Wrexham Women enter a new semi-professional era with grand ambitions

Promotion to the Welsh top flight and the switch from amateur to semi-professional status was always going to make this a big summer for Wrexham Women.

Perhaps the biggest change of the lot, however, still lies ahead for Steve Dale’s players, who feature in the second series of the documentary Welcome to Wrexham.

“We are very conscious of it,” says Gemma Owen, Wrexham’s head of women’s football operations. “Like the start of the season this weekend, the documentary being released has crept up on us a little bit. All of a sudden, it is here.

“The camera crew covered us quite extensively last season. Once we knew we were going to be in it, we looked at each other and thought, ‘Oh no!’. Just the thought of seeing ourselves on TV has left us all wondering, ‘What did I say?’ or ‘Did I do something stupid the cameras might have picked up?’.

“Featuring in documentaries isn’t normal for us. It will take some getting used to.”

With their big-screen debut imminent — episode six, titled ‘Ballers’, focuses exclusively on the team and is due to be broadcast in the first week of October — Owen and the rest of the women’s setup are likely to have to get used to the spotlight.

They had a taster last season when their final Adran North home fixture against Connah’s Quay Nomads was played at a sold-out Racecourse Ground. Then, after clinching promotion via a hard-fought play-off triumph over southern champions Briton Ferry Llansawel, the players joined the men’s team on a joint end-of-season open-top bus celebration parade.

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Gemma Owen described the open-top bus celebrations as a “special, special day” (Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney opting to travel on the bus ferrying Dale’s side around the streets of Wrexham guaranteed even more attention on an evening that will never be forgotten by both victorious teams.

As Welcome to Wrexham breakout stars such as The Turf’s Wayne Jones or local band The Declan Swans can testify, however, that will be nothing compared to what could be coming their way via featuring in the second series.

Queues to meet landlord Jones on the club’s pre-season tour of the U.S. stretched hundreds of yards at times, while the Swans supported the Kings of Leon in front of 40,000 fans across two nights in May.

Owen, a pivotal figure in Wrexham setting up a women’s team in 2018, admits exposure from the documentary represents a great opportunity for the club.

“While we are a little bit apprehensive, the responsibility we now have to promote women’s football makes this a great opportunity,” she says. “The players are role models for young children. They are showing that girls and women can play football.

“We take that responsibility seriously. The documentary is going to help bring some real positive changes, in my opinion. Really important in terms of how we are trying to grow the game.”

Now in her 11th year on the Wrexham staff in a variety of roles, Owen is in no doubt as to what the major catalyst was for this Sunday’s top-flight debut.

“The takeover is what really gave us the platform,” she says about Reynolds and McElhenney buying the club in February 2021. “We’d started the club from scratch in 2018, as the old Wrexham Ladies (who had folded two years earlier) was not affiliated to the football club in any way.

“We built things up with community sessions and so on. The Supporters’ Trust (who ran Wrexham for a decade until 2021) did a fantastic job in keeping the club going. With the women’s side, though, it very much came under the community trust side.

“Starting the team was a very important step. We needed a pathway for female footballers and young girls, but the takeover is what really pushed things on.

“We effectively started again in terms of being able to re-think strategy. A five-year plan was drawn up, part of which was to reach the Adran Premier inside three seasons. We got there in two, which is something we are really proud of.”

Swansea City are Wrexham’s first opponents in this season’s top flight. The Rock, home of Cefn Druids and around seven miles from Wrexham, is the team’s new base, where the standard of facilities meet the requirements of the Tier 1 licence the club were granted last spring.

Adding to the sense of occasion on Sunday will be the live TV cameras, with S4C broadcasting the game live (kick-off 5.45pm).

“A tough one to welcome us to the Adran Premier,” says Owen about Swansea, who finished runners-up in 2022-23 after winning the previous three titles. “But we are looking forward to something we have worked so hard to achieve.”

Six new faces have joined the 10 players who were offered semi-pro contracts at the end of last season. Hannah Keryakoplis, a Welsh international who has previously played in the Women’s Super League with both Liverpool and Birmingham City, heads the list of new arrivals designed to help Wrexham make the step up.

Ava Suckley — who returns after a spell out of the game in Australia — and Stoke City’s Carra Jones have also now joined a squad that trains three evenings per week, splitting their time between sessions on the pitch, gym work and video analysis.

Asked what will represent success this season, Owen, who oversees the entire women’s setup from under-8s upwards, replies: “A top-four finish. The league splits in February with the top four in the table playing each other and the same with the bottom four.

“The top four play each other home and away. If we can be in that top four, I think that will be a pleasing season for us. Once at that point, ideally, we go and win it. That’s the ultimate aim.

“Having said that, we do fully appreciate how difficult the season is going to be. This is far from an easy league. We will be playing some very difficult matches. Again, though, I don’t think any team goes into this league with the intention of just trying to stay up.

“We have to think bigger than that. The ambition we have, as both a women’s section and a club, we’d be lowering our sights to do that.”

Rosie Hughes could be key in deciding how Wrexham cope with the step up to a division where there will be plenty of travelling, thanks to five of the eight teams being based in south Wales.

She netted a phenomenal 42 times in league and cup last season, helping Wrexham post a maximum 36 points from their dozen league outings before going on to beat Briton Ferry 1-0 in a tightly contested play-off final.

“You can obviously have an idea based on what we have seen of our side,” adds Owen about taking on the best teams in Wales. “But it won’t be until we get on the pitch with these teams that we will fully be able to see where we are.”

Regardless of how Wrexham fare in their debut Adran Premier campaign, one thing that seems guaranteed is the co-owners will be keenly following the team’s progress. McElhenney attended last season’s 5-1 home victory over Llandudno, while both he and Reynolds were part of the record 9,511 crowd watching the final league game at the Racecourse.

Reynolds, whose wife, Blake Lively, sponsors the women’s team through her drinks company Betty Buzz, also tweeted after last weekend’s 7-1 friendly win over Crewe Alexandra to congratulate prolific striker Hughes on netting five goals.

“The owners really do share our passion for the women’s side,” says Owen, who also coaches the women’s under-19s. “They want to see us do well. Not only that, they understand the responsibility we have, as the women’s section, to grow the game not only in Wrexham but further afield.

“They take on the same responsibility. I appreciate their time is precious and yet they have both come over to watch our games. Bringing their families to the game at the Racecourse was such a brilliant thing.

“Once there, Rob and Ryan could also have stayed up in their suite. But, no, they came down to be in and amongst it all. They seemed genuinely excited to meet some of our players.

“The owners do not see it as the men’s side and the women’s side. It is one club in their mind. That’s absolutely brilliant for us.”

(Top photo: Gemma Thomas/Wrexham AFC)

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