WITH Wales closing in on a place at Euro 2016 and being home to the world’s most expensive footballer, Gareth Bale, clubs such as The New Saints and Newtown hope to break new ground in the Champions League and Europa League, writes Paul Doyle*
WELCOME to the home of the most expensive footballer in the world, a country where all the top players go to foreign leagues – and so do most of the top clubs. Swansea City, Cardiff City, Newport County, Wrexham, Merthyr Town and Colwyn Bay are Welsh clubs who play in English leagues. Meanwhile the champions of the Welsh Premier League, The New Saints, are from Shropshire, England. Football in Wales is complicated. It is also improving.
It is not only the fact that tens of thousands of Welsh football fans will likely have the chance to cheer on their country at a major international tournament next summer for the first time in their lives, nor just that Swansea have become a model of intelligent strategising and stylish play in the most widely covered league on the planet. The improvement in Welsh football can also be seen in the domestic league, if anyone cares to look.
A cynic might claim that the Welsh league is but an administrative ruse, existing simply so that Wales can continue fielding a national team, and it is true that the national league was only introduced in 1992, a time when critics in Africa and Asia were wondering aloud why Wales was allowed to compete internationally when it seemed indistinguishable from an English region. The four clubs who will represent Wales in continental competition when the Champions League and Europa League kick off this week, however, have committed supporters and are part of a league that is striving to prove there is more to Welsh football than Gareth Bale and a load of sides competing in England.
Domestic football in Wales is caught between two behemoths: in the south of the country, rugby is the most popular sport and the two biggest football clubs, Swansea and Cardiff, remain in the English league; while in the north, where nine of the 12 Welsh Premier League (WPL) clubs are based, football rules but most supporters have traditionally followed Welsh players to swankier English teams.
“There are regular bus trips along the north Wales coast to pick up fans and bring them to Anfield, Goodison Park, Old Trafford and so on,” explains Andrew Howard, the head of competitions at the WPL. “But in the south, where rugby really had media saturation, the fact that Swansea and Cardiff were both in the English Premier League generated a lot of excitement. That, along with Gareth Bale mania, meant more kids started wanting to be footballers and began dreaming of being the next Bale rather than the next Sam Warburton. Welsh football will benefit from this increased interest, from grassroots level right through to the Welsh Premier League and the national team.”
None of the current Wales squad have ever played in the Welsh Premier League, though the manager Chris Coleman does, at least, attend local matches. So do an increasing number of people: going against the general downward trend across Europe, the average attendance at WPL matches rose by 3% last season. Best not to break out the brass bands on the back of that, though, as the increase equates to about 10 people per match in actual terms, with the average crowd being about 350. Far better, then, to emphasise other gains. “Attendances have not yet risen significantly but the league is definitely progressing in terms of infrastructure and organisation, and it has also become more competitive,” says Andrew Lincoln, communications director at Airbus UK Broughton. “It is an enjoyable league to follow.”
Two recent initiatives have helped foster the development. First, the Welsh Premier League was cut from 18 to 12 teams five years ago. “That is a more suitable size for a small country of three million people and it helped distribute the available money more meaningfully,” says Lincoln. “It has also meant that every season one third of the clubs in the league can qualify for European competition, so that helps make the league more interesting.”
Second, following an inquiry by the Welsh government into ways to develop the domestic league, the Football Association of Wales, has invested in turning local clubs into “community hubs”. As part of this, the FAW has part-funded the implementation of 3G pitches, with three quarters of top-flight clubs in line to have one by the end of next season.
“It used to be the case that sessions were cancelled when the weather was rough, which meant kids would hardly get to do anything if we had a bad winter, but with 3G pitches they can always play. If families get used to going to clubs to play sport, then, once they realise what a good environment it is, they may go there at the weekends to watch the local team. The idea is to make football clubs the place where people go outside of school or work. That is where the next generation of fans will come from. We’re already starting to see a rise in the number of teenagers going to WPL matches, where a ticket is £5 to £8.”
What about the quality of play? “That has definitely gone up,” says Howard. “We’ve had players and managers who left the WPL a few years ago to the Conference in England and then come back and said they can’t believe how much the standard has improved here. They say it’s at least as good as the Conference.”
Lincoln reckons that is a good barometer. “I’ve been involved in the WPL for 12 years and my ambition for it would be for clubs to become a bit like Conference sides, real community representatives that are watched by a few thousand people every week. Achieving that will require substantially more investment from sponsors or the Football Association of Wales.”
Such investment is increasing slowly: the league has just agreed a record sponsorship deal with Dafabet and a broadcasting deal with S4C – but much more is needed. It would help if Welsh clubs demonstrated their improved quality by winning in Europe. Newtown, for instance, will receive £200,000 for taking on Valletta in the Europa League first qualifying round on Thursday and that amount almost equals their usual annual turnover; beating the Maltese club would mean boom time.
The thing is, however, that Welsh clubs’ performances in Europe have not reflected the strides made on the pitch. Aberystwyth Town’s 9-0 aggregate defeat by Derry City last season stung particularly hard, as the League of Ireland, where Gaelic sports and English football clubs compete for players and fans, grapples with similar challenges to those faced by Welsh clubs. The trouncing gave new life in Wales to the debate about switching to a summer league, as Irish clubs did a decade ago in an attempt to improve European results and stage matches when English teams are on holiday and not offering a powerful counterattraction.
“Derry battered Aberystwyth but the tie would not have been so one-sided if Aberystwyth had been able to show their true quality,” says Howard. “Instead, they went into it on the back of two pre-season warm-ups against lesser sides, while Derry were in the middle of their domestic campaign.”
“John Deakin, the former secretary of the League of Wales, was a strong advocate of summer football but he couldn’t push it through, basically because most clubs and fans were opposed to it. There are still a lot of traditionalists in football. Mind you, I was interested to see a BBC survey earlier this month that said 27 of 42 Scottish league clubs would consider a summer switch. There are strong arguments for and against but what I would say is that if we try it in Wales and it doesn’t work, we can always change back.”
Even without such a schedule change, Welsh clubs will approach this season’s European campaigns with rare optimism. The draw has been pretty much as kind as could be expected, with Newton AFC facing Valletta, Bala Town given a winnable duel with Differdange of Luxembourg and AUK Broughton given a tough assignment against Lokomotiva Zagreb. Meanwhile, the Champions League once again presents followers of Welsh football with an uncomfortable question: should they or should they not hope for The New Saints to win?
TNS are both a boon and a burden to the WPL. The club, formerly known as Total Network Solutions after the company founded – and eventually sold to BT – by Mike Harris, have benefited from their owner’s lavish investment, which allows them to sustain the only full-time squad in a league they have won at a canter for the past four seasons. Others are trying to catch up but at the moment TNS seem almost guaranteed an annual ticket to the Champions League, where contesting even one tie is worth more than £300,000. No wonder Harris rubbishes suggestions that his side, whose stadium is in Oswestry, Shropshire, should compete in the English league.
“You would not have expected clubs such as Manchester United or Liverpool to seek more competitive pastures such as the Spanish or German league when they enjoyed such dominance in the past and, likewise, it makes no sense for the New Saints of Oswestry town to consider this now,” Harris said in an open letter to critics last season. “Also, what sense would there be starting at the very bottom of the English pyramid system, a journey that could easily take up to 10 years to reach the lower levels of the Conference?”
In that letter Harris also offered advice to other Welsh clubs – and in so doing showed why TNS are unloved by many. “Surely other clubs should focus on raising their standards and perhaps, if they had built on their success and showed the vision and ambition to bring in younger players instead of paying through the nose for football journeymen to play part-time and instigated more intensive training regimes, then they too would be achieving greater success.”
In each of the last three seasons TNS have been eliminated at the first hurdle but this year the draw has given them a real chance of breaking new ground. B36 Torshavn, the champions of the Faroe Islands, look beatable. Win that and TNS will have another negotiable encounter, against Hungary’s Videoton. Win that and their dreams could really come into focus. Such progress would, of course, risk embedding TNS’s domestic dominance even more but Howard says it would ultimately benefit the local game. “It would be good for Welsh football if TNS could do something like what Shamrock Rovers did a few years ago when they reached the group stages of the Europa League,” says Howard.
“People said back then that Rovers would monopolise the League of Ireland but that hasn’t happened. Besides, Bangor won the league here five years ago when they were part-time, so it can be done. And the 3G pitches, which previously only TNS had, will help close the gap,too, as they improve the quality of other teams’ play and also generate revenue streams for clubs who can hire out those facilities. If TNS were to go far in Europe, it would really raise the profile of the domestic league and that can only be good.”
*This article appeared in The Guardian, Monday 29 June.