Immediately after Wrexham’s 3-3 draw with Sheffield United in their fourth round FA Cup tie, as Elliot Lee was trying to process how close he and his team-mates had come to providing the story of the round, into the dressing room walked Hollywood royalty.
The club owner, Ryan Reynolds, had been in the stands and now the Deadpool star wanted to congratulate the players on their stirring performance. And yet none of the players seemed remotely surprised to see him going around the room, shaking hands and having a word with everyone in turn.
“That’s what the owners do,” Lee says of Reynolds and co-owner Rob McElhenney, the man behind the American hit sitcom It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. “They are absolutely part of what we are trying to do. If they are at the game, they come to see us. If not, they text us, individually, to talk about the game.”
And for Lee, who made his debut for West Ham 10 years ago, that makes a refreshing change.
“I’ve played for clubs where you don’t even know who the owners are, or where they don’t care about football, or treat it like a circus,” he says. “But here the owners are unbelievable. They care about you, not just as footballers but as human beings. And it really helps the lads. You feel you are part of something that matters to everyone.”
Lee, the son of the former Charlton and Newcastle midfielder Rob, was signed by the National League club from Luton last summer. He had been part of the Hatters’ side that had won successive promotions into League One and the Championship. But from the moment he walked into the Racecourse Ground and met the Wrexham manager Phil Parkinson, any fear he might be taking a backward step was immediately dismantled.
“I’d reached that stage of my career where I wanted to be part of a project,” he says. “I was a free agent and when Wrexham came up, I already knew what they were trying to do. This is where I wanted to be. I’m loving life here. This is about as exciting a project as there is in football.”
Indeed the manner in which the two Hollywood owners have projected what was a forgotten backwater into the center of the footballing discourse has been remarkable. Although for Lee, the main way in which the pair have put Wrexham on the map has taken some getting used to.
The club was bought by the actors so they could make a documentary about transforming a down-on-its-luck operation. Welcome To Wrexham, the show on Disney+ that has advertised the club around the world, is in continuous production. Which means for the players, everything they do could end up on television.
“When I signed they mentioned the documentary and I had to sign a paper to say I’m OK to be in it,” he says. “It is quite different. The cameras are here most days. And on your days off, you find yourself being interviewed. But it’s something you get used to. You could be having a conversation and suddenly there’s a microphone in your face. It’s another element to day to day life.”
What Lee is hoping is that when series two of the documentary is aired this summer, it exposes one thing above all about what is going on at Wrexham: that the team plays good football. As they demonstrated against the Championship high fliers Sheffield United, this side can hold its own.
“We like to think we showed what we are about in that game,” he says. “Yes, we have Ben Tozer’s long throw and look to dominate set pieces, but we know what we are doing on and off the ball. We are not just old-school, non-league hoof. We thought we had that game won. We were so disappointed to concede in the last second. If I’m honest, it felt like a loss. Sure, we put on great entertainment, everyone watching on TV loved it. But we wanted to win.”
And if Lee is looking for further inspiration for the replay, he only needs to delve into family history. Although he was only six at the time, he watched his father play for Newcastle in their Cup semi-final against Chelsea at Wembley in 2000.
“My dad scored in that game, although he never won it,” he says. “The FA Cup meant a great deal growing up, I made my debut for West Ham in the Cup. I just think it is the best competition.”
Moreover, he believes, even though the priority at the club remains restoring the Football League place that was lost 15 seasons ago, a run in the Cup can only be beneficial.
“It gives you such belief,” Lee says. “Going toe to toe with a club as big as Sheffield United, or beating a club like Coventry like we did in the third round, gives you so much confidence.”
And were he and his teammates to deliver a shock in Tuesday’s replay, it will surely be celebrated as the story of the season.
“Well, like everything, I think because of the publicity the documentary gives us, we have to be aware that some people really want us to fail,” he says. “But here’s hoping for most, a Cup upset is still something to cheer.”