I have been a soccer fan since the days of “Soccer Made in Germany,” when the only professional soccer available on TV was PBS’s weekly hour-long show of Bundesliga highlights. (PBS!)
I’ve also been a fan of Always Sunny since the early days. The blatantly ironic title piqued my curiosity; the actors’ great chemistry and cynical humor immediately struck a chord.
So I am the prime demographic for a show like Welcome to Wrexham, a Ted Lasso/Sunderland Til I Die mash-up, which follows the fortunes of a Welsh team in the fifth tier of English football that has just been bought by Rob McElhenny, one of the three creative forces behind Sunny—the show’s originator, and a Philadelphia native—and Ryan Reynolds, or “Deadpool,” as he is continuously and endearingly referred to by the natives of Wrexham in the opening episodes. Wrexham FC is a storied club with a long history, that has been “languishing” in this league, the lowest of the professional leagues, where many of the players make barely enough to play full-time without having to support their income with another job.
I binged the first six episodes of Wrexham the other day. While I enjoyed it—it is certainly produced with the slickness you would expect from two Hollywood stars with Hollywood connections—the show ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth and a queasy feeling in my stomach, and I will not be watching it any further. (I find the two actors’ interactions, their mix of cutesy one-upmanship and faux self-deprecation, excruciating. Everything they say is punctuated with the modern equivalent of a Hollywood air-kiss. But that’s besides the point.)
McElhenney makes an interesting observation early on, that he is used to writers’ rooms where the story is plotted out and scripted, the outcome controlled. But, being sport, this story’s arc cannot be scripted, the ending is out of their control. This seems like a vulnerable admission, and a creative leap into the unknown. Risk-takers! Staking their own money on a big bet. But the new owners, savvy content-creators that they are, do retain a great deal of control over the shaping and telling of this story—their story. The club also provides them with an endless source of content, for which a streaming service like Hulu will presumably pay good money. It gives the business-owner Reynolds an opportunity to plaster the logos of the various companies he owns—a gin maker, a mobile service provider—on the club’s kits and by extension our eyeballs.
The show gins up [see what I did there] some drama early on by making it seem as though the club members might reject their bid for purchase. Which is absurd. You’re coming in from outside with enough money to change the club’s fortunes—a running trope in English football ever since they allowed foreign ownership. Your Hollywood cachet is appealing, sure, but more importantly, the camera crews make it clear that you aren’t in it to strip the club, hold a fire sale, and run (the way a previous owner, a real estate mogul, attempted to do). And you’re surprised and relieved when 98.6% of the club members approve of the sale? Please. About as surprising the recent vote by 98.6% of residents of the Donbas to become part of Russia.
“Wrexham deserves this.” This is a refrain on the show, repeated by many of the locals, most often and stridently by Wayne Jones, the owner of the “The Turf,” the pub attached to the stadium like a remora that still hovers near a listless, dying shark. But just about every one of the locals says this, at some point: “We deserve this.” Is that how sports trophies are apportioned? By how long it’s been since this town’s team has won anything? By how down-and-out the town’s inhabitants feel? You think you’re beaten down? Economic prospects are bleak? Crime on the rise? Kids fleeing to the big cities? Well, take a look around. Welcome to the world, Welcome to Wrexham.
Which brings us to Rutherford, Wrexham’s 33-year-old midfielder—and the ability of the new owners to shape their narrative. Rutherford is a journeyman, with a wife and a house, two kids and a third on the way, supported, presumably, by his footballing ability and dedication to his craft. Jones, the pub owner, makes a funny crack about how some supposed positive about Rutherford doesn’t mean that he should be playing midfield. (By extension, just because he’s a hard worker and a loving father doesn’t mean he should be playing midfield.) And in the must-win final game of the season, Rutherford doesn’t make the starting eleven.
He is brought off the bench, however. He makes a mistake—lunges in for a late tackle—and gets sent off with a red card. The camera dwells on Rutherford, alone, in the locker room—feeling miserable, of course, though clearly also unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with having a camera, and by extension the world, watching his misery. He doesn’t project it very well—he’s a footballer, not an actor. The camera dwells on him as though to say, this loss is all his fault. Which is patently false: football is a game made up of ninety minutes of individual and collective decisions and mistakes; decisions made earlier in the game put the team into the position where the coach felt it necessary to bring Rutherford in, just as decisions made earlier in that particular sequence of play put Rutherford in the position where he believed he needed to make that tackle.
By the beginning of next season, he is one of ten players cut from the team, in addition to the entire coaching staff. “That’s just sport,” you can argue. “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business. These are professionals, they understand how this works.” All true. At 33, Rutherford is nearing the end of his career as a player, and one would hope that he has something else lined up for his post-playing days. We feel terrible, the new ownership duo claim, but we’re not the ones making the personnel decisions. We’re leaving that to the board.
While this is true, it’s disingenuous. Had they not bought the club, and left it in the hands of the club members, from whom they purchased it, for the trifling fee of £2 million ($2.35 million)—less, I’m guessing, than either of them paid for their Hollywood homes—there wouldn’t have been the money nor the incentive to clean house in this way. “We’re buying the club,” the new ownership effectively said, “and we’re buying it to win.” Another refrain is ownership’s ambition to gain promotion to the fourth division, ASAP. That means bringing in better coaches, and better players. Which they are able to do, in part because of the influx of their money, but also because—I presume—the lure of the cameras to ambitious professionals supplements the money. A manager is hired from leagues above, as is a top striker, both very aware that the additional exposure may well prove to be worth its weight in pounds sterling.
Rory Smith, the NY Times soccer columnist, whom I generally respect, recently wrote: “At heart, of course [of course!], what Reynolds and McElhenney have done with Wrexham is an inherently benign form of ownership, certainly by soccer’s standards. They have not saddled the club with debt. They are not using it to try to whitewash the image of a repressive state. They have given a club, and a town, reason to believe, and all for the price of a couple of camera crews.”
Um, Rory, did you notice the new chief sponsor, company logo and name splashed over the front of the team’s new kits, replacing the humble but very loyal trailer manufacturer who had sponsored the team for years? Presumably you did, it’s prominent in the second photo accompanying your article, and is omnipresent in the show that you’re reviewing: TikTok. Guess how our two “lovable” Hollywood actors kick their publicity gegenpress into high gear? That’s right, via TikTok. (Presumably to be a feature of every second or third episode.) How that doesn’t count as “whitewashing the image of a repressive state,” compared to, say, Arsenal’s omnipresent “Emirates” logo, is beyond me. At least the Emirates isn’t scooping up the personal data of kajillions of unsuspecting users for ends that are unknown and, at present, unregulated. You know whose business model is based on the idea that ALL exposure is worth its weight in pounds sterling? Indeed.
This isn’t all to say that I won’t be watching any more Wrexham because TikTok is their sponsor. Though that fact makes me wonder at what point TikTok was brought into this whole shebang. McElhenney and Reynolds make it clear early on that they were not friends before agreeing to undertake this enormous purchase together. (Uh… wtf?) “I have TV money,” McElhenney says, “but I needed movie money. And gin money. And mobile service carrier money.” I would suggest that perhaps they both needed social media money, and I do wonder at what point they had that guarantee. Or, even, at what point they had the idea—or…
But we’ll never know, because this isn’t a documentary. There is no transparency. Figures such as the purchase price, sponsorship deals, overhead expenses, player and staff wages, are never stated. Discussing such details, in classic “Hollywood” fashion, is apparently gauche. (Presumably, Reynolds’ companies are paying Wrexham for their sponsorship—or… not? How does that work?) True, the cost of the new grass installation at the stadium is brought up in an early episode, to give an example of things being more expensive than the new owners anticipated, to show their “budget” being blown out and the “headaches” this causes them—but we don’t know what said budget actually is. (Also, the numbers are ever-so-conveniently round: it goes from £100,000 to £200,000. Oh, I see—it was a lot to start with, and it doubled.)
Welcome to Wrexham masquerades as the underdog story of a down-and-out club finding their stride, gaining support—and even promising young players—from the community, and rising from the ashes. But in truth it’s a story of acquisition capitalism, modern rebranding, and slick social media marketing. Fuck that. Give me Dorking Wanderers or Palmers FC over astroturfed Wrexham any day.
(Also, while I’d been watching or listening somewhat regularly, if less than wholeheartedly, to the Always Sunnypodcast, I think I’ll be chalking that as well. These people don’t need me, and I’m sure they would be happy to tell me to take my negativity and go fuck off. Which I will happily do.)
((Final nail in the coffin: there’s just not enough on-field action, for my taste.))