Wales’ oldest football club and the third oldest professional club in the world, Wrexham AFC, celebrate the anniversary of their first match on October 22 – 156 years on from that first game in 1864.
Two weeks on from the announcement in the Wrexham Advertiser that Wrexham Cricket Club were to form a football team, a match took place between ‘ten of the Prince of Wales Fire Brigade and ten of the club’.
“On Saturday last a foot ball match was played on the ground at the Turf Tavern, between ten of the Prince of Wales Fire Brigade and ten of the club, which resulted in an easy victory for the fire brigade, they winning the first two goals out of three.” (Wrexham Advertiser, 29/10/1864)
Wrexham’s first ever line-up was as follows: C. E. Kershaw, J. Taylor, T. Hanmer, E. Knibbs, T. Broster, G. R. Johnson, T. Sykes, Jos. Roberts, Sergt, Hearth, Sergt. Tootell.
Now, 156 years on, many things may have changed in football, in the town and in North Wales, but Wrexham, the Racecourse and the Turf Tavern remain.
From those humble beginnings, Wrexham became the epicentre for North Walian football – and Welsh football as a whole. Indeed, the Football Association of Wales was formed in the town 12 years later.
Previously used for horse racing and cricket, the Racecourse Ground hosted Wales’ first ever home international match on 5th March, 1877 – making the ground the oldest international football stadium in the world, still in continuous use.
The Town then won the inaugural Welsh Cup the following year, beating Druids 1-0 in the final at nearby Acton Park with a last-minute goal.
As with so many facets of the town and the club, Wrexham wrote the script for others to follow – their tactical innovations in that final later becoming the norm across the footballing sphere.
More than a century earlier, Wrexham – previously known for its leather tanning industry – was put firmly on the map by its key role in the Industrial Revolution.
“Iron Mad” John Wilkinson opened Bersham Ironworks in 1762 to kick-start the new age. Meanwhile, the strategic location of the borough on the North East Wales coalfield drove workers into the town and its surrounding areas.
The population surged from the mid-19th century onwards, as brewing, tanning and coal industries laid the blueprint for the town’s identity.
Wrexham Lager became the United Kingdom’s first brewery to produce lager beer, with Wrexham and innovation continuously linked.
A large working-class population sought their entertainment from the action at the Racecourse and adopted the club that bore their town’s name.
Already an integral part of the Town, The Advertiser newspaper carried reports of big crowds, home and away. Although it was crowd trouble, from a vociferous and partisan home support after a controversial FA Cup defeat to Oswestry Town in 1883, that led to Wrexham being briefly banned by the Football Association.
A sign of the club’s importance to the town was reflected when Cllr John Stafford declared in 1909, upon being elected as Mayor, that he ‘would take as his war cry, “Play up Wrexham.”’
Former Grove Park student Horace Blew, capped 22 times by Wales, was an early icon and called on the Town in his testimonial speech to get behind the Club.
The call was clearly heeded in future years as a derby with Chester City attracted 24,086 supporters in 1935 before 29,261 crammed in to watch the same fixture the next year.
Such support had tragic consequences too – the Gresford Colliery disaster claimed the lives of 266 men in 1934, with many of those trapped underground having doubled up on shifts to watch Wrexham take on Tranmere later that day.
One of Britain’s worst mining disasters, Wrexham AFC still mark each 22nd September to remember those lives lost on that tragic day.
On the pitch, Wrexham had won the Welsh Cup 15 times by this point and had been elected to the newly formed Third Division North of the Football League in 1921.
Tommy Bamford was one of the club’s star players and is still credited with holding Wrexham’s goalscoring record with 175 league goals during his time at the Racecourse.
After only briefly wearing red in previous seasons, Wrexham adopted their now iconic colours permanently in 1939 and have worn red shirts ever since.
During the Second World War, the proximity of the Racecourse to the Hightown Barracks, home of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, meant a star-studded Wrexham team was cobbled together from the enlisted men stationed locally for their wartime league fixtures.
Sir Stanley Matthews (Stoke City), Johnny Morris (Man Utd), Jack Haines (Liverpool) and Ronnie Dix (Derby County) were among the well-known players to line-up for Wrexham as hostilities raged.
The very presence of the Barracks was further proof of Wrexham’s importance to North Wales as a whole.
In the post-war years, the Kop was constructed at the Racecourse and in 1957 the stadium’s record crowd – 34,445 – were in attendance to watch Matt Busby’s Manchester United play the Town in the FA Cup.
European Football arrived in the 1970s, with Welsh Cup successes now granting a place in the European Cup Winners' Cup.
Wrexham became fabled for its giantkilling feats as Belgian giants RSC Anderlecht could only draw at the Racecourse in 1976, while our greatest success was in beating the might of FC Porto over two-legs in 1984.
Real Zaragoza (Spain), 1FC Madgeburg (E Germany), Rijeka (Yugoslavia) and AS Roma (Italy) were all pushed to their limits, while we recorded wins against Hadjuk Split (Yugoslavia), Djurgårdens IF (Sweden), FC Zürich (Switzerland), Stal Rzeszów (Poland), Lyngby BK (Denmark) and Zurrieq (Malta).
Not to mention our final two European adventures to date, a visit to Manchester United and FC Petrolul Ploiești (Romania).
In domestic competitions, Wrexham reached the League Cup quarter-finals in 1960/61, and saw off both Middlesbrough and Southampton on their way to the FA Cup quarter-final in 1974.
Iconic long-standing player Arfon Griffiths replaced John Neal as manager in May 1977 and led the club to the Third Division title in his first season in charge.
Goalkeeper Dai Davies, Gareth Davies, Griffiths, Mel Sutton, Mickey Thomas, Dixie McNeil, Bobby Shinton and Graham Whittle were all part of that title-winning squad, which also reached the quarter-finals of both the FA Cup and League Cup that season.
Joey Jones then returned to the club for his second of three spells, as the Robins played in the Second Division (now re-named the Championship) for the first time.
Wrexham spent four years in the second tier before a double relegation, in 1982 and then 1983 ended their best ever period.
Against the backdrop of closed mines, leatherworks, brickworks, steelworks and breweries, it was a tough era for the town, the borough and the Football Club.
Both were to rise again, however – Wrexham AFC doing so from literally rock bottom.
Brian Flynn’s Wrexham side finished dead last in the Football League in 1991 but were spared relegation because of the league’s restructuring.
That same year, Arsenal were crowned First Division champions and in a twist of fate the two clubs met in the FA Cup the following year.
In scenes now replayed whenever the FA Cup and giant-killing is mentioned, Wrexham earned one of the biggest scalps in the tournament’s history.
Mickey Thomas’ rocket of a free-kick levelled the scores late in the second-half, before Steve Watkin slid in to earn a famous 2-1 win - a result that echoed around the sporting world.
Giant-killing Wrexham were back and won promotion back to the third tier the following year as Gary Bennett spearheaded the attacking charge.
A record-breaking 23rd and final Welsh Cup success arrived in 1995 – Bennett scoring twice in a 2-0 win against Cardiff City at the National Stadium.
With the teams based in English competition no longer eligible to enter the competition after that year, Wrexham’s record stands to this day.
Having beaten Ipswich Town thanks to Kieran Durkan’s goal in the FA Cup earlier that year, before Durkan also opened the scoring in an eventual 5-2 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford, more FA Cup giant-killing followed.
Young midfielder Bryan Hughes was integral to the club’s run to the FA Cup quarter-finals in 1996/97, while Kevin Russell scored a dramatic injury-time winner at West Ham United.
Hughes, captain Tony Humes and striker Karl Connolly all scored in a 3-1 win at Birmingham City in the fifth round.
That FA Cup run ended against Chesterfield in the quarter-finals, before Hughes was sold for a club-record near £1 million fee to Birmingham.
The core of the same team – Humes, Connolly, Gareth Owen, Brian Carey, Peter Ward and Russell among them – helped the club finish 8th, 8th and 7th in consecutive seasons between 1996 and 1998.
In the wider town, Wrexham was rising again too; Wrexham Industrial Estate is now one of Europe’s largest industrial areas and, as well as boasting North Wales’ largest retail sector, the town is now ranked second in the UK for business start-up success too. Innovation remains at the heart of the area as the economy has transformed from its industrial past to high-tech manufacturing.
Unfortunately, the Football Club’s renaissance did not last, as financial problems brought the club to its knees and nearly out of business.
Wrexham supporters, however, showed why they have become so revered by rescuing the club from the rogue intentions of former chairman Alex Hamilton, saving both the Racecourse and Wrexham AFC.
In 2011, it was the supporters who rallied to raise more than £100,000 in just seven hours as the club stood on the brink of being booted out of the Conference.
Where other clubs, including historic rivals, were forced out of existence, it was Wrexham’s unique supporters who literally kept the club alive to preserve what is now 156 years of history. The club became supporter-owned in September 2011.
Wrexham finished that season with 98 points but missed out on promotion, with only one automatic spot available, when losing in the play-offs.
The following season, Andy Morrell’s Wrexham side won the FA Trophy in front of 35,266 fans. Grimsby’s Shaun Pearson fouled Dragons captain Dean Keates in the area for Kevin Thornton to equalise in a 1-1 draw. In the subsequent penalty shoot-out, Wrexham won 4-1 to lift the trophy.
Wrexham were back at Wembley for the play-off final less than two months later, but again narrowly missed out on promotion, when two late goals sealed our fate.
Off the pitch, however, Wrexham and innovation continued to go hand-in-hand. The Racecourse Ground hosted the United Kingdom’s first ‘autism friendly’ football match in 2013; Wrexham AFC became the first club in Wales to win an Autism-friendly award in 2018.
Wrexham’s phenomenal support saw 8,283 supporters – almost all from the home team – watch the Dragons thrash Salford City 5-1 on Boxing Day 2018.
The average attendance in the last completed season at the Racecourse was 5,154 – more than nearly 30 Football League clubs.
In 156 years, plenty has changed on and off the pitch for Wrexham, but the club remains at the forefront of the town.
I’ve said it many times. Wrexham AFC is the town, and the town is the Football Club. When the team is winning, there is a good feeling in the town. (Dean Keates, 2019)
Whether it’s Wrexham as a town or Wrexham as a Football Club, the answer to ‘Why Wrexham?’ is a simple one. History, passion and innovation. Then as it is now.