Selling Wrexham’s Welshness

After almost two years of starstruck delirium, there finally appears to be a sense of unease surrounding Wrexham AFC’s ‘Hollywood takeover’. While most onlookers remain enraptured with the novelty of global celebrity culture taking a passing interest in little old Wales, some fans can’t help but notice the growing list of questionable actions undertaken by those running the club.

The recent visit to the Racecourse of Jacob Rees-Mogg and a cavalcade of lesser Tories may have stolen the headlines, alongside the (thankfully abandoned) sponsorship deal with Lucas Oil, but there have been plenty of other objectionable ­incidents mounting up. While these may be more mundane than the aforementioned transgressions, they are certainly no less troublesome.

While this may signal a polarising of opinion regarding the merits of the club’s new ownership model, there is still a common trait shared by all reactions that belies the true problem at the heart of this issue. Whether it’s onlookers bemused at world-famous actors wandering around the non-league grounds of provincial towns, optimistic fans bedazzled by the lure of on-field success beyond their wildest dreams, or sceptics with mounting anxieties about the future of their football club, nobody has any control over where Wrexham go from here, or how they get there. Unless you’re a director of ‘The R.R. McReynolds Company LLC’, you are merely along for the ride.

It can only be seen as regrettable, then, that Wrexham fans willingly put themselves in this position by voting overwhelmingly to relinquish their ownership of the club. It is only now, perhaps, that they are beginning to comprehend the undesirable consequences of this decision. Whereas in the past supporters would have had some measure of influence over the conduct of the club, now they can only hope that their passive, powerless complaints are taken on board by an ownership who, while keen to retain the favour of the fans, are in a practical sense beyond reproach. Whether fans know it or not, Wrexham AFC is now at the perennial mercy of, as Will Magee characterises privately-owned clubs, ‘unaccountable private interests making unpopular decisions without their consent’.

Beyond the media hysteria and slick PR campaigning from the new owners, the material reality of this transference of power is the transformation of the club’s central purpose from a community asset – created and owned mostly by the people of Wrexham and the surrounding area – to a commodity, owned by an exclusive group. This fundamentally alters the meaning and function of the football club. In the era of fan ownership, the club was answerable only to itself, with an intrinsic value derived solely from the social function it performs for its members. Private ownership, conversely, abstracts this institution into a unit of commerce, whose value is defined by the social and financial capital those external to the community can extract from it.

‘The essence of capitalism’, Raymond Williams writes, ‘is that the basic means of production are not socially but privately owned, and that decisions about production are therefore in the hands of a group occupying a minority position in the society and in no direct way responsible to it’[1]. This is as true of a football club as any other private institution, and this exclusion from decision-making is the exact situation that Wrexham fans now find themselves in.

This process of commodification is exemplified most explicitly in the primary way in which Wrexham is now presented to the wider world: as an entertainment product with global ambitions. Much of this has been carried out quite crudely, with the club offering worldwide brands a tabula rasa onto which all manner of consumer tat can be tethered – mostly products to whom the owners have a personal connection. The fears of Wrexham fan Danny Gruff (as told to The Face), that the club ‘might become more of a brand than a better football team’, are yet to be allayed.

Yet it’s the Welcome to Wrexham documentary the new owners are producing in conjunction with their takeover that really drives home the ways in which the meaning of the club is being abstracted away form those fans who generated it in the first place.

For here we see this football club removed from its people and (re)presented to an unfamiliar audience: it is only about Wrexham – the club and the town – but never for them. The traits which make Wrexham most valuable and meaningful to those with a genuine connection to it are rendered generic in the name of mass appeal.

We know this because it appears ridden with the same tropes that appear whenever any working-class community is presented on screen: a patronising fetishisation of urban decay and post-industrial decline. There is a well-trodden romanticism evident here, in which the loss of the means of solidarity is elegised, while at the same time obscuring that the circumstances in which this documentary became possible has taken away from the club the very means of overcoming these hardships: community ownership, democratic control, and freedom from relying on the whims of capital in order to survive.

A key indicator of the way in which this commercialisation hollows out the meaning of Wrexham AFC is the sheer mass of inane and superficial signifiers of ‘Welshness’ churned out by the club and recycled by enthusiastic observers. This is to be expected when external parties are looking for a niche selling point, a ‘gap in the market’, for their new investment. So it’s little surprise to see the owners latch on to the club’s Welsh identity – a rarefied commodity in the English football pyramid. But the true disappointment lies in the way in which many Welsh people have lapped up this facile representation of themselves in cheerleading for the Wrexham project, so excited are they at the idea that ‘Wales’ could have some international commercial value.

This harnessing of ‘Welshness’, much like the instrumentalising of working-class signifiers, in desiring for a mass appeal that reaches far beyond the immediate community surrounding the club, inevitably smooths the edges of authenticity. The result is a reified, cartoonish depiction of a culture: smatterings of Cymraeg; references to received cultural totems; a boring homogenisation that turns the whole of Wales into a meaningless amorphous blob, with no local character present.

What’s most lamentable about this development is that a more concrete expression of ‘Welsh working class culture’ already existed at Wrexham. A co-operative institution, a pillar of a tight-knit community, with deep historical roots. All of this has been traded in for the opportunity to become the footballing equivalent of a cwtsh cushion.

We witness this time and again in Wales: the engineering and exploitation of an artificial sense of ‘Welshness’ in order to lubricate the commodification of working-class culture and values. It’s unsurprising, then, that this saga has been a gift for the usual cabal of ‘professionally Welsh’ content-miners addicted to grifting their own self-stereotyping for social media attention and website clicks. It is these people who deserve the most contempt, if any is due, for giddily and thoughtlessly egging on the takeover despite having no real connection to Wrexham themselves, and paying little mind to any potential negative consequences for genuine fans of the club.

As for the actual fans of Wrexham: for the long term health of the club, it’s contingent on them now to really question the merits of private ownership versus fan ownership, decide what their values are, what they want their club to become, and how this can be achieved and preserved for all future generations.

So, what should Wrexham AFC be? What should it mean? Is it a product, or a social institution? An actual community club, or a mere simulation of one? In considering these questions, fans should also be mindful of how their situation relates to the wider conversation on private ownership in football, as raised by David Goldblatt in the wake of the recent European Super League scandal:

‘The current debate in football makes a series of propositions: that not all institutions should be profit-driven, commercialised or organised on market principles; that some forms of social ownership are morally preferable and administratively superior; and that the power of sovereign wealth funds and the global super-rich needs to be curtailed.’

In a fractured society, the football club is one of the few remaining institutions around which working-class communities can coalesce, and through which bonds of solidarity can be forged and preserved. Consequently, they holds real social value for all who identify with one. Private investors know this, and therein lies the great tragedy of working class culture: the stronger the love for a commonly-held institution, the richer the rewards for privatising and exploiting it. A recent statement by the Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism organisation resonates here:

‘The game people love has been hijacked and big business now only cares about marketing a saleable product to those with money. Like everything else, it is something created by ordinary working people and now stolen off us by the rich.’

The only true measure of a football club’s value should be its footprint in its community. During the Lucas Oil sponsorship debacle, Wrexham fan Leigh Jones wrote presciently that:

‘All commercial exchanges come with a price on the soul, it should be factored into the cost. Could it be that Wrexham have given away too much of themselves for too little in return?’

It’s hard to shake this sentiment, and one would expect – or at least hope – that it becomes more widespread as time wears on, even in spite of any future on-field or commercial success.

Wrexham fans had once socialised their club in order to save it, but have now allowed it to become privatised. In this transition, the true value of having a socialised institution has been sadly lost. As Magee alluded to when discussing this switch, fans may have missed how lucky they were to obtain control of the club, and how naïve they may prove to be in giving it up so easily:

‘If supporters are going to have a permanent stake in their clubs elsewhere, there needs to be a sea change in the way people perceive fan ownership. Rather than seeing themselves as temporary caretakers when disaster strikes, fans need to see their custodianship as non-negotiable.’

Football – like everything – is governed by the politics of ownership and control: of who owns what, and what that power allows one to do without the consent of those who have none. ‘The challenge of socialism’, Williams continues, ‘is essentially that decisions about production should be in the hands of the society as a whole, in the sense that control of the means of production is made part of the general system of decision which the society as a whole creates.’[2]

With this in mind, one can appreciate that any riches or success obtained under private ownership are nothing compared to the value of democratic control of cultural institutions. And at any rate, football clubs simply don’t need rich benefactors in order to live out their true meaning. As Daniel Thomas writes, ‘whether that’s a Champions League win or just moving to your dream stadium, you don’t need the backing of one mega rich tycoon, the backing of thousands of fans who will support their side through thick and thin are an equally as good substitute.’

The Supporters Trust statement of fan-owned Chorley FC, in mourning what Wrexham supporters were losing when giving away the club, remains ominous reading:

‘What is certain is that Wrexham fans have swapped stability and security for what they hope will be a wild and exciting ride back into the Football League. The documentary will allow us to watch that ride from afar for entertainment without the emotional investment that Wrexham fans will have. We wish them well.’

[1] Raymond Williams, ‘Advertising: The Magic System’ in Culture and Materialism (London: Verso, 2005), pp.170-195 (p186).

[2] Ibid.