Hope, grief & a very un-Hollywood ending: A year in thrall to Wrexham
With each goal, the sense of dread grew stronger.
By the third, there was a familiar feeling of inevitability, and by the fifth a resigned but no less painful acknowledgement that it was all over for another year.
Across 120 minutes, the overall experience for a typical Wrexham fan over the past couple of decades was encapsulated. Nervousness, hope, brief excitement, but in the end disappointment.
We have all been here before. Four defeats previously in the National League playoffs have numbed some of the more hardened supporters, but this one still hurt.
It hurt because this time it had felt different. Things were changing, on and off the pitch; surely this year, after 15 years of failure, would be the year.
It wasn’t. Once again, Wrexham fans were left to reflect, to hope, to look forward to that hypothetical day when promotion to the Football League becomes a reality.
It has, at times, felt like an eternal wait. So what’s another year in the grand scheme of things?
A new dawn
The season promised big things. There was a palpable sense of anticipation and excitement around Wrexham AFC, not least because of the high-profile takeover by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.
They had already brought in lucrative sponsorships from TikTok and Expedia, helping to fund a summer of serious investment in the playing squad. Paul Mullin, League Two’s top scorer in 2020-21, was signed from Cambridge, while Ben Tozer and Aaron Hayden were pried away from Cheltenham and Carlisle respectively.
These were established EFL players, far too good for the National League. With their arrival, expectation rose, and even the most pessimistic, cynical, fatalistic Wrexham fans began to believe.
I am certainly in that bracket, reluctant to ever truly expect anything but disappointment. That has come from experience: at the age of 25, over half of my life as a Wrexham supporter has been spent watching failed attempts to get out of non-league.
It had been easy to make the argument that, before Reynolds and McElhenney arrived, Wrexham were amongst the most unfortunate, pitiable clubs in the country.
We had, aside from over a decade of complete stagnation, nearly gone out of business, and the financial future looked as bleak as ever.
The renewed optimism and excitement was understandable, then. Wrexham were usually skint, but now they were rich, handpicking players from higher up divisions and plotting an ascent up the leagues.
I was living in London when the season began, away from the centre of the action, unable really to judge the mood. From afar, though, it seemed like both the town and the club, in need of reinvigoration, had come to life again.
In my flat overlooking Hampstead Heath, I listened to radio commentary of the early home games, tense and anxious and convinced that a strong start to the season was imperative.
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I listened when Rob and Ryan made their first visit to the Racecourse, returning to the US disappointed when a late equaliser from Torquay silenced the near 10,000 fans in attendance.
I listened as we edged to a narrow victory over Woking and rescued a draw with a late Mullin strike against Chesterfield.
And I travelled to nearby away games, at Eastleigh and Southend and Barnet, soaking up the jubilant atmosphere. Even when the result wasn’t the right one, there was a sense that the bigger picture was more important.
Everything had been put in place. This team would, eventually, be successful, and financial worries were a thing of the past.
The underlying pessimism wasn’t easily suppressed, though. It lay dormant for a while, but then bubbled to the surface as winter approached.
The clouds were dark and foreboding. Summer had long gone and the reality of life had returned in all its mundanity, the idealism of July and August now passed.
It rained persistently, with no sign of stopping. The bleakness of it all was fitting, given what was to come.
I was in Aldershot, in early October, expecting Wrexham to swat aside one of the National League’s strugglers.
It had been a stuttering start to the campaign. Encouraging wins were followed by dispiriting draws and defeats.
A 2-1 loss at Stockport in the previous game had left us seventh in the early standings, seven points off top. It felt, even at this early stage, like a win was necessary.
My mood was lifted by two Wrexham goals in the first half at Aldershot’s Recreation Ground. But the foreboding clouds were about to unleash an apocalyptic torrent of rain. Water dripped from the roof of the dilapidated away stand, trickling forlornly to the ground and forming a puddle.
When the players came back out for the second half, it quickly became apparent that the pitch was waterlogged. The ball refused to roll across the sodden pitch. Mullin’s efforts to dry the worst affected patch with a towel were in vain, and the referee’s signal soon after that the match was abandoned resulted in cheers from the home fans.
One of the more surreal things I’ve seen at a football match: Ryan Reynolds’ Wrexham players trying to squeegee the pitch so their match at Aldershot wouldn’t be abandoned, while buckets were still falling. Needless to say, it didn’t work. pic.twitter.com/skNcsjCcrI
— David Slotnick (@David_Slotnick) October 2, 2021
Aldershot, 2-0 down, were given a reprieve. I stood amongst the cold and exasperated Wrexham fans in the away end, beyond frustrated at first and later utterly miserable. This was, without question, the worst I had felt after a game of football.
The weather contributed. I was soaked by the time I made it back to the train station, where I sat alone and contemplative. There was no one for me to vent to, no friends and family around to angrily discuss the injustice of it all.
I was alone in London, a city of nine million people, and this grim afternoon in Aldershot was when it really hit home. When I was back in the capital, I took the tube and walked up Kentish Town Road towards my flat, feeling invisible, my problems insignificant in a sea of equally invisible people.
Winter was difficult. Wrexham’s form remained inconsistent and my life in London was still a struggle. In a city so vibrant, so vast and energetic, it felt like things were happening to everyone except me.
After a few more weeks of solitude, I moved back home, leaving my job and the city behind. It was March, the nights were drawing out, and I felt like I could look to the future again. Wrexham were beginning to find some form, too.
I was now attending home matches and with each one, the renewed sense of optimism grew stronger. We were winning and winning well, putting four goals past high-flying Boreham Wood and three past title hopefuls Halifax Town.
In late March, bottom side Dover came to the Racecourse. They had already been relegated and won just once all season, so they were given no hope of an upset.
Astonishingly, they were 2-5 up by the 63rd minute. That, in itself, was remarkable, but the comeback that followed was unlike anything I had ever seen.
Wrexham, with two quick goals from January signing Ollie Palmer, made it 4-5. Two more goals in added time, the last of which came in the 98th minute, completed a miraculous turnaround.
63' Wrexham 2-5 Dover
90+8' Wrexham 6-5 Dover
Appropriately, @Wrexham_AFC produced a comeback worthy of Hollywood! ✨
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 27, 2022
The celebrations were wild. I nearly passed out, bruised my leg after smashing it into the seat in front of me and had a hoarse voice for days after.
There was colour again. This couldn’t have been further removed from the bleakness of Aldershot. The adrenaline was still high as we walked out of the stadium at full time, disbelieving, incredulous. This was, undoubtedly, a high point.
But more followed. Only a week later, Mullin scored an audacious last-minute lob to beat Stockport in the FA Trophy semi-final, sparking more flailing limbs at the Racecourse. Reynolds, in attendance, loved it as much as anyone.
Then came a 6-0 thrashing of Barnet, a 3-2 win over Eastleigh – with another last-minute Mullin winner – and a 4-0 victory over Altrincham. What a time, I thought, to be back in Wrexham. How much I would have missed had I been sat alone in London.
At one point, a late surge for the National League title seemed a genuine possibility. A couple of slip-ups away at Woking and Boreham Wood meant it was increasingly unlikely, but Wrexham kept it alive with an emphatic 3-0 win over Stockport on the penultimate weekend.
It was Stockport, though, who came out on top, finishing the job on home turf and sealing promotion back to League Two. Still, the playoffs and an FA Trophy final at Wembley beckoned. There was plenty to be hopeful about.
I was back in London, this time with my family. The FA Trophy final was an excuse for many to head to the capital for a long weekend, with a day out at Wembley an added bonus.
On the day of the game, the sun was shining and the atmosphere was lively. Wrexham’s fans, many inebriated long before the 4:15pm kick-off time, chanted as they walked down Wembley Way, eager to set the tone for the game.
But the match itself was flat. Though there were nearly 25,000 Wrexham fans in attendance, the acoustics made it sound like far fewer. And, in truth, there wasn’t a huge amount to shout about. Fellow National League side Bromley executed their game plan well and, after taking a 1-0 lead in the second half, saw out the remaining minutes fairly comfortably.
It was underwhelming, a muted occasion that ultimately felt insignificant with the playoff semi-final on the horizon. Still, losing at Wembley always feels uniquely gut-wrenching. I was unhappy as we made the walk back down Wembley Way and into the crammed tube station, vowing never to return to the stadium again.
We were due to get the train home on the Monday afternoon, giving us another night in London to take our minds off the disappointment. I was still sulking when the hospital called.
We rushed across to Euston station, took the next train home and at 1am that night I spoke to my nana for the last time. She passed away four days later.
The reality of this is hard to come to terms with. The grief comes in waves, rising up at unexpected moments, triggered by unlikely things.
It was still there the following weekend, when Wrexham played Grimsby in the playoff semi-final, a game that felt seismic for so many reasons.
The Racecourse was packed and raucous. I was emotional and anxious, alert to my senses, ready to be wrapped up in 90 minutes of meaningful distraction, the best and most important of all the distractions.
With each goal, I found myself entirely in the moment, long seconds of delight. And with each Grimsby goal, I was exasperated. By the full-time whistle, after 120 minutes, after nine months, I was spent.
We had lost, 5-4, and the season was over. It was time to grieve, to reflect, to look back and to look forwards.
There is, as always, reason to hope for a brighter future. And the memories, even amid the despair, are good ones.