Wrexham owners deliver on ambition to return international football to north Wales

Not until the familiar refrains of ‘Yma o Hyd’ fill the north Wales air does it truly feel real.

This paean to the survival of the Welsh language against all the odds — the title translates as ‘Still Here’ — is played over the Racecourse Ground PA system before every Wrexham home game.

This time, though, Dafydd Iwan, the Welsh nationalist who wrote and released this rousing song of defiance in the early eighties, is here in person to perform live an anthem that has long since been adopted by the Wales national team.

His voice, backed by thousands of willing volunteers on this damp, autumnal Wednesday evening, drips with passion and energy. There are 15 minutes until kick-off against Gibraltar and the sell-out crowd lap it up, particularly when the chorus comes round and the decibel levels are cranked up further.

Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth, Ry’n ni yma o hyd…

The message at the heart of this rousing folk song — despite everyone and everything, we’re still here — could also apply to the world’s oldest international football ground still in use. This is, after all, only the second Wales game to be played here in 15 years.

Certainly, the Racecourse has endured more than its fair share of troubles — including plans to bulldoze the site — since being effectively dropped from the international roster.

Now, though, with Wales having once more returned to what many consider to be their spiritual home — not only was the first international played at the Racecourse in 1877 but the Football Association of Wales (FAW) was also based here until moving to Cardiff 37 years ago — there is genuine hope for the future.

“We have waited long enough,” says Tim Edwards, founder of the Wrexham fanzine and podcast Fearless In Devotion, and a loyal fan of the national team, rarely missing an international game, home or away.

“There have been some great times for Welsh football. Reaching the semi-finals (in Euro 2016), even now you have to pinch yourself. There are all these documentaries and things like that out there, and I find myself thinking, ‘Christ, I was there for all that’.

“After that, it was a case of making sure qualifying wasn’t a one-off. And we did that by getting to the World Cup (in Qatar), and also the Euros (2020, held in 2021). A privilege.

“The thing that still bugs me, though, is how a lot of fans in north Wales were starved of the chance to see that golden generation live. Not everyone can make it to Cardiff, for whatever reason.

“Gareth Bale never played a competitive game in north Wales. It just didn’t happen and that pains me. Great, he was in the Racecourse for Trinidad & Tobago (the 2019 friendly) but we have had a rough deal.

“I understand where Wrexham have been the past 15 seasons and the element of, ‘Why should we play there?’ I get that. But now Wrexham are no longer the poor relations of Welsh football.”

Looking around the rebranded SToK Cae Ras as part-timers Gibraltar were soundly beaten 4-0, it is hard not to share the belief north Wales deserves its fair share going forward.

Wales manager Rob Page, with one eye on Sunday’s Euro 2024 qualifier at home to Croatia in the capital, may have selected a second-string side. But this couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of supporters, especially the many youngsters in the 10,008 crowd, who were just happy to see the national team back playing on their doorsteps.

Wales striker Kieffer Moore scored twice against Gibraltar (Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

This was a big night for Wrexham as a football club.

With co-owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney making clear when trying to buy the club their desire to bring international football back to north Wales, the stakes were high. Everything had to go right.

As a result, plenty of meticulous planning had gone into bringing the Racecourse up to the required standard to host even one of the game’s minnows, including the erection of a marquee in the car park to ensure there were the necessary broadcasting and media facilities to satisfy UEFA.

It helped that previous improvement work on the Racecourse, such as the new floodlights that went up in May and the extending of the dressing rooms before that, had been done with welcoming the national team back very much in mind.

Gibraltar’s maiden visit to Wales was the latest step on a road the FAW had embarked on last season when Wales Under-19s played a home fixture at the Racecourse, coincidentally also against Gibraltar.

It is hoped the under-21s and the women’s international team can make Wrexham a home. The completion of the new Kop stand will be key in realising those ambitions, with the extra 5,500 seats and top-class facilities necessary to bring the stadium up to the standard demanded by UEFA, without the need for Wednesday’s temporary measures.

Or, as Humphrey Ker, Wrexham’s executive director, succinctly put it when speaking to The Athletic earlier this month: “What we don’t want to do is put up a tent every time anyone comes”.

Building work is yet to begin due to a number of factors, including the need to relocate an electrical substation that services the adjoining student accommodation and divert a sewer that runs under the land. No start date has yet been set for a £25million ($31m) project that will take 11 months to complete.

The hold-up is both frustrating and costly, with the club initially hoping to have the stand open in time for the start of next season. But the bigger picture is that the new Kop should be the key to unlocking what has been a striking regional imbalance in Wales by bringing international football back to the north, a major factor in why significant public funding has been committed to the Kop project.

The atmosphere inevitably dipped after the rousing pre-match singing — Gibraltar are ranked 198th in the world by FIFA and the first-half mismatch showed why — but this was still a special night for those who had waited a long time to see Wales play live once again.

“I just hope this goes on to mean something,” says Edwards, such a fan of the national team he attended all six Euro 2016 games in France, travelling there and back by bus on four occasions to ensure he could cheer on Chris Coleman’s side.

“There is a feelgood factor in Wrexham. Beforehand, I spoke to a lot of people I know who had never seen Wales play before but planned to be there. People from work or wherever who were taking their kids, aged eight, nine, 10.

“In order to get the goodwill of fans in north Wales, you have to give them something back. Not just a game every four or five years. It can be done, especially with the wider infrastructure being there with Colliers Park (now a National Football Development Centre after previously being Wrexham’s training ground).

“It would be nice to get a proper qualifier. But the FAW’s stance will be the deciding factor. The players will have a say, too. Under Coleman, there was a feeling the team liked the Cardiff City Stadium as home.

“I get that, as we had a long unbeaten run there and the stands are near the pitch so it can be quite intimidating for the opposition. But you can’t tell me the same doesn’t apply to a four-sided Racecourse.

“The Hollywood stardust and the owners’ commitment to wanting to get the Kop done means north Wales surely deserves the right to stage more international fixtures.”

Bringing international football back to Wrexham more regularly won’t be without problems. For a start, unlike Championship duo Cardiff City and Swansea City, Wrexham play during the international breaks, meaning scheduling won’t be straightforward.

This need to satisfy club and country demands at the same time also has a knock-on effect in terms of piling on extra pressure to existing staff, including the groundstaff who also have a home game against Salford City on Saturday to prepare for.

Then there is how Cardiff’s capacity dwarfs the Racecourse, even after the new Kop is opened. This means the more attractive fixtures, such as qualifiers against the big nations, are likely to stay in the capital for financial reasons.

Nevertheless, Wrexham has become accustomed to rolling out the welcome mat. The overseas fans who continue to flock to the area in huge numbers on the back of the documentary charting Reynolds and McElhenney’s journey of ownership are testament to that.

No reason why that welcome can’t be extended further, as Wednesday night’s 95th international at the Racecourse — the most of any stadium in Wales — underlined. Wrexham really is ‘Still Here’.

(Top photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

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