Tuesday, 28 November 2023

FX Network’s ‘Wrexham’ puts out welcome mat for sports fans


How does a soccer team in a remote area of northeast Wales garner any interest from American sports fans?

“Welcome to Wrexham” on the FX cable channel provides the answer in a documentary series about two actors initiating a takeover of a team mired in low standing.

The Hollywood glamour, so to speak, comes from American and Canadian actors, respectively Rob McElhenny (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” fame) and Ryan Reynolds (“Deadpool”) who couldn’t even visit the Welsh town for a long time due to the pandemic.

This might be the perfect time to take a look at “Welcome to Wrexham” because over here across the pond from the United Kingdom we are in full swing in our own frenzied sports season.

Major League Baseball is in the throes of the playoffs where a thrilling series had the San Diego Padres slaying the dragon to the north, the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers who had the most wins during the season and finished twenty-two games ahead of their southern rival.

National League Football is in full swing and the Philadelphia Eagles are crushing opponents. The Eagles success is probably not lost on Rob McElhenney, a product of the City of Brotherly Love, who displays in the first episode his fervent support for his beloved NFL team.

This time of year also brings the start of the season for the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association. What major sports are we missing? Horse racing at Santa Anita Park? Well, the ponies are running, and so all the bases are covered.

Reynolds and McElhenney have very little knowledge of the sport known as football practically everywhere else in the world except in the United States. Their enthusiasm for “the beautiful game” is either genuine or a Hollywood construct for a television series.

In the early going in this documentary series, the actors’ interaction with the Wrexham team is limited to Zoom meetings and phone calls, while British comedian and screenwriter Humphrey Ker takes on the role of “Rob and Ryan’s guy” at the football club.

The second episode finds Ker, now the team’s executive director, introducing himself to the players as a writer on TV shows who won’t have anything to do with what happens on the field. The look on the faces of the footballers is priceless.

Officially known as Wrexham Association Football Club, which turns out to be the third oldest professional team in existence with the home base of the oldest international football stadium in the world, is also referred to as “a diamond in the heart of Wales” in a song.

One can be forgiven for thinking that two actors buying a football club in a foreign country is a publicity stunt. That’s certainly on the minds of denizens of Wrexham, one of them asking the duo “Why Wrexham?”

The answer, as if coming from a politician, is not readily forthcoming, though McElhenney admits to being a sports fanatic from Philadelphia with a deep love for the Eagles. He musters up the opinion that Wrexham reminds him of Philadelphia.

The actor, who had yet to visit this Welsh town when making the comparison, offers the view that Wrexham is a working-class and blue-collar town. Indeed, the scenery of Wrexham lacks the beautiful mansions found in the elite neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

The documentary also explains the English Football League as a pyramid where the Premier League is at the pinnacle, followed by the Championship and then League One and League. Below these four tiers is the National League and that’s where we find the Wrexham AFC.

While the top players in the Premier League could pocket 3.5 million British pounds, the lowly National League players take in the minimum wage level pay of 39,000 pounds, which might be decent pay in the decaying industrial Wrexham.

Back to the question of “Why Wrexham?” Both Reynolds and McElhenney take pains, even as they can’t resist being jokers at times, to assure the doubters that they don’t undertake lightly the desire to build something.

When Reynolds and McElhenney participate in a news conference, a Welsh interpreter playfully notes that the actors “have never pleased their wives” and that they are doomed “to die alone in their mansions.”

A truer statement comes from team manager Dean Keates who notes that there are three guarantees for a football manager, namely “you’re born, you pay taxes and you get sacked.” One of these three do come to pass, and you get only one guess.

During the recent television press tour, John Landgraf, chairman of FX, acknowledged that the series follows not just the fate of the team but also the “fandom in general” and the history of the town.

“Welcome to Wrexham” tells the tale of a town of 65,000 residents, and from the patrons at a local pub to the home of a single father raising two sons in joint custody, it’s obvious that fans really do matter for any team.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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