One of my guilty pleasures last fall during the Lehigh football season was watching the FX show "Welcome to Wrexham". It was a surprising balm on a tough 2-9 year.
It only came about - surprisingly - at the insistence of my wife.
She had just returned from jury duty in Philadelphia, and one of the people she chatted with recommended the show. She was excited to see it. For my part, I thought, sure, a show about sports and English soccer? Sign me up.
The story of how two Hollywood stars bout a Welsh soccer team is interesting. During the pandemic, the British actor Humphrey Ker suggested to actor Rob McElhenny (creator, writer and star of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) watch the excellent sports docuseries “Sunderland ’Til I Die,” which documented the doomed task of Sunderland and their fans as they tried to keep their club in the Premier League alongside international brands Manchester City, Liverpool, and Manchester United.
I have this habit of scanning through the different streaming services at our disposal. Every time I saw "Welcome to Wrexham", I'd shake my head and move on. Sure, I knew I would like it, but for her, I had doubts. Bros? Hooliganism? The dark side of sports? I figured it wasn't a viewing match for her.
But I was spectacularly wrong.
You have to understand something about my wife - she's the biggest Anglophile I've ever met. She is mostly Greek and Italian heritage, but she is enthralled by everything English, from tea to scones to the Monarchy to Downton Abbey to the Great British Bake-Off.She was also born in Philadelphia, and grew up there for a while before emigrating to the suburbs. Like many people here, she supports and roots for pretty much any organization with the name "Philadelphia" emblazoned across the front. This Philly connection would have be critical in terms of her enjoying the show.
"Welcome to Wrexham" ended up, basically, the perfect blend of Philly (McIlhenny) celebrity (Ryan Reynolds, of course) and Wales (the town of Wrexham, and the type of working class city it is).
And just this week, Season 2 of the series just kicked off. In the first episode of this season they talk a lot about meeting the former Prince of Wales (you may know him), and they set up a series of storylines based on their season from last year. Like Season 1, the series does a great job of creating storylines and some drama that even someone who knows the results (like I do - I do indeed follow the team now and watch them when I can) can enjoy the series.
You probably know me best for freaking out about Lehigh football (of the American Football kind), but the truth is being a fan of FCS football and being a fan of a National League club in England has a lot of similarities.
In fact, as I slowly warmed to the idea of becoming a Wrexham fan through the series and the documentaries, the similarities of Lehigh Nation and Wrexham Nation became even more apparent to me.
English football, er, soccer, is an amazing construct.
Built over hundreds of years, with thousands of clubs from the most amateur to the most professionals, there are a dizzying number of competitions and levels.
There are league games, elimination trophy tournaments that get waged in the middle of the season, and most importantly promotion and demotion from leagues.
The leagues are unabashedly capitalist at their core; the TV contracts dictate that a promotion from the National League to the Second Division allows a club to get more TV money, have fewer restrictions on signing international players, and generally drums up more excitement for the local area.
Although this is becoming an antiquated concept, you can think of it as winning not only a championship, but also winning a deal to have their games broadcast on their own cable network across the state. It brings in money for the club and the town.
What smaller English soccer teams and FCS college football teams have in common are a tight local link to a smaller cities.
In Welcome to Wrexham, Rob McElhenny mentions at the beginning of Season 1 the similarities between Philadelphia and Wrexham, but in truth to me Wrexham (61,000 urban population) has a lot more in common with a city like Bethlehem (116,000 population) than Philadelphia (over 56 million people live within 250 miles of its metro area). At least when I look at Wrexham, I see it more like a Lehigh Valley type industrial town in Wales, not a Philadelphia sized city.
The genius of the documentary is how it's not just a wonky explanation of their National League, the fifth level (and the highest semi-professional level) of English soccer, and Wrexham's quest to make it to Division Two, the lowest rung of fully professional soccer (and four leagues away from the Liverpool's and Manchester City's).
The city of Wrexham, its residents, the celebrity owners, the players, and even Welsh (the language), feature at different times. It's presented such a way that it shows lots of backstories, the sometimes quirky history of some of their fans, the employees, the pub attached the the stadium (and its owner), the coaches, everything.
Even the name of the documentary series, Welcome to Wrexham, doesn't necessarily mean they're talking about Wrexham AFC, the soccer club - they're could just as much be talking about Wrexham the town, which is the point - yes, the story is a lot about the soccer club, but it's also about way more than that.
I think that's why I feel such a kinship to the series - after all, I know what it's like to fall in love with the community around a mid-sized city with a steel and manufacturing background, adopt the local sports team, and try to cover them and give everybody a great experience.
I understand and realize it's not the same thing, but when I chose to attend Lehigh, it was similar to McIlhenny making a decision to put myself in that community.
I had multiple places I could have gone to college, but I chose an postindustrial town whose steel jobs had decline and would eventually leave for good. In Wrexham, McIlhenny chose the club and town of Wrexham to, effectively, support.
I don't know if something similar is happening in the mind of Rob McIlhenney (or for that matter Ryan Reynolds), but I will say watching the show, I really felt a very deep level of involvement with the club, maybe in a way that others don't.
It seems like the stone age, but when I started writing about Lehigh football on the internet, there weren't really a lot of good templates to follow on what to do.
Local papers hadn't even mastered putting their articles in a timely way on the internet. In the early days I had to find Morning Call and Express-Times articles, and print them out before they were yanked or archived (if they went up at all), and then look them over and see what they were doing and how they were covering things.
And I didn't think of myself as a journalist at the time - I felt of myself as more of a amateur humorist and a bit of a dreamer, maybe trying to impress my family and friends, trying to write about a subject I had a lot of passion about. Somewhere along the way I developed journalistic skills (yes, Virginia, I have indeed used FOIA requests to get information), but back then it was more about looking and sounding like a journalist than actually being one.
(I think there was always a journalist inside of me, even in college - but I never had the courage to join the student newspaper, The Brown and White, to try to find out. That was probably my deepest regret as a Lehigh undergraduate by an extremely wide margin, because I know it was something I had thought about.)
When I was in that wilderness, a fan of a team but not really a journalist yet, I took what the local papers had were writing about the team and tried my best to learn. I had a luxury nobody else really had - I could look over everything with a fresh pair of eyes, crafting how I wanted the story of Lehigh football to be portrayed and seen on the Internet, without anyone else's ideas.
It was in that vein I looked to the early websites of English soccer - third division and national league clubs in particular - to figure that out. (Yeovil Town's website in particular was one I really referred to a lot in those days.)
To me, it made perfect sense logically.
It helped that I had grown up overseas in France, so I knew how deep passions for the football, er, soccer, ran over there. France was not the most passionate of sports countries, but you could still see it was important if you looked closer.
Paris-Saint Germain wasn't a global brand yet bought by Middle Eastern billionaires (and it still makes me laugh that Saint Germain is a suburb of actual Paris - it's a little like if the Giants were called the New York-New Jersey Giants). When I lived there, PSG was a middling team that never seemed to live up to its contracts or potential, kind of like the 1983 Yankees.
Instead, it was Saint Etienne in the middle of the country, far away from wealth and glitz, that assembled a team of French superstars that dominated the league. Midfielder Michel Platini was a national hero, but that team was loaded, and when they beat Astroturfed teams like PSG and Monaco French fans loved it. (Plus, the kits couldn't be more 1980s if they tried.)
I think soccer fans in France always were much more closely bonded to the national teams rather than the clubs, which seems to still hold true today. You don't see a lot of PSG merchandise in Paris, but you do see some French National team jerseys.
I lived in France during two World Cups, one broadcast from Argentina live, the other broadcast from Mexico live, experiencing that madness twice.
When France beat Brazil in the Mexico City, I was sitting with my family in a little French farmhouse, sitting with the dairy farmers who were renting the place to us, watching the game on a TV with rabbit ears. Watching the Brazil fans despondent, their hands behind their heads, when lightly-regarded plucky France were celebrating was a treasured fan memory for me.
The passions were great, but they were also, at times, deadly.
I was not in Europe for Hillsborough, but I was there for Heysel, when the wall collapsed between Juventus and Liverpool supporters before the start of the European Cup final in the Netherlands. While there had been death, tragedy and hooliganism before, seeing it dominate the news for weeks in Europe showed that this wasn't just an English problem or an Italian problem anymore. Sports passions were not always good.
Basically, based on my upbringing I always knew that small cities all over Europe harbored deep passions for their local soccer teams, with England, Wales and Scotland probably topping the list.
So when I was trying to figure out how to write about Lehigh football, I knew I wasn't going to go for a national presence, like in France - I wanted something really home-grown and with coverage based on a home-grown love for their club.
I wanted for Lehigh fans to get that from anything I created - no matter where they were from in the world. Once you've gone to Bethlehem, part of it gets into you. I heavily suspect the same about Wrexham.
College sports is regional in nature, with plenty of David vs. Goliath stories. Lower division English soccer does too.
App State over Michigan. arguably the biggest FCS over FBS win in history? When Wrexham beat Arsenal in the 1992 FA Cup, it was a similar earthquake that the locals will never stop talking about.
The long-standing Patriot League Rivalry grudge match, Lehigh vs. Lafayette? Wrexham has local Rival Chester, a spicy local matchup where their stadiums are separated by twelve miles (sound familiar?), and they've competed at the same level for most of their history. (Plus Wrexham is firmly in Wales, and Chester straddles the England/Wales border, adding nationality to their Rivalry, "the Cross Border Derby".)
It shouldn't have been surprising to anyone that I was able to effortlessly consume the story of not just the club, but also the town or Wrexham and the ownership, and, without much effort, get on board.
What is massively surprising is that my wife is the one getting me up for early FA Cup ties involving Wrexham - and listening to scratchy audio commentaries of the action where the announcers critique the local food. However it came to be, it was clearly meant to be..
From the documentary, is there anything we can learn for Lehigh?
I think the biggest thing might involve the local Bethlehem community.
In the documentary, the ties between Wrexham AFC and the city of Wrexham is emphasized. The folks in the town are talking about them in coffee shops and in the streets.
There was a time, I think, where Bethlehem did the same about Lehigh football.
Before he passed away, the legendary Philadelphia Eagle legend Chuck Bednarik sat down with an interview with my friend and colleague Dave Coulson years ago.
He told Dave he started his love for football sneaking into football games at old Taylor Stadium (now the site of the Rausch Business School). His parents, immigrants from Slovakia, worked for Bethlehem Steel, and he was free to roam the streets during the day, where he found himself watching Lehigh football, and falling in love with it.
He told a story of the cops looking the other way as he snuck into the stadium. Had the cops been different, or Lehigh football or Taylor Stadium not been there, there may not have been Chuck Bednarik, Philadelphia Eagle and 1960 NFC Champion.
Head coach Kevin Cahill has talked about making Murray Goodman Stadium a tough place for opposing teams to visit. You can argue that that's exactly what Wrexham has done the past two seasons.
Whether it's the presence of the docuseries, or the renewed local interest in the club Wrexham AFC with the injection of money, talent and resources, there's little question that they are bringing more fans to their historic field, and it's helping the team.Lehigh (or me, for that matter) doesn't have a docuseries in the works on Lehigh football or the Bethlehem area (Welcome to South Mountain?), so that (for now, at least) isn't on the table. But there's definitely more that could be done to involve both students and community members.
Nobody will be sneaking kids into Murray Goodman stadium today for Lehigh football practices, but shouldn't there some sort of similar program to give free tickets to Bethlehem residents who want to catch a game, get a hotdog and a drink, and watch the Marching 97 play at halftime?
Back in the late80s or 90s, one of the biggest attended days at Lehigh was something called "Scout Day", where scores of scouts (I think they were all boy scouts) got to go to the game for free, and were honored at halftime on the field. (I remember because I was at that game.) I believe it is still on the Top 20 record non-Lafayette attendance lists.
I have no idea if the game was a moneymaker for Lehigh or not, but - how great was that for the kids that attended the game? How great was that for the local area? How many of those kids and their parents came back for more football games later in their lives?
This season, there are five home games. Maybe don't do it on senior day, or homecoming, but why couldn't there be a day where local kids, from the pee-wee leagues to high schools, can go to the game for free?
Even better, why not do a "Youth Sports Day" at Murray Goodman?
With lights, in early September, you could have a game with a 3:30 PM start time, or even a 5:00PM or 6:00 PM start time after youth sports for the day is over. That would allow pee wee football, soccer and all sorts of youth sports to conclude their activities in the mornings and afternoons, and open them up for a free or deeply discounted afternoon out at a Lehigh football game. (It also would expose them to what excelling at a sport can possibly do for them - be a ticket for a world-class education.)
I'm not here to disparage the existing theme days at Lehigh sports events, all of which I enjoy. But watching Welcome to Wrexham showed me what it can be - and in their case is - even more intertwined with the local community, especially in terms of sports.
Maybe Lehigh could do some different things to spur engagement - and maybe it will spark some imaginations to come back for those same fans to see Lehigh football games in October and November in future years.You don't need a docuseries to do all that. It does, of course, require some resources and some ingenuity, both of which Lehigh fans and boosters have.
In the end, I'm a fan. I'm a fan of Wrexham, Lehigh University, and Bethlehem. All of my fandoms for these places were unexpected, but in the end, there's nothing quite like rooting for a team from a city with an industrial background that has had this habit of taking down giants. And I think it's a really good idea to incorporate good ideas from one another. It's not just a lesson about fandom, it's also a lesson about life and business.