As a bartender and manager at Mac’s Tavern, Erica Dematreszik’s job is anything but dull.
Mac’s is located in the heart of Philadelphia’s Old City, a heavily-trafficked area for the city’s merrymakers, so you get the run of the mill stuff that comes along with being there: revelers who’ve had a bit too much to drink, quarrels between customers and good nights gone wrong. But there’s also the weirder stuff — in the past year, for example, Mac’s Tavern has gotten decidedly more… Welsh.
There were the pair of Welsh ladies who brought in a batch of bakestones — a traditional sweet bread from the country — and left them at the bar for the staff to enjoy. There were the Welsh flags that popped up, and the Welsh accents, those rolled Rs and dragged-out vowels intermingling with Philly’s own unique take on the English language.
And then there were the Wrexham jerseys. Yes, behind the bar at Mac’s Tavern, just inches from a proudly-displayed jersey of former Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, is a Wrexham AFC jersey. At Mac’s, where the Phillies, Flyers, Sixers and Eagles have always dominated, a tiny Welsh club has managed to carve out its own place. And on Saturday, as Wrexham earned promotion from the National League for the first time in 15 years, the place was mobbed.
As the final whistle blew, Dematreszik stood on the bar and waved a Wrexham jersey over her head. The entire place broke out in applause, chanting “we’re going up” and downing their beers in celebration. People were in tears. In the corner, parked in front of a television that showed a Sixers playoff game, a few uninitiated patrons looked on in abject confusion.
“This is huge for us,” Dematreszik said a few moments later, her voice still haggard from all the madness. “And I’m entirely on board.”
Final whistle in Philly as @Wrexham_AFC earn promotion. Everyone in this bar claims to know @RMcElhenney. pic.twitter.com/aTDzIwoqID
— Pablo Iglesias Maurer (@MLSist) April 22, 2023
The attachment to Wrexham at Mac’s isn’t entirely random. The bar counts Rob McElhenney as one of its owners. McElhenney, who stars in and is co-creator of the long-running FX comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, is Philadelphia royalty and is also a co-owner of Wrexham AFC, along with fellow Hollywood A-lister Ryan Reynolds.
McElhenney and Reynolds’ documentary series on their ownership of the club, Welcome to Wrexham, has made the small, provincial club a household name amongst soccer fans in the United States. It’s also managed to do that most elusive of things, at least for anything related to soccer in America — permeate the widespread feeling of indifference that many Americans feel toward the game. Like Ted Lasso, the wildly-successful Apple TV series about a fish-out-of-water American at the helm of an English club, Welcome to Wrexham has become a crossover hit.
The show has some of the same feel-good energy that Lasso does, and those who’ve come to support the club through Reynolds and McElhenney often feel a bit less cynical than most of humanity these days. Certainly, those in attendance at Mac’s Tavern to watch Wrexham’s pivotal encounter with Boreham Wood on Saturday felt a far cry from your run-of-the mill Philly sports fans, a group that can sometimes wear their disdain with pride.
Mac’s — at least during Wrexham matches — seemed like an extremely unsafe space for negativity. There’s a whole segment of soccer fans on the internet that would call newcomers like these “plastic fans” (in other words: fake) but it feels almost certain that nobody there would’ve even known what that meant.
Philadelphia is among the country’s largest cities but feels strangely provincial itself at times. As Dematreszik puts it, it’s a city of neighborhoods, and those who live within these neighborhoods know each other in a familial way. In a corner of Mac’s, a group of patrons were prattling on about the Catholic High Schools in the area — Saint this-or-that, Sacred Heart, Mount whatever. They did so in a Philadelphia accent so thick it felt almost illegal.
Dennis Hogan was among them. Quickly, he revealed himself to be a bit more than the average bargoer. He went to school with McElhenney at St. Joseph’s Prep and was accompanied by a pair of others who also attended the school and still count McElhenney as a good buddy. Rob, one of them said, was the manager of the school’s soccer team freshman year. His post at Wrexham is a bit of an upgrade.
“He was more personality than athlete,” Hogan said with a chuckle.
Hogan has witnessed McElhenney’s love affair with Wrexham personally. McElhenney has long been known for his work on Sunny but has his hands in a bunch of other projects, on-screen and off. Wrexham, Hogan says, started out as a simple investment for the actor.
“I went over (to Wales) with him last summer,” said Hogan. “So I’ve seen both sides of this. He’s a successful guy, right? He has all these projects. This was just one of them at first. And now he’s gone from it being just another thing to it being something that he’s completely in love with. I think he just thought ‘this is going to be fun’ and now he’s completely immersed in it. Fully in love with it.”
Hogan’s love of soccer predates Welcome to Wrexham, but he has his own theories as to why so many American fans have come to love the team, specifically in Philadelphia. It’s a theory that’s mirrored early on in the show itself, when Rob speaks about his upbringing.
“People fall in love with the story,” Hogan said. “The show just captures the human side of the city so well. Philly and Wrexham are a lot like the same town, honestly. People over there, they’re a lot like Philly fans. People don’t like them, they s— on them, but in the end nobody cares about that and they’re almost proud of it. They’re really proud and they’re super passionate.”
At the other end of the bar, Josh Kaplan was transfixed by the match. In his mid 40s, Kaplan wore a Wrexham AFC track top and was a newcomer to the club. He described himself as a life-long fan of the sport of soccer, having played it and watched it for decades.
The local Major League Soccer team, the Philadelphia Union, were mentioned sparingly in conversations at Mac’s, aside from a stray fan in the corner of the place that was sporting the Union’s latest kit. The idea that fans in the U.S. would support an Premier League team instead of one in their backyard is easy enough to understand — the Premier League features many of the best players in the world and the quality of play is still far superior to that of MLS.
But drift further down the English pyramid (where Wrexham is one of several Welsh clubs permitted to play since they predate the Welsh football league), all the way down to the fifth tier, where Wrexham sat before earning its promotion, and things get a bit cloudier.
“I’m a big Union fan, as well,” said Kaplan, “But with Wrexham, I think it’s just the added layer of the emotion of the town and the emotion of the community. Here, you have multiple teams to cheer for. There, in Europe, there’s often just one team that is the lifeblood of a small place. The town’s emotions live and die with how the team does. That’s a really interesting dynamic that a lot of fans don’t realize exists in America.”
Kaplan, who says he’s traveled to Wrexham multiple times for matches, certainly felt like an apt representation of the segment of Wrexham supporters (and Welcome to Wrexham viewers) who’ve chosen to support a team thousands of miles away instead of focusing on something a bit more local. Wrexham was founded in 1864 and is the third-oldest club in the world. The club’s stadium is the oldest operational international football stadium in existence. That history and authenticity is impossible to replicate and its pull is strong.
The mere existence of promotion and relegation, which Reynolds and McElhenney have used expertly in the show’s storytelling, is another intriguing factor for American consumers, and it’s one that MLS may never have, at least not in its purest form. Supporting Wrexham — on this side of the pond, at least — is less about quality of play and more about the authenticity, or at least the perception of it.
And that’s to say nothing about the heavy lifting the documentary series itself has done for Wrexham. Without Reynolds and McElhenney’s involvement, and their work on the show, Wrexham would remain a blip on the international sporting map. MLS, possibly, should aim to emulate that level of storytelling. Prior to the start of its most recent season, the league seemed like it might have plans to do so.
Wrexham advisor to the board Shaun Harvey spoke of the club’s comparative appeal to MLS in a sit-down earlier this year.
“It’s flattering from our perspective,” said Harvey. “It’s because it isn’t usual. It isn’t normal. It isn’t something that’s been looked upon, or derided, generally, in the past. That unique approach is what raises that interest for the viewer.”
Amongst all of the newcomers were longer-term fans of Wrexham. At the corner of the oval-shaped bar stood Alex Davis, a bartender from Wrexham proper who’d come directly to Mac’s from the airport, having just flown in from Wales.
Davis seemed in a bit of a stupor, but it was more than the jet lag. Evaluating the crowd — the chanting, shrieking throng of American fans — was a sometimes-difficult task. Just the bare facts of the whole situation, that this tiny fifth-division team would be purchased by a pair of Hollywood stars, get thrust into the spotlight and become instantly-adored by a group of fans thousands of miles away, was tough for Davis to wrap his head around.
“It’s absolutely mental,” said Davis between sips of beer. “It’s something new every day. The other day (mixed martial-artist figher) Conor McGregor was tweeting about Wrexham, selling his stout in the Turf. (Hollywood actor) Paul Rudd is there today. It’s crazy. (Rob and Ryan) have done so much for the town. It’s like a sense of belonging now, everyone cares a lot more. They’ve donated to charities, supported people — Rob especially, Ryan as well, but Rob cares about it in his heart a lot more, I feel like. It’s been amazing.”
Here comes the Hollywood glamour. Actor Paul Rudd has just arrived pic.twitter.com/ppymhS1h70
— Tom Coleman (@tomEcoleman) April 22, 2023
Davis, who was passing through Philadelphia as part of a larger U.S. visit, doesn’t know whether the club’s American fans will stick around after the initial interest surrounding the club’s purchase and the ensuing documentary series dies down. But the interest certainly feels genuine enough, and Wrexham are coming to the United States to play friendlies this summer. They’re also taking part in a 7-v-7 tournament in Cary, North Carolina, another attempt at establishing a more permanent foothold.
For now, the club will continue to cater to the very sizable segment of American soccer fans who prefer the British take on the game, be it at an elite level or otherwise. Whether those people ever end up paying any real attention to the soccer in their own backyard remains to be seen. But there might be hope for that yet. After the madness at Mac’s died down on Saturday, a group of friends at the bar turned and wondered where they’d go next.
“We should go to the Union game tonight,” one of them suggested. “Those are pretty fun.”
(Top photo: Emily Olsen)
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