Spencer Harris was a Wrexham board member throughout the decade when supporters ran the non-League club, but shows no hesitation when assessing the ownership of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.
“The owners have done everything they promised to do and more,” Harris says. “If we are going to put a rating on their scorecard then it has to be an ‘A’.”
As the warm afterglow from clinching promotion back to the EFL continues to emanate across north Wales, there surely cannot be many who disagree with such a high grading.
Wrexham have come a long way in the little over two years since the Hollywood duo took charge at the Racecourse Ground. The National League title, only the second time the club have been crowned champions of any of the top five divisions since being formed in 1864, is perhaps the most obvious testament to that change. But, really, the influence of Deadpool movie star Reynolds and sitcom It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s co-creator McElhenney can be felt right across the borough via a feel-good factor that shows no signs of abating.
“As much as I’m delighted for the club which, along with my family, is the love of my life, I’m equally as delighted for what it is starting to mean for our town,” says Harris, who was born and raised in the area. “I just hope that the confidence and the belief in the club can spread back into our town centre, and give people pride in where they are from.”
Harris can appreciate the transformation of the past couple of years more than most. A leading member of the Wrexham Supporters Trust board, who took charge of their day-to-day operations in 2011, he saw first-hand the mess the club had become.
“The Trust rescued a basket-case of a business,” he says. “The club was losing £750,000 per year, had a debt of £500,000, and it took three years to sort the business out. We made it wholly sustainable, making it a very attractive proposition for someone to invest in a way that ourselves, the Ordinary Joes of Wrexham, would never be able to do. We were debt-free and had cash in the bank when Rob and Ryan came in.
“What has happened since then has been magnificent. The game against Boreham Wood (who were eventually beaten 3-1 by Phil Parkinson’s side last month to clinch promotion) was, initially, typical Wrexham. By that, I mean to concede after 43 seconds via a bit of a mistake…
“But the thing that characterised the night for me was the five seconds after the goal. The volume from the Wrexham supporters was incredible. No one had lost heart. The crowd was willing the team to bounce back. Nothing was going to stop us that evening.”
That sentiment could easily apply to those dark days of the past when it was only the will of some of those same supporters that prevented Wrexham from going under altogether.
“I’m very proud that the Trust played the role we had to play in the history of the football club,” adds Harris. “Saved it, put it in a great position and, for everyone who contributed their £12 (membership) per year, they can all feel rightly proud of where we are now.
“If they hadn’t done that, none of this would have been possible. Without the Trust, the club would not be here.
“All 4,000 members can feel rightly proud of that.”
Next week will be the third anniversary of a telephone call that changed the course of history for Wrexham AFC.
Mark Catlin, then chief executive of League One side Portsmouth, contacted Harris on May 25, 2020 to ask whether Wrexham would be willing to speak to Inner Circle Sports, a New York-based investment bank which had brokered the deals that saw Fenway Sports Group buy Liverpool in 2010 and former Walt Disney Company chairman Michael Eisner purchase Portsmouth six years ago. Two unnamed individuals were interested in buying the National League club.
The Trust, as the club’s owners, had fielded around a dozen enquiries over the years where the interest had extended to “a couple of conversations”.
“Most disappeared really quickly,” Harris tells The Athletic. “Or we realised that they weren’t credible. I’d say out of those 12, you can count on a couple of fingers the ones that were really serious.”
This time, though, the interest felt genuine. “The big thing to me,” adds Harris. “was the involvement of Inner Circle Sports — one of the world’s premium sports agencies who had done Liverpool, Roma, and umpteen deals in the States.”
As with those previous enquiries, nothing was said publicly by the board — not even to the rank-and-file Trust members. That was a sensible approach, considering how destabilising talk of a possible takeover can be for a club.
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With a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) signed, discussions were able to progress further. At this stage, the identity of the would-be bidders was still not known. Harris, though, did a bit of detective work after a conference call that, along with the lawyers, involved one of the interested parties for the first time.
“We knew from day one that it was two famous people with a significant high-profile network,” he says. “We knew they were in the public eye, but that was it. Anyway, on this call I was introduced to ‘Rob’.
“He started to talk about his background, where he was from. He didn’t say who he was but, from the accent and some of the things he said, that allowed me to later do some research. Good old Google helped.”
The process sped up from there.
Reynolds and McElhenney would eventually outline their plans to members of the Trust via a Zoom call. The subsequent vote saw more than 98 per cent of them say ‘yes’ to the takeover, which finally went through on February 9, 2021, bringing to an end the Trust’s decade-long stint in charge.
There is no doubt huge strides were made off the field during those 10 years, as underlined by the club being debt-free and having cash in the bank despite a global pandemic having kept the Racecourse Ground shut for almost a year at the time of the handover.
There had also been a few ‘if-only’ moments on the field to look back on, too — none more so than the 2011-12 season when Wrexham finished second in the National League, where only the champions go up automatically, with a colossal 98 points. It remains a British football record tally for a team who weren’t promoted.
Fleetwood Town and a certain Jamie Vardy, with his 31 goals in 35 league games, were their nemesis that season. “I still throw things at the TV when I see Jamie Vardy on the screen,” Harris says.
Wrexham also qualified for the promotion play-offs the following season — when they lost to Newport County in an all-Welsh final — and 2018-19, when they were beaten by Eastleigh in the quarter-finals after extra time, and reached two FA Trophy finals. Yet their inability to escape the National League eventually became a stick for some supporters to beat the Trust with. A lack of money equated to a lack of ambition, in the eyes of the critics.
“The first six to seven years of our time in ownership, everything was pretty good,” says Harris. “Everyone was very supportive. But then we started to lose board members.
“People had been at it a long time by then, don’t forget. You end up working two full-time jobs. That’s extremely difficult, with weekends spent working. Same with evenings. Not as many people were willing to step up and give it the time it needed.
“Some dissension started to come in. In general, people started to lose hope that we could win promotion under fans’ ownership. There was always a Fleetwood or a Crawley or a Newport, where someone came in spending silly money compared to what we could afford.
“We’d always be competitive. The average (attendance) had gone up from 3,200 to 5,000 under the Trust. But people were looking around and thinking, ‘Hold on. We get crowds of 5,000 but clubs with a lot less (fans) are doing significantly better — why is this happening?’.
“Things had changed, and it became a more difficult beast to manage.”
McElhenney and Reynolds, for their part, clearly appreciate those many thousands of unpaid hours put in by the Trust volunteers down the years. In one scene in the Welcome To Wrexham documentary series, a couple of the fans invited to meet the two co-owners in The Turf pub offer a damning verdict on the Trust, including the word “shitshow”.
The response from McElhenney is immediate. “I can tell you — they saved this club from insolvency.”
“There were quite a few challenges during the Trust’s ownership,” says Harris, who for 10 years combined his day job at food giant Kellogg’s UK with his Trust duties. “The first was turning round the business itself.
“Then, in 2016, Wrexham Glyndwr University (at the time, the club’s landlord) said they could no longer continue to fund the Racecourse. They had been responsible for the upkeep, and we paid a licence fee. This meant we were suddenly responsible for everything — lighting, maintenance, all the stadium employees. That became another £250,000 loss we had to fund.”
A gradual repairing of relations with key parties, ranging from the local council to the university and even sponsors, was also undertaken on the Trust’s watch after being pushed to breaking point by previous regimes.
Reaching out to the Welsh Assembly — Wales’ government — in 2017, primarily to point out the inequality in facilities that saw all international sport in the country played south of the M4 motorway that cuts across south Wales, also paid off in time.
That appeal in Cardiff, and specifically the need to bring international football back to the Racecourse via a redeveloped Kop, helped pave the way for the Wrexham Gateway project that will next month see work begin on a new 5,500 capacity stand as part of a wider £25million ($31m) scheme to improve the local area.
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“The proposed Gateway development was a big part of our pitch to the two interested owners,” adds Harris, who stresses the key role played by the university in selling the land behind the Kop to the Welsh government at market rate when there was at least one more lucrative offer on the table. “A lot of the ducks were lined up, via political support both locally and nationally. That didn’t mean the money was quite there. But the political will was there and the land had already been bought. That was a massive ‘tick’ for the owners.”
As the Trust was what’s known as a Community Benefit Society, the £2million purchase price went straight into improving the club, as opposed to lining the pockets of a private owner elsewhere.
Almost exactly three years on from that initial phone call with Catlin, Wrexham are in a good place. The big question now, however, is how far up the domestic ladder can they go?
“I’ll give you the same view as I gave Rob and Ryan when having those initial conversations,” replies Harris, now an honorary vice-president of the club and responsible for hosting the visiting club’s directors on a Racecourse matchday. “I basically said, ‘Wrexham has the biggest headroom for growth of any club in the country’.
“I believed that at the time and believe that today. Why? Because Wrexham is a club that can represent half a nation. There are 750,000 people in north Wales. Stretch a few miles over the (English) border, you can easily get to in excess of one million people who feel Wrexham could represent them.
“In terms of a journey up the leagues, financial fair play also starts to work in Wrexham’s favour. The (rule restricting League Two clubs to spending) 55 per cent of turnover on player spend means the budget will be good compared to the rest, as I’d imagine income streams, sponsorship and so on means we are probably top-end of (third tier) League One already.
“It’s why I believe, with the right investment, Wrexham can sustain a Premier League club.”
(Top image: Spencer Harris, flanked by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. Photo: The Harris family)
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