Pick the odd one out from watching El Clasico at Camp Nou, Premier League leaders Arsenal playing in Europe, Erling Haaland scoring five goals for Manchester City and a Vanarama National League match between Bromley and Wrexham.
A year ago, not such a difficult task. However, after the Welcome to Wrexham documentary put the Welsh club owned by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney on the global sporting map, the lines have become rather blurred.
Suddenly, spending an afternoon cheering on Wrexham in a south London suburb perhaps most famous for being the film location for the iconic Monty Python sketch Spam is on the bucket list of many North American football fans.
“You might not believe this but Wrexham was probably the hardest to get tickets for out of all the games we are watching,” says Andy Popell, having flown into the UK with four friends from California.
“Even the hospitality suite was sold out. As Americans, it is rather difficult to get tickets anyway. You are not official supporters and the other weird thing that’s different to the United States is they don’t release tickets until a week or two before.
“That made things a little nerve-wracking. We were asking each other, ‘Are we actually going to be able to get the tickets or not?’ We didn’t find out until a few days ago.
“But we all wanted to be here, watching this team that feels so familiar to us through the TV.”
The Athletic is joining Popell and his friends — Teymy Bahmani, Barney Schauble, Marcus Sandoval and English-born Jason Davey — for the day in the capital. Kick off is still a couple of hours away when we meet up but the group’s excitement is clear for all to see.
All five have had a great time. So good, in fact, that this inaugural trip may well become a regular event with several friends back home having already expressed interest in any future jaunt across the Atlantic.
Leeds United’s Elland Road was the group’s first stop-off for last weekend’s 2-2 draw with Brighton & Hove Albion, followed by the Etihad Stadium as Haaland put RB Leipzig to the sword in a 7-0 Champions League victory on Tuesday night, and then Arsenal for their Europa League penalty shoot-out defeat to Sporting SC two days later.
Sunday evening will be spent at the Camp Nou as Real Madrid take on Barcelona in arguably club football’s greatest match. For now, though, all their attention is focused on Wrexham’s pursuit of promotion to the English Football League (EFL) with the group’s determination to be here bringing a welcome little windfall for the owner of a local property owner.
“Our flight to Barcelona leaves at 7.30pm tonight,” explains Andy, already looking at his watch. “So, we booked an Airbnb 10 minutes from the ground just to hold our luggage so we can then go directly to the airport after the match.
“It’s going to be a tight squeeze.”
Community. It is the one word that keeps cropping up in conversation when discussing why Wrexham’s story under their glamorous owners has struck such a chord with this particular group of football fans from Marine County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.
“It is easy for us, as a group who support the Arsenals, the Chelseas and the Manchester Citys of this world,” says Davey, who spent his first 10 years in Newcastle before moving to Brighton and then emigrating to the U.S.
“We all know the benefits and advantages those clubs have. But that level of football is missing a huge slice of the culture and the authenticity of the game. The meaning, if you like. Wrexham, as a story, has that.
“The first episode really focused on Ryan Reynolds’ background and his working-class upbringing. His principles of supporting the underdog and maybe the under-served, to an extent.
“Those were compelling reasons and motivation for him. And you really see how seriously he takes the responsibility of ownership. He recognises the value of the club to the community.”
As someone involved in setting up Oakland Roots SC — a team who play in the USL Championship, the second tier of football in the US with only Major League Soccer above — Barney was also drawn to the community element of the Wrexham story, which this season extends to the club giving away 200 free tickets per home match via local charities and groups to help those who might otherwise be unable to attend.
“We don’t have promotion and relegation in the United States,” says Schauble. “But we still face some of the same problems as Wrexham in the documentary — the pitch, selection issues and all the other hard-to-manage things that you can end up facing when trying to do something for the community around football.
“It was fun to see similar to what we have experienced in the Bay area through a different lens.”
Series one of Welcome to Wrexham — first screened last autumn by FX in the United States and Disney+ in the United Kingdom — charted Reynolds and McElhenney’s takeover and first 16 months at the helm.
Had the premise — a TV actor inspired by watching Netflix series Sunderland Til I Die joins forces with a Hollywood A-lister who he’s never met to buy a fifth tier football club — been pitched as a fictional story round Tinseltown, no doubt the script would have been rejected as too far-fetched.
The reality, however, worked rather well with the audience finding themselves gradually drawn in across 18 episodes to such an extent that Wrexham’s defeat to Grimsby Town in the play-offs can genuinely hurt.
“I do believe this show has brought new people into the sport,” says Bahmani, who attended his first MLS game in New York. “There are so many hooks, including the characters featured, plus the town, the players and the owners.
“To see Rob and Ryan suffer through zero-zero draws and the nail-biting endings is real. It shows chasing promotion in a serious way. Not like Ted Lasso, where it is all played for laughs and winning doesn’t really matter. Here, the result is everything.”
Sandoval agrees, adding that even those with little interest in the sport back home are now talking about events at the Racecourse Ground. “My kids, my ex-wife, family and friends all ask me about Wrexham despite not knowing soccer at all,” he says. “That’s down to the star power of Ryan. He is a cultural figure.
“However people come to soccer, I think it’s great. The main point is they are watching a programme that is in-depth detail about soccer and asking questions. That has to be a good thing.”
When relaying news of the trip to family and friends once back in the States, Sandoval will be able to able to regale them with tales of a great afternoon for Wrexham in the title race. Two goals from Paul Mullin, taking his season’s goal tally to a phenomenal 40, were enough to secure a 2-1 victory over Bromley, as second-placed Notts County were held to a 1-1 draw at Barnet.
The Easter Monday showdown between the top two still looks like being pivotal in the promotion race, but the Welsh club now boast a three-point lead at the top, with the added bonus of a game in hand.
For Popell and his pals, the trip to the U.K. has been a good one.
“Leeds was the first game,” he says. “As Americans, we chose that because there are three Americans on the team. “Plus a fired American coach (Jesse Marsch). He was still in the job when we bought the tickets. That’s okay, because we cared more about the players anyway! We knew there would be goals at that.
“Then, we saw Haaland score those five goals, and then Arsenal. We even squeezed in a game of pick-up soccer (against a London-based team) we organised through a website called footyaddicts.com. We are all 50 or over so a victory to us is always no pulled hamstrings. It’s why we were so pleased to see a hospital (St Thomas’s) so close to where we were playing in Archbishop’s Park.
“But we actually won the game. We were 3-0 down and they got a bit cocky, saying things like, ‘They’re never going to score.’ So, it was great to come back and win 5-3, with Jason scoring a hat-trick — though one might have been an own goal.”
Still to come, as they head to Gatwick Airport via the nearby Airbnb property rented purely to store their luggage, is that blockbuster in Camp Nou between La Liga’s top two teams.
Regardless of the result in Spain, Wrexham and their supporters have left a lasting impression on the group. “The Wrexham fans we were stood with are so committed and vocal,” says Popell, whose group had to leave five minutes before the end of the win at Bromley after the kick-off was delayed 15 minutes due to traffic congestion. “They really embraced us for the afternoon.
“We even swapped a Charleston Battery jersey for a Wrexham scarf.”
Sandoval’s Charleston shirt was handed over to Janet, Derek and Daniel Jones of Coedpoeth, Wales (above) — a deal the visitors from the US considered more than a fair exchange.
“I hope we, as Americans, never wear out our welcome with the Wrexham fans,” adds Sandoval. “We kind of see it partly as our club, too.”
(Top photo: Richard Sutcliffe)
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