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Why Wrexham's Football v Homophobia Awards success will be welcomed by club's new Hollywood owners

Wrexham AFC will be winners at Friday's annual Football v Homophobia Awards - and with Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds having already acknowledged the club's "inclusive and forward-thinking" reputation, it's a proud moment for Steve Lloyd, the Wrexham Supporters Trust's Community Lead

Danny DeVito, from left, Mary Ellizabeth Ellis, Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, and Kaitlin Olson arrive at the "LA Pride Festival and Parade" event at the West Hollywood Park on Sunday, June 12, 2006, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)
Image: Wrexham's new co-owner Rob McElhenney and his wife Kaitlin Olson show their support for the LGBTQ+ community at LA Pride

Among the 'Hard Promises' made by Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds in their recent Wrexham AFC mission statement was a vow to tempt Tom Jones to the Racecourse Ground for a gig.

The statement raised hopes as well as smiles. "We're two people who've made a career of never taking ourselves too seriously," wrote the actor-producers. "However, we realise taking stewardship of this great and storied club is an incredibly serious matter and something we don't take lightly."

McElhenney and Reynolds were first revealed as potential investors back in September, and within two months, members of the Wrexham Supporters' Trust had overwhelmingly voted to relinquish control of the club in favour of the duo's takeover.

Another of their promises was "Always beat Chester", repeated three times, with the footnote "if we ever play Chester again".

It's been nearly three years since the last Cross-border derby, and recently both clubs have been chasing promotion, from the National League and National League North respectively.

Long term, however, it's star power that looks set to propel Wrexham back up the divisions, with memories of the club's late Seventies and early Eighties heyday already being rekindled.

In all, there were 14 promises made in the statement, signed simply 'Rob and Ryan'. One was particularly significant for Steve Lloyd, who is a member of the WST board. A mental health nurse who now works as an autism assessor, he also serves as the fan-owned club's Community Lead, with responsibility for diversity and inclusion.

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The commitment read: 'Recognise and reinforce Wrexham AFC's role as a leading force for community good in the town. Work with the club's disability liaison officer, Kerry Evans, to retain and enhance Wrexham's reputation as an inclusive and forward-thinking club, alongside other important local groups such as the Racecourse Community Foundation, food banks, and schools.'

Steve Lloyd, Wrexham
Image: Steve Lloyd started volunteering with the Wrexham Supporters' Trust 12 years ago and now oversees the club's diversity and inclusion work

Seeing this endorsement coming from the direction of Tinseltown filled Lloyd with pride. "We've achieved so much since we've owned the club, but in the last few years, the community work has come on huge amounts.

"We're the only autism-friendly football stadium in Wales, and we're also dementia-friendly. I run a men's peer-support group called Dragon Chat that addresses mental health. And now we've just launched Proud Dragons, our LGBTQ+ fans group, with the hope of getting that part of the inclusion message out there. We've had a really good initial response."

The group is the latest development in Wrexham's long-running support for the Football v Homophobia campaign, which is marking its annual Month of Action in February. On Friday, the club will be recognised for their LGBT+ inclusion work at the Puma-sponsored FvH Awards, in the Non-League category.

Football v Homophobia Awards logo
Image: The second annual Football v Homophobia Awards event will be held online on Friday, with winners announced via the campaign's Instagram account from 7pm

Other nominees on the night include Liverpool, Sheffield United, and Charlton from the Professional Game, while there are also categories for grassroots clubs, county FAs, fan groups, 'FvH Heroes', and the Women's Game (with Sky Sports' Jess Creighton on the shortlist).

Yet Wrexham already know they are winners - they were the only club put forward for the Non-League gong, with all six steps of the National League System eligible.

Lloyd chuckles when asked about the announcement. "There was the odd comment along the lines of, 'looks as though you're going to win it because you're the only ones nominated!'

"But if we're one of the few clubs that's done something on LGBTQ+ inclusion, and the only team nominated in the National League, I think that says more about the other clubs than it does about us."

Wrexham rainbow shirts
Image: Wrexham's kits had rainbow names and numbers added for last season's designated FvH match, but weather and COVID-19 meant the fixture was never played

The awards judges noted Wrexham's relentlessly positive approach, amid frustrating circumstances in 2020, before there was even a hint of Hollywood glamour on the horizon. They had made substantial plans for a designated FvH matchday in February last year but were twice thwarted - first by Storm Dennis on the initial date, and then by the pandemic for the rescheduled fixture.

"We'd had new shirts made for us with rainbow names and numbers, and all our sponsors had agreed to have their logos in rainbow too," says Lloyd. "But the weather and Covid meant we never got to hold the game.

"Despite that, we were able to put on a school workshop about inclusion delivered by the club's charity arm, the Racecourse Community Foundation, and a special training session for the kids which was attended by our captain, Shaun Pearson."

Penygelli Primary School, Wrexham, Football v Homophobia, Racecourse Foundation, 2020
Image: Club captain Shaun Pearson joined children from Penygelli Primary School for an FvH event organised by the Racecourse Foundation in February 2020

It will be Pearson and boss Dean Keates who deliver the award acceptance speech, says Lloyd. "If you've got your manager and your club skipper saying how thankful we are and that it's important to include everyone, it puts a lot of weight behind it. That's where I can see the difference at Wrexham. The players and staff really get what we're doing."

So do McElhenney and Reynolds. As well as getting a lift from the mission statement, Lloyd has been on Zoom meetings with the new owners and as the Trust awaits ratification from the Financial Conduct Authority on the takeover, the creator of hit sitcom It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia and the star of Deadpool have been helping out where they can.

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Former Liverpool chief executive Peter Moore says Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney will not be distant owners at Wrexham

"They've been fantastic," says Lloyd. "Over Christmas, we did a foodbank collection and Rob and Ryan gave a big sum of money which just shows how invested they are in the local area. They've also made donations for a Christmas toy collection for kids in social services care."

Meanwhile, a £6,000 gift from McElhenney to a fundraiser for an accessible bathroom for lifelong Red Dragons supporter Aiden Stott recently made headlines. On Wednesday, the star retweeted the picture of the finished bathroom to his 600,000 Twitter followers, along with a message for Aiden.

McElhenney is also fiercely supportive of the LGBTQ+ community. He grew up in Philly and his parents divorced when he was eight, after his mother came out as a lesbian; the family remained close. McElhenney's two younger brothers are gay as well. "I have always been part of the gay community. It's just always been a part of my life," he told Deadline in 2018, coinciding with an episode of the 12th season of Sunny in which his central character Mac comes out as gay.

The show, which follows a group of friends running an Irish pub in South Philadelphia, is currently up to 14 seasons. Not surprisingly, Lloyd has recently binged them all, and is now eagerly awaiting the 15th. He says when he learned of the identities of Wrexham's prospective new owners, it was "mindblowing... you think, 'how did they stumble across my little club?'"

March 20, 2019 - Wrexham, United Kingdom - A general view of the stadium before the International Friendly match at the Racecourse Ground, Wrexham. Picture date: 20th March 2019. Picture credit should read: James Wilson/Sportimage(Credit Image: © James Wilson/CSM via ZUMA Wire) (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)
Image: There are plans in place for a new 5,000-seater Kop stand at the Racecourse Ground

Of course, Wrexham are not 'little' at all - the Racecourse has a capacity of well over 10,000, and only Cardiff, Swansea, and Newport are bigger Welsh localities by population. Yet the club has been through turbulent times since the turn of the century. There was administration, the loss of Football League status in 2008, and another period of significant financial uncertainty before the Trust took ownership in 2011.

Having volunteered with them for over a decade, Lloyd took on his Community Lead role soon after joining the board three years ago. Like for McElhenney, there's a family connection that influenced his LGBT+ allyship - his daughter Natalie came out as gay at the age of 17.

"I know the struggles that she had at the time. It was strange because as a parent, I still vividly remember the day when she told me. I laughed a little and said, 'and...? That's fine, don't worry!' To me, it really wasn't an issue but for her, it was such a big thing."

Helping people to understand identity and belonging is pivotal to Lloyd's work in mental health. Using football as an entry point to that conversation via his Dragon Chat support group project has been a big success. He wants to make Proud Dragons a place for open, community-building dialogue too.

"I think there's a lot of supporters out there who would join a group like this, if they know it's there," he says.

"Wrexham is probably like most towns. The demographic has changed a lot in recent years and there are more minorities within the town now. That's where we want to reach out to, because we don't want people to think there are any barriers in going to games.

"We've worked hard to make Wrexham a family-friendly, inclusive club. The Proud Dragons is just another avenue that means supporters can come in and feel welcome."

Wrexham's designated Football v Homophobia matchday this month is on February 13 - there won't be fans in attendance at the Racecourse, but the TV cameras will be there for a Saturday evening kick-off against Notts County. "The players will hold up a big Proud Dragons rainbow banner and they'll be wearing the kit," says Lloyd.

He'll be watching along with daughter Natalie, who is helping to set up the LGBT+ supporters group, as will thousands of Wrexham fans worldwide, all tuning in to roar their team on.

McElhenney and Reynolds closed their mission statement by saying: "We'll work every day, for as long as you'll have us, to ensure the world knows that Wrexham is the name." Inclusion work in football often goes unreported, but there's more than one way to put a club on the map.

The 2021 Football v Homophobia Awards, sponsored by Puma, will be announced from 7pm on Friday on the campaign's Instagram page.

Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign. Your story of being LGBT+ or an ally could help to make sport everyone's game. To discuss further, please contact us here.

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