For Phil Parkinson, one memory stands above all of the era when his Bradford City side inflicted one of the greatest FA Cup shocks of all time on Premier League leaders Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
“We were losing 2-1,” says the 55-year-old, who this weekend hopes to write another chapter in FA Cup folklore as manager of Wrexham, the non-league club owned by Hollywood duo Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhinney.
“But we started the second half well, and we really took the game to Chelsea. Jose Mourinho sat but he stood in the technical area with this look in his eyes, as if to say he knew the game was getting away from him.
“As a manager, you can feel that. You see the opposition start faster and they are more aggressive. And you know exactly how difficult it is to recreate that through half of football, even for a team as good as Chelsea.”
Mourinho’s omen proved to be a bad omen. Three unanswered second-half goals from one league side, put together for the princely sum of just £7,500, means the FA Cup has a fresh batch of champions to celebrate.
Chelsea won all 10 of their league games that season, conceding just three goals in those matches, and would go on to win the title with three games to go, adding to the sense of disbelief around City’s 4-2 victory.
The eighth anniversary of this massive disruption was on Tuesday. Parkinson was busy preparing for Wrexham’s trip to Gateshead in the National League that same evening, so he didn’t have long to reflect on the anniversary of a Chelsea XI victory that cost £200m ($248m at current transfer rates) in transfer fees, with £ else. 99 million talents sitting on the bench.
But he was still rightfully proud of the afternoon which ended with Mourinho shaking hands with every Bradford player in the visitors’ dressing room before praising the giant killers for displaying ‘the big balls’.
“Everything just clicked against Chelsea,” adds Parkinson, who is back in the fourth round on Sunday as Sheffield United take to the Hippodrome.
“Even in the first half when we were two goals down, we played really well. It helped because no one was thinking, ‘Blimey, it’s 2-0, how far can this end?'”
“We got a goal just before half-time and the belief just started from there. It was everything that makes the cup so magical.”
January 2022, Huish Park, Yeovil
Wrexham, who are third in the National League table after winning seven of their previous ten league matches, are trailing 1-0 at half-time. Fans who made the long journey from North Wales are not happy with their team’s performance in the first 45 minutes.
As the Wrexham players discovered soon after they arrived in the dressing room, neither of them was their manager.
“That was a disgrace,” Parkinson exclaims, standing next to a tactical board that appears to be in danger of flying at any moment, such is his rage. “An absolute disgrace.”
Over the next 30 seconds, the team’s attitude and desires are questioned so severely that the Wrexham manager uses the word “ridiculous” as a reprimand 11 more times.
It’s a swear-fest on par with anything Neil Warnock or Peter Reed, dressed half-time caught on camera, can muster in their wildest rage.
As has often happened under these two famous managers, the tirade works, as Wrexham came from behind to prevail 2-1.
When it was broadcast nine months later as part of the Welcome to Wrexham documentary series by FX in the US and Disney Plus in the UK, the footage fared well with backers. Here was a manager who cared with passion and wanted to do the best for the club.
Parkinson, who was rarely a director who turned to the cameras in previous jobs despite always fully cooperating with the media, admits that watching himself on the small screen took some getting used to.
But he also understands how integral the documentary is to get across the board in the story of the reborn club since the February 2021 acquisition of Deadpool star Reynolds and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, co-founder McElhenney.
“Rob and Ryan taking charge of the club put Wrexham on the map,” says Parkinson. “They have been a complete breath of fresh air for the whole region, not just the football club. After everything that has happened here, the fans deserve this very much.
“This is very different from what I’ve been involved with in the past, with the TV documentary and that aspect. But that’s what life is all about. New challenges and embracing different situations.”
“There was a period of acquaintance with the film crew. We had to build that relationship, build that understanding. There was always an element of trust with the guys who had ultimate responsibility for what happened in each episode.
“But the people involved were great and I felt it was a fair reflection on the story of last season. It was also great for the club profile. Wherever you go, people want to talk about the documentary.
“We also have American tourists who come to the racetrack all the time. They are on holiday in the UK and come because they saw the documentary.”
Amid the many owners found in the top five divisions of English football, Wrexham are unique in that their manager ultimately answers to two Hollywood stars.
In a managerial career spanning nearly 20 years, the Wrexham boss has had to deal with his fair share of unusual situations.
Speaking once about his time in charge of Charlton Athletic, for example, he quipped about having to deal with “18 exits at once – and every deal has to go through them all before they get penalized”. In Bradford he worked under co-owners in local businessmen, Julian Rhodes and Mark Lown.
“Two great friends who took an interest in the club,” he says of Valley Parade’s husband. Unlike Mark and Julian at Bradford, Rob and Ryan weren’t born in the area. But they have the same incredible passion and drive for their club’s success.
“When they come in, they’re great with how they interact with the players and the staff. Rob and Ryan are absolutely 100 percent original. People who want to back up what they set out to do.”
With Reynolds and McElhinney at the helm, the cameras are rolling again for a second series of Welcome to Wrexham.
There had already been a visit to the Racecourse by King Charles III and the Queen Consort as part of celebrations for Wrexham achieving city status. Both co-owners landed from the United States to meet the royal family.
Then there was football, with Parkinson’s looking to end the club’s 15-year wait to return to the Football League. There is no doubt that the FA Cup, a competition synonymous with Wrexham after many famous victories in the past, notably a victory in the third round at Coventry City in front of 4,500 touring fans, will also feature heavily when the new series comes to life on screen.
“This is a great club and a story to tell,” Parkinson adds. “The pain the town is feeling for being out of the league for so long, I felt it came through in the documentary.
“I definitely feel the pain every single day. It’s a huge responsibility to try and get us over the line this year.”
Escaping the National League is tough. There is only one automatic promotion slot available to the winners and one reserved for the qualifier winners. As Wrexham proved in an unexpected semi-final defeat, losing 5–4 to eventual winners Grimsby Town in May, there is not much planned in elimination football.
This season is shaping up to be another scrap as Wrexham only pounced on Notts County on Tuesday to regain the top spot for the first time in almost two months despite winning all 12 home games and losing just twice in 15 games on the road.
It’s not easy to maintain balance amidst such a pressured environment, but Parkinson’s can at least draw on the experiences gained across a management career that is fast approaching 900 matches.
“People ask me about dealing with pressure here at Wrexham,” he says. “There’s pressure but nothing compares to preparing a team to play in the Championship when you haven’t been paid for five months, as we had to do at Bolton. Not even close.
“After everyone stopped getting paid, things went into free fall. I’m not sure how we got through it, really, looking back. Of course, you always hope that a takeover will happen, but maybe the important thing is knowing that it If you, as a manager and staff, throw in the towel, that’s it. The aim was simply to carry on until the club was sold. We just had to get to that point.”
Having taken over Bolton in 2017, his third career promotion, and then kept them in the Championship against all odds, Parkinson has managed to keep things going long enough for the new owners to bail out.
He then resigned days after Football Ventures finalized its acquisition in August 2019, believing all parties needed a fresh start.
“Times like this make you mentally stronger,” he says. “More flexible. And my appreciation when you are all about soccer. That’s why this was interesting from day one.
“The owners were a big part of that. They did everything they promised.”
Wrexham must hope flexibility can lead to a long-awaited return to the Football League. First, though, the focus shifts back to the FA Cup and the chance to claim another scalp in the tournament.
A win over Sheffield United will not compare to Chelsea’s win against Bradford in 2015, even if Wrexham sit 71st below Paul Heckingbottom’s men in the footballing pyramid.
Nor will he be on par with reaching the League Cup final two years ago as a fourth-tier club, when City beat Arsenal, Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic along the way.
But Parkinson was still enjoying Sunday’s fourth-round clash in front of the BBC’s live cameras, not least because his side would be in the unfamiliar position of being “underdogs”.
“It was a reward,” he says. “In the last round at Coventry the only expectation came from within. We just wanted to play as best we could, and that’s what we did.
“If we could do the same against Sheffield United, who knows what would happen? This is the FA Cup, after all.”
(Top photo: Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images))