Welcome to Wrexham… in League One: What happens next?

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As Wrexham’s lap of honour after clinching a second promotion in as many years reached the Tech End, where the Racecourse Ground’s most vociferous supporters can be found, Paul Mullin decided to take charge of the PA microphone.

“I saw my mate the other day,

He said to me he’d seen the ‘white Pele’,

So I asked, ‘Who is he?’

He goes by the name of Elliot Lee…”

Mullin’s voice may not quite match the standard of his finishing in front of goal. But the thousands of partying supporters didn’t care, as they joined in with a song that, like its subject, has become a real terrace favourite these past couple of years.

(Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images)

Next up was a ditty in honour of Arthur Okonkwo, the on-loan Arsenal goalkeeper. By now, the microphone had been returned to its rightful owner but that didn’t matter as the 22-year-old danced along to the fans chanting his name.

Over the next 10 or so minutes, most of the squad received a name-check, including Mullin, James McClean, Steven Fletcher, Ollie Palmer and Max Cleworth, the clearly shy defender being touchingly nudged forward to bask in the adoration by captain Ben Tozer.

It felt fitting, because promotion had been a real team effort, from Lee’s early goals which helped make up for the absence of the injured Mullin in the early weeks of the season or how new arrivals Okonkwo, McClean and George Evans helped take Wrexham to the next level.

Then there was Cleworth, who made the right-sided centre-half position his own from Christmas onwards, despite his only starts in the opening months coming in the cups as manager Phil Parkinson rotated his squad.

Max Cleworth and Ryan Barnett celebrate promotion (Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images)

All have a strong case to be named what has to be the most keenly-fought Player of the Year award in a long, long time, as does Mullin for hitting such a rich vein of form at just the right time.

The togetherness that has powered Wrexham to back-to-back promotions will be tested again next season, when the club returns to the third tier for the first time since 2005.

Parkinson admits the step up is likely to be a “bigger one” than last summer’s return to the EFL. But he also believes there’s plenty more to come from a club whose highest-ever position is 15th in the old Second Division (now the Championship).

“We have progressed quickly,” says the 56-year-old. “But I said last year when we won promotion (from the National League) that there’s a lot more chapters to be written. I firmly believe that’s still the case now.”

So, what can Wrexham expect next season? Are they equipped to thrive once again at a higher level? And what personnel changes will be needed?

How will life in the third tier differ to the last couple of years?

You only have to look at some of the teams who Wrexham could face next season to realise just what a big deal this promotion is for a club who not so long ago seemed marooned in non-League.

For a start, there’s a trio of clubs who were in the Premier League — Reading, Wigan Athletic and Charlton Athletic — in the not-too-distant past. Portsmouth, the 2008 FA Cup winners, are going up, probably to be joined by Derby County. But that still leaves Bolton Wanderers, currently sitting third in the table, potentially on the roster for next season.

Charlton Athletic are one of the bigger sides in League One currently (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Then, there are the sides in danger of dropping out of the Championship. As it stands with three games remaining, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town, a Premier League team just five years ago, occupy the final two relegation places above already doomed Rotherham United.

But Birmingham City, Stoke City and Queens Park Rangers could all yet drop, opening up the possibility of not only some big-name visitors to The Racecourse next season but also some cracking away trips to famous old grounds such as Hillsborough or St Andrew’s.

Midfielder Lee is certainly relishing the step up. “There could be some massive teams in League One next year,” he says. “We’ve come so far from being in the National League a year ago to be potentially playing massive teams next season.

“It will be hard next year. But that’s why we are here — we want to test ourselves against better players and better teams.”

Will Wrexham suddenly be up against rivals with much deeper pockets?

There’s no doubt the spending power of their new peers will be much bigger. Wednesday, for instance, had a wage bill of £14million ($17.4m) in a 2022-23 season that saw Darren Moore’s side clinch promotion via the League One play-offs.

Even with their Hollywood backing, Wrexham are unlikely to be able to top such a sum. However, the Welsh club’s extraordinary ability to generate cash — revenue for the current season has soared beyond £20million, putting them on a par with most Championship outfits — means they’ll be competitive in the market.

With League One clubs allowed to spend up to 60 per cent of their annual turnover on wages (up from 55 per cent in League Two), Wrexham’s healthy balance sheet should provide Parkinson with the necessary funds.

How do promoted teams usually fare in League One?

In the last five seasons, five clubs have gone straight back down just a year after winning promotion, including Carlisle United this time around. Forest Green Rovers, Swindon Town, Northampton Town and Tranmere Rovers complete the list, while Bury disappeared altogether after being declared bankrupt before the 2018-19 campaign got under way.

More encouragingly, the three teams who went up automatically last season have all adapted well with Stevenage, Leyton Orient and Northampton sitting ninth, 10th and 11th respectively.

Those expecting another tilt at success by Wrexham in 2024-25 may wish to take note of how no promoted team has gone up again the following season since 2018-19. Or, in fact, even made the play-offs, underlining just how difficult a step up this can be.

Are we expecting a busy summer in the transfer market?

Yes. Unlike a year ago when Wrexham needed just a bit of fine-tuning thanks to a recruitment model that had effectively future-proofed the squad by prioritising players with League Two experience when still in the National League, this time around more of an overhaul will be needed.

Parkinson admitted as much following his fifth career promotion as a manager. “We can now start planning for the summer and build a squad which can hopefully be competitive,” he says.

Any overhaul is likely to be helped by several senior players being out of contract, including three centre-halves in Aaron Hayden, Jordan Tunnicliffe and captain Tozer. Luke Young, the club’s longest-serving player, is another whose current deal expires on June 30 along with defender Callum McFadzean and goalkeeping duo Rob Lainton and Mark Howard.

Okonkwo’s loan also ends in a couple of weeks, the 22-year-old possibly becoming a free agent with Arsenal yet to offer a contract extension. If he does leave the Emirates Stadium, expect a scramble for his signature. Whether Wrexham would be part of that perhaps depends on his wage demands, the club having paid just under half his current salary this season with Arsenal picking up the rest.

Arthur Okonkwo’s loan from Arsenal has been a successful one (Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

Where do Wrexham need to strengthen?

Goalkeeper is obviously one. Potentially losing three centre-halves also means this area will have to be looked at, though the emergence of Cleworth these past few months is likely to save Wrexham some money.

Midfield looks strong with George Evans, Andy Cannon and Elliot Lee all having played in the Championship, never mind the third tier. As do the two wing-back slots, with McClean still the fittest member of the squad a week or so short of his 35th birthday and Ryan Barnett finishing this season strongly. Jacob Mendy and Luke Bolton respectively bring competition to the wide areas.

Mullin’s experience in League One is limited to just half a season at Tranmere Rovers. But, like a fine wine, he’s improving with age and will expect to score goals in the third tier.

What will perhaps be key this summer is finding a partner that dove-tails with the Liverpudlian’s attributes. Palmer and Fletcher, 32 and 37 respectively, have made telling contributions this season but the step up is likely to mean a younger upgrade is required, even though Palmer has 12 months remaining on his contract.

Veteran Steven Fletcher (left) is out of contract this summer (Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images)

Reasons to be optimistic for 2024-25?

The manager. Not only is Parkinson well versed at this level, having taken charge of several League One clubs in a little over two decades as a manager. But he’s also steered two of those to runners-up spot — Colchester United in 2006 and Bolton Wanderers 11 years later — as well as taking Bradford City to the play-offs.

(Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images)

He also has the respect and backing of the dressing room, as Eoghan O’Connell makes clear. “Ask anyone in the dressing room,” says the Irish defender, “they can’t speak highly enough about the gaffer. He is someone you want to play for, someone you want to run through a brick wall for.

“He gets it right in terms of how he deals with people. The way he carries himself rubs off on you and makes us want to do more for him. So level-headed, too. Whether we win, lose or draw, I’d say he is the best I’ve ever worked with in terms of you turn up on Monday and everything is geared towards the next moment.”

How far can Wrexham realistically climb to?

O’Connell is in no doubt as to the potential. “This club can become as big as it wants,” insists the former Celtic defender. “Wrexham are global. That hit us all in the summer, when we were in North Carolina playing Chelsea (in a pre-season friendly).

“I remember being in the tunnel before the warm-up. They went out and there was a little roar. We then went out and the place really lifted. That’s why I say it is a global club.

“I also think back to Halifax away last year and the numbers we took (4,500 fans made the trip). We got beat but I remember thinking in the warm-up it was similar to a Celtic away day when I was there as a younger player.

(Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

“I do think with the fanbase, the people involved running the club and the owners, the world is your oyster, really.”

Is there an example for Wrexham to follow on their return to League One?

A year of consolidation wouldn’t be a bad thing, especially after back-to-back promotions. So, maybe any one of the trio who went up automatically a year ago.

Lee, however, believes Luton Town, the club he left to join Wrexham in 2022, can be the ultimate inspiration after going all the way from the National League to the Premier League in just nine years.

“Anything can happen,” he says. “Look at my old club Luton. When I left, I said I wanted a project similar to Luton. I wanted to go up the leagues and Wrexham fitted the bill.

“Of course, you can’t get ahead of yourself. And I’m not saying we will be in the Premier League any time soon. But I am saying we have all the foundations to be a successful club.

“It has the potential to go all the way, thanks to the backing of the owners and the staff we have here. I’ve always said this place reminds me of Luton, in that it’s a great environment to work in every day and people come here to work hard.

Luton were promoted from the National League in 2014 and winning away at Everton in the Premier League nine years later (Lewis Storey/Getty Images)

“Special things can happen. I’ve said that since I came here and I know that because of what we had at Luton. Look at them now in the Premier League.”

With Luton the last promoted team from League Two to go straight up again 12 months later — a feat they achieved in 2017-18 after finishing as champions of the third tier — Wrexham could certainly do a lot worse than study a club whose average gates at a cramped Kenilworth Road are similar to those at the Racecourse.

(Header photo: Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images)


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