It was yet another slow and, frankly, lonely day, one that I’d hoped would have been shared with friends watching the NFL conference championships, but those two damn pesky realities, lack of money and lack of healthy football-loving people willing to have someone over, got in the way. So I wound up scrolling for something to watch during the morning window that preceded the games. And then I saw a familiar team name:
Wrexham AFC. In the FA Cup. Against Sheffield United. Live. On ESPN+.
For those unfamiliar, Wrexham is a Fifth Division, Welsh football (we call it soccer) club whose history dates back to 1864, a year after the Football Association (FA) was founded. Seven years later, an annual tournament was established to compete for the Cup, and it is the oldest national football competition in the world. But it’s unlike almost any other tournament you’ve likely seen here in the States. Per Wikipedia:
The competition is open to all eligible clubs down to Level 9 of the English football league system with Level 10 clubs acting as stand-ins in the event of non-entries from above. Included in the competition are 20 professional clubs in the Premier League (level 1), 72 professional clubs in the English Football League (levels 2 to 4), and all clubs in steps 1–5 of the National League System (levels 5 to 9) as well as a tiny number of step 6 clubs acting as stand-ins for non-entries above. A record 763 clubs competed in 2011–12. The tournament consists of 12 randomly drawn rounds followed by the semi-finals and the final. Entrants are not seeded, although a system of byes based on league level ensures higher ranked teams enter in later rounds – the minimum number of games needed to win, depending on which round a team enters the competition, ranges from six to fourteen.
So, in effect, it’s a free-for-all; in theory; any organized group of 11 men could find a way in and at least get a shot. We’ve seen things like this in niche sports like three-on-three basketball, typically played for show in the heat of summer in Las Vegas among wannabe and ex-NBA players. We don’t see situations where a top-tier professional team would be matched head-to-head on the same battleground with an upstart from a league several rungs below it.
And we typically don’t see teams who have had 18 episodes of an acclaimed documentary series with hundreds of thousands of viewers play against a team that competes just one rung below the 20 top teams in Britain live, being played out before a capacity crowd of nearly 10,000 disbelieving fans on their ancient Race Course home pitch.
Nor do we typically see a team with owners as popular and earnest as Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, who sold FX on the concept of this docuseries, which began with McElhenney’s desire to buy an association football team. As Rob stars in and co-produces FX’s longest-running (and, indeed, scripted television’s longest-running half-hour comedy) series IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, he’s had at least some the cache to back up his desires. But it took the help of a third party, a writer named Humphrey Ker, to make a pipe dream a reality. As BBC Sport reported:
Ker was said to have been always watching association football in the writer’s room of McElhenney’s show Mythic Quest, causing McElhenney to become interested in association football, particularly “the idea of promotion and demotion“, which McElhenney said was “incredible to me”. McElhenney also joked that he only had “TV money” and needed “super hero, movie star money”. Ker described himself as “Rob and Ryan’s representative” to the club as the pair’s inside operations person.[1
So this surreal pairing indeed bought this ragtag club, and season one documented how the deal came about, how the team became competitive in its smaller National League, rising from 20th place in the season before the takeover, to 8th in the coronavirus-compromised 2020-21 campaign, and second last season, though missing out on a promotion to a higher league. Season Two was officially greenlit early in the 2022-23 season, and the FA Cup’s unique structure gave it a natural way to expand the horizons to loftier scales.
And yesterday afternoon, with Reynolds in attendance in Wales and McElhenney, at Lincoln Financial Field , eagerly awaiting the start of seeing his beloved hometown Philadelphia Eagles host the NFC Championship game , on FaceTime with Reynolds live, a truly incredible storyline–unscripted–unfolded. As Jonathan Johnson of CBS Sports explained:
Wrexham AFC are still with a shot of becoming just the sixth non-league team to reach the FA Cup fifth round after a dramatic 3-3 draw with Sheffield United at the Racecourse Ground on Sunday. The Wales-based side play in the National League, which is the fifth tier of professional English soccer, and three levels below the Blades who they have now taken to a replay.
The game will not be replayed as such despite the use of the term “replay.” In England, specifically in cup competitions, a replay means an enforced second match at the home venue of the team that played on the road in the first game which ended tied. There is no third game as an even score will be decided beyond 90 minutes in that second fixture.
Wrexham’s star man Paul Mullin attracted criticism when he moved down a division to join the club despite having just scored a league-record 32 goals for Cambridge United in 2021. The 28-year-old sent the home fans into raptures when he smashed home four minutes from time for what looked to be the winning strike.
Sheffield United had other ideas, though, and broke Wrexham hearts five minutes into added time when John Egan equalized for the 10 men to earn a replay at Bramall Lane. FA Cup giants vs. comparative minnows clashes like these are what makes the competition one of the most special domestic cups in soccer and it is extremely lucrative for smaller clubs.
In forcing a replay, Phil Parkinson’s men now have to travel to Sheffield to play the second leg away from home for a chance to reach the fifth round. That game will take place on Feb. 7-8.
So, just to recap, Wrexham came within several minutes of advancing to a level only seen by five other clubs in more than a century and a half. And had that advancement taken away–temporarily–by a stoppage time goal in what turned out to be the third-to-last-minute of the match. And they both get to do it all over again, with Wrexham a road team, no less, in a week or so.
Honestly, any writer–even those with the genius and creativity of those who write FX series–would have been hard-pressed to concopt this scenario.
I’m struggling to put this into context for less passionate sports fans. Occasionally, we’ll see the likes of a 3-22 regular season doormat pulling off four or five consecutive wins in a post-season college basketball tournament to advance to the Big Dance. We’ll see the likes of an NAIA team like Chaminade upsetting the #1 college basketball team in the country in a holiday tournament. We’ll see an FCS upstart like Applachian State beat Michigan in Ann Arbor in August. We’ll unearth the story of HOOSIERS, which tells the saga of a rural Indiana high school team that wins the state title where basketball is a religion, but even that true story was embellished and hired Gene Hackman to play the coach.
This is real time, unscripted, high drama. And it’s yet to be finished.
I took FX’s czar John Landgraf to task earlier this month for seemingly ignoring his network’s unscripted presence in his annual count of “peak TV” shows. Candidly, I don’t know what asterisk or disclaimer may or may not be used and whether or not WELCOME TO WREXHAM is included. John also tends to be skeptical of Nielsen ratings, so I’m not sure the 100-200K numbers the linear airings of the show matter much to him. Per Reelgood, a third-party measurement panel of 5 million opted-in participants with access to multiple streaming services, the show’s premiere, dropped in the same window as HOUSE OF THE DRAGON, finished seventh overall for that August week, so I’d suspect the show has a substantial augmented audience on Hulu and in delayed viewing. Kinda like THE BEAR or DAVE, other half-hour hits that John and company more regularly (and, yes, with justification) crow about.
I’d like to think a storyline like this, and this kind of free publicity, might attract enough attention to get him to rethink the value of unscripted content, particularly as the storm clouds of a writer’s strike loom larger as we head into the spring. Honestly, I’m likely a bit harsh in this case, since I know he and his colleagues value emotion, intelligence and passion in storytelling. I know for fact he values McElhenney. So I’m optimistic there will be a little more attention given to the replay than perhaps what we saw so far in this off-season (Hint: Maybe an impromptu linear marathon of Season One next weekend, with no NFL football to compete with, to expand the reach of and to get an early start on Season Two might be in order?, Possibly in conjunction with your cousins at ESPN to amplify further, since they’ll likely have the rights to the replay match as well?)
Perhaps I’m dreaming more than I typically do. Forgive me, it’s been that kind of a weekend. But thanks to Wrexham AFC, and some truly incredible drama before a God-awful football game that I’m sure McElhenney nonethless enjoyed immensely, my cloudy day of solitude got a little bit, well, sunnier.
They may or may not count Wrexham on their precious list. I know I do on my list of favorite shows. And I’m not counting them the team out next week, either. Frankly, they’re more of a personal inspiration for me than ever.
Until next time…