WELSH PREMIER FOOTBALL

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Bangor City

THE Football Association of Wales have again made the headlines this week with a leaked proposal that the Welsh clubs currently playing in the English pyramid should be invited to once again take part in the Welsh Cup after a 16-year absence, writes Mark Pitman.

The announcement has caused controversy and confusion as it was made without any consultation with clubs in either English or Welsh pyramid, without any confirmation on what stance the FA or UEFA will take to clubs playing in two different national cup competitions or without any regard to the prize of European qualification that potentially comes with them.

The formation of the League of Wales back in 1992 caused a significant split between the FAW and some of its English pyramid clubs and the legal wrangling that followed remains an unfortunate part of Welsh football history. Labelled as exiles, Welsh clubs playing in the English pyramid were not eligible to compete in the Welsh Cup from 1995-1996 and none of the exiled clubs have qualified or competed in Europe since. The results of Welsh Premier League clubs in Europe have been scorned by the media, despite slow but significant improvements in recent seasons, and each heavy defeat has prompted the call for the exiles to once again have the opportunity to represent Wales in Europe.

It now seems the doubters have had their way. The proposal to invite Cardiff City, Swansea City, Wrexham, Newport County, Colwyn Bay and Merthyr Town back into the competition next season has been supported by the majority of FAW councillors but the realisation will depend on agreement from the exiled clubs and the eventual decision from the political debate between the relevant governing bodies that will follow. The implications of the proposal will affect Welsh Premier League clubs the most however, and the possible ramifications of that should not be dismissed by those in Neptune Court.

By allowing the exiled clubs back into the Welsh Cup, the Welsh Premier League will effectively lose one European place. Since 1996, a Welsh Premier League club has won the competition and has competed in Europe as a result. With the 'big two' of Cardiff City and Swansea City now automatically joint-favourites to lift the famous old trophy at the end of next season, Welsh Premier League clubs will be restricted to European qualification through league positions over cup success, unless a major cup shock denies one of the exiles a return to European football. For Welsh Premier League clubs the ramifications of losing a European place are huge from a financial point of view, as qualifying clubs are guaranteed a minimum prize fund of 90,000 euros, a significant amount of money to be taken away from the Welsh Premier League and its member clubs.

Qualification for Europe through the Welsh Cup also brings the added benefit of a place in the 2nd qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League as opposed to the 1st qualifying round. Apart from the UEFA Champions League place on offer to the Welsh Premier League winners, the Welsh Cup offers the best European reward for clubs but this is one that the FAW have now opened up to the six exiles. Club licensing is a pre-requisite for European qualification also, and while the professional exiles should be able to comply with the stringent criteria, it is difficult to see Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Town or even Wrexham with their current financial problems actually being awarded the UEFA Licence.

Welsh Premier League clubs do have a voice on the FAW council however, a designated representative is elected by the clubs and the role is currently held by Mr Andrew Edwards, who is also the Chairman of Welsh Premier League club Port Talbot Town. Edwards has spoken of his support of the proposal, stating that the profile of the competition will be greatly increased and that a sponsor will be attracted by the return of the exiled clubs. Edwards also states the potential financial benefits for Welsh Premier League clubs being drawn against exiled opponents and how interest in the league and its clubs will improve as a result of competitive fixtures between clubs in the Welsh and English pyramids.

All are valid points that will materialise in some form should the proposal be carried through. What will concern Welsh Premier League clubs however is the loss of one of their four European places and the financial implications that come with it. Few clubs are yet to comment officially on the proposal, although Bangor City manager Nev Powell, who has lifted the trophy with his club in each of the last three seasons and is now heading to his fourth consecutive final with Bangor, is adamantly against the idea. Mike Harris, Chairman of league champions The New Saints, has raised the question that Welsh Premier League clubs should therefore have the option of also playing in the FA Cup if the proposal succeeds.

Bangor City are an influential club and enjoy the benefits of having the biggest fan base in the Welsh Premier League. A significant part of their long and established history was spent in the English pyramid system, but they have supported the Welsh Premier League since its inception and have also enjoyed relative success in Europe. Having enjoyed incredible success in the Welsh Cup in recent seasons, the club appear to have now lost the little faith they had in the FAW, and the debate on whether they would be better off returning to the English pyramid has already begun amongst supporters.

The question of whether clubs would be better off playing in the English or Welsh pyramid's has been consistently debated over the best part of the last twenty years. The Welsh Premier League has re-invented itself this season by reducing the number of clubs competing in the league and offering increased television coverage and the debate has been largely shelved with clubs enjoying an improved standard of competitive football in the Welsh Premier League. The decision to effectively take the Welsh Cup away from its member clubs has now brought the unanswerable question back to the fore, and should clubs decide that their future best interests lay elsewhere, the FAW could soon find itself returning to the legal wrangling of the early-1990's.

The FAW needs a national league to retain its International status and such actions would jeopardise the entire system. The New Saints are already based just over the border and could also be tempted to make the move to the English pyramid system if others such as Bangor City challenge to and succeed. Currently the top two clubs in the league, both progressed through the opening rounds of the UEFA Champions League and Europa League respectively this season, and should they decide to move it is very likely that European results of clubs who qualify through league positions would suffer as a result. The New Saints are the only fully professional team in the league, and while they have not stated any intention to move to the English pyramid, the league is only as strong as its clubs and the FAW should take such issues into consideration if they are to deny member clubs lucrative Welsh Cup success.

The proposal by the FAW has been put forward with little explanation, and there may be far deeper issues behind it than simply raising the profile of the Welsh Cup. Another recent controversial debate has involved the disciplinary procedure for the exiled clubs, as the FAW deal with disciplinary issues of the six English pyramid clubs despite the English FA dealing with the remaining other clubs in the league. Both Cardiff City and Swansea City have openly criticised the process in recent years and both have sounded out the option of coming under the umbrella of the English FA. With both teams currently challenging for Premier League promotion, success would make the change requisite, but competing in the Welsh Cup would enable the FAW to retain some control over their flagship clubs.

Another concern for Welsh Premier League clubs is on how seriously the exiles, particularly the big two, will treat the competition in its early stages. Conference dates traditionally mirror the FA Cup, but the road to Wembley will take preference to the road to Parc-y-Scarlets to the invited exiles. In fact the lucrative fixture against one of the big clubs of the English pyramid could prove to be nothing more than a midweek match against a team of fringe and youth players. While the big two will ensure they field a side strong enough to progress, lower league opposition from the Welsh pyramid will not require their best eleven.

As it stands the exiled clubs have not accepted the invite and the political questions over the effect on European qualification have not been discussed. It may not even happen. What the proposal has achieved however is to lose the faith of the majority of Welsh Premier League clubs in the FAW as the proposal will take a significant amount of Welsh Cup prize money and a European place away from the league. The rewards of the Welsh Premier League for its clubs are few and far between, but European qualification remains the one lucrative carrot that makes clubs investment worthwhile. The potential opportunity of success has now been cut and the league will suffer as a result.

With Welsh Cup success and its rewards soon to be taken away from Welsh Premier League clubs to the benefit of the exiled six, there will be significant resentment to the competition by clubs next season. The competition remains invitational and optional for all however, and those clubs against the proposal have the right to not even enter. Such drastic action would be detrimental to each club with the loss of prize money and the potential of a money-spinning fixture, but would make a worthwhile and powerful stand against the decision makers who have denied the clubs who support them a vital European place.
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19 August 2017

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