Neil Williams, the man who went on a mission to save Wrexham from potential oblivion (2023)

As his beloved Wrexham teetered on the edge of potential oblivion, Neil Williams felt helpless.

Living 320 miles away in Cornwall only added to the sense of frustration felt by this lifelong fan, who had moved south as a teenager but was still a regular at home matches.

This was the summer of 2004, amid the ruinous reign of owner Alex Hamilton. Having transferred the freehold of the Racecourse Ground to his own company, property developer Hamilton had given the club 12 months’ notice to quit their home of more than 125 years.

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Worse was to follow later in the year when a winding-up order was served by the Inland Revenue, followed not long after by Wrexham being placed in administration and docked 10 points.

Fans, appalled at what was happening to their club, banded together to form a supporters’ trust. Funds were badly needed to continue the fight to keep the club alive. Williams, having been brought up on a farm near the Flintshire town of Mold — about 10 miles north of Wrexham — was desperate to help.

“I wanted to do something but had no idea what,” he says. “A sponsored walk from my house to the Racecourse was a possibility. But 320 miles is a long way and I wasn’t sure I’d be up to that!

“I decided to try to collect shirts from all the 92 clubs (20 in the Premier League, the top tier, and 72 in the English Football League, the three tiers below), get them signed and then auction them to raise funds for the Trust, who were leading the fight against Hamilton in the courts.”

The battle to oust Hamilton, who had bought Wrexham in 2002 and installed former Chester City chief Mark Guterman as chairman, would eventually be won.

In time, Wrexham’s home ground was returned to the club in the High Court, Judge Alistair Norris ruling the move had been a breach of the directors’ duty to act in the club’s best interests and that it was “fanciful to suggest Mr Hamilton acted in good faith”. Both Hamilton and Guterman would later be banned from being company directors for seven years apiece.

All that, however, was in the future when Williams embarked on his attempt to “do my bit” by collecting those 92 club shirts.

“The main target was raising money for the Trust,” he adds. “But I also felt getting all the other 91 clubs involved would be symbolic as well. It would show solidarity and support for a fellow football club.

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“I was hoping clubs would understand our plight. To be fair, 70 per cent of them did and came straight back to us.

“But it still took not far short of a full season from sending those first letters out to completing the set. It ended up taking over my life.”

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Perhaps fittingly considering the huge task he took on to raise much-needed funds to help save Wrexham, Williams’ formative years watching the club were not without challenges.

Born into a farming family, home was a small village called Cilcain. “We were about seven miles away from Mold,” he explains. “Right up in the mountains. I used to have to walk and then get a bus from Mold to Wrexham. Winter was the worst.”

Uncle Gordon took Williams to his first game in May 1977. Victory over Crystal Palace would have been enough to seal promotion to the old Second Division (now the Championship, the division below the Premier League). Two late Palace goals, however, meant Wrexham lost 4-2 and ultimately finished fifth, a point behind the London club in the last promotion place.

Despite the disappointment, the 10-year-old Williams was hooked. If anything, moving to Helston on the western tip of Cornwall in his late teens only strengthened that bond. Hence he threw himself into the considerable challenge of collecting those signed shirts in his team’s hour of need.

“It isn’t as easy as you might think,” he says. “I sent the letters out, initially thinking, ‘This won’t take too long’. This was August 2004. But I didn’t get the last shirt until the spring of 2005, just before the LDV Vans final (when Wrexham beat Southend United at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff).”

Burnley were the first to respond, a signed shirt arriving at the Racecourse addressed to Geraint Parry, the club’s long-serving club secretary having agreed to collect and store whatever came through the post at the ground.

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A trickle of shirts quickly followed over the next few weeks before gradually drying up again. More letters and phone calls followed from Cornwall amid various events designed to publicise Wrexham’s plight, such as a parade involving a selection of the signed shirts at events like Fans United Day and the Football League Trophy final in Cardiff.

Neil Williams, the man who went on a mission to save Wrexham from potential oblivion (1)

The signed shirts are paraded around the Racecourse (Photo: Neil Williams)

Fellow supporters got involved, too. “There are Wrexham fans all over the country,” he adds. “So, I’d get a call from a club saying a shirt was ready for collection and then put a message on the Red Passion messageboard (for Wrexham fans) asking if anyone could help out. Someone would put their hand up and go collect it before bringing it to the next home match.”

Other shirt collections were more high profile, such as the one at Liverpool. “There was a game at Anfield against Newcastle,” says Williams. “I couldn’t make it but (former Wales international) Joey Jones collected the Liverpool and Newcastle shirts on the pitch before the game.

“The Trust also had a bucket collection outside that raised £5,000, so that was a really pleasing day.”

Eventually, Williams had collected 90 shirts to go with Wrexham’s own signed top. A date for auction had been set at Sotheby’s in London, while permission had also been granted by the Football League for the collection to be paraded before kick-off at the Trophy final on April 10.

With one shirt still outstanding and time running out, Williams had to turn to high office for help.

“Manchester City was the last one,” he explains. “We had to get our local MP at the time, Ian Lucas, involved. He actually went over to Manchester after contacting the club and bought the shirt for £40 out of his own pocket.”

The collection finally complete, attention turned to the May 18 auction. “I was asked by Sotheby’s what the reserve price should be,” says Williams. “It was difficult to gauge but I did think, ‘If you bought these shirts in a shop, it would be a fair whack of money’. And these were all signed.

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“So, I set the reserve price at £15,000. It was a unique lot, featuring clubs like Rushden & Diamonds, who don’t even exist any more. So, I hoped we’d get that price.”

Williams’ job then was as a purchasing manager for a scuba diving manufacturer, which meant being there on the big day was not a problem.

“We had shops all over the country so I just made sure I was visiting customers in and around London that week,” he says. “Sotheby’s, such a posh place and yet I was sweating when the shirts came round for auction.

“The bidding started at £7,000 and then went up quite slowly before peaking at £12,000, meaning we missed the reserve. I was asked if I wanted to accept anyway but I said ‘no’. I wanted to raise as much as possible for the Trust. They needed every penny for the fight.

“In hindsight, maybe I should have chosen a dedicated sports memorabilia auction. That was my next plan. But then, a week later, I had a call from Sotheby’s. They’d had contact from a chap in Anglesey who wanted to buy the entire collection for the asking price.

“I never met or spoke to the guy. He’s a builder. I was told he wanted the collection for his son, who was a big Manchester United fan. To create some sort of man cave.

“The main thing, though, is the Trust got some funds. Even when the commission was taken off, it came to about £13,000. A decent sum.”

Neil Williams, the man who went on a mission to save Wrexham from potential oblivion (2)

(Photo: Richard Sutcliffe)

All these years on, he remains closely involved with the club as a volunteer. Having moved to Whitchurch, Shropshire, with his partner Chris nine years ago, he joins Mark Griffiths on the hugely popular Wrexham Player commentary that can be accessed via the club’s website.

Williams also had a stint working the scoreboard at the University End of the Racecourse, albeit not without mishap. “There would be games when it would simply freeze,” he laughs. “This was before the new cabling went in. I’d have to literally turn the scoreboard on and off to reboot the thing.

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“Other problems, though, were more down to human error. I’d put the wrong score up from time to time. There was also a folder for each game and I’d click on the wrong folder. We’d be playing Notts County and I’d have Chesterfield up there!

“Thankfully, these days it’s automated.”

It isn’t just the scoreboard that is functioning better these days. So, too, is the entire club following the takeover by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. Williams, as a Supporters’ Trust member, was firmly in the ‘yes’ camp when the time came to vote on whether to sell the club to the Hollywood duo.

“What struck me was their vision for the club,” he says. “What I really like is how they don’t see themselves as owners of the club, more the custodians/guardians for the next generation.

“That is a great way to look at it. They are not here to make millions out of the club. Not like the Glazers at Manchester United.

“For us as supporters, it is like a fairytale. Still feels like we are dreaming, if I’m honest.”

That togetherness was again evident on Saturday morning as manager Phil Parkinson, chief executive Fleur Robinson and Shaun Harvey, effectively Reynolds and McElhenney’s go-to guy on the ground since first attempting to buy the club, braved freezing temperatures to join staff and supporters in clearing snow from the Racecourse Ground pitch.

Today’s @Wrexham_AFC match is happening come hell or high water. That’s our manager: Phil Parkinson, our CEO: Fleur Robinson and my personal hero: Shaun Harvey, shoveling snow to clear the pitch in time. I love this town with all my heart. (City) pic.twitter.com/dEPDAVVVvl

— Ryan Reynolds (@VancityReynolds) March 11, 2023

Their reward came via a 1-0 victory over Southend that keeps Wrexham’s push for a return to the EFL firmly on track.

“Seeing how the club is today makes all those efforts to keep it going in the dark days worthwhile,” adds Williams. “It is phenomenal to see what has been achieved by two actors with no previous links whatsoever to Wrexham.”

With the 20th anniversary of his shirt-collecting odyssey approaching, Williams has spoken to the club about possibly including the collection in the plans for the new 5,500-capacity Kop stand that is due to open in time for the 2024-25 season.

“I’ve contacted Humphrey (Ker, executive director) and asked if it might be possible one day to try to get the collection back to display in the new stand when it’s built,” he adds.

“The collection is a part of the history of our club.”

(Top photo: Neil Williams, left, with his collection of signed shirts. Credit: Neil Williams)

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