Wrexham flying to matches is causing controversy – but why?


Premier League clubs chartering private jets to fly them the length and breadth of England — and the globe for pre-season tours — has been standard practice for years. 

In the non-League game, however, it is unheard of, which is why the recent revelation that Wrexham took flights to eight games in the National League last season caused such a shock.

A study by the BBC revealed that the club — owned by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney — travelled to matches at Eastleigh, Maidstone, Gateshead, Maidenhead, Dagenham & Redbridge, Bromley, Barnet and Torquay en route to winning promotion in May.

All but two of the 16 flights left or returned to Manchester airport, 45 miles away from Wrexham; the other two, for the Torquay game, left and returned to Liverpool airport, 38 miles away. Only one took more than an hour; the average flight time was 43.5 minutes.

Since then, the club embarked on a long-haul tour of America, including matches in North Carolina, Los Angeles, San Diego and Philadelphia. Again, an undertaking which is almost unheard of for a League Two club. 

As Wrexham prepare to play their first away game of the season at AFC Wimbledon on Saturday, The Athletic examines why their decision to rack up so many air miles has proved so contentious. 


What’s controversial about Wrexham’s travel plans?

Put simply, the more you fly, the bigger your carbon footprint — and in lower league terms, Wrexham’s was enormous last season.

Private jets are up to 14 times more polluting than commercial planes per passenger, and 50 times more polluting than trains.

This leaves Wrexham and their owners open to accusations of hypocrisy. On the club’s website, Reynolds and McElhenney’s mission statement as co-owners includes a “commitment to a more ecologically-sustainable version of the club and stadium”.

Not only did their travel plans apparently jar with that commitment last season but since then, the club have signed a sponsorship deal with United Airlines, one of the world’s biggest airlines. 

Beyond claims of double-standards, there is the wider issue around human-induced climate change. Football, like every industry, has a role to play in tackling the climate crisis but it is also significantly affected by it. 


Rob McElhenney, left, and Ryan Reynolds (Alberto E Rodriguez/Getty Images)

According to a 2020 report, Playing Against the Clock: Global Sport, the Climate Emergency and the Case for Rapid Change, published by the Rapid Transition Alliance and Play the Game, many clubs’ stadiums across the world are at risk of flooding amid climate change.

For the opening weekend of the new English Football League season, Colchester United’s game with Swindon Town was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch following the UK’s sixth-wettest July on record and continued heavy rain in August. Although that in itself was not necessarily caused by climate change, it is the sort of situation that will become more regular as a result of it. Extreme weather is only going to cause more disruption to football in future.

“In the face of climate change, football needs to reassess its approach to travel, especially short-haul flights,” Elliot Arthur-Worsop, founder of Football For Future, an organisation seeking to build an environmentally sustainable culture in football, tells The Athletic.

“As fans, we appreciate that flying isn’t always unavoidable, but we are moving in the wrong direction with this habit increasingly being seen as the norm, even in lower leagues.

“It’s important to acknowledge the recovery implications of lengthy coach or train journeys. However, innovative strategies and recovery technologies can mitigate these challenges. Aligning training schedules and incorporating rest into journey routines can effectively address the recovery dilemma, and enhance player wellbeing.

“We need to see collaboration from governing bodies to tackle the rise of short-haul domestic flights in line with science-based targets in a way that also maximises player care and travel schedules for fans. Football has a great opportunity to lead by example to build a sustainable transition in its culture and operations.”


What is Wrexham’s defence for flying so much?

Wrexham did not respond to requests for comment from The Athletic, but there are obvious practical benefits to flying to matches rather than travelling by road. 

The north Wales club is relatively isolated in geographical terms: the nearest motorway is around half an hour away, and only a handful of their matches this season will be played at clubs within an hour’s drive. 

Wrexham’s League Two miles to travel

Team

  

Distance (miles)

Colchester United

239

Crawley Town

236

Gillingham

233

AFC Wimbledon

219

Sutton United

218

Grimsby Town

158

MK Dons

148

Swindon Town

137

Barrow

135

Newport County

126

Forest Green Rovers

125

Harrogate Town

122

Doncaster Rovers

109

Mansfield Town

96

Morecambe

96

Notts County

93

Bradford City

90

Accrington Stanley

77

Walsall

70

Salford City

58

Stockport County

51

Tranmere Rovers

31

Crewe Alexandra

28

Last season, Wrexham’s shortest flight, the return leg from Newcastle to Manchester for a game against Gateshead in January, was just 29 minutes — with the coach journey from Manchester airport to Wrexham potentially around 55 minutes. The equivalent journey entirely by road would have taken anywhere between three and four hours.

Wrexham’s players and management would doubtless appreciate the benefit of avoiding spending up to eight hours on a coach, and returning home much earlier, potentially allowing players to be fresher in a fairly gruelling schedule.

However, Luke Anthony, clinical director at GoPerform, former head of sports medicine at Reading and injury prevention specialist at Norwich, says there is “no hard research” that shows taking a flight is better than a coach.

“There is no evidence though to suggest it has an impact on your performance or injury risk, but there is probably a perception that it’s poor preparation,” he tells The Athletic.

“I don’t think there is a cumulative effect physically. It is more the fatigue of spending a long time on the coach and getting back late. We would generally fly one way but not back. The difference is a loss of sleep. The coaches are comfortable, it’s not like you’re cramped up, but it’s not the same, you can’t sleep well and it throws you out.

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Wrexham’s tour bus in the United States (Richard Sutcliffe/The Athletic)

“No research says that if you sit still on a bus for five hours it has this particular physiological effect on your body. But there is no doubt that you feel stiff and it gives you a sluggishness and almost a mental fatigue for travelling for that long.

“(Flying means) there’s more time to go for a walk, get any treatment needed, and it’s more about having a perception that you’re better prepared. If you get back earlier you’ll also have more recovery time. There’s more of an argument for travelling back on a plane than to games.”

Are Wrexham alone in flying so frequently?

No — there are plenty of examples of clubs taking extremely short flights to matches. 

The issue first sparked controversy in November 2015 when Arsenal chartered a flight to Norwich that took just 14 minutes. That same season Tottenham took a 20-minute flight to Bournemouth.

The trend has continued: in October 2021, Manchester United flew to Leicester, a journey of just 100 miles, while Leeds opted to fly to Norwich City (176 miles away) despite the home club designating the fixture as one to champion sustainability. 

In January, Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper defended his team’s decision to take a 20-minute flight to Blackpool — a journey of just over 135 miles — instead of taking a road journey lasting under three hours. “I think it is pretty normal,” Cooper said.

Last September, meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain striker Kylian Mbappe and his then-manager Christophe Galtier laughed at a question surrounding the club’s decision to fly to Nantes, four hours’ drive away. 

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Christophe Galtier with Kylian Mbappe (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

“This morning we talked about it with the company which organises our trips and we’re looking into travelling on sand yachts,” Galtier responded. 

Their reaction was criticised by both French government officials and the Mayor of Paris.

Other clubs, however, have chosen different methods of travel. Barcelona took a high-speed train to Madrid for their game against Getafe last season, while Manchester United have regularly taken trains for matches in London.

Is this just the norm now?

Wycombe Wanderers midfielder David Wheeler, who works with Football For Future and has spoken about being climate-conscious, suspects so but is adamant that football must change. 

“It was previously accepted that the elite teams in Europe had to fly to games to keep pace with the frequency of matches in the modern football calendar,” Wheeler tells The Athletic. “But if millionaires and billionaires continue to buy up lower-league teams, change is needed.

“Wrexham are grabbing the headlines, but this issue relates to the entire football industry. Having played for Exeter (in south-west England), being on long coaches home was not ideal for recovery, but tweaks can be made to combat this.

“There’s a level of unfairness to have one rule for Europe’s elite teams and one for the rest of the pyramid. But the introduction of a minimum distance of travel for flights would begin a positive trajectory. Regionalisation of early stage cup competitions would equally put less strain on lower-league clubs’ travel schedules.

“More must be done to discourage the rising incidences of short-haul flights. Otherwise we’ll be going dangerously in the wrong direction.”

(Top photo: Richard Sutcliffe/The Athletic)





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