Welcome to Wrexham Women: How Reynolds, McElhenney have changed everything

Published on: 10 May 2024

Open Extended ReactionsWrexham owners Rob McElhenney, left, and Ryan Reynolds celebrate on a shared bus parade following promotion for both men's and women's teams last season. Jan Kruger/Getty Images

NEWPORT, Wales -- Wrexham A.F.C. are in a cup final. The weather might be dismal, but the rain is certainly not dampening the spirits of the loud Wrexham fans in the club's signature red shirts and singing at the top of their lungs on the way to Newport Country's Rodney Parade stadium.

But they're not cheering on the Wrexham men's side, which was thrust into the spotlight by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney when they took over the Welsh club in 2021. Wrexham A.F.C. Women are in the spotlight now.

"We fully and wholeheartedly believe that this is a club that can become one of the best women's teams in the world," Wrexham co-owner McElhenney said in the new season of "Welcome to Wrexham" (stream episodes on Disney+).

They're not there yet, but this is a start. A place in the Bute Energy Cup final followed a third-place finish in their debut campaign in Wales' Adran Premier, the top tier of women's football in Wales. Wrexham ultimately lost the cup final 2-0 to Adran Premier champions Cardiff City (who completed a trophy treble), but the result doesn't matter so much. This is about laying the groundwork for something bigger.

With an ambitious summer agenda (including a tour of the U.S.) aimed at fortifying and revitalising the squad, Wrexham's women are now on the map. This is how they got there.

- FX's "Welcome to Wrexham" airs new episodes Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX, streaming next day on Hulu

Early days

Wrexham Ladies were created as an amateur team in 2003 and joined the North Wales Women's Football League before they reformed as Wrexham F.C. in 2009 and co-founded the Welsh Premier Women's League, the top tier of women's football in the country at the time.

Despite winning their division in 2011-12, they faced setbacks in attracting players to devote their unpaid time while juggling full-time jobs elsewhere and they withdrew from the league midway through the 2015-16 season. But from the flames rose a phoenix; the side rebranded again as Wrexham A.F.C Women in 2018 and started anew in the North Wales Women's Football League, winning the League Cup and earning promotion to Division One that same year.

Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic and amid cancellations of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, Reynolds and McElhenney (via RR McReynolds Company LLC) acquired Wrexham A.F.C., inclusive of the women's team, and everything changed. Ahead of the 2021-22 season, the Football Association of Wales (FAW) revamped the structure of women's football in the country, establishing the Adran Premier as the top tier with the second division divided into Adran North and Adran South with an end-of-season playoff between the two winners to determine who goes up.

But with a Tier 1 license needed to compete in the Adran Premier, the Red Dragons could not jump up to the top flight right away. They had a decent debut season in Adran North and only finished second behind Llandudno after losing a winner-takes-all game on the final day of the season, but their ambition was higher. They didn't have to wait long. In February 2023, Wrexham applied for their license with a plan to transition to semi-professional status if they won promotion -- a scenario that happened after finishing top of Adran North and beating Briton Ferry 1-0 in the playoff at Latham Park on April 16.

The celebrations at full-time were emphatic; it was a landmark victory that would bring about a new era for Wrexham and for Welsh football in general. On June 27, the club announced that 10 players had signed semi-professional contracts, making them the first team in the Adran Premier to feature semi-professional players. And keen to keep pace with the Red Dragons' development, new league rivals Cardiff City and Swansea followed suit and signed their own players on semi-professional contracts later that summer.

"It was important for us to [pay the players] because it puts value on what the players are doing," Gemma Owen, Wrexham's head of women's football operations, told ESPN. "It highlights that we're on a step to hopefully professionalising and we're in the place that we want to be in. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future we can be even further on. This has come around really quickly, so you never know what's going to happen in another year or two."

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For Carly Steward, a 12-year-old member of Wrexham's Academy and a season ticket-holder for the men's team, enrolling in Wrexham's soccer school changed her life.

"It meant everything. It's made such a difference to her life," her mother, Jessica, told ESPN. "When Carly got dropped from Shrewsbury Town, they told her she was better than some of the players they kept, but she didn't believe in herself. She was only 9 years old, so she was so upset, and then she went to Wrexham, and they've given her all the belief back and all that confidence. They're so warm and friendly and nice and when Carly does something, the first people she wants to tell are the Wrexham people and the friends we have there."

Wrexham has also given Carly Steward new aspirations. She wants to be a footballer, but not for the giants of Manchester City, Arsenal or Chelsea. There is only one club shirt she wants to wear.

"Hopefully I can carry on like I am and then one day play for the women's team because whenever I wear the shirt, I'm just so proud, and I love the club; I love all the people," she told ESPN. "When they got promoted, they invited me on the pitch for photos and to hold the flag, and all the players from the under-19s and the women's team are just so nice to me."

But one day, could Wrexham compete against the likes of six-time Women's Super League winners Chelsea and former European champions Arsenal? Five of Wales' men's teams compete in the English Football League, with Wrexham recently winning promotion to League One. It is an exception for Welsh clubs to feature in the English setup (excluding nonleague regionalised football); however, it is not out of the question that the women's team could seek the same exception to play within the English setup.

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With the WSL and Championship under new management from NewCo, the possibility of transitioning to a more competitive league in the future is something that Owen said could be considered. If the team are to become fully professional, then the Adran Premier would need to do the same, or the club would need to move to a new, professionalised league. But Owen insists that Wrexham have more to do before they consider this option.

"It hasn't been broached, no," Owen said. "But obviously, with the ambitions that we have, it's certainly something I imagine will be broached at some point. We've still got a lot to achieve within Wales at the moment. It's a difficult one, but we are a very ambitious club, and we want to play at the highest level that we possibly can."

With McElhenney and Reynolds aiming to make the club one of the best in the world, the barriers to a fully professional women's league lie within the developing infrastructure of Welsh football. But they are clearly making every effort to treat their men's and women's teams in the same way. When both won promotion to a new league in the 2022-23 season, the club put on a shared parade to celebrate their achievements, and Owen believes that the women's team can mirror the success of the men's side.

"Trying to follow suit with the men and the ambitions and the achievements that they're looking to gain, our women's team can have their equivalent," she said. "We want to work towards that and keep growing the game as much as possible."

The parity that is hopefully to be achieved has come as a direct result of the investment McElhenney and Reynolds have made to the side.

"I think Rob and Ryan have helped a lot because otherwise there wouldn't be that many supporters for the women's team because people wouldn't have really known how good the women's team are," Carly Steward said.

Jess Steward added: "It's amazing how much they care about the women's side as well and want to promote it; it's fantastic."

But while the one-club mentality adopted by Wrexham's owners has created a joint sense of growth and success, they will have to guard against something that could impact the fans who have been with the women's team from the beginning.

Since the 2021 takeover, getting tickets to the men's matches is a far tougher feat, and one Wrexham fan at Sunday's cup final (who wished to remain anonymous) told ESPN that the investment has removed the ability for organic growth. Another revealed that getting their hands on men's tickets has become "10 times harder" since the club have drawn in a plethora of new fans from across the globe.

As Wrexham grows as a club, so too does the desire to watch them play.

Life in the top tierRosie Hughes finished as the club's top scorer this season. Gemma Thomas/Wrexham AFC

Wrexham dominated last season's Adran North under manager Steve Dale, going 12 games unbeaten, and set a new attendance record for Welsh women's domestic football by playing in front of 9,511 fans at the Racecourse in March 2023 against Connah's Quay Nomads, with Reynolds and McElhenney in attendance. But no one could have predicted how quickly Wrexham would adjust to their first season in the Adran Premier.

In preparation for this campaign, Wrexham moved stadiums to the significantly better 12,600-capacity Stōk Cae Ras, and brought in new backroom additions in the form of Zoe Clair, a strength and conditioning coach, and sports therapist Lindsay Morris.

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The move to semi-professionalism was key, but Owen told ESPN that the club's investment spans far beyond salaries for players. When required, the team are now able to travel from North Wales to the South the night before a game -- requiring expenses and a commitment from the players who have jobs and families they couldn't have given before -- train in two pitch sessions a week and have gym sessions to prepare the players for the level of competition they will face in the Adran Premier.

"The whole preparation in the lead up to a matchday and then around the matchday itself has just massively stepped up as a result," Owen said.

All of that preparation paid off. Wrexham's first game in the top flight was one of the hardest as they faced one of the favourites, six-time champions Swansea City. But a 3-3 draw with goals from Rebecca Pritchard, Rosie Hughes and Hannah Keryakoplis set the tone for their season. It was evident from that game that the club had laid the foundation to be able to compete with the best of the best in their new league.

In an eight-team league, Wrexham finished in third place: winning 11, drawing two and losing seven of their 20 games (the last six of which are in a top-four mini-league). Wrexham's biggest rivals, Cardiff City, finished nine points clear at the top to claim the title, but for the newly promoted Red Dragons, it was a great start to life in the top tier.

The team mostly impressed in attack, with top scorer Hughes netting 15 goals to finish as the league's No. 2 scorer, while they registered only three goals fewer than second-place Swansea (44). However, one area where Wrexham need to improve is in defence: Their 37 goals conceded saw them finish with a goal difference of plus-4. By comparison, Cardiff conceded only 12, Swansea let in 23 and fourth-place Aberystwyth Town allowed 33.

While it has not been the most consistent campaign, it was a remarkable adjustment to a new league and heightened competition.

"Usually teams that go up a division tend to struggle, and I don't think we did that," Owen said. "I thought we really made a statement of intent that we're here, we're not here to mess around, we're here to compete, which we did."

A cup final shows growthRebecca Pritchard battles for the ball against Cardiff City. Gemma Thomas/Wrexham AFC

In stark contrast to their league form in defence, Wrexham reached their first cup final under the new regime without conceding a single goal. A place in Sunday's Bute Energy Cup final came about thanks to a huge 13-0 win at Pwllheli in the first round, a 1-0 win over Llandudno (thanks to a 96th-minute strike), a 2-0 win over Adran South champions Briton Ferry in the quarterfinals and a 1-0 win over The New Saints in the semifinals.

Heading into the tie vs. Cardiff as underdogs -- with 4-1 and 5-1 defeats in the league already behind them this season -- manager Dale told the club website before the match: "We're really excited. It's a fantastic opportunity for us to be in a cup final. You don't know how often these opportunities come along, so you have to embrace it and take everything out of the occasion."

The Bute Energy Cup final drew 1,734 fans to Rodney Parade -- around 500 more compared to the men's JD Welsh Cup final that took place between Connah's Quay Nomads and The New Saints at the same venue a week earlier. But while it was a vastly improved performance, Wrexham still succumbed to their more-established rivals thanks to Rhianne Oakley's early goal and Emma Beynon's brilliant late strike.

A 2-0 defeat was no disgrace, though. Dropping star striker Hughes to the bench was an interesting choice; however, knowing that Cardiff would retain most of the possession, it was a tactic that almost levelled the tie as Hughes' introduction in the final 30 minutes injected new energy into Wrexham and they almost equalised several times.

"No disgrace in our performance today," Dale told S4C Sgorio after the match. "I thought we were outstanding. The girls have been outstanding over the weekend. Everything that we've asked from them, they've gone out and delivered today, and I can't be prouder of the whole group.

"I think we've got to look back with it's been a great achievement. Everything that we've done this season, we've gone about ourselves with a purpose. We're a bit frustrated that we haven't closed the gap, but that just shows how determined we are and how much expectation we have on ourselves here at the club."

While the cup final ended in defeat, the result not only showcased how Wrexham are able to compete with the top clubs in the league but how far they have come in a year.

"We pinch ourselves regularly to realise how far we've come," said Dale, who took charge in November 2021. "We were lucky to get through that playoff final all that time ago, but this season, we've kicked on and we've proved quite a lot of people wrong. I'm really proud of the girls for their efforts all year."

"We'd have snapped your hand off for third place at the beginning of the season," Owen added. "Knowing that we were going to end up in the position we have, that would've been, and is a fantastic achievement for us. The aim initially was to get to that split [the promotion mini-league] in the top four, which we achieved.

"We're really excited to go into next season. We've managed to compete so far at the level that we have this season; I think it's very important that we go into next season with the same level of confidence. We've also got to be mindful, I guess, of the added pressure now. We've had what we deem as a successful season for us this season; anything the same or lower now, we won't have met the standards. We've set our own standards now, and that's to finish second or above at least. We want to be winning the league regardless."

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What does the future hold?

If McElhenney and Reynolds want to make Wrexham the best women's team in the world, one major step toward achieving that would be becoming a fully professional club with full-time players. There are many barriers to that in Wales, but Owen holds out hope.

"I wouldn't say that there's a timeline as such," she said. "It's definitely an ambition. I think it would be wrong of us to not want to get to that point. We've made the progress that we have already, and it would be a miss of us not to want to continue heading towards professionalisation, which hopefully will happen in a not-too-distant future.

"We've now set the bar at the level that we have, and we want to go out and win the league; we've reached a final now, so we want to go and win that particular competition. We want to win the Adran Premier competition as well; we progressed really, really well as well."

Winning the Adran Premier would also hand Wrexham a chance to feature in the prestigious UEFA Women's Champions League, which would open plenty of doors, and the club were granted their first UEFA license (a prerequisite if teams wish to compete in UEFA competitions) in March 2024 ahead of the 2024-25 season.

With a view to developing further, Wrexham's women will also be going on a preseason summer tour of the U.S., with full details yet to be released, while the men take in games against AFC Bournemouth, Chelsea and the Vancouver Whitecaps on the West Coast. They will also take part in June's seven-a-side TST tournament in North Carolina, where they will face off against NWSL side Angel City, Streetball Canada, and a team of retired USWNT alumni.

"We're really excited about that," Owen said. "It's something that, I guess even just a few years ago, we'd never have thought that we would be getting to have this opportunity, being able to go out and play games and do a preseason tour out in the U.S. It's an absolute dream for us and one that we'll grab with both hands and thoroughly enjoy.

"It's all part of the growth of the club. Being able to progress and improve what we are doing as a group of players and staff, but also for us to be able to increase the exposure of the club via everything that's going on, whether it's a documentary, whether it's going out to the States ... it's all part of a much bigger picture."

Source: espn.co.uk

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