In November 2020, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” star Rob McElhenney purchased a small British soccer club in Wrexham, Wales, with fellow actor Ryan Reynolds.
The pair subsequently vaulted the British team into the global spotlight by investing in the side’s push to win a National League championship and promotion into the fourth tier of English professional soccer. Throughout the process, they documented the highs and lows of the journey with a heart-warming and often self-deprecating Hulu series.
On Friday night, McElhenney’s team finally got its long-awaited game in its co-owner’s hometown, with Wrexham taking on the Philadelphia Union II at Subaru Park in Chester. The packed crowd that showed up for kick-off dissipated after lightning led to a two-and-a-half hour weather delay, but those who braved the rainy second half were given an entertaining 1-1 draw.
The final stop of Wrexham’s four-game U.S. tour brought in old and new fans for celebrations that began before Friday night. For many, the match was an opportunity to celebrate perhaps the biggest current exponent of Welsh culture. One that has still maintained its down-to-earth humility and ability to even join in on the festivities.
‘It’s like being in a Welsh bar in the middle of Philadelphia’
For those in the know, the place to truly kick off Wrexham’s Philly visit was Mac’s Tavern in Old City Thursday evening. The bar, co-owned by McElhenney, has become the one reliable spot in the city to watch the team live amongst other supporters.
On Thursday, the tavern was filled with patrons wearing all variations of Wrexham shirts, Welsh flags hung up on the walls, and the tunes of the Declan Swans, a Wrexham band whose music was highlighted throughout the first season of FX’s “Welcome to Wrexham” documentary series.
Don McCloskey, a musician and friend of McElhenney’s since their time at St. Joe’s Prep, provided the band with gear to perform.
“It’s like being in a Welsh bar in the middle of Philadelphia,” he said, describing the vibe in Mac’s that night. “It’s like visiting Wales and finding an Eagles bar, and it actually being an authentic Eagles bar.”
McCloskey said he wasn’t a big soccer fan before that night, but when he told one of the team’s supporters he was an Eagles fan, they gave him a Midnight Green Wrexham jersey, which sealed his newfound allegiance.
Before Philly, Wrexham started itstour in Chapel Hill, N.C., where the team lost to Premier League powerhouse Chelsea. The Red Dragons then traveled to Carson, Los Angeles, where they defeated the LA Galaxy’s reserve team, and most recently pulled off an upset win over a Manchester United team comprised of youngsters in San Diego.
Wrexham native and club historian Peter Jones recalled the before-times, when Wrexham’s summer tours were far closer to home.
“We used to go to the Isle of Man. Now that was a big thing for us, to go to the Isle of Man,” Jones said. “I never envisaged I’d ever see Wrexham Football Club in the United States of America. And what a brilliant time we’ve had.”
For him and others following the team around the U.S., Philly was the most important stop, because of what McElhenney had done for the club.
Well after the live music stopped and match tickets, provided by 2SP Brewing Company, were raffled off to customers, the attention of those near the entrance turned to a bus that had stopped outside the bar. Wrexham players and staff, having just visited the Rocky statue, stepped out and took a team photo in front of the Tavern, before the players got straight back onto the bus. Members of the team’s coaching and non-playing staff remained on the sidewalk, and then, led by team manager Phil Parkinson, entered Mac’s to order a round of beers with Wrexham fans.
“For Americans, your sports teams, they’re quite untouchable … you can’t get near them,” Andy Gilpin, a Wrexham fan and podcaster, said on why the team has resonated with American fans. “But you can relate to Wrexham because it’s a working-class town with a working-class team.”
‘I think everybody’s an honorary Welshman tonight, right?’
Ahead of Friday’s match, fans from both sides flowed into the stadium on the bank of the Delaware River.
“This is such a welcoming place,” Wrexham native Clare Hughes said about the Wrexham fan zone outside the stadium. “But also it brought a tear to my eye because you go in there and it’s like in some strange way you’re in Wrexham, but it’s authentic.”
Aside from the traveling fans from Wrexham and the regular supporters of the Union’s reserve side, many sports fans came in to just enjoy the game and the spectacle of the day.
Kevin and Maggie Wright, Philadelphia Union season ticket holders from Collegeville, Pennsylvania, said that this match would be their first-ever Union II game and that they tried to dress as neutral as possible for the occasion.
“I’ve got my Philly T-shirt on here because we don’t know tonight. We don’t care. We just know it’s going to be a good game.” Maggie said. “I think everybody’s an honorary Welshman tonight, right?”
Members of the Welsh Society of Philadelphia had also purchased tickets with the hope of creating a “red wall” of support, said Catrin Brace, a member of the society’s board of stewards. Although some members typically root for Cardiff or Swansea’s football teams — historically, two more popular and successful sides than Wrexham — they were happy to set aside club rivalries to support the success of another Welsh team, this time.
“Perhaps it would be a bit more difficult if say it was a Cardiff game,” Sean Horton, a Swansea native and supporter currently living in Yardley, said days before the game. “But with Wrexham coming out, it would just be good to go along and see a game of football and support a Welsh team.”
For the Wrexham fans, many mentioned having to stomach playing in a place called Chester, the namesake of the club’s heated local rivals in the U.K.
“We’ll forgive that, just to be in Philly,” said Andy Culkin from Wrexham.
‘The chants of ‘Wrexham, Wrexham, Wrexham’ ringing out deep into the Philly night’
Ahead of kickoff, both the Welsh and U.S. national anthems were performed, with fans in the stands singing along to both. The stadium was packed, with only small pockets of empty seats visible. The home supporter’s section made sure that Union chants and songs were the loudest noise in the stadium from the first blow of the referee’s whistle.
Both sides had good chances in the first half, and Wrexham found the breakthrough in the 42nd minute. A ricocheted ball from a corner fell to Tom O’Conner near the penalty, and he calmly slotted it into the net.
Wrexham’s lead didn’t last long, though. In the third minute of stoppage time, Jeremy Rafanello’s low free kick curled around the Wrexham wall and beat the wrong-footed Ben Foster.
When the teams were off the field for the halftime break, lightning struck within 8 miles of the stadium and a heavy downpour of rain soon followed, causing a lengthy severe weather delay before the start of the second half. Fans were told to move from the open seating areas to the shelter of the stadium’s concourse, though some remained in the dryer parts of the seated area, singing and dancing — and some running out onto the field.
When play eventually resumed close to 11 p.m., with rain still coming down and much of the crowd departed. The noise levels were still admirably high, and those still there collectively gasped at each subsequent lightning strike, but all were deemed too far to stop play.
Wrexham opted to make sweeping changes to the lineup and the Union II carried on their momentum from Rafanello’s goal. Philadelphia substitute Nelson Pierre was denied only the post in the 80th minute, and Wrexham could not find the net in its last attacking push in stoppage time.
After the match, Wrexham manager Parkinson said that the team’s two days in the city, though short, had lived up to high praise he had heard from McElhenney.
“He always speaks so well of the area and we’ve had a great welcome tonight,” Parkinson said after the match. “And in between the two halves, I had a chance to speak to a lot of the Union supporters who were here tonight and [I] enjoyed that.”
For McElhenney, the match offered a confluence of two places he has put his heart and soul into.
The chants of 🎶 “Wrexham, Wrexham, Wrexham” 🎶 ringing out deep into the Philly night, after 2 hours of weather delay continues to give me goosebumps. 🏴 🇺🇸— Rob McElhenney (@RMcElhenney) July 29, 2023
Saturdays just got more interesting.