wrexham’s short-term ambitions are clear to everyone. The Welsh club famous for having two Hollywood actor owners desperately want to quickly exit the National League and have invested significantly in the playing squad so there are no delays to the club’s return to the Football League.
They sit top of the table and, although underdogs despite claiming the scalp of Coventry in the the last round, few would be surprised if they pulled off an FA Cup upset against the Championship’s Sheffield United on Sunday. Success on the pitch will help with their plans off it as the club plot building a new academy to provide a solid foundation for their long-term plans.
Wrexham has fostered some of the finest Welsh players in recent times but few have passed through the National League club’s center of excellence, something they are hoping to change. Nottingham Forest full-back Neco Williams, Fulham winger Harry Wilson and Rangers midfielder Tom Lawrence are all from the area but were picked up by bigger clubs in their youth. Wrexham know they need to improve their offering to attract talented young prospects.
Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney’s ownership has helped attract a wider audience with the focus mainly being first team’s endeavors. A documentary about Wrexham highlights their endeavors but plenty of progress is being made behind the scenes, too.
Les Reed, the former Southampton head of football development, has been hired as a consultant with the overhauling of the youth structure part of his remit. “The owners want it to be the best academy in Wales and they want it to compete on a fairly strong basis with the English academies around the north-west,” Reed says. “Bearing in mind it would be part of a pecking order because that includes Manchester United and Liverpool. They want it to be the best it can be.”
There are other more immediate priorities such as the redevelopment of the Kop stand to increase capacity by 5,500 at the Racecourse Ground as well as building a training ground. Wrexham must now build an academy from scratch and will need a long time for their youth setup to challenge Premier League clubs for players. Before the new owners arrived, Wrexham was run by a supporters’ trust whose main focus was on keeping the football club alive. Investment in youth was not a luxury that could be afforded.
“When you look at the potential of Wrexham in a number of areas, one of which is youth development, what you certainly see is that Wrexham might be a small city but it represents a huge area that is north Wales and so it has an excellent catchment area for a fanbase but also young players,” Reed says. “If you can tap into that there is every reason a good youth program would be very successful.”
The American owners naturally make the club a more enticing prospect, their fame is infectious in Wrexham and has attracted a new fan base. That includes making the forward Paul Mullin famous in the United States and Sunday’s FA Cup tie will be aired live on ESPN.
“The fact is Wrexham has become a trendy club, one that is celebrated on social media all over the world in a way that none of the other competitors is, possibly even some of the clubs in England,” Reed explains.
“It is really appealing to young players and because it spreads far and wide, you can have an impact on the catchment areas like Liverpool, Manchester and Stoke and its surrounding towns because there is something different about Wrexham that is not like going to play for Port Vale if you are in Manchester lad. It has got this other aura about it which is attractive.
“We have to use that and reach far and wide to make sure we are getting young players, who given the opportunity and doing the right things you have to do would choose Wrexham over another competitor in that area. There is no doubt Ryan and Rob’s coverage in the media and their celebrity status makes a big difference, in the same way that TikTok want to be on our shirts. It is an advantage that you have got to use.”
Even without an academy, the club’s center of excellence produced the Leicester and Wales goalkeeper, Danny Ward, who was sold to Liverpool without playing a first-team game for Wrexham. Another product of this system was Jordan Davies. The Coedpoeth-born midfielder is back at his local club after a spell at Brighton and will be integral against Sheffield United.
Promotion would mean coming under EFL regulations, which would mean moving from a center of excellence to an academy. The plan would be to secure Category 3 status within two years. The club need to identify a site to build a training ground and academy but the structure is in place for how their youth recruitment will work. In addition to attracting local youth players, Reed hopes those who have been through the academy systems at more established clubs in the catchment area would be willing to join Wrexham when they are released.
“Wrexham is a club that has significant meaning to the people of north Wales. A kid brought up in north Wales who gets the opportunity to join Wrexham will jump at it,” Reed believes. “Even though there are other clubs in our tier or the League of Wales, they would choose Wrexham. That is a given due to the history and culture of the club.
“Then what happens, as I found out at Southampton, you get a good reputation and then some players, Luke Shaw being one, would opt to be with Southampton rather than Chelsea where he could have gone because he sees the opportunities are greater and if he is good enough he will end up a top Premier League club, which he did.”
There is no denying the potential of a club with a large catchment area, celebrity owners and an upwardly mobile team. But, as Reed says, it is going to take plenty of hard work to get Wrexham’s youth setup to match their grand ambitions.