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Wrexham's takeover may make football the cart behind a documentary horse

The Guardian logo The Guardian 23/11/2020 Paul MacInnes

We stand on the verge of a golden age of North Walian entertainment. Next summer, assuming this godawful pandemic relents, filming will begin on a movie called A League Apart. An “original British romantic comedy”, it will tell the story of lovelorn Phil, forced on the curved horns of a dilemma by his restless girlfriend. He has to choose between her or his deadbeat football team – a tough one for Phil, as Wrexham are just about to play Arsenal in the 1992 FA Cup.

There is some dramatic irony, in that Wrexham pull off one of the biggest giantkillings of the modern era when Mickey Thomas’s late, rasping free-kick helps to topple George Graham’s league champions. The issue the film hopefully resolves is whether Phil gets to see it, or even better, gives his girlfriend his ticket.

Related: Deadpool goes to Wrexham … wary footie fans ponder their star benefactors

Production company Mad As Birds rushed out an announcement about the film at the end of last week. Could they not contain their excitement at starting filming in 10 months’ time? Or was it a more strategic ploy to jump on the back of another recently announced entertainment project; the takeover of Wrexham by actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney?

It has been one of the feelgood tales of the year. Just at exactly the same time as Wall Street financiers start looking at European football clubs as a reliable bet for future earnings growth (itself an indictment on the global economy), so two Hollywood stars appear out of nowhere to make a peppercorn offer for the third oldest professional football club in the world.

The warm glow only intensified when Reynolds and McElhenney (Deadpool and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Mac, respectively) pitched to one of the few supporters’ groups to actually have control of the club they love. They would look at (the possibility of) upgrading the Racecourse Ground. They would guarantee the club cannot be relocated, renamed or rebranded (though not what might happen with the brand, as is). They would also “WIN, WIN, WIN” and “always beat Chester”.

The lads then made a video promoting club sponsor Ifor Williams Trailers in which they found comic material in struggling to pronounce the name. Finally, they revealed in a Zoom call with Trust members that, yes, they had already started filming the whole process for the purposes of a documentary.

On the one hand they were always going to do that. Two handsome not-quite-so-young-any-more men from Hollywood, they are used to having the camera on them. What’s more it’s a decent pitch: two Americans come to North Wales to try and save a sleeping giant, are (presumably) quickly out of their depth. Like Ted Lasso, but real! And, likely enough, funnier.

On the other hand, it’s also a decent investment. An article on Bloomberg last week suggested that a streaming company, like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, might pay £300,000 an hour for a documentary of this sort, which – at eight episodes per series – would more than double the club’s annual revenue and also cover off the duo’s £2m investment in the club in their first year.

There is a third hand too, where an even bolder strategy may be at work. The club director who brought Reynolds and McElhenney to Wrexham insists the documentary is a secondary consideration. “As I see it, the football club is the horse and the documentary is the cart”, Spencer Harris said. But what if it wasn’t? What if the documentary didn’t run for eight episodes, but for 16? Or umpteen?

In the entertainment industry a franchise is a force multiplier. It allows you to do things – create spin-offs, sell merch, build theme park rides – that one-offs simply can’t. Reynolds is developing Deadpool 3. Always Sunny in Philadelphia has been renewed for a 15th season, making it the longest-running live action sitcom in the history of US TV. The boys know all about the power of cranking out another one.

Football, as we know, is now a strand of showbiz. If the documentary did become the horse and the football the cart, then Reynolds and McElhenney might be able to create entertainment alchemy. Football creates great narratives, but it could do with a few more, especially outside the matches. You may have 180 minutes a week where there is a possibility of something exciting happening; what about the rest of the time?

What if, through the judicious use of Hollywood storyboarding and an effective casting director working alongside the recruitment team, Wrexham AFC could be something you’d tune into like you would EastEnders? Or, even better, the Kardashians?

At some point someone will become the first Reality Show Football Club. Borussia Dortmund, say, with their photogenic young talent from across the world (Will Erling forgive Gio for compromising his lotus position? Is Jadon getting jealous of Jude?). Or, just simply, West Ham.

At the top end of football, putting results before plot twists may yet remain paramount for some time. Lower down the divisions, where things are less All or Nothing, more Something or Other, there is more flexibility.

Stories that have ups and downs, comedy as well as tragedy, are there for the writing. Imagine if Wrexham had played Arsenal in ’92 but instead of Thomas slamming his set-piece top bins, it was the adopted son of the local trailer magnate who had broken up with the chairman’s daughter? Now that’s one heck of a narrative resolution.

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