Football may be the most popular sport in the world, but for some reason it’s always been difficult to translate the joy of the game into a movie or a TV series. Very few have managed to capture the magic of football on screen, but the huge success of Ted Lasso on the streaming service Apple TV Plus and now Welcome to Wrexham on Disney Plus proves it can be done.
The two may seem like very similar shows. Ted Lasso is about an American who takes over a struggling British team and experiences the highs and lows that come with being a part of a close-knit footballing community. Welcome to Wrexham follows the real-life journey of Marvel movie star Ryan Reynolds and his pal Rob McElhenney, who you’ll recognise from the comedy series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, as they purchase and look to build the reputation of Wrexham AFC.
Both Ted Lasso and Welcome to Wrexham are fantastic. But there is a key difference between the two; one is an exaggerated, larger than life soap opera, and the other is a very real, very poignant story of an entire city coming together to preserve a piece of footballing history.
Ted Lasso succeeds in the richness of its characters; from the happy-go-lucky titular coach (Jason Sudeikis), to the chairwoman (Hannah Waddingham) who sees her heart slowly melted by the relentlessly positive atmosphere emerging at her club, to the infamous Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) who swears as much as he cares.
It’s a true underdog story of a team that really has no place in the top division, but the togetherness and spirit of AFC Richmond prevails and shows that sport is about more than talent and trophies, it’s about teamwork. Ted Lasso is funny, it’s fantastical, and it’s surprisingly deep at times, too.
Mental health is a theme which runs throughout the show, in particular, the concept of men’s mental health and the importance of men speaking to one another about their feelings and their problems. The desire to tackle this stigma head-on has clearly become more of a priority as the show progresses and is sure to form the basis of Ted Lasso season 3.
The opposite side of this coin of course, is the issue of toxic masculinity. This notion is embodied by the aforementioned Roy Kent, who uses aggression and foul language to keep people at arm’s length rather than opening up to them. The same can be said for his enemy-turned-friend, Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster), whose egotistical, selfish ways are nothing more than a shield to hide behind and repress the pain caused by his abusive father.
Generally speaking, Ted Lasso is a rather progressive television show in the way it handles these heavy themes. While its first priority is humour, it can at times feel more like a heartfelt drama series, but the problem is you just get the feeling there has to be a happy ending, and everything will be wrapped in a neat little bow. At the end of the day, Ted Lasso cannot escape the fact it is scripted television for entertainment’s sake, albeit very good scripted television.
To be honest, that’s pretty much what I expected from Welcome to Wrexham too. It may be a story set very much in real life, but with two big-name actors running the show, I feared this docuseries would turn into a vanity project, an excuse for Ryan Reynolds to do his comedy movie schtick that would undermine the legacy of Wrexham.
It’s clear in the first episode of Welcome to Wrexham that the fans and the community feared this was the motivation for Reynolds and McElhenney wanting to buy the club. Established in 1846, Wrexham is a club rich in history, and they play in literally the oldest sporting venue in the world, The Racecourse Ground. The people of Wrexham have been burned before, and they did not want Hollywood hotshots coming in to use their beloved club as a plaything.
That couldn’t be further from the truth, though. In fact, Reynolds and McElhenney take a backseat for most of the series, more intent on shining a spotlight on the wonderful people involved in the club and those in the community to whom the club means so much. The show grants us access not only to the players and the manager in the dressing room, but also the man on the street and the woman in the stands, as we learn their stories too.
What is abundantly clear from the off is that for all the money the two actors invest in the squad, they are just as passionate about investing in the people of Wrexham. Within months of taking over the club, disability access was improved at the stadium, the battered stands were refurbished to the highest quality to allow more fans to attend the games, and volunteers at the club were given permanent, paid roles.
It’s worth noting this is a club which had spiralled down the footballing ladder to the National League (the fifth tier of English football) and had languished there since 2008. In the summer of 2004, then owner Alex Hamilton had bankrupted the club and attempted to evict the team from the Racecourse Ground so he could use it for his property development business. The people of Wrexham fought against this and raised money between them to buy the club and save it from extinction.
That’s how much Wrexham AFC, and indeed football in general, means to communities across the country. In many UK towns and cities, football is the lifeblood of society and this is something that Reynolds and McElhenney immediately understood and leaned into. The trials and tribulations of this football team are more important to the people of Wrexham than superhero movies and sitcoms.
It’s in this that Ted Lasso will never be able to succeed in portraying the highs and lows of football as effectively as Welcome to Wrexham. Ted Lasso is a nice, fun show about football, and one which accomplishes great things in its portrayal of real-life issues, but Welcome to Wrexham is real and you can never truly replicate that, no matter how hard you try.
Welcome to Wrexham not only celebrates the players and the people of Wrexham, but it also explores their most intimate and challenging moments too; from miscarriages, to terminal illness, cyber bullying, and hooliganism. Life isn’t always pretty, and Welcome to Wrexham doesn’t shy away from that.
It may be hard to make a good football movie, but it’s surprisingly easy to listen to real people and capture what it is that makes sport so special. It’s not just about watching a group of people kicking a ball, it’s about a whole community having a common cause and building a legacy together. That is what football is all about, and that is what Welcome to Wrexham succeeds in bringing to our screens in the most endearing, entertaining, and inspiring way.