield the ardently hoped-for result of getting promoted to League Two. The Red Dragons’ 2021–2022 season ended in a heartbreaker of a loss in the National League playoff semifinal, so Welcome to Wrexham’s second season covers the team’s 2022–2023 playing season.
The mood is a combination of cautious optimism and the bone-deep awareness that the window for this entire project’s success is narrow. Since the debut of Rob and Ryan’s ownership and of Welcome to Wrexham, the team’s official merch shop sold over 24,000 jerseys, and one fan describes the experience as “the ride of a lifetime.” Lifelong Wrexham supporter and the co-host of a podcast about the team’s fortunes, Shaun Winter, notes that he’s been asked to sign shirts for fans of the show who’ve made pilgrimages to Wrexham from such far-flung locales as Brazil, Thailand, the U.S., Australia, and Portugal. There’s a certain, barely held-in-check giddiness in the air.
All of that’s well and good, but there’s no getting around that what this team needs to do is win. They need to win many, many times so that they can finish the season at the top of the National League standings and get promoted to the next league up, League Two. As comedy writer and club executive director Humphrey Ker succinctly explains, promotion promises more money in both prizes and TV deals, increased exposure and game attendance, and a reasonable shot at recouping some of Rob and Ryan’s investments. The two of them are both enthusiastic about the team and clear-eyed about what’s at stake, with Ryan stating plainly, “If the team isn’t promoted after the 2022–23 season, the club will be completely, totally, and wholly unsustainable.” From this point, success or failure rests with the players and their coaching staff. At the end of this episode, their record stands at 1-1-0. There’s miles to go before they sleep.
Meanwhile, Rob and Ryan’s efforts to make good on their promises to the team, the town, and the fans take two forms: major club infrastructure projects and the PR coup of meeting His Majesty King Charles III. The former entails demolishing the Kop, one of the old stands at the Racecourse Ground, the stadium where Wrexham AFC plays. The Kop is beyond repair, and because it was designed to be standing-room only, it has never been a comfortable spot to watch games from. But for a tradition-loving community of supporters, it’s the stuff of sentimental legend; Wayne Jones, who runs the pub that adjoins the Racecourse, snuck over to the Kop to watch his very first Wrexham match as a child and was instantly hooked.
A few minutes spent with local metalworks owner and longtime Wrexham AFC sponsor Phil Salmon are enough to show how deeply the love for the Kop runs among team supporters. He’s transforming the rusted, dilapidated red metal barriers that prevented Kop-standers from crushing each other to death in their home-team enthusiasm into collectors’ items by refurbishing and repainting them for sale by local charities. Salmon appears to earn nothing from this project but the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile for his community. It’s very pure, and I have no particular ungovernable feelings about that.
Looking ahead to the rest of the season, one of its major narrative projects is to build on the human-interest stories established in its first season. For that to work, Rob and Ryan need to continue to recede — incrementally and believably — into the background. Both of them have such intense main-character energy that the surest way to accomplish this goal is for them to make themselves scarce. I don’t know how things shake out throughout the entire season, but if I were offering strategic guidance, I would urge the lads to hang back until the season’s final two or three episodes.
As things stand at this moment, Welcome to Wrexham’s deployment of Ryan and Rob is pretty effective. Opening the episode with their arrival and then prolonged silence is funny and slightly unnerving. What on earth can have made these compulsively chatty guys so tongue-tied? The king of England called! This leads into the funniest set piece of the episode, a bit built around their preparations for King Charles III’s visit to Wrexham, in which he stops at the Racecourse to meet various team bigwigs. Because Rob and Ryan are peasants from the colonies, their preparation for the royal visit includes attending what Ryan calls “monarchy boot camp.” (“It’s like the military, but you have to keep your pinky up.”) Yep, that’s the essence of etiquette right there. Somewhere, Miss Manners is proud of you, guys!
Humphrey grumbles a little bit at being left out of the etiquette lessons, but anyone named Humphrey, whose accent is so very posh, does not need to attend etiquette lessons. This Humphrey in particular — who, like many prime ministers and both of the king’s sons, attended Eton College; who lightly oozes the vibe of a child born quoting Burke’s Peerage; whose maternal grandfather was named Vice-Admiral Sir Dymock Watson, later the subject of this Humphrey’s own 2011 Edinburgh Fringe production, Dymock Watson: Nazi Smasher! — does not need these lessons.
Anyway! The royal visit is a success; Rob and Ryan keep those pinkies aloft, everyone looks very sharp, and the king successfully delivers an amusing line to Rob about how he’s heard that it’s always sunny in Philadelphia.
The club is anxiously waiting (and to Rob’s increasing annoyance and bafflement, waiting, and then for variety, waiting some more) on the news about their application for £20 million in Levelling Up Fund monies from the government. The entire new stand must be constructed by the start of 2024–25 season, so the leadership team choose to tear down the old Kop themselves in anticipation of their application’s approval. Well. About that. They don’t get the funding. Executive Shaun Harvey notes, with well-earned exhaustion, that the rejection amounts to “18 months of work gone up in smoke.” He reckons that the Conservative Party, who was in charge of the Levelling Up Fund, didn’t approve the club’s application in part because it thinks it won’t hold Wrexham’s seat in the next election. This is quite a test of Harvey’s steadfast commitment to trusting the process (a phrase that sends both a thrill of hope and a chill of horror down the spine of any Philadelphia 76ers fan), but after sighs all around and some very silly and dry quips from Rob, Ryan, and Humphrey, it’s on to the next. What else can they do?
Up The Town!
• There’s always an enthusiasm meter onscreen tallying Phil Parkinson’s profanity-laced remarks to his players, but I think the focus really ought to be on his pregame PowerPoint presentation, which is so endearing I may pass out. (F-bomb total for that scene: a fairly tame five, but the season is young!)
• The ostensible reason for His Majesty’s visit to Wrexham was in acknowledgment of its designation as a city, rather than as a town. What does that even mean? I’m glad you asked. Here are Mark Cooper-Jones and Jay Foreman, a.k.a. YouTube’s Map Men, to explain.
• Shaun Harvey’s very emphatic reference to trusting the process must be the influence of noted Philadelphia sports fan Rob McElhenney. I’m here for it.
• Best needle drop: “Air on a G String” (lolllll, I am 12), by Johann Sebastian Bach.