Soccer fans at Mac's Tavern celebrate Wrexham's third goal in the Welsh side's championship clinching victory over Boreham Wood. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

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At Mac’s Tavern in Old City on Saturday, over a hundred fans cheered, high-fived, and sang as the final whistle blew for a match happening halfway across the world. 

The day’s Philly sports calendar saw a full spring slate of games, with the Phillies, the Union, and the 76ers all playing. But the majority of customers at the Old City bar had their backs turned as the Sixers completed a playoff sweep of the Nets.

Instead, their attention was reserved for the penultimate game of a relatively small Welsh soccer team: Wrexham A.F.C. 

Bar manager Erica Demitraszek said she fielded around 7 to 8 calls a day about the match in the week leading up to the game, the penultimate of Wrexham’s season.

The club from Northern Wales was trying to end a 15-year absence from England’s top tiers of football leagues. And Mac’s Tavern was the place where folks could come to watch it together. About 3394 miles apart, the bar and the soccer club have one main thing in common: part-ownership by “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” star Rob McElhenney.

McElhenney partnered with “Deadpool” star Ryan Reynolds to buy the 158-year-old club in November 2022. 

Their main goal was to take the team from the county of 136,000 people and build it up to reach the English Premier League, one of the most popular and lucrative sports leagues in the world. Luring talent to play for and manage the club, they inked sponsorship deals with TikTok, Expedia, and Reynold’s Aviation Gin, got celebrity friends involved, and documented the bromantic efforts with a series on Hulu.

The underdog sports story has Philly written all over it — and there’s also a deeper connection.

“One of the things that was attractive about Wrexham was … the town reminds me of Philadelphia,” McElhenney said on the Hulu show. “It’s a working-class town. It’s a blue-collar town. It’s a town that has had its ups and downs.” Last season, Wrexham’s uniforms for away games were even changed to Eagles green in recognition of McElhenney’s South Philly roots.

Mac’s became a gathering point for soccer fans interested in jumping on the bandwagon of a soccer club that until recently they didn’t know existed.

“We love your wagon, and you have an awesome band,” Tom Bruno, from Easton, Pa., said to a pair of Welsh Wrexham fans who found their way to the Old City tavern to watch the Saturday game kick off. 

A plaque with Wrexham A.F.C.’s logo hangs near the front of Mac’s Tavern in Old City, Philadelphia. Both the Tavern and the soccer club are co-owned by “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” star Rob McElhenney. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

Why did this game matter so much to Wrexham?

If Americans are familiar with English football at all, they’re mostly aware of the Premier League. But that’s just the top tier in a system that includes thousands of clubs across the United Kingdom.

The Wrexham Red Dragons currently compete in the soccer wilderness of the National League and have spent over a decade trying to break into the EFL League Two — the fourth tier, and the first that is fully professional.

To get “promoted” into League Two, a club has to win one of two promotion spots. One goes automatically to the team ranked best at season’s end. The other is awarded after the next six best teams duke it out in a playoff. Clubs can also get “relegated” back down to a lower tier if they finish with the worst record, which can have severe financial impacts.

It’s a system that doesn’t really have a parallel in U.S. sports, where individual players can move between the majors and minors, but not usually entire teams.

Mac’s Tavern bar manager Erica Demitraszek takes a selfie with patrons during the Wrexham match on Saturday, April 23, 2023. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

“I also find the whole promotion relegation thing absolutely fascinating,” said Chris Reina of Old City, who was at Mac’s on Saturday to watch Wrexham. “It would be like if the Yankees did poorly, let’s say — they’d be in the minor leagues. It’s just such a strange concept to me as an American.”

Last season, Wrexham made the playoffs, but lost in the semifinals in overtime to the eventually promoted Grimsby Town.

The loss deprived the first season of McIlhenney and Reynold’s Hulu show its perfect Cinderella ending. But fans were hopeful it would happen this time around.

Without getting too deep into the intricacies, Wrexham could’ve secured automatic promotion to the next tier two ways: by winning over Boreham Wood on Saturday, or by the second-place Notts County losing. But Notts County played before Wrexham and won 5-2.

It all came down to the Boreham Wood match.

‘You’ve reinvigorated the team, you’ve reinvigorated the town’

There was an obvious disparity between the two types of patrons lining the bar at Mac’s Tavern to watch. New fans displayed a youthful optimism for Wrexham’s chances, while seasoned vets were full of dread and pessimism, having witnessed the many times before where their club had “Wrexhamed it up” and tripped before the finish line.

“Being in this bar with positive fans … Best thing, best thing,” said Will Sudworth, a Wrexham season-ticket holder. Visiting the U.S. for work, he’s part of a band — not the Declan Swans — that recorded a song about the club. 

Wrexham fans and Welsh natives Will Sudworth (left) and Gareth Collins met at Mac’s Tavern for the game on Saturday after Sudworth put out a call to other supporters in the area. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

Within the first 44 seconds, there was a goal. The internet connection for the streaming feed at Mac’s hadn’t quite synched up yet, which led to confusion over which side had scored, followed by despondency when it was revealed to be Boreham Wood.

The mood shifted to hopeful after Wrexham’s Elliott Lee headed in the equalizer. During the goal celebrations, TV cameras showed McElhenney and Reynolds in the stadium’s owners’ box, prompting applause from the bar (which repeated every time the pair were shown).

Patrons at Mac’s Tavern in Old City applauded each time the footage at the Wrexham match cut away to co-owners Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)

In the second half, hope turned to cheers as star player Paul Mullin jostled the ball from the wing into the penalty area and curled a left-footed shot past the Boreham Wood goalkeeper.

Cheers turned to jubilation when Mullins scored his second and all pessimism left the bar, replaced by smiles and chants for the final 19 minutes plus stoppage time — mostly led by bar manager Demitraszek and Welsh fan Sudworth.

The entire bar counted down to the final whistle with incredible accuracy — considering it’s at the referee’s discretion in soccer — and people who were strangers at the beginning of the day hugged, chanted, and reveled together.

TV cameras in Wales shifted away from fans rushing the field to McElhenney wiping tears from his face after hugging Reynolds.

“I couldn’t be more proud of him,” said Dennis Hogan, who’s been friends with McElhenney since their high school days at St. Joe’s Prep. “He’s completely invested emotionally in the club and in the town and the people, and I could be happier for him.”

Back at Mac’s Tavern, Gareth Collins — a New Jersey resident and native of Flint, Wales, who managed “Red Passion,” a popular message board for the team — also couldn’t hold back tears.

”Thank you very much for what you’ve done, [Rob McElhenney], because it means the world to us,” Collins said. “You’ve reinvigorated the team, you’ve reinvigorated the town. … I’ll be remembering this day for 20 years to come.”

An assortment of Wrexham and Philly sports items decorate the bar at Mac’s Tavern in Philadelphia’s Old City. (Nick Kariuki/WHYY)