DRIVING into football’s unlikely new hotbed, you are greeted with 3ft-high letters on a pub roof reminiscent of the famous Hollywood sign – but this time reading “Wrexham”.
The grey skies above the Grey-hound Inn and the bitter wind blowing off the Welsh mountains, however, are hardly Californian.
Even so, celebrity glitter has helped transform the fortunes of this North Wales former coal and steel city that’s had its fair share of hardship.
The dozens queuing for FA Cup tickets in Wrexham AFC’s car park are quick to credit American actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney — who bought the club in 2021 — for the transformation.
Ryan, best known for his starring role in the Deadpool films, was at the club last week with daughter James, eight, to watch his non-league side’s dramatic FA Cup clash against Sheffield United.
And it seems the club have had a similarly transformative effect on the Hollywood star.
He was pictured celebrating with fans as Wrexham looked to have pulled off a shock win against a team who sit second in the Championship, three leagues above them.
It was not to be as a last-second equaliser saw the game end 3-3, prompting Ryan to later tweet it was “one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen”.
His wife Blake Lively, who stars in Gossip Girl, posted a snap of Ryan with his head in his hands and added: “I bought ESPN+ today. Just to watch my husband experience crippling anxiety live. Worth it.”
‘On the up’
Talking to me outside the ground, fan Les Buxton, 66, a retired Royal Navy submariner, said: “When I heard two Hollywood stars were taking over the club I thought it was pie in the sky.
“The club was on its knees but they’ve come in and they’ve turned the place around. I sit below Rob and Ryan in the stands and can see what this club means to them.
“They’ve taken the town to their hearts, as well as the football club.”
Wrexham, with a population of around 62,000, was once a heavy industry powerhouse. Its coalfield boasted 38 pits and employed 18,000 people at its peak.
In 1864 a football club was formed, making it the third oldest professional side in the world, and it was soon a cornerstone of the working-class city.
A stalwart of lower-division football, its league high watermark was 15th in the old Second Division (now the Championship) in 1979.
As Welsh Cup winners, there were European competition nights, with celebrated victories at its atmospheric Racecourse Ground against Antwerp and Porto.
The last local coal mine, Bersham, closed in 1986 with the loss of 700 jobs. And the city and its proud football club went into decline.
Retired building manager Graham Roberts, 74, who watched his first Dragons game 60 years ago, told me: “My father was a steel worker and my grandfather a miner.
“Every family had someone that was a miner. When the pits closed, the town struggled, and so did the football club.”
In 2004 the club went into administration with massive debts and was given notice to quit the Racecourse Ground by its former owner so it could be sold as a retail site.
In 2008, after 87 years, the club was relegated from the Football League, with its Kop stand dilapidated.
It had hit rock bottom, then stayed there. It would take a fan buy-out to save it from going under.
Then came a twist that could have been written in Hollywood. And in a way, it was.
Actors Ryan and Rob, who stars in US sitcom It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, bought the club, injecting glamour and £2million.
Their ownership saga was filmed for documentary series Welcome To Wrexham — screened on Disney+ — which turned the Dragons into one of the best-known clubs in the world.
Kit sponsor Ifor Williams Trailers, based nearby, was joined by multinational heavyweights TikTok and Expedia as backers.
Fans from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the US have flocked to the city, giving a boost to local commerce and business.
In December Ryan and Rob met the King and Queen at the Racecourse Ground after visiting Wrexham to celebrate it gaining city status.
At her constituency office, local MP Sarah Atherton told me: “Wrexham is on the up and football has been a catalyst. The global reach of Disney has helped. It’s fantastic, there’s a real buzz around the town.”
- 1977/78: Third Division champions
- 1976: European Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-finalists
- 1974, 1978, 1997: FA Cup quarter-finalists
- 1961, 1978: League Cup quarter-finalists
- 2005: Football League Trophy
- 2013: FA Trophy
- Welsh Cup: Won 23 times
- Welsh Premier Cup: Won 5 times
A giant industrial estate on the edge of Wrexham — soon to be Europe’s biggest — announced a further 56-acre development last month, citing the “feelgood factor” engendered by the football club.
Tim Knowles, managing director of FI Real Estate Management, which has invested more than £136million at the site, said of the Hollywood connection: “It’s supercharged Wrexham.
“It’s so exciting. Wrexham is a great place and we know we can attract major tenants which will create more jobs.”
At the Chevron Clothing shop in the High Street, manager Jamie Powis said: “Since Rob and Ryan came in it’s gone through the roof for us.
“Our themed bucket hats have completely sold out and we’ve been selling T-shirts to America.”
Jamie, 49, who sells hoodies emblazoned with Ryan’s face for £45, added: “We had a couple over from Texas last week to see the game but it was sold out.
“They ended up watching it in a pub by the ground instead.”
At the Cross Foxes pub nearby, landlady Joanne Mee said Ryan has popped in for a game of darts.
She told me: “We just let him get on with it. He was playing darts with a friend.
“Since Rob and Ryan took over we’ve had a massive improvement in sales and foot traffic. I think the documentary has boosted tourism.
“We get lots of Americans coming in, drinking shots and pints.
“The atmosphere on match day is fantastic.”
Just up the road, Ahmet Karakaya and Zico Yunus run the Central Kebab And Pizza House, and say match days are “crazy”.
Ahmet, originally from Turkey, said: “Before the football and after the football the fans love a kebab.
“It’s the busiest I’ve known in my five years working here. Wrexham is booming.”
Locals say the Hollywood pair are approachable and genuine, giving cash to a number of good causes.
In August 2021 they donated £20,000 for four-year-old Aria Hodgkiss to have treatment for a rare brain cancer.
Last month Ryan gave £1,600 to local indoor football team FC United of Wrexham’s under-12 boys’ side to pay for new kit.
Mark and Vaughan Roberts, managing directors of brewery Wrexham Lager, say sales of their beer have risen “exponentially”, spurred on by the city’s Hollywood connection.
With a picture of their great-grandfather, Wrexham and Wales footballer Jack Jones staring down from their city-centre office wall, Mark, 62, says that the celebrity pair have “brought a new lease of life to the city”.
He adds: “We get tourists from all over because of the documentary series. The furthest was from New Zealand.
“They take beer home in their suitcases and some of our branded merchandise.”
Wrexham Lager’s Pride Of The Celts was first brewed in 1882, making it Britain’s oldest.
It was served on the Titanic — prompting Mark’s joke, “It went down well”. The firm now sponsors a stand at the Racecourse Ground.
Actor Rob has visited the brewery and Mark’s brother Vaughan, 59, said: “The club was kept alive by the fans and attendance was down to around 4,000 diehards.
“What Ryan and Rob have done for the city is amazing but they’re just normal, down-to-earth guys. I’ve never heard a bad word said about them.”
The celebrity pair have clearly won over the city but they have found escaping the National League — England’s fifth tier — tough.
There’s just one automatic promotion place and last season Wrexham lost to Grimsby in a play-off semi-final.
Tomorrow evening the Dragons, who beat Coventry in the previous round of the FA Cup, head to Bramall Lane for their replay against Sheffield United.
In the queue for tickets, the hum of mechanical diggers can be heard as work continues for a new 5,500-capacity Kop stand.
It’s heady days for the fans. But after so much heartache in previous years, are they worried the Hollywood duo will quit if ratings slump?
Ex-steel worker Alan Hughes, 61, said: “If they left we would be on a sound footing but I don’t think they will. I think they genuinely love the club and the city.”
Rob has said that he and Ryan are “in this for the rest of our lives”, while Ryan said recently: “It has been the greatest experience of my entire life.
“I love it because it’s a project that’s going to be multi-decades. The part I find most gratifying is the support from the community outside the club.”
Also queuing for his cup ticket, technician John Michael, 49, said: “The club has been totally reborn.
“Ryan and Rob have brought jobs to the town and got the whole place buzzing.
“Kids are now proudly walking around the city in their Wrexham strips, even if their parents support Liverpool or Manchester United.
“Ryan and Rob have really changed people’s lives. How could you walk away from that?”
WHY DID ACTORS BUY IT?
WREXHAM fans can thank Netflix – not Disney – for their Hollywood takeover.
Rob, 45, got the idea to buy a team while watching the platform’s documentary Sunderland ’Til I Die.
He needed a wealthy entrepreneur to join him and Deadpool actor Ryan said yes even though the two men had never met.
They were just text friends before becoming business partners. The pair made a list of clubs they might be able to afford and in November 2020 chose Wrexham because of its 158-year history.
Ryan, 46, said “the thing that really hooked me” was “getting involved in the community around that club and growing that”.
Another key factor was British actor Humphrey Ker, 40, who got Rob into football while working with him on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
He is now executive director at Wrexham, helping to oversee the day-to-day running of the club.