There are just 5,000 people in total who regularly attend WPL matches, less than 0.2% of the Welsh population. This is the lowest pro-rata figure in Europe, a Welsh humiliation that is entirely self-inflicted. Being the only European country to permit, nay encourage, six of its clubs to ply their trade in another country’s football pyramid operating within Welsh borders inevitably cripples the WPL. Now that Swansea City are in the English top tier, adding 25% to their gates and devouring yet more of the available media coverage, WPL attendances have had even the modest gains made after last season’s introduction of the ‘super 12’ format wiped out, with the clubs in Swansea’s ‘catchment area’ – Carmarthen Town, Llanelli, Neath, Afan Lido and Port Talbot Town – all being particularly badly hit. Swansea City are beginning to do in west Wales what Cardiff City have long been doing in east Wales; killing all other footballing life in a 50 mile radius like a gigantic Leylandii hedge hoovering up all the nutrients and hogging all the light. This is why I, a Cardiff resident with an interest in the WPL, have further to travel to see a match in my national football league (a 70-mile round trip to Port Talbot) than any resident of any other capital city in all of the world – Cardiff being the only capital city anywhere without a club in its own nation’s league. In the Orwellian double-speak that swamps Wales in order to normalise Britishness and marginalise Welshness, Swansea’s presence in the English Premier League is proclaimed “good for Wales” when it is demonstrably the opposite, while the grotesque prospect of Cardiff representing England in next season’s Europa League via the Carling Cup is presented as the Promised Land, rather than the shameful public degradation such a perversion would actually be. This is the topsy-turvy reality in which the WPL must try to survive.
I have been writing paragraphs similar to the above since the WPL was formed (as the League of Wales) in 1992. As far as I am aware I am the one and only public voice arguing that all Welsh football clubs should play in Wales. There once was another: Alun Evans (1942-2011), who has recently died after a long illness. Evans was FAW secretary between 1982 and 1995 and the driving force behind the foundation of the League of Wales in the teeth of ferocious opposition from the TrinityMirror papers. It is thanks to his vision and determination that we have a Welsh domestic pyramid at all, and I will miss the pugnacious Porth polymath, who I would occasionally encounter in his later years selling programmes on the gate for UWICIC at Cyncoed. With hindsight his big mistake when setting up the League of Wales (and I told him this to his face on more than one occasion in good natured jousting at Leckwith or Jenner Park) was to exempt four clubs (Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham and Merthyr) while making it compulsory for all others – a blatant discrimination that could not be defended when three clubs (Newport, Colwyn Bay and Caernarfon) took the FAW to court in 1994. Had Evans grabbed the bull by the horns and included all Welsh clubs the FAW would have won the court case, Cardiff and company would now be in the Welsh pyramid, and we would be wondering what all the fuss was about as we get on with the job of building the viable domestic structure every country needs. Alun Evans’ vision of Wales as a sovereign football nation has only partly been realised; the baton passes on, and here’s one Welshman who will never cease arguing for the completion of his work.
Despite all the problems, this 20th WPL season is as fascinating as ever. The championship battle looks like it will go to the wire again with four clubs in serious contention as the split into two groups of six approaches. The 99.8% of the population who ignore the league are missing out on genuine drama and sub-plots galore as well as plenty of entertaining football.
Without doubt Bangor City are the main story so far. The club played their farewell match at Farrar Road last week, a rip-roaring 5-3 win over Prestatyn Town that put them top of the table. The 2,593 crowd crammed into the evocatively decrepid but stately city centre ground was Bangor’s record WPL attendance and the 3rd highest WPL gate of all time (after 2,746 Barry Town v Caernarfon Town 1997, and 2,741 Rhyl v TNS 2004). It’s surely too much to expect City to retain the title: TNS, Llanelli and Neath are breathing down their necks, their squad is small and they’ve got to settle quickly at their purpose-built, 3,000-capacity new ground a mile out of town at Nantporth, where Nev Powell’s steamroller tactics might not suit the immaculate pitch. When the football story begins at Nantporth in January it will be the 6th brand new ground among the 38 clubs that have so far played in the WPL, following Flint Town United (Holywell Road to Cae-y-Castell in 1993), Haverfordwest County (Bridge Meadow to New Bridge Meadow in 1995), Connah’s Quay Nomads (Halfway Ground to Deeside Stadium in 1998), Cardiff Grange Harlequins (Leckwith Stadium to, ahem, Cardiff International Sports Stadium in 2009) and Cefn Druids (Plaskynaston Lane to The Rock in 2010). Nantporth will be Bangor’s 4th home, after Friars School (1876-1880), Maes y Dref (1881-1919) and Farrar Road – which is about to become just what Bangor doesn’t need: an Asda. Whether Nantporth can match Farrar’s resonant character and sense of place will depend on how soon City can raise the resources and surmount the planning hurdles to make it a proper, 4-sided, European-compliant soccer ground, rather than the neat but modest work in progress the club have had to settle for at present.
I reckon The New Saints will win the league (but then I always do), because of their strong, deep squad, the artificial pitch at Park Hall, the drive of owner Mike Harris, their sheer professionalism, and now the appointment of Craig Harrison to succeed Mike Davies after he surprisingly stepped down as manager. Harrison worked wonders as manager of Airbus UK Broughton for 3½ years, establishing them in the WPL’s middle ranks against the odds, and he could inject the passion that Davies’s TNS always seemed to lack. His first major test will be the 4th round Welsh Cup clash with Anglo-quislings Newport County at the end of January. Wild horses will not keep me away from Oswestry for that one: a Welsh club based in England against an English club based in Wales in a Welsh competition on English soil for which the English club should not be eligible. Eeek!
On a personal note, I’m here going to use this blog to mention an old friend, Dave Figg, who has put in years of vital unpaid voluntary work behind the scenes at The New Saints. In November, after the Bangor game at Park Hall, the club held a special presentation for Dave (universally known as ‘Statto’) for his 50th birthday – it was a nice touch by TNS, and richly deserved because it’s the unheralded Stattos up and down Wales who keep our clubs alive. Dave and I go way back to TNS’s Llansantffraid days, when I was always reassured to see his fluorescent yellow anorak taking charge in the Treflan carpark. This could mean I’m getting old – I’ll ask Statto, he’ll know.
The six clubs that will make up the ‘relegation conference’ (probably Airbus, Afan Lido, Port Talbot, Aberystwyth, Newtown and Carmarthen) have two consolations. First, if you top this group after the final 10 matches and thus finish 7th in the league you proceed into the play-offs for the last Europa League slot along with the clubs finishing 3rd to 6th in the ‘championship conference’, and secondly it could well be that only one club is relegated, as last season when the lack of an eligible promotion candidate from the WPL’s northern feeder, the Cymru Alliance, meant only Haverfordwest went down. This time it’s the southern feeder, the Welsh League, that looks like producing a champion and a runner-up who can’t meet the WPL’s licensing criteria. If that’s the case relegation will probably boil down to a dog-fight between increasingly cast adrift Newtown and Carmarthen, with Carmarthen favourites for the drop. The Old Gold’s results have been awful, manager Tomi Morgan was sacked at the end of November and Neil Smothers his inexperienced replacement has yet to register a win. Y Dre’s 16th consecutive season in the WPL could be their last for a while – but the club is well organised enough to bounce back should the worst happen.
Another noteworthy development is the appointment of Gwyn Derfel as WPL secretary to replace John Deakin when he retires at the end of the season. Deakin has been secretary since the league started – a role as thankless as toilet cleaner at Nandos and as popular as president of the Gary Glitter Fan Club. After 20 years in the saddle if anyone deserves a long, relaxing retirement it is the affable but limited Brummie ex-ref. And with his departure let’s hope his summer football hobby-horse is put out to grass too. I have high hopes that Welsh-speaking, WPL-following Derfel, who has a background in sports broadcasting, will be an improvement: the litmus test will be whether he can extract a lot more financial support for the WPL out of the FAW.
Finally, the first live match of 2012 for me will be Afan Lido v Port Talbot Town on January 2nd at the Marston Stadium. Other than the Dundee derby this is the closest derby in UK football, the two grounds being less than ½ a mile apart. It’s always a gripping contest and both badly need the points. The reverse fixture at Victoria Road on Boxing Day was an exciting 2-2 draw making the overall WPL record between the two clubs Lido 5 wins, Port Talbot 4 wins and 2 draws. Strictly speaking, it’s not the Port Talbot derby – it’s the Aberafan derby. Here’s a strange thing: Aberafan (population: 6,000) is the only town in Wales with two clubs in the national league while Cardiff (population 350,000) has none. They will appreciate that down the Lido.