Welsh club Wrexham have managed to climb up to the fourth division of England – much to the delight of their famous owners.
Victory over Boreham Wood on Saturday made it clear: AFC Wrexham are back in the fourth English division for the first time since 2008.
Ever since Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds took over the North Wales club, it seemed inevitable that thanks to the two Hollywood stars’ generous investments, the club would sooner or later rise to the top. After the disappointment of last season, a rapid upswing may now have begun.
As is well known, many ingredients are required for promotion – even if you have significantly better options than most of your opponents. You need quality players, an intelligent coach and the support of the fans. Wrexham had all that and more at their disposal this season…
AFC Wrexham: The answer to the double low
One must not forget that the heartbreaking end of the 2021/22 season must have hurt this team a lot.
As detailed in the popular documentary series ‘Welcome to Wrexham’, the Red Dragons suffered a defeat at Wembley in the FA Trophy final against Bromley before being eliminated a few weeks later by Grimsby Town in the National League play-off semi-finals and missed out on the climb.
It could well have been that this double blow saps confidence for this season. But not with Wrexham: From the first second of the new season, the team performed with the attitude of champions.
AFC Wrexham: Big investments
Of course, the story of Wrexham’s rise always comes with the caveat that significant sums have been invested in players and infrastructure since the two Hollywood stars arrived as new owners. Evidence of this included the 2022 summer transfer window, which saw the club sign some high-profile players thanks to the commitment of Reynolds and McElhenney.
The most important new signing was Elliot Lee, who was already active in the higher leagues before moving to Wrexham. Lee, who was handed a three-year contract – a rarity in the fifth division – admitted other clubs were interested in him but ultimately opted for Wrexham.
He had a strong season in which he proved to be the perfect complement to his strike partners Paul Mullin and Ollie Palmer with his altruistic passing game and also scored numerous goals himself. Lee wasn’t the only high-profile signing of the past summer, either. Mark Howard, a veteran with a lot of pro experience, kept the goal before a certain matchday vlogger was brought in for the hot phase – more on that later.
And fellow summer signings Jordan Tunnicliffe, Anthony Forde and Sam Dalby have all played their part in Wrexham’s success this season.
AFC Wrexham: The 12th Man
It’s not corny, it’s true: Wrexham’s frenetic support home and away has been instrumental in the club crossing the promotion finish line this season. Since the takeover, the nondescript town has been transformed and the racecourse ground has been known for year-round spectacle.
The raucous atmosphere helped Wrexham in their first league game, when a late brace from Lee clinched a landmark 2-1 win over Eastleigh.
The away trips were also successful, with the fans who traveled with them being rewarded with heroic performances in Woking, Altrincham and Maidstone.
In an exclusive conversation with SPOX and GOAL in March, star striker Mullin said: “Ultimately we play for the fans who come to the stadium every week. Ownership is obviously important with any club because they fund it and keep it going, they have high hopes for Wrexham. But we play for our families first and the fans second – the owners are a part of what comes after.”
The connection between the fans, the owners and the team has been crucial to Wrexham’s rise to fame. And the club will need to maintain that connection if they want to keep rising.
Once the new Kop Grandstand is completed, the stadium will also be able to better serve the ever-growing demand for tickets.
AFC Wrexham: Support from around the world
The Red Dragons have not only been supported by their local fans this season. The release of the documentary series has transformed the club into a global cultural phenomenon and there is hardly a corner of the world that hasn’t been infected by Wrexham fever in recent months.
This is also reflected in the incredible increase in followers on social media. Wrexham now has a total of two million followers across Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, and fan clubs have also sprung up in different countries.
This unprecedented support for a fifth tier side has helped ensure the surge in recovery that has taken the club back to League Two.
AFC Wrexham: Mullin is unstoppable!
No player shaped Wrexham’s season more than Mullin.
He already had an outstanding first season at the club after making headlines in 2021 with his decision to leave Cambridge United for a club from a lower division. Mullin has been even better this season – and his stellar performances even led some to expect a surprise call-up for Wales.
He has three hat-tricks and six braces in the National League. And Mullin capped his fine season by adding a goal and two assists in a vital 3-2 win against Notts County, who were all but certain of promotion.
Of course, Mullin has also been linked with clubs from higher divisions. But he’s revered in Wrexham – and he’s already proven he can be successful in the Fourth Division too. After all, he was top scorer at Cambridge when they were promoted to the third division in 2021.
Can he repeat this feat next season? It seems pretty likely.
AFC Wrexham: Clever signings at mid-season
Halfway through the season, it was already clear that it would be a duel for promotion to the National League. Notts County were the only side to come close to Wrexham’s incredible run.
And the Robins did what they had to do over the winter months, bolstering their already well-stocked roster with several bright newcomers who are now playing key roles.
Eoghan O’Connell arrived from Charlton Athletic on Deadline Day and was announced with a hilarious video exchange between Reynolds and McElhenney. The Irishman fitted into the squad immediately, scoring on his debut in the aforementioned dramatic away win against Altrincham.
Meanwhile, struggling midfielder Andy Cannon, brought in from Hull City, has become a fixture in the second half of the season, as has Ryan Barnett, who was lured away from Solihull Moors.
AFC Wrexham: The Arrival of Cycling GK!
Even when the January transfer window closed, Wrexham’s quest for the perfect squad for promotion didn’t stop there.
In March, the owners made headlines when they lured YouTube star Ben Foster (The Cycling GK), former England international goalkeeper, out of retirement. This transfer was typical of Wrexham: not only was Foster clearly too good for the league, but there were also commercial advantages due to the popularity of his matchday vlogs.
However, it was not a cynical marketing ploy. The former Manchester United, Watford and West Brom goalkeeper saved a crucial penalty in added time in the game against Notts County that gave Wrexham three priceless points.
Promotion was all but certain and Foster might even be tempted to stay for another season.
AFC Wrexham: Mourinho conqueror as manager
Wrexham has the financial resources to bring in just about any minor league coach you could want. And who wouldn’t want to be part of this project?
Unlike some big-money foreign owners from the higher leagues, Reynolds and McElhenney stood by Phil Parkinson after the club missed out on promotion at the end of the 2021/22 season – and they were rewarded for it.
Parkinson’s experience is undeniable: in his time as manager of Bradford City he once defeated José Mourinho’s Chelsea in the FA Cup and reached the final of the League Cup. And that experience made itself felt in the crucial moments of this difficult season.
What was particularly impressive was his ability to lead the team even under extreme pressure. Even as Wrexham progressed through the FA Cup, their form in the league hardly suffered. The dramatic third-round win over second division side Coventry City, for example, came in the middle of a run of seven straight wins in all competitions – a period of exemplary squad management by Parkinson.
Although it has taken a season longer than many expected, Wrexham’s experienced manager has now propelled the side up. And he also knows how to get out of League Two, having guided Bradford to the play-offs in 2013.