Reality TV show revives fading Welsh town

left the almost always busy football ground at Caia Park, one of the most deprived areas of Wrexham, Wales, on April 26. MARY TURNER / The New York Times

In the Welsh language, the virtually untranslatable word ‘hiraeth’ (pronounced here -ayeth) describes a mixture of nostalgia and nostalgia for a time that can never be restored.

For Wrexham, a working-class town in north Wales, it was a sentiment that defined a post-industrial malaise that worsened in the 1980s as the last of the coal mines closed their rickety doors and later the blast furnaces of nearby steelworks went cold.

Only popular football club Wrexham AFC remained: the oldest side in Wales, a constant contender but still an irrepressible source of local pride.

“We’ve been through as much as a city,” said Terry Richards, 56, a lifelong fan of the club, as he sat at home in the team’s bright scarlet jersey. “Those were difficult times.”

A mural promoting the FX documentary “Welcome to Wrexham” near the home stadium of the football team featured in the show. MARY TURNER / The New York Times

In Wales, legends of heroes return to save the day, but few could have predicted that an unlikely couple of Hollywood actors, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, would march into town and buy the ailing club just over two years ago would.

That set off a series of events that catapulted the city out of the doldrums into the international spotlight and made residents the protagonists of their own Hollywood reality show centered around the football club Welcome to Wrexham.

Few could have predicted that the two famous actors would even come to town. But McElhenney, an American who had dabbled in sports documentaries during lockdown, conducted an extensive search for a seedy football team with growth potential, ended up at Wrexham AFC and persuaded Reynolds to join him on his pet project.

After paying the bargain-basement sum of around US$2.5 million (84.9 million baht), they moved to the city (Canadian-born Reynolds even bought a house) and began restructuring the team’s operations.

They revitalized training facilities and upgraded the squad, offering comparatively enormous salaries that attracted established players from the upper echelons of English football.

On April 22nd, this Hollywood tale finally found its very own Hollywood ending – the team’s promotion after a victorious season to the English Football League, the next tier of England’s multi-tier football pyramid, after a 15-year absence.

above Wrexham AFC players train at the racecourse ground while crews from the documentary series Welcome to Wrexham film them in Wrexham, Wales. MARY TURNER / The New York Times

When the referee blew the final whistle, generations of tearful fans jumped from the stands onto the rain-soaked pitch in jubilation.

At that moment a city was reborn and the remaining “Hiraeth” was no more.

“The doom and gloom has subsided,” said Mr Richards, who was still suffering from a headache after days of partying. “It’s hard to put into words.”

“It’s a new Wrexham,” he said.

The glamor of the city’s new honorary citizens seems at odds with Mr Richards’ Caia Park neighbourhood, a long-deprived part of Wrexham that has come to epitomize the city’s decline. But few in the area find this contrast disturbing.

They’re more than happy to be in the Hollywood spotlight, especially when it comes to the worthy Hollywood finale that rocked the city on April 22nd.

“They brought a bit of glamour,” said Mr Richards’ partner Donna Jackson, 55.

Mr Richards’ son Nathan, 34, who played professionally for Wrexham as a teenager, agreed. “You don’t have to be a football fan to see that.”

It’s a glow that has lit up the underserved neighborhood, including at a local boxing gym trying to keep underprivileged youth out of trouble.

“This is known as a fight town of sorts,” said Gareth Harper, 43, the gym’s trainer. “But after that game, when all the fans were there and every pub was packed, there wasn’t a single arrest. Everyone is just so high.”

With his students boxing next to him in the shade, he added, “I think we’re almost getting used to it now.”

Pedestrians in the center of Wrexham. Wrexham town center is still showing signs of tough economic times, although town spirit has lifted with the team’s success. MARY TURNER/The New York Times

Not everyone has made the adjustment. But Wayne Jones, the sleep-deprived 40-year-old owner of the Turf Hotel, the pub made famous by the FX documentary, isn’t complaining.

Knowing what was in store, he desperately tried to stock up on supplies ahead of Saturday’s big game, but the rush just kept pouring in. And on Sunday they came back again. By the end of the night the pub was drunk and had no choice but to close for the first time in 15 years.

“I didn’t ask for any of this. It kind of fell into my lap,” he said, staring into his coffee mug with tired eyes.

“But I don’t think I have enough vocabulary to describe what they’ve done for this city,” he said of the new celebrity owners. “If the football team does well, the city will only prosper.”

While American entrepreneurs paying billions for clubs like Manchester United have angered some British football fans, Wrexham’s acceptance of third-party ownership has surprised even the new owners themselves.

That’s not to say there weren’t some suspicions at first.

“Is that the 7th Cavalry coming over the hill? Or is it just someone looking to make a quick buck,” recalls Geraint Parry, the club’s longest-serving employee, when the city first got wind of the actors’ purchase proposal.

The Turf Hotel in Wrexham, which was made internationally famous by the FX documentary and boosted the business. MARY TURNER / The New York Times

But Mr Parry, who has been attending games at the Racecourse Ground, the club’s stadium, since 1974, soon dispelled those doubts – even if he still struggles to understand the North American accents that are increasingly being heard around the city after the Tourist flows have started In.

“I’ve got enough maple syrup for a lifetime now,” he joked, referring to gifts some tourists brought from their home countries. He added, “You know where in the world the show is going to be shown next because suddenly you get emails from Brazil, Poland and Thailand.”

Sometimes, the clash of cultures seems straight out of an outdated sitcom script. This week, a tourist from Pennsylvania was met with confused looks at the club’s fan shop when she asked to use the restroom. “You want the um…toilet?” asked the saleswoman.

The city’s museum is currently building a football section to accommodate the growing public interest in the team. However, amidst the building’s archives, the sad days of the past are never far away.

“Everything looks so grim,” said Mark Taylor, the museum’s assistant archivist, as he stared at the old newspaper clippings spread out in front of him.

“END OF THE STREET” was a headline documenting the closure of the city’s brewery.

Wrexham AFC fans Terry Richards (centre) and his son Nathan Richards at their home in Caia Park, a deprived neighborhood that had epitomized Wrexham’s post-industrial decline. MARY TURNER / The New York Times

“I WILL SHUT DOWN THIS ASSOCIATION,” read another front page, a window into darker days at Wrexham AFC less than 20 years ago.

The glory, now beaming across the world radio waves and the squad’s dressing room (which took five hours to clean following the club’s April 22 promotion, all seemed alien).

Back at Caia Park, Ms Jackson reminded Mr Richards that they had not yet married. As the setting sun streamed through the blinds, he promised they would start next year, but on one strict condition: the ceremony had to take place at Wrexham football ground.

Young boxers at a gym in Caia Park, one of Wrexham. MARY TURNER / The New York Times

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