The Great Story You Might Not See in ‘Welcome to Wrexham’April 8, 2023
NOTTINGHAM, England — The irony of it all, really, is that Notts County would make a terrific subject for a documentary.
The elevator pitch is simple. After more than a decade of financial strife and rolling existential crises — featuring both a convicted fraudster and fictional Gulf investment — the oldest professional soccer club in the world puts together a record-shattering campaign, one that promises to restore the team to something close to its former glory.
The casting is rich and compelling. There is a fallen Premier League prodigy searching for a home, a virtuoso Portuguese playmaker who has never seen an opponent he cannot nutmeg, and a 26-year-old striker experiencing such an absurd hot streak that he was, at one point, being compared to Erling Haaland. Tasked with shaping them into a team is a manager whose adventurous, accomplished approach is still just a little unorthodox in the mud-spattered lower reaches of English professional soccer. But the results are spectacular.
In a division that is competitive to the point of arbitrary, the team loses only twice all season. It has scored more than 100 goals, and it’s on course to break the league’s points record with four games left. It might yet win the title. Plenty of shows have been commissioned on less.
That is the story of Notts County’s season, but that does not mean it is the story that will be told. Millions of viewers will, in all likelihood, come to think of the club as an antagonist: an obstacle to be overcome, a threat to be parried, a challenge to be met. And that means one of the most remarkable campaigns in Notts County’s long and occasionally illustrious history will be relegated to a supporting role in someone else’s story.
Two Teams, One Narrative
A few weeks ago, the producers of “Welcome to Wrexham” — the FX documentary following the takeover and attempted revival of the Welsh town’s forlorn soccer team by the actors and entrepreneurs Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney — made contact with executives at Notts County. Out of courtesy, they said, they wanted to establish how much the club wanted to feature in the show’s second season.
It is hard to see how Notts County will not play a prominent role. For months, it and Wrexham have been locked in a breathless race to escape the National League, the fifth tier of English soccer. There is only one automatic promotion slot available — bringing with it a guaranteed return to the ranks of the Football League — and neither side has blinked in its pursuit of it.
The pace has been eye-watering. Both are expected to end the season with more points than the division has ever seen. Their nearest rival is 25 points adrift. Each has fed off the other’s refusal to wilt. “We’ve been pushing each other,” said Connell Rawlinson, the Notts County captain. (He was born in Wrexham, and still lives close by: add that to the list of subplots.) “If Wrexham didn’t have us and we didn’t have them, would either of us be as good as we are?”
Strictly speaking, Wrexham has long had the edge. Its squad is deeper, and more expensive. It has an extra game to play, as well as the home-field advantage when it meets Notts County on Monday evening, a match with the air of a ready-made season finale.
In public, Notts County’s manager, Luke Williams, has done what he can to prepare the club — the fans, the executives, his players — for disappointment. “It’s not that we’re not clear,” he said after watching his side pick apart yet another opponent in late March. “It’s that we’re not even close. We need a two-loss swing.” One of those defeats duly arrived on Friday — Wrexham lost at Halifax — but it still held that crucial game in hand.
In private, Williams acknowledges that the prospect of being forced to go through the National League’s somewhat arcane and distinctly treacherous playoff system in search of a second chance at promotion “haunts” him. “I haven’t slept since Christmas,” he said.
The players have reacted slightly differently. “I’d rather be part of doing something like this, having that pressure and that stress, than sitting in mid-table with nothing to compete for,” Rawlinson said. “I’m sure the Wrexham team and the fans are enjoying it, too.” He paused, at that point, and thought about the truth of that statement. “Well, maybe not the fans, so much.”
That graciousness is fairly typical of relations between the clubs. Given the intensity of their title race — and the stakes involved — it might be expected for a sporting rivalry to metastasize into an outright hostility, particularly given the advantages at Wrexham’s disposal.
It is the Welsh club, after all, that can call on TikTok and Expedia as sponsors, and McElhenney, Reynolds and his wife, Blake Lively, as regular guests. Notts County’s stardust extends no further than the singer Jake Bugg, born in Nottingham, who sponsors the club’s away jerseys.
That financial primacy has a real-world impact. When Wrexham was short of a goalkeeper, it coaxed Ben Foster, a former England international, out of retirement. Notts County had to recall a 19-year-old from a loan at a club two divisions below.
For the most part, though, there is no sense of outrage or oppression. Instead, Rawlinson, said, there is a recognition that both teams are “steeped in history, and that neither club should be where they are.”
“The publicity Wrexham has brought has been great for the division as a whole,” he said. “There are a lot of eyes on these games now.”
There will be far more, though, who encounter them not as contemporaneous sporting events but as something else: a small part of a broader narrative, one that is packaged and polished and consumed on a delay of several months, once the conclusion is known.
“I was coming out of a game a few weeks ago, when we’d just got to 97 points,” said Tom Wagstaff, a founder of the Notts County Talk YouTube channel. “As annoying as it is that we’re not clear at the top, it is incredible to be involved in something like this. I genuinely think it’s the best title race the league has ever seen. But I don’t know if that is how it will be perceived.”
The framing, after all, is not in Notts County’s hands. The act of making television, after all, involves not simply telling a story but choosing which aspects of that story should be accentuated. Documentaries necessarily have a perspective. And that perspective changes the way a story is not only told, but understood.
Nobody in Nottingham is particularly worried that “Welcome to Wrexham” will cast Notts County as the bad guys, the villains of the story of this season. Nobody at the club seems especially offended at the idea that the show might present the team backed by Hollywood money as in some way “plucky.”
But they know that, however the season ends, far more people will watch the documentary than follow the National League in real time. For those viewers, Notts County’s story will not be a stand-alone achievement, a thing that happened in its own right and with its own meaning, but rather something that exists solely as it pertains to its effect on Wrexham. Its meaning will be contorted and confused and to some extent lost. It will not be consumed as sport at all, not really. It will just be part of the plot.
In that, perhaps, there is a solace. “Really, we’ve done them a favor,” said George Vizard, Wagstaff’s co-presenter on YouTube. “If it wasn’t for us, they’d have won it weeks ago. And for the show, it must be better to win it like this than it would be if they had won it at a canter.” The story will, in the end, be about Wrexham. But it will be thanks to Notts County that there is now a much better story to tell.
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