May 23, 2024

Accrington Stanley owner Andy Holt’s tweet was dripping with Lancastrian sarcasm.

“Congratulations Ryan, I honestly don’t know how you do it! Fabulous achievement. Best of luck with the treble,” it read.

He was replying to Wrexham co-owner Ryan Reynolds’ celebratory post following his side’s second successive promotion.

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Holt is one of English football’s most intriguing characters and is about as divisive as the team on the receiving end of his post. Wrexham are the British game’s Marmite club — other teams’ fans love or hate them — and following their promotion to League One along with Stockport County last weekend, the debate is back with fresh fervour.

You can forgive Holt, a local businessman who made his fortune in the plastics industry and has invested heavily in his hometown club since assuming control in 2015, for his tongue-in-cheek reply to Reynolds. It was congratulatory while pulling off an exquisite ironic dig at Wrexham’s achievements given their sizeable budget for a fourth-tier club.

There is also the fact Holt has history with Reynolds and Wrexham’s other Hollywood star co-owner Rob McElhenney. They have not always seen eye to eye on matters such as streaming income and ticket prices. Maybe there is something to be said for staking out the moral high ground, for taking a deep breath in times like these and rising above. But this is football — an industry that thrives on petty grudges.

Reynolds and McElhenney celebrating promotion to the National League a year ago (Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Most neutrals are self-aware enough to acknowledge a degree of jealousy when looking at what Wrexham have achieved since Reynolds and McElhenney took over in 2021.

Aside from the investment, the international exposure and the obvious respect both have for the north Wales club and the town they represent, the actors are annoyingly difficult to dislike. Their self-aware japes, like when they tried to learn Welsh in the Welcome To Wrexham documentary series, and their witty social media posts make it far more difficult to be cynical about their intentions.

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They are public-facing in a way that allows accountability, going against the tide of too many absent or elusive owners in the EFL. They have shown touches of class around memorials to the Gresford Colliery mining disaster, surprise charity donations and fan engagement. New big-name international sponsors including Expedia, TikTok and United Airlines have arrived, along with grand plans for new stands at the Racecourse ground. And on-pitch, they have had clear success. Manager Phil Parkinson oversaw a record-breaking points tally on the way to winning the National League title last season to pull Wrexham out of the fifth tier of the English football pyramid after 15 years.


Fan culture in Europe and the U.S. on The Athletic


And they have now done it again, achieving back-to-back promotions for the first time in the club’s 160-year history, once again with the Welcome To Wrexham cameras in tow. The series has brought new fans and attention to the EFL, particularly from the U.S. And this has, in part, led to record domestic and international TV deals — worth £935million ($1.2bn) over five years and £148m over four respectively to the EFL.

So what is not to like? What harm is the Wrexham story doing to football?

If you ask most other fans in England and Wales, quite a lot. Here is where the bubble bursts if you believe Wrexham to be an against-all-odds tale.

Wrexham are not underdogs, at least not in the league. There is a case to be made for underdog status in their FA Cup runs which saw them play Blackburn Rovers, Sheffield United and Coventry City, three sides much higher up the domestic football pyramid in the last two seasons. But when a team have the most money in the division, they have an advantage over the rest. Wrexham are not the first club to use their financial muscle to progress up the leagues. They will not be the last.

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Stockport have been on a similar journey up from the National League and carry one of the highest wage bills in League Two this season. Fleetwood Town, now an established league club, did the same in 2012 and 2014. This season’s National League champions, Chesterfield, have spent plenty to get back into the EFL.

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The latest set of Wrexham accounts, covering the 2022-23 season, show their wage bill was £6.9million, with losses of £5.1m. Both figures were 1) records for the National League, and 2) higher than all League Two teams that season and most of League One, too. It is an unprecedented amount of money to spend in the lower leagues and as a point of comparison, Accrington lost £785,000 in the same period, when they were a third-tier side.

Stockport also celebrated promotion this weekend (Jess Hornby/Getty Images)

There is no shame in spending big, especially when it works and when your revenue is as big as Wrexham’s was last year (£10.5million — again, more than any other side in the fifth-tier National League or League Two). More money helps attract better players and so the league table often reflects each team’s spending. Only when a club endure a bad season or feel the constraints of the EFL’s financial fair play rules (usually once they reach the second-tier Championship) is there reason to worry.

Where Wrexham have done lots of good for football, the gradual hiking-up of salaries in the lower divisions has been a serious concern to clubs constrained by much smaller margins but trying to compete.

Wrexham’s financial clout and subsequent easy progress straight through League Two was to be expected and it probably will not be until they reach the Championship — or their owners run out of cash or enthusiasm for the project — that we will see what this sort of growth really means. The accounts are hard proof: Wrexham are a good story, yes, but they are no fairytale. This clip on CBS, and the replies, sums it all up perfectly of just how divisive they have become.

What rankles so many League One and Two and National League fans is that while the story of a post-industrial town that has fallen on hard times with an underperforming/downtrodden football club has captured global attention, it is a story that applies to swathes of the EFL. You could swap out Wrexham for Grimsby Town, Wigan Athletic, Hartlepool United, Newport County or Accrington. None of those clubs means any less to their community just because there are no TV cameras to show it.

Maybe all this says more about fan culture in the UK than we care to admit.

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The healthy position in all this is to sit somewhere in the middle. For every moment of admiration for what Wrexham are doing, a sprinkling of awareness of their wage bill or a dash of cynicism around the narrative that they are ‘the only club like it in the world’ should provide a perfectly seasoned outlook.

But balance? A healthy attitude to what other teams in your division are doing? Anything other than disdain for new ideas, new fans and a barrage of media attention for a club other than your own? You will not find that in the EFL. You’re better off trying Disney+ for it instead.

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(Top photo: Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images)

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