The largest readership I have ever reached in 25 years of writing was for my 5 pages on TNS football club in the Manchester City match programme of 14/8/03, issued for a UEFA Cup Qualifying Round 1st Leg tie. This happened to be the first ever competitive fixture at the City of Manchester Stadium as well as City’s first game in a European competition for 24 years, so there was a capacity crowd and the 25,000 programmes sold out. Stashed away as a souvenir by Mancunians, they are unobtainable to this day. My piece, the most detailed and serious examination of a football club from the Welsh pyramid yet to be printed (and all in glossy full colour with high production values), would not have interested most City fans so has never been re-published, although TNS nicked chunks of it (without acknowledgment; I’m not bothered) for their official club history – see www.saints-alive.co.uk). However, on Radio 5 Live Jonathan Pearce read out the first paragraph verbatim as his introduction to the live match commentary that evening – meaning my honeyed words rattled the ear-drums of 500,000 people. This will certainly be the high point of my, um, career.
So on this blog I am reissuing the intro to the TNS article as well as one of the subsidiary features (there were also profiles of the manager and players, club records and press cuttings) for posterity. Note that in the 7 years that have passed (T)otal (N)etwork (S)olutions are now (T)he (N)ew (S)aints; they merged with Oswestry Town in 2003 and moved from Treflan, Llansantffraid to Park Hall, Oswestry in 2007. They have just won the 2009/10 Welsh Premier title (their 5th) and will represent Wales in the Champions League next season. Meanwhile Manchester City have become the richest football club in the world, but will not join TNS in the Champions League, having missed a top 4 position in England they must settle for the Europa Cup (current version of the UEFA Cup). TNS still await their first European victory (Man City won this match 5-0 and the return in Cardiff 2-0).
TOTAL NETWORK SOLUTIONS FC
In the 47-year history of European club football there has never been a match like this. The 600-fold difference in size between Manchester and Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain is the largest yet between any pairing in Europe. It will be the first time that both clubs contesting a European match have not played a competitive game previously at both of the grounds being used. And, as TNS will field at least 8 Englishmen and City maybe 5, this will be the first European tie where the nation represented by one side has more individuals playing for the oppsition!
Also, this is the first time since Wales created a national league and football pyramid in 1992 that an English Premier club has met a Welsh Premier club in Europe, and only the second meeting ever between England and Wales (Manchester United beat Wrexham 5-0 on aggregate in the old Cup Winners’ Cup – then the only Welsh access to Europe – in 1990). All this leads to another notable landmark: a member of the oldest and richest national league versus a club from the youngest and poorest one – a penury graphically displayed recently when 7-times champions Barry Town had trouble scraping together a mere £1300 so that their Champions League qualifier could go ahead.
So, the usual soccer-speak of giants and minnows just doesn’t come close to doing justice to this UEFA Cup tie: Manchester City and TNS inhabit different universes. How did this club from a rural hamlet get invited to feast at football’s top table?
Llansantffraid FC paddled in the quiet backwaters of amateur football for over 30 years until, as the FAW began to form a pyramid system, the Saints began their climb. With an ambitious and innovative committee, and galvanised by the new possibilities opening up for Welsh clubs, Llansantffraid won 3 promotions in 4 seasons to reach the Welsh Premier (WP) in 1993. Observers of the Welsh scene predicted instant relegation. But Llansantffraid defied the odds to survive in the WP. Every step of the way the club grew in stature, and the Treflan trophy cupboard began to fill. The League Cup was won in 1995, and then at the old National Stadium a year later Llansantffraid triumphed in the Welsh Cup, leading to a first European experience in Poland.
In 1997 computer company Total Network Solutions, from their base on the border in Oswestry, made Llansantffraid an offer no WP club could refuse. In the absence of sponsorship, TV revenues or public assistance, WP clubs cannot afford to reject a helping hand. In a shoestring league you don’t need a fortune to get ahead – any investment will lift you above the pack. The price of the deal was a change of name to TNS. In most countries businesses support clubs, in many countries clubs are businesses, but only in Wales could it happen that a business IS the club.
When TNS wrestled the championship title from Barry Town’s grip in 2000, their astonishingly rapid rise to the top was complete. But Managing Director Mike Harris never rests on his laurels. A new stand, fully-pro status, a youth structure and a twinning deal with Chelsea have followed, and TNS are now established as regular title contenders and European qualifiers. None of this would have been possible without the financial clout of the parent company.
Manager Ken McKenna will need his players to perform at their absolute peak if TNS are even to keep the score respectable against Manchester City. He will not want a repeat of the alarming frailty shown in the club-record 2-12 aggregate defeat of last year’s UEFA Cup. Nor will he want to see more of the raw nerves exposed in last season’s WP, when a big points lead was overhauled by Barry and the Saints were pipped at the post for the title. Mike Harris’s typically audacious booking of the Millennium Stadium for the ‘home’ leg puts more pressure on – the gamble could backfire if City kill the tie in Manchester and as a result gate revenues suffer in Cardiff.
Whatever happens, after the dust has settled on two historic matches, TNS will return to the domestic scene wealthier and stronger. They are the shot in the arm the Welsh game desperately needed. Not for them the narrow horizons of Old Wales; TNS prove things can be other than they’ve always been before. The final twist is this: it has taken an English company, an English manager, a largely English group of players and English enterprise to show Wales how to do it. And, if Mike Harris’s latest plan, a merger with Oswestry Town, gets the thumbs-up, TNS’s exciting future will take place on English soil.
Manchester City and TNS have never met before, but these two very different clubs have more in common than you might think…
Billy Meredith – The first football folk-hero, vital to the transformation of Manchester City from Lancashire also-rans Ardwick into one of England’s great clubs, and still the prototype of the dribbling winger. The Welsh Wizard was born a few miles from Llansantffraid and played his early football for Chirk, the village sensations of their day, 100 years before TNS filled that role.
Tony Henry – A City apprentice who went on to make 79 league appearances for the club and play in the 1981 Cup Final, effective utility man Henry arrived at Llansantffraid in 1994 after making over 400 English league appearances. He made 46 WP appearances for TNS and won a League Cup winner’s medal before being appointed manager in October 1997. It didn’t work out – only 2 wins in 16 games got Henry the sack 4 months later. He bitterly denounced the TNS board, but time has vindicated their decision. His departure paved the way for the title-winning reign of Dr Andy Cale.
Darren Beckford – Mancunian Beckford was another City apprentice who found his way to Treflan. He never really made it at Maine Road, making only 11 league appearances, before a wandering career took him via Bury, Port Vale, Norwich, Oldham, Hearts, Walsall and Southport to TNS. His old City pal Tony Henry persuaded him to join in season 1997/98, but his stay was short and unfruitful – a mere 4 WP games and 1 goal.
Cliff Sear – After 248 league appearances for City between 1957 and 1968, Sear moved to Chester City where he discovered and developed goal-machine Ian Rush, who is now a non-executive director of TNS.
Poland – TNS could produce a Rough Guide to Poland, having been paired with Polish clubs 3 times in 4 European campaigns. Each long trip east has resulted in a calamitous second half collapse after a decent first half. TNS midfielder Scott Ruscoe has endured an identical Polish trauma when with Newtown. City’s European story is equally Polish-orientated: Gornik Zabrze were beaten 2-1 in the 1970 Cup winners’ Cup Final in Vienna; then City beat them again in the following season’s quarter-final in a Copenhagen replay after losing in Zabrze; a third Polish encounter occurred in the UEFA Cup in 1977 when Widzew Lodz eliminated City after a 0-0 draw in Lodz – the very ground TNS played on 24 years later at the same stage of the UEFA Cup because Polonia’s ground in Warsaw was unavailable.
The Oswestry Link – If TNS and Oswestry Town fully merge, then other connections are made. George Wynn started at Oswestry United, distant ancestor of the modern Oswestry club. He had a fine career with City at Hyde Road, scoring 59 goals in 119 league games between 1909 and 1919. Lot Jones was, like Meredith, a Chirk product. City signed him from Druids and he repaid them with 69 goals in 281 appearances between 1903 and 1919. After the war he played for Oswestry Town. Carl Griffiths was born in Oswestry. He made 18 appearances for City after signing from Shrewsbury Town in 1993.
With its chippy attitude, explicit critique of the unbalanced England/Wales relationship and implicit Welsh republican sentiments, there is no way such a piece would make it into the programmes of the corporate behemoths in today’s English Premier League. So I’m quite pleased I slipped this one under the radar. Oh, and the Shoot! magazine cliches were deliberate – an in-joke with my brother!