Football in Wales: 25 years with a national league

The Welsh population watched Euro 2016 with a wide range of emotions. Pride was no doubt the overriding feeling during the tournament but elation, nerves, heartbreak and hope will all have reared their heads too. Reaching a semi final of a tournament such as the European Championship will have been unthinkable to many. After all, Wales had only ever qualified for the World Cup once in their history and had never made an appearance at the Euros. There were only four countries at Euro 2016 whose squad did not contain a single player from their own domestic league, Wales was one.


They did have two players who were based at a Welsh club, Swansea City, however as you will know, they play in the English football league system. Perhaps it is not quite such an oddity as before 1992, the Welsh FA did not even run a national league in the country, only a cup competition and regional leagues. Prior to 1992 it was common place for the clubs of Wales to play their club football in English leagues as transport problems between the North and South of Wales meant that national league was not seen as feasible for many years. The clubs found it much easier to travel east and compete with English clubs.

 

Fearful of FIFA potentially looking to disband the home nations national teams in favour of a Great Britain team, Alun Evans was the man that decided that Wales should have its own national league in a bid to stave off this threat. The new league was formed in time for the 1992/93 season but a bitter dispute would be the main cause of many headlines at that time. Swansea City, Cardiff City and Wrexham were all permitted, by the FAW (Welsh FA), to remain in the English system due to their participation in The Football League. The issue was between the FAW and the Welsh clubs playing non-league football in England.

 

Bangor City, Barry Town, Caernarfon Town, Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Newtown and Rhyl were all provided with an ultimatum by the FAW. Join the Welsh football league system or continue to play in the English system but leave Wales and play your home matches on English soil. The clubs that the FAW were threatening to kick out of the country became known as the 'Irate Eight' by the press and you might believe that being irate is perfectly justified. The FAW were happy to allow the biggest clubs in Wales to continue playing in England but were attempting to bully the smaller clubs into joining a brand new league with no history run by an FA with no experience of national leagues.  

Three clubs accepted the summons, Bangor City, Newtown and Rhyl, however the latter were forced to play in the second tier due to their application arriving late. The remaining five clubs, or the exiles as they became known, continued playing their club football in England with their home matches being held in Gloucester and Worcester among other places. Cwmbran Town were crowned champions of the first ever Welsh Premier League (or League of Wales as it was known between 1992 and 2002) and qualified for the UEFA Champions League in the process. They lost to Cork City in the preliminary round but it proved that the new Welsh Premier League had a huge carrot for any club that could win it. The FAW however continued with the stick.


After the first year, Barry Town moved across to the Welsh football league system and then a 1995 court ruling finally allowed the remaining four exiles to return to Wales for their home matches whilst still competing in the English leagues. Despite this ruling Caernarfon Town decided to switch anyway but Newport County, Colwyn Bay and Merthyr Town as they are now called, all remain in the English league system to this day.

 

Since its inception the Welsh Premier League has been won by just six clubs in 24 seasons but with places in the Champions League and Europa League qualifying rounds up for grabs, there is always plenty to play for. What can be the long term goal of the league though? Can the clubs produce players that may go on to play for Wales one day or will the best Welsh talent be snapped up by the Welsh clubs playing in England? Neville Southall played for Bangor City as a youngster and current Wales international Tom Bradshaw started his career with Aberystwyth Town and so there is definitely hope.

 

With the success of the national team and for Welsh children to have role models such as Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey the participation in football can only be rising. Sheer maths will tell you that Swansea City and Cardiff City do not have enough places in their academies to take on every talented youngster in the country and so the teams in the Welsh Premier League need to present themselves as a great place to start your career. Of course that is tough when the league is ranked so low by UEFA.

The UEFA coefficient of a nation is worked out by how well your clubs from your leagues do in European competition. This coefficient then decides how many teams you have entered into the Champions League and Europa League and also acts as a guide as to the strength of the league. As of February 2017, Wales is ranked 50 out of 54 nations beating only the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Andorra and San Marino. It could be argued that the coefficient system is a self fulfilling prophecy in that the worst countries get fewer teams in the European tournaments and so there is less opportunity to improve and whilst the coefficient of the league is so low, increasing revenue to the league will be tough.


As most Welsh football fans will support Swansea City, Cardiff City, Newport County or Wrexham, the question could be asked as to how those clubs could help their home nation to improve. Lets be honest, the probability of them switching from the English to the Welsh system is basically non-existent for many many reasons but those clubs could try to help out a little. The FAW could strike a deal that says that season ticket holders of those clubs get a discount to Welsh Premier League games. Partnerships could be set up where Swansea and Cardiff offer one or two of their youth coaching team the opportunity to go into these clubs part time and help to train the younger generation in exchange for first option on any talent they may wish to buy.

 

The idea of those big clubs fielding B teams in the Welsh system has been mentioned however this would affect the European qualification aspect as there would be a clear conflict. Personally I don't think a few B teams would be a real way to improve the Welsh Premier League. The way to improve the standard is through money but that is very hard to come by when your big city clubs play in a different system and take most of the support with them. 2017 marks 25 years since the beginning of the Welsh Premier League and in recent times it has been dominated by The New Saints. They reached the third qualifying round of the Champions League in 2010/11, an achievement that has never been matched by another Welsh club. If a team could go one step further, they would be guaranteed a place in the Europa League group stages at least, something that would be quite lucrative in more ways than one.

 

Only Bangor City currently average more than 500 spectators per game with most clubs achieving 200-400 each week. If the Welsh Premier League is ever going to be seen as a viable option for young players and fans there then something needs to be done to boost its popularity. The FAW, in part thanks to the youth systems of English football clubs, have seen their national team reach unchartered territory in the last year, it is now time for them to focus on having a league that the country can be equally proud of.

 

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