The Welsh football season is finally over. It began in June last year with the Europa League 1st qualifying rounds and ended in May with Llanelli beating Bala in the play-off final to clinch the last of Wales’ 3 places in next season’s Europa League – a 46-week season. Now there’s a blessed 6 week break before 2012/13 is upon us. As is traditional (ie: I did it last year), here’s my review of the season just finished. There’s a lot to cover so let’s crack on.
WELSH PREMIER LEAGUE In the WPL’s 20th season The New Saints (TNS) won the championship for a 6th time, drawing them closer to Barry Town’s all-time record of 7 titles. TNS have now been champions or runners-up in 10 of the last 11 WPL seasons. As in the previous season, the destiny of the title all came down to TNS’s last fixture against Bangor City. Craig Harrison’s team made no mistake, NZ international Greg Draper notching a hat-trick in a 5-0 win that toppled the reigning champs in front of a 1468 crowd, Park Hall’s record WPL attendance. TNS will enter the 2012/13 European Cup, the 13th consecutive time they have qualified for Europe, far ahead of Barry’s next best 8 consecutive European appearances, and their 14th European campaign in total, equalling Cardiff City’s record for a Welsh club. Such is TNS’s entrenched position of power as the one and only fully professional club in the entire Welsh pyramid, if sugar-daddy Mike Harris stays involved it can’t be long before they overtake Cardiff’s record of 49 European games representing Wales – the minimum 2 more matches now guaranteed will bring TNS’s total to 34. In his first season at the club Craig Harrison thus becomes the 12th manager to win the title, following Tony Wilcox (1957-2003), Nigel Adkins (2), Paul Giles, Gary Barnett (3), Andy Cale (2), Peter Nicholas (2), Kenny Brown (2), Ken McKenna (3), John Hulse, Alan Bickerstaff and Nev Powell. Harrison’s side played a measured, possession game in which three talented Welsh players, Aeron Edwards, Craig Jones and Chris Marriott, were outstanding. With the FAW shamelessly scouring Englishmen’s family trees to find players who might qualify for Wales through a grandparent, it is staggering that none of this trio of skilful young Welsh pros with a wealth of European experience has ever been selected for any national squad – but then that would endorse and boost the WPL, quite out of the question as the 6 Anglo clubs would find it threatening.
The demotion of Neath (see below) and the lack of a promotion candidate from the southern feeder, the Welsh League, meant that no club was relegated, a reprieve for bottom pair Newtown and Carmarthen Town. Connah’s Quay Nomads, winners of northern feeder the Cymru Alliance, will replace Neath next season and return to the top flight after a 2-year absence. Nomads had been denied promotion the previous year, despite also winning the Alliance, after failing to get the FAW’s preposterously stringent domestic licence which expects shoestring operations to be organised like corporate giants; but now they’ve managed to clear the many obscure obstacles the FAW places in the path of clubs it should be helping not handicapping, and it’s good to have them back. Runners-up Rhyl have also got it together to jump through the FAW’s hoops and will be favourites to return to the WPL from the north next season. However, the situation in south Wales is catastrophic. This is the 12th time in 20 years that no club has been promoted from the Welsh League, making the “2 up, 2 down” format a fiction, rendering tense relegation struggles farcical, and gradually unbalancing the pan-Wales WPL towards the north. The WPL is the only top-flight league in Europe where this happens at all, let alone virtually every season, resulting in the crazy situation where the pinnacle of a pyramid is treated as a step down! Congratulations go to Tonypandy club Cambrian & Clydach for their first ever Welsh League title, capping an extraordinary rise from level 5 to the top of level 2 in 7 years, but one must ask why they are content to go no further, the antithesis of soccer’s entire ethos of upward mobility, and just spend enough to win the Welsh League while blocking clubs like Haverfordwest County and Bridgend Town that would relish the challenge of promotion. The answer, as ever, lies at the door of the FAW, which invests a smaller percentage of its income in its domestic pyramid than any other national association, but bends over backwards to assist the 6 clubs within our borders for whom Wales is not good enough. This means that in Wales, uniquely in the world, the normal financial carrot of promotion is completely absent whereas the financial stick of meeting the FAW’s WPL criteria is large and menacing. The FAW could not have designed a more perfect set-up to deter clubs from the WPL – it’s almost like it’s deliberate…
The ‘super 12’ format, imposed unilaterally by the FAW last season, has now had two seasons to bed down and it’s not too early to pronounce it a failure. When the same clubs can play each other (counting cup matches) as much as 6 times a season, when league tables look nonsensical because placings established at the split stage cannot be overtaken later by a club from the lower group (eg: Prestatyn with 28 points finished 6th; Carmarthen with 32 points finished 11th!), and when the play-offs for the 3rd Europa League place involve clubs that were relegation candidates, you know you have a structure that’s not fit for purpose – a bit like the FAW itself. I favour a return to the 18-club structure that works well for most of the rest of Europe, accompanied by a complete rewrite of those domestic licence criteria so they are achievable in the real world inhabited by real Welsh clubs. At this rate the WPL will end up like the infamous Scilly Isles league in which the only 2 clubs play each other over and over again. Imagine Airbus UK v TNS for ever more: it wouldn’t distract attention from those so-important English competitions and wouldn’t require a penny of support – the FAW’s dreams come true.
More bad news for the WPL came with the attendance figures for 2011/12, down by nearly 4% to an average of 329 – the lowest in Europe – with Carmarthen, Llanelli, Neath and Port Talbot, 4 clubs geographically near to Swansea, hardest hit. Swansea City’s first season in the English Premier League had the predictable effect of wreaking untold damage upon actual Welsh football. Their gates rose by 27%, grabbing even more of the football fan base in west Wales than they already had and hogging even more of the available coverage in what sharp wits laughingly call the Welsh media. But we shouldn’t be concerned because the BBC, the Western Mail and the massed ranks of the Welsh establishment assure us in the double-speak that is the stock currency of Welsh public discourse that the slow strangulation of the WPL, a flagship Welsh institution without which Wales would be rendered internationally invisible, is “Good for Wales”. And they say satire died when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize…
To close, I must mention some individual players. At the end of the season two of the league’s indomitable stalwarts retired: goalie Andy Mulliner wound up his career at Airbus after 482 league appearances for 9 different WPL clubs, including 213 for TNS where he will always be remembered for his heroics in the 1996 Welsh Cup final against Barry – the breakthrough victory for the club then known as Llansantffraid; and giant central defender Aneurin Thomas, the last player from the WPL’s inaugural 1992/93 season still playing, hung up his boots at Aberystwyth Town after 496 games (27 goals) for 5 clubs, including 399 for Aber that sets the club’s all-time WPL appearance record. Only Colin Reynolds (528), Andrew Thomas (522) and Gary Lloyd (509) have appeared in more WPL games than Thomas and Mulliner, but their positions at 4th and 5th in the all-time appearance list should, barring injury, be overhauled next season by defender Wyn Thomas, also of Aber, who has 478 games to his credit and is still only 33. Finally, this season saw a 14th and a 15th player reach the 400-game milestone: two familiar midfielders with very different styles, poised playmaker Scott Ruscoe (412, 98 for Newtown and 314 for TNS, the club record) and combative hustler Gareth Wilson (409, 258 for Rhyl, 64 for TNS, 11 for Welshpool Town and 76 for current club Prestatyn Town).
WELSH CUP TNS also won the 125th Welsh Cup, beating Cefn Druids 2-0 in the final at Nantporth, Bangor, to lift the world’s 2nd oldest football trophy for a 3rd time and win the WPL/Cup ‘double’ for a 2nd time (Barry with four doubles hold that record). Druids were undone by 2 early goals from Greg Draper and Alex Darlington, but because TNS won the WPL they will enter Europe next season for the first time in their long, long history, joining Bangor City (WPL runners-up) and Llanelli (play-off winners) in the Europa League. This is an extraordinary new chapter in the Druids story – a story that is nothing less than the story of football in Wales. Founded in 1869 as Plasmadoc, Wales’ very first football club, they were renamed Druids in 1872 when other teams from the collieries and quarries around Rhiwabon and Cefn Mawr were brought under one banner by the men who would form the FAW itself 4 years later in 1876 (6 Druids’ players played in the very first Welsh international match against Scotland that year, the most from a single club to this day). Thus it is thanks to Druids that the first national sporting organisation in Wales, indeed one of the first all-Wales institutions of any kind since annexation by England in 1536, was created – and Wales thus acquired what remains today its one-and-only world-wide ID card. Better still, since the pioneering Druids formed the global game’s 3rd-oldest nation we also have a permanent, rotating seat on the International Board, sport’s equivalent of the UN Security Council – a position Wales occupies in no other sphere of human activity. Today’s inheritors of the evocative Druids name are not just Wales’ oldest football club (an accolade Wrexham erroneously claimed for years until repeated assertions of the truth by yours truly forced them, and recently the BBC, to quietly drop the lie), they are the 8th-oldest surviving football club on the planet. Anywhere else such an iconic club would be a national treasure, but in Wales they are treated with indifference and ignorance if they are known at all. Druids’ appearance in their 14th Welsh Cup final (they have won the Cup 8 times) set two remarkable world records: as their first final since 1904, when they beat Aberdare Athletic 3-2 at Wrexham, the 108-year gap is the longest any club has ever had to wait between cup finals; and, as the attendance of 731 was the lowest for any Welsh Cup final since it all began back in 1878 when Wrexham beat Druids 1-0 at Acton Park in front of 1,500, Wales is the only country in the world where cup final gates are less now than when the competition started. We have spent 134 years going backwards: what an achievement!
There is one further point to make about the Welsh Cup. Last year the FAW made the typically bewildering decision to invite the 6 Not-Welsh clubs into the competition, giving them the chance to snaffle one of Wales’ European places despite not being part of the Welsh pyramid. I blogged about it at the time (https://dicmortimer.wordpress.com/2011/08/02/not-waving-but-drowning/), noting that this was in direct breach of UEFA regulations which clearly state that no club can have two bites of the cherry by competing in two different national pyramids. As promised in that blog, I duly rattled off a missive to UEFA president Michel Platini informing him of the situation. Well, it worked: UEFA informed the FAW last month that English pyramid clubs cannot represent Wales in European competitions. You can therefore be certain that none of the 6 will take up the FAW’s invitation to enter next season’s Welsh Cup. Their back-door, smash-and-grab route into Europe is blocked so their brief dalliance with “Welshness”, always contingent on whether there was any money in it, will be over.
NEATH The future dominance of TNS was further assisted by the FAW’s refusal to grant Neath the domestic and UEFA licenses required to play in next season’s WPL. The WPL’s only other pro club had been in financial difficulties since the collapse of their sponsors last year, but the piddling sum owed (about £50,000) in comparison to the mountainous debts carried by clubs across Europe should not destroy any club in the 21st century. However, the FAW’s gleefully bureaucratic decision was a killer blow to Neath and the club was liquidated this week. Neath thus become the 3rd club of the 38 that have played in the WPL to fold, following Ebbw Vale in 1998 and Maesteg Park in 2010. The loss to the WPL of the attractive Neath side, of the excellent Gnoll ground and of a large southern Welsh town like Neath is grievous; and the loss of its football club to Neath is a terrible diminishment. Just 1% of the £4 million currently being spent by the FAW on an inessential and indulgent ‘National Football Centre’ in Newport (where else) would have bailed out Neath – but the FAW prefers to splash out on pointless vanity projects rather than assist its own cash-starved clubs. Club president and local MP Peter Hain expressed his disappointment, but I can’t help wondering why he couldn’t, say, skim a fraction off his Severn Barrage consultancy fees to provide the small change needed to save Neath FC. I suppose it’s because there’s no election pending. Compare Neath’s death with Wrexham’s plight a couple of years ago: their financial problems, far worse than Neath’s, were treated as a national emergency and no effort was spared to save the club as the FAW, AMs, MPs, MediaWales and the BBC all moved into overdrive to galvanise support for the English pyramid 5th-raters. Wrexham survived to fanfares of delirium; Neath don’t even get an epitaph. Well they’re only Welsh, they don’t matter.
ASSEMBLY INQUIRY INTO WPL The Assembly’s Communities, Equality & Local Government (CELG) Committee launched a welcome inquiry into the WPL in April. I only became aware of it the day before the closing date for submissions. Realising that if I didn’t put the case for all Welsh clubs to play in Wales then it was unlikely anyone else would, I rattled off an email to the Committee with just hours to spare before the deadline. As a result it’s not very good – garbled, tub-thumping, emotive and tonally inappropriate (ie: my usual style) – but it was the best I could do in the time available. All the submissions including mine can be read via this link: http://senedd.assemblywales.org/mgIssueHistoryHome.aspx?IId=3280. Actually the Assembly and the WPL have much in common: both are infant Welsh bodies, both were set up under duress as appeasements by people opposed to them in principle, both faced a torrent of ridicule and hostility from the outset, both are ignored in the UK, both are severely handicapped by lack of sovereignty, and both are hamstrung by English/British control of their key functions and elements. In the same way that the WPL will never flourish until all clubs within Welsh territory play in Wales, the Assembly will never flourish until Wales has complete jurisdiction over all its affairs. I have little hope that anything will change when CELG issues its findings later this year, the current batch of AMs being largely conservative, conventional, unimaginative and in the pockets of the powerful, but the very fact such an inquiry is even being held is encouraging. If you listen to FAW spin Welsh football is a thriving success story with a rosy future. The Assembly’s intervention at least shows they’re not buying that bullshit. It’s a start.
CARDIFF CITY The Malaysian property speculators who own the club want the Bluebirds to play in red (they like that colour in Malaysia) and they want them to be called the Dragons (they like that name in Malaysia). I have an idea: shift the club and its £70 million debt lock stock and barrel to Kuala Lumpur and play in the English pyramid from there.