When Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney took control of lower league soccer club Wrexham AFC in 2021, it was widely assumed that it was the Hollywood stars who would bring the magic.
However, two years later, this is not just a story about the A-listers lavishly showering stardust – it’s more about the Hollywood duo experiencing the enchantment of English football, particularly the FA Cup.
“I think what a lot of people don’t understand about the sport of football is how much anxiety it creates more than any other sport,” McElhenney told CNN’s Don Riddell as he reflected on Wrexham’s remarkable 4-3 win over Coventry City to Reach. The fourth round of the world’s oldest competition.
“The last 20 minutes were harrowing, it was among the greatest and worst 20 minutes of my entire life,” added McElhenney, as he relieved Wrexham nervously held on to a 4-1 lead at one stage of the game.
The world’s third-oldest football club, Wrexham has never played in the top-flight of English football, but the club has a proud record in the FA Cup, previously reaching the quarter-finals and famously beating Arsenal in the third round in 1992 .
Currently playing in the National League – the fifth tier of English soccer – Wrexham were 60 places and three divisions below Coventry when the two teams met in the FA Cup third round.
McElhenney and Reynolds made headlines when they announced their takeover of the club in 2021, with ambitions to take the Welsh club back to the top of football.
Wrexham is one of a number of Welsh teams that play in the English Football League system due to the club being founded before the creation of the Welsh Football League
At the time of McElhenney and Reynolds’ succession, Wrexham had languished outside the top four divisions of English soccer, known as the Football League, for over a decade.
McElhenney and Reynolds have already commissioned a TV series – “Welcome to Wrexham” – which documents their time at the club as it emerges from obscurity.
Second in the National League – behind leaders Notts County on goal difference, but having played a game less – if Wrexham wins promotion, it will play in English Football League Two next season.
Sure three more promotions and Wrexham will be playing in the Premier League.
And on Sunday, Wrexham hosts Sheffield United in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
United are second in the Championship – and on course to win promotion to the Premier League – and are likely to provide a much stiffer test than Coventry.
“I think, especially for Americans to see a tournament like this, we just don’t have anything like this. So there’s something really, really special about it,” says McElhenney.
The obvious passion of the owners for the club won the hearts of Wrexham fans and allowed McElhenney, a guy from Philadelphia, to connect with a community from rural Wales.
“I know these people, I grew up with these people, I am one of these people and to be welcomed into their community has been the drive of my life,” added McElhenney.
McElhenney’s love for soccer, like many in North America, is a newfound love.
The star of “It’s always sunny in Philadelphia” was more of an NFL and hockey person, but that changed when he watched a soccer documentary about Diego Maradona.
“I looked at this little man who was a magician, I just never saw an athlete do what that man was able to do with the football,” McElhenney recalls of the man widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest players ever .
But it was Maradona’s successor – Lionel Messi – who ended McElhenney’s love for the beautiful game.
“I had a friend say, ‘You think that guy’s magic? I know of another little man who’s playing now, who’s doing exactly what Madonna did, except he’s doing it at the highest level for a longer period of time.’
“Of course it was Messi.”
McElhenney began to take more interest in soccer, although he admits he struggled with the concept of promotion and relegation.
“It’s amazing how many times I’ve had to explain this system in the last year and a half to wide-eyed, surprised Americans who have never heard anything like it, and to be fair, I was one of them.”
McElhenney loved the concept that a team could rise from nothing to the pinnacle of a sport by virtue of their performances.
“That was really the impetus for the whole thing,” says McElhenney on buying Wrexham.
“It just turned my wheels as a great story, what a great opportunity to take a storied club with a rich history that maybe isn’t successful at the level they should be and to invest in them.
“Not only in them, but in the community itself and to see if we can bring them back to their glory in a way that you can’t do in American sports.”
A fourth-round FA Cup tie was not the only unexpected experience for McElhenney – in December, he and Reynolds met King Charles III and Camilla, the Queen Consort.
The British monarch visited Wrexham to commemorate the granting of “city status” as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations earlier this year.
As part of the royal visit, Charles and Camilla visited the Racehorse Ground – the world’s oldest stadium according to Guinness World Records and the home of AFC Wrexham – and shared a moment with the two actors on the pitch.
“I wasn’t planning to go in December, but when the king calls you to come, you get on a plane and you come,” McElhenney recalled.
“His Majesty made a joke that I thought was really funny about me and Her Majesty, the Queen Consort, being really curious and curious about the ladies’ team, about what we were doing with the stadiums.
“We talked for over an hour, and I just did not expect that at all. It was, it was truly an honor and something I will cherish forever.”
McElhenney and Reynolds have clearly been on quite a journey. A second series of Welcome to Wrexham is due for release later this year and with an ambition to reach the Premier League, there is much more in store for the pair.
But first Sunday’s game against Sheffield United.
“I went to visit last summer and it’s a beautiful town full of wonderful people, they couldn’t have been more welcoming,” smiles McElhenney.
“But they, of course, now the enemy … I’m sharpening my blade for the blades,” a reference to United’s nickname, which is a nod to Sheffield – once the steel-making capital of the world.