‘Lightning in a bottle’: Wrexham wrap US tour with Philly ‘homecoming’

<span>Photograph: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images</span>” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/RJPiS_0Cj0LDSROlNqkKSA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTYyMg–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/e0b571b1d95d2ba818d58ceb74568cb6″ src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/RJPiS_0Cj0LDSROlNqkKSA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTYyMg–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/e0b571b1d95d2ba818d58ceb74568cb6″></img></p>
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<p><figcaption><span>Photograph: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images</span></figcaption></p>
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<p>Very late on Friday night, Phil Parkinson, his gray hair matted by a steady second-half rain that followed a two-hour severe-weather delay, slid into a chair in a conference room and pinned a happy face on an exhausting four-game road trip.</p>
<p>And this had not been just another road trip. Parkinson is the manager of Wrexham, who last year became the darlings of reality TV, winning promotion to the English Football League after a 15-year absence. And all while starring in Welcome To Wrexham, a documentary charting their fortunes.</p>
<p>A North American tour playing Chelsea and Manchester United in front of large crowds would have seemed preposterous a few years ago, when Wrexham were struggling to survive. Now, with the documentary pulling in millions of fans across the globe it seemed, well, inevitable. They started in North Carolina, won two games in California and wrapped up the trip with a 1-1 draw against the reserves of MLS club Philadelphia Union. The four games – including a spicy 3-1 victory over United – drew enthusiastic crowds totaling 112,000.</p>
<p>“People are enjoying the Wrexham story,” Parkinson said. “It’s a tremendous story – a fantastic football club in a great area.” But then he paused for a beat.</p>
<p>“Our job is to continue that in the next season,” he added.</p>
<p>Wrexham were bought in 2020 by two Hollywood actors – Rob McElhenney, a Philadelphia native, and Ryan Reynolds, a Canadian. The club’s successful fight for promotion last season was documented in Welcome to Wrexham.</p>
<p>As a result of the TV series, and their success, Wrexham became an American sports sensation of sorts, a<em> brand</em> all their own. Just in case anyone at the game needed to be reminded, advertisements for season two of Welcome to Wrexham, which will premiere in September, regularly flashed on the scoreboard during the match.</p>
<p>McElhenney, a star of the long-running sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, was at the game here, mingling. The success of his project is clear to see on social media. Wrexham’s Instagram page has 1 million followers, more than double the amount in February. The club’s Twitter page has 539,000 followers; it had 102,800 in February 2022.</p>
<p>“The chants of ‘Wrexham, Wrexham, Wrexham’ ringing out deep into the Philly night, after 2 hours of weather delay, continues to give me goosebumps,” McElhenney tweeted at one point, punctuating the post with a Welsh and an American flag.</p>
<p>The trip was not without its setbacks, namely, a freakish injury to Wrexham’s 28-year-old striker Paul Mullin, who suffered a punctured lung in a collision with Manchester United goalkeeper Nathan Bishop. The upside for Mullin? He can’t fly home while his lung recovers, so he’ll spend the next two weeks in McElhenney’s house in Hollywood.</p>
<p>Wrexham have already won the hearts of American fans. Isabella Budzyn, a 17-year-old student (and soccer player) at nearby Haverford High School, was wearing the club’s shirt to the game. She said, “I love the Union, but Wrexham definitely brought me out here tonight.”</p>
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Lighting strikes near a ship passing under the Commodore Barry Bridge along the Delaware River as seen from at Subaru Park, where Friday’s game between Wrexham AFC and the Philadelphia Union II was delayed. Photograph: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

She said she enjoyed watching Welcome to Wrexham, in large part, because it appeared to her as if “their players want to be there – to be a part of something.”

Wrexham were playing at home, kind of. The Welsh go way back in southeastern Pennsylvania – William Penn gave them a 40,000-acre tract of land in 1681. There seemed to be almost as many people wearing the red of Wrexham as the blue and gold of Union. People clearly sang along with the Welsh national anthem before kickoff. Some waved Wales flags.

Despite the wilting humidity even by East Coast standards, a steady stream of pregame visitors strolled through a Welsh-themed “Wrexham USA Invasion Summer ‘23” fan fest adjacent to Subaru Park.

Daniel and Elizabeth Ardron, newlyweds, had driven down from their home of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Daniel, an England cap perched backwards on his head, grew up in the United Kingdom and said he would have probably enjoyed the scene “just because it’s the game of football.”

Elizabeth had bought the tickets to the game, curious to see what might play out. At halftime, the main corridor at the stadium was elbow-to-elbow with fans who had been asked by officials to seek cover from the vicious rain and lightning. Hundreds wore Wrexham red.

“You have a small team, and to get publicity like this, it’s amazing,” she said.

Daniel said he celebrated when Wrexham scored their only goal, late in the first half. He said of Wrexham escaping the National League after years of mediocrity, “Without this TV show, who knows how long they would have been down there?”

He called Wrexham’s emergence “lightning in a bottle”. A scoreless second half was played before a small portion of the 18,000 or so who had bought tickets to the game – a soft landing for a team that drew 50,000 for its first game of the tour, against Chelsea at the University of North Carolina. But Parkinson described the trip as an “incredible experience”.

After arriving in Philadelphia the day before the game against Union 2, the team had been taken to, as Parkinson called them, “the Rocky steps”, those famous attraction in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that Sylvester Stallone conquered in his Oscar-winning movie. Once atop the steps, Wrexham unfurled a Welsh flag and posed for photos.

“We have so many memories to go back to the UK with,” Parkinson said at the end of a long night. “It’s been tremendous – it really has been. It’s been an eye-opener for us all.”

Asked if Wrexham had received a boost on the trip that might propel them into the new season, Parkinson said the club had already been thriving on the generous support from new Wrexham fans. But there was a plane home to catch, and a much bigger excursion on tap.

“We’re looking forward to them supporting following our journey that starts in a couple of days,” he said.

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