In the first extract of our serialisation of a new book by Mail Sport’s Ian Herbert, he brings you the inside story on how two Hollywood stars — who had never met — joined forces to buy Wrexham…
Ryan Reynolds has done it all in the sphere he occupies.
The star of Deadpool, Definitely Maybe and The Proposal, he is one of the most recognisable actors on the planet, whose films have grossed $5bn globally. An entrepreneur and marketeer whose sale of a mobile phone network earned him over $300m.
But when it came to co-owning Wrexham AFC, a fifth-tier club in North Wales, after the proposal was put to him by Rob McElhenney, TV writer, producer, originator and star of one of the USA’s most popular sitcoms, he harboured some doubts. Not least, would they both look like idiots?
McElhenney – the originator and driver of this idea, which in time would provide an entirely original idea of how British football club ownership might work and create a story which became even bigger in the US than in Britain – joined Reynolds at a meeting, after proposing they work as partners and heard him outline a number of ways in which the whole project could backfire.
Rob McElhenney (left) and Ryan Reynolds (right) have been a success as Wrexham co-owners
They were conscious very early on that they didn’t want to take over and look to ‘save’ the town
‘How do we do this?’ Reynolds asked. ‘How do we do this authentically? ‘Two “Hollywood a**holes” come in and save a town?’ That’s not a good look.’
He and McElhenney were not the only ones trying to get their heads around the concept, its potential downsides and the challenges. Other contributors to the meeting were George Dewey – Reynolds’ business partner, who would become one of the key creative influences behind the scenes when the deal was done – and Humphrey Ker, a British member of McElhenney’s Los Angeles-based TV script-writing team, who had switched him on to football in the first place.
The quartet knocked around Reynolds’ point about how unattractive it would look if they seemed to be the big-time, so-called ‘saviours’ of the little town and club and agreed on the solution.
‘Well, that’s part of the story,’ Dewey said. ‘Let us be the a**holes. Let’s laugh at ourselves.’
TINSELTOWN – BOOK
Tinseltown: Hollywood and the Beautiful Game – A Match Made In Wrexham by Ian Herbert.
Published by Headline on Thursday. August 31.
After the enthusiasm Reynolds had felt for the idea, there was deeper consideration for him, according to those involved at the start. Did he have the time?
His energy and curiosity meant he sometimes signed up for things, only to realise he didn’t have the capacity. He couldn’t buy into this idea and then back out.
And then there was the question of having a documentary crew following him.
‘Do I want that? I’m sick of my own face,’ Reynolds told friends.
Behind the confident, entertaining persona, those friends knew a private individual. But he did see the value in providing a sense of himself, the real Reynolds, the artifice stripped away. It was potentially a more profound form of film-making than anything he had worked on before.
The financier who was pulling this plan together had a serious track record when it came to putting together American investors and British clubs. He was Steve Horowitz, a gregarious Californian and partner at Inner Circle Sports on New York’s Lexington Avenue, whose work saw Fenway Sports Group buy Liverpool in 2010.
Lower down the pyramid, he had helped bring American owners to League One side Portsmouth and Dagenham and Redbridge in the National League.
When McElhenney had made Horowitz his first port of call on the recommendation of a friend, it was clear to the financier that this writer/actor was going to carry off his plan, whether he had a co-owner or not.
‘He was going to do this unless the world ended,’ Horowitz says.
All their meetings were conducted on Zoom, because the plan was being hatched in the middle of the Covid lockdown. So McElhenney was peering into a screen, on one of their regular calls, when he casually asked Horowitz one day: ‘Would it be a problem if we have Ryan Reynolds with us?’
‘No,’ Horowitz told McElhenney, when he had absorbed that very significant piece of information. ‘It won’t be a problem if we have Ryan Reynolds with us.’
‘That’s what we need in this documentary… the passion of fans’
There was another American who had already taken the path McElhenney and Reynolds were considering embarking on.
Peter Freund was a minority shareholder in baseball’s New York Yankees and it was through Horowitz’s network of friends that he came to learn about the National League’s Dagenham and Redbridge FC a club on its uppers because its owner, a local car salesman, had decided he wanted out. Freund bought the club.
‘Talk to Peter,’ Horowitz told McElhenney and Reynolds. ‘He’s done this. He knows the realities.’
Had Covid not intervened, Freund and Reynolds would no doubt have sipped a gin on the veranda of Reynolds’ home in Bedford, New York. Reynolds lives five miles away from Freund’s place in the same town.
The level of storytelling that Wrexham would offer to the actors was hugely appealing to them
But it was by Zoom, like every other interaction around this deal seemed to be, that Horowitz lined up a meeting between McElhenney, Reynolds and Freund.
Freund did a lot of the talking and there were some cautionary stories from him about life in the National League. Not winning matches brought challenges, he told McElhenney and Reynolds. Like unhappy fans. And the need to sack managers. Dagenham’s had been Peter Taylor, an English football household name remembered as the man who first made David Beckham the England captain during a period in temporary charge of the national team.
‘What was I doing?!’ Freund jokes now. ‘What right did I have to tell Peter Taylor that he’s no good as a manager?
‘But we were investing to a level which meant we had to be competitive in that league, and we were not. Everybody wants for you to sack the manager every five minutes, no matter what!’
When they met, Freund could see McElhenney and Reynolds were imagining the stories they would be telling in their documentary series.
‘I could see it was the storytelling element they were interested in,’ he says. ‘I told them our kit sponsor was the local funeral parlour. They loved that.’
But it was a story Freund told about a formative encounter with fans which hit home, as the anecdote seemed to sum up the priorities and passion of the British football fan.
Reynolds and McElhenney picked the brains of Peter Freund, who had bought into Dagenham & Redbridge, to get a sense of what to expect when investing into British football
‘When I arrived at the stadium, I saw a diamond in the rough,’ Freund told them. ‘The seats were what struck me most. They were all bent and discoloured. How could they watch the match on those? So I put new seating in through the stadium and that made it look much better.
‘When I did my first fans’ forum, that’s what I went in with because I was so proud of that. And then it got to the Q and A section and I was waiting to hear what they had to say, because I’d never spoken to them. And the first supporter that spoke raised his hand.
‘So you’ve committed dollars to put in new seats?’ he said.
‘Yes we have,’ I said.
‘And can these seats score f*****g goals?’ he said.
‘And that is why I’m in English football,’ Freund told McElhenney and Reynolds. ‘They didn’t want new seats. They just wanted a No 9.’
McElhenney and Reynolds loved this.
‘That’s exactly what we want,’ McElhenney said. ‘That’s what we want to tell. That’s what we want to capture in this documentary. That passion of the fans.’
‘You don’t have to win, but you must show respect’
Steve Horowitz had been involved in British deals for long enough to know the pitfalls and know where Americans buyers could come a cropper. He had a set routine in introducing them to precisely what there were getting into and he had quickly done the same with McElhenney.
It was a process he called ‘Football 101’ – his way of immersing prospective American buyers to the mysteries of British football: promotion, relegation, the teams, financial sustainability rules, the transfer market, unscrupulous agents, offside rules and, above all, the importance of clubs to their communities.
Over Zoom, McElhenney and Horowitz discussed a range of lower league clubs, whittled down from an original list, put together by Ker, which had included Aldershot, Notts County, Macclesfield Town, Hartlepool and Wrexham.
There was something arbitrary about the search in the early stages, as McElhenney and Ker pondered a list of candidates. They were listed alphabetically, as tables are before a new season begins, and that put Aldershot at the top of the National League. ‘Who is ‘Aldershot’?’ McElhenney asked. ‘Do we look at them?’
Ker had taken a lockdown road trip to Denver, Colorado, with his wife Megan when he discovered Reynolds had entered the picture.
McElhenney introduced Reynolds’ involvement to him in the same casual way he’d dropped it into the call with Horowitz. In fact, he didn’t even seem sure that Ker, as an Englishman, would be familiar with Reynolds. ‘He’s an actor. You may have heard of him..?’ McElhenney related, to Ker’s slight bemusement.
With Reynolds on board, everything changed.
Getting Reynolds (pictured, centre) involved allowed McElhenney to scale up his ambitions
Notts County, who won promotion alongside Wrexham last season, were considered among a cluster of teams when the Hollywood pair were deciding which club to go and purchase
‘The level of sponsorship and interest allow you to not only put money into the team but also into the stadium and community and so much else,’ Ker says, as he reflects on Reynolds’ decision. ‘There were all sorts we wanted to do but now it was all scaled up.’ So then Reynolds joined Horowitz’s Football 101 class.
‘This is a community asset that’s important,’ Horowitz told them. ‘You’re just fiduciaries. You’re the stewards of this club – this proud football club- until the next group comes along.
‘You can’t violate that trust. If you screw this up, you’ll never sell another movie ticket in the UK. You don’t have to win over there, but you do need to respect them in the process.’
He conjured the image of the US’s People magazine carrying a cover story about a community trampled on by two US Hollywood types who were in it for the money and the movie-making and who had trashed their club. And he showed them an image of Bill Shankly, former Liverpool manager, the ultimate man of the people, with the legendary words he spoke: ‘Football’s not a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that.’ You could have heard a pin drop as they took all this in, Horowitz relates.
‘They took it all in,’ he says.