Welcome to Wrexham…

So often in life it’s the things we don’t like that define what we do like.  It’s the Beatles or the Rolling stones, Blur or Oasis, Manchester United or Manchester City, Liverpool or Everton. Labour or the Tories.

As a kid I think I chose my favourite teams and pop groups on national popularity.  Whilst always being a Swansea City fan I would know all of the details and team news surrounding Leeds United. I would have argued at the time there were many reasons. They had been the team that made John Charles, the Cwmbwrla boy, a star.  They had a few Welsh players in the squad.

The fact that they were the most successful team in the country had hardly influenced me at all.

When it came to music I was a little more open minded.  I liked the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, even though my parents thought the Stones were probably a threat to society.  I liked the latest Status Quo records but also bought the new Carpenters LP even though I made sure I kept it in a paper bag and didn’t mention it to my mates.

Now I know the whole world is focussing on Wrexham and the game this weekend that could take them back into the football league.  I know Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny are Hollywood royalty and everyone is jumping on the bandwagon and wants to be their best friends…but I should say I have always had a soft spot for Wrexham FC.

I think it comes down to a couple of reasons.  Firstly they were Welsh.  With only 4 teams in the football league and the 2 South Walian teams being local derby rivals, Wrexham could be supported without betraying my own loyalties.   I think the fact they wore red shirts was a factor.  When they played and beat top teams like Arsenal in the FA Cup it was like it was Wales winning.

Over my teenage years I travelled to the Racecourse a couple of times. During those years of the early 1970s Wales took part in the Home International Tournament at the end of the season playing England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  The home games were shared out between Swansea Cardiff and Wrexham and you would see the grounds on Match of the Day. 

Wrexham was the oldest International Ground in the world and so when I was selected to play for Swansea Schoolboys against Wrexham boys, walking out onto that ground really felt like walking  in the footsteps of Welsh soccer giants.

Mal talks about the trip to Wrexham in 1975 in the new Red Wall+ film The Forgotten Team- Released 24.4.23

In November 1975 I joined the boys from the Swansea GPO on a bus trip to see Wales play against Austria.  This was at the time one of the most important games in recent history. Winning would take us through to the final stages of the European Championships, qualifying for the first major tournament since 1958.

Obviously in 1975 I wasn’t working for the GPO, but a couple of my older friends were and with a few seats left on the coach we came off the bench to join the GPO team.

It was an interesting journey with a soundtrack of Radio One, rude football songs and chinking beer bottles.  When we stopped for a comfort break we had a very warm welcome from a group of Cardiff fans who had stopped at the same cafe!!

Finally we arrived at the ground in darkness.

From a safety and comfort point of view those old football grounds are a million miles from the new Stadia that come with padded seats and hospitality… but I still miss the old days.  We were crammed like sardines on terraces with the smell of alcohol, cigarettes, pies and bodies overwhelming.  The floodlights made the ground itself look like a theatre of football dreams and on that night it had all of that and so much more.

I still remember the mad pandemonium when little Arfon Griffiths, the Wrexham local boy, scored in the 69th minute.  Scoring at that stage of the game comes with risks and benefits.  The benefits were that we were in the lead, the negative was that there were still 20 odd minutes left to hang on.

When the final whistle went the joy was overwhelming.  Unless you are invested in a team or a game its impossible to understand that feeling. As I walked to the coach to make my way home I even started writing a song about the day which would later be recorded with Elton John in the producers chair.

Exhausted, emotionally and physically, I slept most of the way home.  It was essential I got some rest because of the deal I had made with my parents.  Yes, I could take a day off school to go but it was a one day only deal.  I would have to catch up on the missed days’ work and I would have to be in school the following day.  It hurt getting up the next morning but the kudos from the boys in the school yard as I showed them my Football programme was well worth it.

My last direct contact with Wrexham was May 2005.  That day there was no sympathy for the team in red.  This was the final of the FAW Premier Cup and the final game at the Vetch Field.  We went into the game full of confidence.  Wrexham had just been relegated to League 2 whilst Swansea would take their place with promotion to League One. 

The feeling on the North Bank was party like but it soon became clear Wrexham hadn’t come just to make up the numbers.  In my memory they were actually the better team. They even looked to spoil the party by scoring an early goal but thank goodness to an own goal and Andy Robinson we ended up leaving the Vetch promoted and Welsh Cup Winners.

Tomorrow Wrexham FC could return to the football league.  If you have watched ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ you will know what a change the arrival of the Hollywood A listers has made to the team and the town. People from all around the world now consider themselves Wrexham fans and it’s not unusual to hear American accents in pubs and shops in the area. If you go onto social media you will see Wrexham posts far exceed the mentions for some of the biggest Premier League teams.

The first season of the TV show ended in despair.  The club had gone so far in a short space of time but lost in a Wembley Cup Final and missed out on promotion when they lost the Play off final.  For Hollywood it was the perfect Rocky ending.  So near yet so far.  The perfect set up for the second season.

Of course in the background Notts County who also have over 100 points must feel like the typical Hollywood bad guy; destined to play an important bit part but to finally end up defeated.  They have their own amazing story claiming to be the oldest Professional football team in the world and the team that gave Juventus football shirts back in 2003 but tomorrow it will be all about Wrexham.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they lose or draw tomorrow meaning it goes to the final game of the season.  I’m not sure if a final cliff hanger beats getting promotion at home at the Racecourse.  Whatever happens this Hollywood story will go on for at least another season and I hope we can all whole heartedly support them…at least until we play them again!!! 

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