Don’t Take Me Home: The World’s Oldest International Football Stadium

“Can you see the floodlights yet?”, my Dad asked every-time we ventured to his spiritual home. Running to catch him up as we snuck down the side of the post office and over the train-bridge. Down to the turnstile, a nod and a wink later and I’m lifted over. Greeted by a pool of water, the floodlight pylon’s foot nestled in the middle. We would tip toe around the edge and head to our ‘spot’. 

The crowd on the Kop would build and Dad would lift me onto the barrier, high above everyone I would lean against the girder of the stand, Dad’s hand gripped my ankle, just in-case I slipped. Queues would mount at the top end of the Kop where the food hut stood, chants of ‘Wrexham Lager’ echoed against the tin sheeting of the stand. The queues moved slow, which wasn’t a bad thing, high above the crowd it provided an excellent vantage point for the action as well as being home to a succulent meat and potato pie, washed down with a slug of tea out of Dad’s trusty flask.  

The Racecourse Ground in Wrexham, the mud soaked field serving up blood and thunder football would be my first experience of the beautiful game and where I spent most Saturday afternoons from the mid 80’s. The oldest international stadium in world football and home to Wales’s oldest club Wrexham AFC. It first opened in 1807 as a home to Wrexham cricket club, as well as greyhound and horse racing although it wouldn’t be until 1864 that football would grace the venue. 

During a club meeting in the adjacent pub, The Turf, members of the cricket club pondered what they could do to while away the cold winter months. The football club was born and despite a short time away in 1881 due to a rent increase they have played there ever since. The 1950’s saw terracing added behind the goal and the installation of floodlights. A visit from the Manchester United in 1957 FA Cup set the record attendance at the Racecourse with 34,445 people witnessing a 5-0 win by the Busby Babes, a little over a year before the tragic air disaster. 

Although it never hosted a top-flight game, the Racecourse saw many a cup upset over the years. Until 1995 Welsh clubs playing in the English leagues were eligible for inclusion in the Welsh Cup, the winners of which qualified for the now defunct European Cup Winners Cup. Wrexham hold the record for most Welsh Cup wins with 23 and brought some memorable European nights to north Wales.  

Draws with Anderlecht, AS Roma and Real Zaragoza sit next to impressive home victories over Hajduk Split, FC Zurich and biggest of all, FC Porto. The year before, the Portuguese giants had made the final only defeated by a Michel Platini inspired Juventus. With no seeding and a straight knockout format there was no protection for the big clubs, the likes of  Everton, Bayern Munich and Barcelona were all in the draw so when a Fourth Division side from Wales were pulled out in the first round, progress was fairly certain.   

The Porto side that arrived at the Racecourse boasted captain Fernando Gomes, international full back Joao Pinto, fresh from helping Portugal reach the semi-finals of the European Championships in France that summer. Also in the ranks was young winger Paulo Futre, who would be the star of their 1987 European Cup winning campaign before moving to Atletico Madrid. 

Wrexham’s goal led a charmed life that night with Porto striking the woodwork three times. Barry Horne himself saw a volley bounce down off the underside of the bar for the home side before they delivered a sucker punch in the 72nd minute. Scottish striker Jim Steel rose highest to head home from substitute John Muldoon’s cross and gave the Robins an unlikely victory. A stirring comeback in Portugal gave Wrexham victory, despite being 3-1 behind they fought back and lost 4-3 on the night but drew 4-4 on aggregate which secured a win on away goals. 

North Wales’s premier stadium was also popular with the national side, hosting its first game in 1877 and holding the record for most internationals played there with 91, the last of which came in 2008.  During the ultimate failed attempt at qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the Racecourse was chosen to host several of the Wales matches. With an absence of a national football stadium from 1977 the FAW chose to play national matches at either Cardiff’s Ninian Park, Swansea’s Vetch Field or the Racecourse. Out of the eight games held in Wrexham, Wales had won six and drew two. The smaller capacity led to packed houses and a partisan atmosphere.  

One such win came against Spain in April 1985 in front of over 23,000 fans. The 3-0 win a reversal of the earlier qualifier the year before in Seville. The games highlight came in the 53rd minute when Spain failed to clear their lines and Mark Hughes fired in a scissor kick volley at his hometown ground to give the Red Dragons a 2-0 lead. When Wales faced a deciding home game against Scotland, victory would have guaranteed the Red Dragons their first World Cup berth since 1958 but the FAW let greed get the better of them. Hopes of a 50,000 crowd saw them opt to take the game away from the fortress that the Racecourse had become and they inexplicably played the game at Liverpool’s Anfield. A controversial draw saw Scotland through to a play-off, a disappointing third place finish for Wales and no place in the World Cup.                                                                                                                                 

For evidence of the most glorious domestic upset the Cae Ras has ever seen you need only tune in to any FA Cup tie where a giant could be scalped. There you are likely to see a clip of Mickey Thomas send a free-kick soaring past David Seaman into the top corner of the Arsenal net. An Arsenal side that not only boasted Seaman but also had Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams, Alan Smith and Paul Merson in its ranks. They were also the reigning league champions on that overcast January Saturday in 1992, Wrexham had finished the previous season 92nd in the Football League, only a restructuring of the league saved them from dropping out altogether. 

Chance after chance fell for the Gunners during the first half, Smith and Kevin Campbell coming closest for the north London side. Wrexham’s resistance fell two minutes before half time when Alan Smith converted a Merson cross. Despite Arsenal having the clearer of the chances Wrexham had held their own with Gareth Owen and Steve Watkin both going close. Roared on by a packed Racecourse the Robins pressed and harried their superior opponents, Arsenal happy to take the more direct approach and catch Wrexham on the break.  

With only ten minutes to go, time was running out for the Fourth Division side yet still they attacked, matching the stamina of their opponents. A foul on Gordon Davies gave Wrexham a free kick on the right-hand side of the Arsenal goal, some 25 yards out. A feigned quick free-kick from Wayne Phillips saw Arsenal hurry back into a defensive wall. Phillips lined up but it was the 37-year old Thomas who unleashed a left-footed rocket into the goal, fingertips from Seaman not enough to keep the ferocious strike out. The stadium erupted and Thomas pointed to the Kop in celebration, home of the most fervent support. 

Sensing blood and with the reigning champions on the ropes Wrexham were in dreamland two minutes later. A ball into the box was caught between Adams’s feet and with the England international struggling to get the ball clear, Steve Watkin slid the ball under Seaman in front of a stunned away following. The Gunners were out and victims to one of the biggest cup upsets the competition had ever seen. Fans from the Kop spilled onto the pitch eager to celebrate with their heroes. 

The Kop still stands but is unused now, a sore thumb, maybe, but still a monument to the days of cup upsets and going head to head with the great and good of European football. It wasn’t the first time that the Racecourse had been a three-sided stadium though, the tragic fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade in 1985 saw many grounds have safety certificates removed for any wooden structures. The Racecourse’s Mold Road stand succumbed to this and would remain closed and deemed unsafe until 1999 when it was pulled down and a new impressive all seater stand was built in its place.  

Over the years several attempts at land grabs from questionable owners raised question marks over not only the grounds but also the club’s future. With finances tight, long standing chairman Pryce Griffiths sold his controlling interest in the club to former solicitor and small-scale property developer Alex Hamilton. He, along with former Chester City owner Mark Guterman took over with the sole purpose of selling the land the Racecourse resided on. 

The ownership of the Racecourse was placed into the hands of one of his companies, with rumours that a supermarket chain had expressed interest in the land. Wrexham fans mobilised and a court battle ensued, eventually the courts ruled in the clubs favour and demanded the stadium was placed back into their hands. 

This sadly started a chain reaction for both the club and its ground. Administration lead to relegation and when local business owners Geoff Moss and Neville Dickens stepped in to take over the running of the club, hopes were raised that the unstable days were in the past. However, some club owned land was sold for property development, student accommodation was built to house the many pupils that attended the newly renamed Glyndwr University campus that resided next door to the Racecourse. With planning permission secure, the building work began.  

The Wrexham Village company set up by Moss and Dickens paid £6m for the land and promptly paid themselves £5m to cover debts they had accrued when they took over the club. When news of this came to light along with questionable appointments of certain individuals to conduct the club’s day to day business, Moss and Dickens decided enough was enough. 

The club was put up for sale and after a motley crew of potential buyers came and went a winding up petition was issued by the courts. An unpaid debt of £200,000 saw the future of Wrexham AFC and its Racecourse ground face the very real prospect of extinction. Fans rallied again, the supporters trust raised the necessary money in 24 hours, taking over the club and securing its future. The neighbouring university became the new owners of the stadium and agreed a lease with the newly supporter owned club. 

Now playing in the National League and run by the fans, the club faces a challenge to balance the books and spearhead attempts at a return to the football league. Over 4,000 fans are involved in the supporter’s trust and have provided schemes to help fans and also raise the profile of the club. The Racecourse was mentioned in the House of Lords in 2016 after a fund-raising campaign by the clubs disabled supporter’s association raised £10,000 for a viewing platform, allowing wheelchair users additional access to games, something which many Premier League clubs unbelievably didn’t provide.   

The hard work and passion of fans offers a sign of what investment in north Wales football could bring. Talks between the club’s supporters trust and the FAW regarding investment in Wrexham took place this month. Hopes for the Racecourse to become the home of a planned Welsh national football museum as part of a redeveloped Kop the topic of conversation. Maybe this would also one day see a return of international football to its north Wales roots? Wrexham being the founding home of the football association in Wales way back in 1876. 

The full-time whistle would go and back to the car we’d run, weaving through the crowds to make it in time to hear the full-time results in the other games. “I’ve put the heaters on” Dad would say, as James Alexander Gordon’s dulcet tones crackled through the stereo. Driving back, we’d dissect the game and wonder what’s for tea. Pulling up outside the house, just as the car warmed up.