Wrexham Football Club is the oldest football club in Wales and the third oldest professional football club in the World. Their spiritual home ‘The Racecourse’ is the oldest international football stadium still in use in the World today, and the stadium also incorporates a public house ‘The Turf Hotel’ which is the oldest public house at any sport stadium in the World.
The Football Pioneers That History Forgot
Wrexham is a town in North East Wales which runs parallel with the English border and this has enabled the town’s football club to play in both the English and Welsh leagues and competitions at different times throughout the club’s history.
As the name of the stadium implies, Wrexham AFC play their home games on a former racecourse, although the history of the football club itself is a continuation of a heritage of community sport in the town, which dates back to at least the 17th Century.
Race meetings had been recorded in the town of Wrexham since the 1600’s, but by 1739 a new course had been constructed and The Wrexham Races evolved into a major annual event, with visitors flocking to the town to watch the races during the local annual holidays in October of each year.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, the wealthy landowner upgraded the course and the annual meetings attracted the landed gentry from far and wide. A public house known as ‘The Turf Tavern’ was built on the course for the benefit of racegoers between 1793 and 1819 and a more upmarket premises, called ‘The Grandstand’ was also constructed in the 1830’s, just a few metres away from the tavern, to cater for the more well-healed clientele who could wine and dine in style and watch the races from a purpose built balcony that overlooked the finishing line at the rear of the property. Around the same time, the landowner also gave his patronage to a local cricket club, who established a cricket pitch in the middle of the course.
In 1854, a new permanent, stone-built, stand was constructed to replace the temporary timber stands that had been erected each year and dismantled when the race meetings ended, while a part of The Turf Tavern was also adapted to provide offices and a weighing room for race officials. The improvements should have guaranteed a prosperous future for the course, but as the popularity of the races had increased, the clientele changed and the working classes flocked to the town to celebrate their annual holiday at the races, which became a notorious festival of drunkenness and public disorder, and so the landowner withdrew his support and the races were stopped in 1857. Local businesses and particularly, breweries and publicans lobbied local officials to have the races re-established, but the church and a growing temperance movement held sway, and so it was amidst this atmosphere that a new organisation ‘The United Volunteer Services Club’ was founded in 1863, specifically to provide athletic sport in the winter evenings as a healthier alternative for the working classes, rather than spending their spare time in the taverns.
At the inaugural meeting on 12th October 1863, the founding members made a pledge to raise funds for the purpose of securing premises to facilitate athletic sport, but two of the members- Charles Edward Kershaw and Evan Morris were also members of The Wrexham Cricket Club and they used their influence within the cricket club to bring their new forms of athletic sport to The Racecourse.
At the end of season dinner in The Turf Tavern on 4th October 1864, the cricket club chairman- Edward Manners, announced ‘There is one thing, gentlemen. I wish to name, the great want of amusement in this town in winter time. It is my intention to purchase a football in the course of this week, and I shall expect a good many down to the field next Saturday.’ ‘It was only yesterday I called upon the Mayor and he said he should like to see an athletic club established in Wrexham. If we have athletic sports and cannot obtain a room suitable for holding them in we can have them on the green.’
The first game
Wrexham Football and Athletic Club played their first ever game, which they lost by two goals to one, against ten men of The Prince of Wales Fire Brigade, on The Racecourse Ground on 22nd October 1864. These are the ten founding members who represented Wrexham in the club’s first ever game on The Racecourse: Charles Edward Kershaw (Captain), William Tootell, Thomas Henry Sykes, Thomas Broster, Thomas Hanmer, Edward Ephraim Knibbs, Thomas Heath, John Taylor, Joseph Roberts and George Rumsey Johnston.
At the end of that first football season the club members voted to use all of the profits to establish an annual athletic sports day on The Racecourse, with the first sports day taking place on May 8th 1865. The sports day proved to be popular, without the trouble that had marred the earlier race meetings, and so the event was repeated at the end of each football season, while horse racing was also gradually re-introduced on The Racecourse, until it was finally abandoned in 1913.
Of those founding members of The United Volunteer Services Club, who first brought new forms of athletic sport, including football, to The Racecourse; - Charles Edward Kershaw would later serve as The Vice Chairman of the football club and Evan Morris would become The President of Wrexham Football Club and The Vice President of The Football Association of Wales. He was knighted by Queen Victoria during her visit to Wales in 1889.
The owner of The Racecourse- Sir Watkin Williams Wynn was elected to serve as the first President of The Football Association of Wales in May 1876.
Edward Manners of The Wrexham Cricket Club also served as The Honourable Secretary for the Football Association of Wales from 1880 to 1882.
The Football Association of Wales (the third oldest football association in the World) was founded in Wrexham in February 1876 by a group of businessmen who wanted to assemble a representative team to play against Scotland, in order to emulate the games between Scotland and England, which had started four years earlier. The first game between Scotland and Wales took place in Partick, Glasgow, in Scotland on 25th March 1876 and the return match was played on The Racecourse Ground on 5th March 1877. Scotland won both games, but The Racecourse became the home of international football in Wales until the start of the 20th Century, when home internationals were intermittently played, mostly, at both Wrexham and Cardiff.
Meanwhile, Wrexham Football and Athletic Club had reformed as Wrexham Football Club in October 1872 and they won the first ever Welsh Football Association Cup on its inception, beating Druids by one goal to nil at nearby Acton Park in Wrexham on 30th March 1878: the first of a record 23 times that the club were presented with The Welsh Cup. Wrexham were also credited with creating a new pyramid system, consisting of two backs, three half-backs and five forwards during the 1877/78 season. The system was subsequently adopted by most clubs throughout Wales and England, including the Preston North End ‘Invincibles’ team who later won the first ever English Football League title as well as the FA Cup without losing a game throughout the entire season.
At the start of the 1880/81 season, Wrexham Cricket Club, who were the resident tenants of the lower section of The Racecourse, decided to raise the football club’s rent by £10 per year and this led members of Wrexham Football Club to hold a general meeting, during which, they decided to adopt Rhosddu Recreation Ground as their new home. The change of location also spurred WFC to change its name to Wrexham Athletic Football Club, and Athletic played their first ever game on Rhosddu Recreation Ground on 10th September 1881, although the club decided to change its name back to Wrexham Football Club at the end of that season.
Wrexham won The Welsh Cup again when they defeated Druids by one goal to nil for a second time, at the neutral venue of The Racecourse Ground on 21st April 1883. But after the award ceremony club officials also negotiated new tenancy terms with The Racecourse owner, for a return to their spiritual home in time for the start of the 83/84 season, and the club have remained at The Racecourse ever since.
First FA Cup
Wrexham entered the English F.A. Cup for the first time in 1883, but crowd trouble during a second round tie against Oswestry on The Racecourse on December 1st led to the club being banned from all English Football Association games, and so they reformed as Wrexham Olympic Football Club at the end of that season and were subsequently re-admitted to the English F.A. Cup for the 1884/85 competition.
The ‘Olympic’ era lasted until the start of the 88/89 season, when the club were again renamed as Wrexham Football Club. Two years later, Wrexham were one of the twelve clubs who founded the second incarnation of The Combination League, although rising travel costs and expenses would force the club to abandon the league to become founding members of a new Welsh League, which Wrexham won for two consecutive seasons, before rejoining The Combination in 1896. Wrexham won The Combination League four times, including in 1904/05, when the team won the title by scoring seventy times over the course of the season while conceding just sixteen goals. They also won The Welsh Cup that year without a goal having been scored against them and were winners of The Shropshire Mayors Charity Cup and The Denbighshire and Flintshire Charity Cup in the same year. The champions were then elected to join The Birmingham District League for the start of the 1905/06 season; however, at the end of that season, Wrexham secured the services of two players from Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa, and paid half of the transfer fees to each of the players. This kind of transaction was permitted under Welsh association rules but not under English rules, and so the club were again struck off from The English Football Association membership list. Wrexham appealed against the ban, but the decision was initially upheld, although the English F.A. soon rescinded and for a number of years, the practice was accepted under English association rules.
The team continued to play in the Birmingham District League, while also competing in both the English and Welsh F.A. competitions; winning the latter for consecutive years between 1909 and 1911. Lucrative international matches were also still being played intermittently on Wrexham’s home ground, which had hosted more international games than any other football stadium in the World at that time, but The Racecourse was facing competition from other clubs in Wales, and so in 1912 the officials of Wrexham Football Club made a pledge to The Football Association of Wales that they would improve the facilities on The Racecourse, in order to host the international match against Scotland on 3rd March 1913. Additional concrete terracing was laid and the banks behind each goal were raised to provide spectators with a better view, while both of the public houses in the stadium were renovated and the properties were joined together and renamed ‘The Turf Hotel’. Wales played out a 0-0 draw against Scotland on that day, but competition from other clubs with larger grounds in other parts of Wales continued.
Wrexham F.C. continued their dominance in the Welsh F.A. Cup, wining the trophy in 1914 and 1915, although by that time The Racecourse had been handed over to the army, as professional league football was stopped during the First World War, but resumed again in 1919 when Wrexham rejoined The Birmingham District League.
After the War
The club also set up a fund to buy new equipment, repair damage and amend the alterations that had been made during the war, and a supporters association was established for the purpose of raising such funds.
Wrexham won The Welsh Cup again in 1921 and the following season were elected to the newly formed Third Division North of The English Football League.
The supporters association also funded the construction of a number of new stands throughout the 20’s and 30’s and the facilities at the stadium were improved as attendances and ground capacity steadily increased. More Welsh Cup victories followed in 1924, 25 and 31, and the club narrowly missed out on promotion to The Second Division of English football when they ended the 32/33 season as runners up in Division Three North. But world war intervened again and professional football was stopped in 1939, although Wrexham continued to play occasional games in different sections of The North Regional League, and as a garrison town, were able to enlist the services of some of the best players in the country who were stationed in the town during this period.
Professional football restarted in 1946 with the team finishing third in the league in the opening season, although the town would have to wait another ten years before any more silverware was added to the trophy cabinet. Wrexham won The Welsh Cup in April 1957, but earlier that year had also reached the fourth round of the English FA Cup to face giants Manchester United in front of a record 34,445 spectators on The Racecourse. United won the game 5-0, but the bumper crowd and additional interest that the game had generated provided a welcomed boost to finances for the club as they embarked on a five year ground improvement plan to raise the capacity of The Racecourse to 45,000.
Wrexham were relegated for the first time in the club’s history in 1960 when they dropped into the recently-formed Fourth Division just days before winning The Welsh Cup, although they remained in the Fourth Division for just two seasons, being promoted back to Division Three in 1962, where they remained for another two seasons before being relegated back to Division Four. But fortunes changed in 1970 when the club were promoted back to Division Three and the following season they won the Welsh Cup again, which now entitled the winners to play in The European Cup Winners Cup. Wrexham won their opening tie against FC Zurich in The European Cup Winners Cup in 1972 but were knocked out in the second round by Hajduk Split.
In the Modern era
In 1974, the club reached the quarter finals of the English F.A. Cup for the first time and the next season they won the Welsh Cup, gaining qualification to The European Cup Winners Cup for a second time, with Wrexham reaching the quarter final stage, when they were beaten over two legs by the eventual winners of the competition - Anderlecht. The team had also earned itself a reputation as ‘giantkillers’ in cup competitions throughout the 70’s and they disposed of a number of top flight teams to reach the quarter finals of both the English F.A. Cup and the English League Cup in 1978, as well as winning the Welsh Cup and finishing the season as champions of the third division to be promoted into Division Two. The club remained in Division Two for four seasons but were relegated back to the third division in 1982 and again back to Division Four in 1983. Another giankilling scalp was taken when Wrexham defeated FC Porto in the first round of The European Cup Winners Cup in 1984, but the club continued to struggle domestically in the succeeding years and finished bottom of the league in 1991, although they were saved from relegation due to changes in the league that year. The following season Wrexham caused another major shock when they defeated the reigning champions of English league football- Arsenal, in a third round F.A. Cup tie at The Racecourse, although the club’s hayday was all but over and despite another Welsh Cup win in 1995 and promotion in 2003, the club began to suffer from severe financial issues after a series of ownership changes that led to debts of £2.6M, which resulted in the club being placed into financial administration in 2004, and a 10 points deduction in the league that ultimately led to relegation back to the fourth tier of English football.
Wrexham won The English Football League Trophy (LDV Vans Trophy) in front of 36 thousand fans at The Millennium Stadium in Cardiff at the end of that season and in October 2005 The High Court also ruled that the owner of the club had improperly acquired the freehold of The Racecourse in the name of his own limited company in a bid to make money from the sale and redevelopment of the ground, and so the club remained in the hands of the administrators until a deal was struck with a new consortium who took over the club and its assets, just five days before the club was due to be wound up. The new owners created a new company, Wrexham Football Club (2006) Ltd and transferred ownership of the club and stadium into a new holding company, called ‘Wrexham Village Ltd’. Wrexham narrowly avoided the drop from the football league in 2007, although their reprieve was short lived as they finished bottom of the league in 2008, thereby ending the club’s 87-year stay in the Football League.
Wrexham Village then initiated a multi-phased-plan to redevelop the stadium with the first phase construction of a residential block on stadium land to accommodate students, in conjunction with a nearby university. But after the student blocks were completed, Wrexham Village underwent a period of financial instability and so the famous old stadium and its prestigious training ground were sold to the university. The second phase of the construction plan, which was meant to benefit the club, never materialised, and in 2011 the club were served with a winding up order, due to an unpaid tax bill of £200,000, although the debt was paid off by a combination of donations and loans from fans, and the club was taken over by a new fans owned organisation ‘Wrexham Supporters Trust’.
In 2012, Wrexham attained a record 98 points to finish runners up in The Conference Premier League, but they were beaten in the semi finals of the playoffs, while in 2013 the club played at Wembley Stadium for the first time in their history when they defeated Grimsby in the final of The F.A. Trophy just two weeks before returning to Wembley again to be defeated in The Conference Premier play-off Final.
In 2016, Wrexham Supporters Trust secured a 99-year lease on The Racecourse, where the club continue to play in The Conference Premier League. Wrexham have remained as one of the best supported clubs in their league and frequently have an average attendance, which is considerably higher than many of the teams in Divisions One and Two of The English Football League.
The logo is displayed as a shield with two main parts with an additional banner below. In the upper part the words “Ich Dien” (German for "I serve") is visible, which also is printed on the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales.