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Back To the Future

 

Now we’re finally back to the status we had when the dark shadow of scammers, property developers and generally bad people sought to kill the Club off for their own greed, I thought it would be time to assess (from my own point of view, obviously!) what has happened, were we are now, and what the future may hold. There are many others who have their owns views, their own take on all of this, and they are more than entitled to their opinions, what follows is mine, and could change as things progress. The last thing anyone should have is a fixed view of what is, that leads to obsession and intractability, and eventually conflict with others that don’t share the same outlook, even if the same connection with the subject is there. EVERYTHING evolves when human interests and ambitions are involved, and I’ll probably be writing something completely different in a few years’ time (if I’m still around of course).

 

So where were we? Well, back in the early 2000’s we were a smallish football club plying our trade in between the (then) 3rd and 4th divisions of what was then the unbranded Football League (now the English Football League \ EFL). As with most small clubs of that era, it was very much a hand to mouth existence, with a few highs for a dedicated fanbase of around 3000 (which, as always been, grows enormously when the ‘glory’ matches happen – as with every team in the world!). I’ve detailed  The Lean Years  already on this website, so I’m not going to retread that narrative, but to this day I fail to understand how those at the FA that contributed to Wrexham AFC’s fall from the League by awarding us a 10 point penalty ( the first ever awarded to ANY club by the way) could not see that what was happening was a deliberate attempt to kill the football club off to obtain vacant occupation of the Racecourse ground for redevelopment, thus lining the back pockets of the various villains that passed through the club  as ‘owners’. Still, I guess common sense and running the football infrastructure in the Football League (and to a degree the Football Association of Wales (FAW)) can appear to be mutually exclusive sometimes.

 

And from those dire years, we emerged with a Club that refused to die, a mindset that came from the people of the Town who had also seen their entire employment infrastructure disappear under the destructive rule of Westminster and the Thatcher years that took away steelworks, coal mines and any semblance of industry from what had traditionally been a blue collar, hardworking work force who had that fierce identity of self that such an environment grows. We, the fans, took over the bare bones of the Club, and, although building what we could, we would forever be treading water at a level that we did not really belong, and seeing other, less storied, smaller and suddenly rich clubs (in some cases from dubious sources) pass us by on the way to a much-changed Football League status. Money has become even more a king of football, and without it, there is no way but down. However well run a club is, there is always the hunger for success in the fanbase, but, in spite of the constant criticism, we were an attractive going concern that attracted a number of possible takeovers, but not from the right type of possible owners, most, if all, just seeing the Club as a means of making money but with little or no regard of developing it for those emotionally intwined in it, the fans. Eventually, the patience we showed gained its reward, and we are now in a unique position where the world of football is literally at our feet.

 

So where are we now? I’m not going in to the details of the takeover, nor dwell on every interaction between owners and fans, but I will pick out the detail that makes up the framework of the club, and how successful that may be.On the field, things are obviously going fantastically, with a back-to-back promotion for the first time in our long history, with a turnover increased in 3 years from around £2 million to over £23 million pounds. This is quite an amazing return, due to the team that the owners have put in place behind the scenes, and, of course, the leverage of their own Hollywood personas and the much-lauded documentary series Welcome To Wrexham. This has attracted the big-money sponsorship from mega-corporations such as TikTok, Hewlett Packard and United Airlines. We can now go in to League 1 with confidence we can attract players that are of a standard to maintain us in that league, and build even further for an eventual attempt to reach the Championship.

 

So what are the obstacles to the continued rise of the club back to a level that we have only reached once, and for only a few seasons?

 

Firstly, finance. Whereas we will definitely be more than capable of funding campaigns at League 1 level, the step up to the Championship will involve budgets up to 10 times what we can provide now if we were to aim for the Premier League. And what is the point of reaching the Championship if not to progress to the EPL? Obviously, the Club owners do have finance behind them, especially Ryan Reynolds with a growing highly lucrative portfolio of businesses. However, these funds are finite, and no successful businessman is going to cross fund to a notoriously ‘black hole’ of finance, a football club. So, being the excellent businessman he, and Rob McElhenney are, have started showing moves to dilute their own investment in Wrexham AFC, and sold 5% to an investor group that includes Eva Longoria amongst their numbers. This same high value investor group own Club Necaxa, a very large Mexican football club, and Rob and Ryan have joined the investor group as shareholders. Ryan and Rob have been rubbing shoulders with billionaires across other sports, such as F1 and Canadian ice hockey, and undoubtedly this type of deal will see even more shares in the club being sold to such money sources to aid the continued rise of the club.

 

The downside to this is obvious, the club will become increasingly corporate, a money-making machine with a growing degree of separation from its fans. However, this will pass as new generations of fans who have not lived through the bad times emerge, both locally and from growing international interest, who will supplant the old guard. Unfortunately, this is the reality of it, but we were given that choice when we voted for the takeover, and there is no second chance. And from my own point of view, that’s what I walked in to with both eyes open, I knew this is the path we are on, and I’m accepting it, we spent way to long just worrying we’d actually have a club to the position where, because of its potential, the club’s future is guaranteed. The usual barb from other, more jealous fans of other clubs that Wrexham will fold if Ryan and Rob leave becomes blunted with diversity of investment, millionaires and billionaires got to that level by making sure their businesses were successful, and now Wrexham AFC will be part of their portfolio going forward.

 

As for what the money will be spent on, obviously the football side of things, which is the Club’s real identity, will be taken care of to ensure the product retains, and grows, its value. However, it’s facilities will need a lot of investment to take it to the level necessary.

 

Firstly, where is the training ground promised? It’s now been over 3 years since the takeover, and still no sign of a permanent facility for the Club, with training taking place on pitches at the FAW’s Colliers Park (asset stripped from Wrexham AFC during the dark times, this still rankles with me), at Carden Park Hotel and on the Racecourse pitch itself. As always, the Club are keeping any plans they have close to their chests, but this is really something that needs sorting as soon as possible if they want to attract the calibre of player needed for progression. Various sites have been mooted on by fans across social media and bulletin boards, such as Stansty Park on Summerhill Road, a former training ground owned by the Club (asset stripped again!). Basically, this would now be too small for a potential Championship club, and the adjoining property which is a caravan park may be needed to be purchased to give it any real potential. But, given the price of land in the town with the disastrous LDP policy now taking effect, and every green space around the perimeter of the town sprouting unneeded shoebox houses, this may be a very expensive option, when you include the building of necessary facilities and the addition of quality pitches.

 

So, in reality, you would be looking at areas available in the Wrexham Industrial Estate, or possibly The Rock in Cefn and surrounding land. If feeling adventurous, offer to buy back Colliers Park from the FAW, who will be feeling the financial pinch of not qualifying for the European Finals, offering them free usage of the facilities when required as a sweetener on the deal and saving a lot of extra outlay on pitches and establishing the facility. Whatever way this may go, it should now be a priority for the Club, I can’t think that the constant moving around of training sites isn’t in some way contributing to the seemingly high level of injuries that the players seem to be suffering over the past few seasons.

 

Secondly, the Racecourse. As I write this, overnight there has been the release of an interview with Rob and Ryan, in which they state that they have a plan in place that would raise the capacity of the ground to between 45,000 and 55,000 fans. Currently the Racecourse has a 12,600 capacity with a redeveloped Kop stand with 5,500 seats already approved and now awaiting a start date. This start date is already over a year delayed from its first announcement, and a start date is still a matter of conjecture. To achieve such a large capacity on the current ground footprint would be a minor miracle, and would involve a process of replacing all the current stands, and a redesign of the promised Kop stand. And that’s before the considerations for transport architecture to get people in and out of the ground.

 

Whilst we were running the club, I looked in to what we could actually fit on that footprint, should we ever get to that stage where we needed increased capacity, and the best configuration that could be came up with involved turning the pitch around 90 degrees, and moving it further away from Mold Road and also closer to the Kop end, having demolished the offending (read the history!) student flats. This would involve also purchasing the former all-weather pitch behind the Yale Stand which is currently being used as car parking. These pitch movements would then allow a larger capacity Mold Road stand, a larger, wider capacity Tech End stand, a similar stand on the current Kop side, and a much-increased capacity Yale Stand. With the corners filled in, the capacity reached was around 36,000. To get an extra 10-15,000 on there would mean seating at a high level as seen in newer Premiership grounds, but, basically, this IS achievable (once the ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘hurdles for hurdles sake’ have been overcome possibly the biggest challenge!).

 

But the question is, do we actually need a stadium of that size? Well, if we were to reach the promised land of the Premier League, I have no doubt that, for one season, we could comfortably fill the seats to a degree that it wouldn’t become a white elephant, like what happened at Darlington, or at MK Dons, but I don’t think that would be sustainable unless we really prospered. I think the acid test for the club’s popularity will be the coming season as we hopefully consolidate, and the Welcome to Wrexham series 3 comes to an end. Even with the high profile of Rob and Ryan, without constant exposure, where will our ‘new’ fans come from? The population of Wrexham will be growing due to unrestricted house building growth, but the vast majority of those new people will be commuters, with no actual attachment to the town or club, but they could still be a contributary number. We will still be looking to our traditional catchment area of North and Mid Wales, and the Marches, with a population of 750k to draw on, and I estimate that we could, with the right levels of sustainable success, average 25k. Whatever happens, I don’t expect to be alive by the time we have a stadium holding 45k in the town.

 

One thing I’ve avoided mentioning is the possibility of moving the club to a new, purpose-built ground somewhere within the 2-mile limit set in the takeover documents. The groundwork for such a move is already in place, with the same documents saying that we won’t be moving UNLESS it becomes necessary to accommodate crowds. Well, we’ve been at that level for a couple of seasons now, so basically the club could, if so inclined, announce today that they are building a new stadium on the Industrial Estate and selling the Racecourse to pay for it. I would think this is unlikely in the extreme, but, at some point, this thought has occurred to the owners, otherwise, why was that clause in the takeover documents?  Where else could this be situated? Personally, I’d have used the land off Ruthin Road now earmarked for a 3000-house development but that option is gone, and, as mentioned during the search for a training ground, land is scarce in the town for such a large development. Stranger things have been known to happen though personally I hope this never does, the soul of the club is at the Racecourse, moving it would turn us in to something that is just a business, not a living, breathing (and singing!) representation of who we are, Wrexham AFC and the Racecourse represents our people’s history and our never say die character.  

 

One area I will finally mention, the culture at the club. This has changed more than any other facet, with what seems almost a revolving door of club employees and volunteers. In my opinion, this has been the most painful part of the club’s regeneration, with many familiar faces no longer in the places you’ve seen them for so many years. I’m in no way criticising the club business management, the level of success we’re looking at demands a ruthlessness that fans ownership just would not permit, we were much too much a part of the fanbase to take the hard decisions necessary to highly change (I won’t say improve yet!) the business environment. What we have now is a full-on business approach that, while many may criticise, is not set by individuals, but by the demands of success and the steps necessary to get the best people for the jobs. In order for any club to be successful, there has to be a degree of separation that allows those decisions to be made without being influenced by sentiment. Basically, this is what we voted for, and its being delivered – unlike previous promises!

 

Wrexham Village

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