The Welsh Premier League (WPL) enters its 21st season not as most young adults should, striding forward into an exciting coming-of-age, but instead hooked up to life-support in a maternity ward incubator, kept notionally alive on bare-minimum liquid feed. Nobody visits. Nobody assists. Nobody cares. Except me.
The most impecunious football pyramid in Europe is the perfect example of the Welsh double-bind, that worst-of-all-worlds halfway-house in which Wales lies paralysed. On the one hand is the sobering reality: Wales as a token tag, a bolted-on optional extra, a hollow chimera, presumed to have no interests of its own, no practical purpose, no progressive momentum and no ultimate aims, just there to mollify the few who retain lingering loyalty to the concept of Cymru, or fulfil some bureaucratic nicety, or conjure up the mirage of a we’re-all-in-this-together UK. Yet on the other hand, whenever it suits our enemies’ tactics, this ‘Wales’ is treated as somehow accountable for the utter mess we’re in after half a millennium of being run by England. Thus we get none of the advantages of nationhood but all the disadvantages. So it is in football; in a precise duplication of the Senedd/Westminster relationship in Welsh politics, the FAW has the responsibility but not the power and the English FA the power, obligingly handed over by the six clubs for whom Wales is not good enough, but not the responsibility – the perverse reverse of the usual formula that oppresses people worldwide. Here, we can be safely left to do our own self-oppressing – just to save anyone else the bother.
The spectres are gathering at the FAW’s Splott HQ. The Assembly is conducting a pretty searching enquiry into the state of the WPL and the FAW is unlikely to come out of it well (I just don’t understand it: of all those who made submissions to the enquiry, only I have not been called to give evidence; it’s such a pity, because me versus Peter Black would surely have gone viral on YouTube). Then there’s the Olympics™ propaganda machine, cranking up its agitation for a permanent GB team having got a foot in the door. Meanwhile, following major WPL club Neath going to the wall in the close season, long-term WPL giants, regular European entrants and former champions Llanelli are on the verge of extinction (the Reds, founded 1896, face a winding-up petition on Sep 3rd: SOMEONE HELP!!). With all these flashing warning lights and wailing sirens, you would think, would you not, that the FAW might begin to show some urgency and concentrate its considerable resources on their stricken flagship, without which Wales would lose international status and the FAW itself would cease to exist. But no, of course not. Quite the opposite in fact. The piteous £15,000 prize for winning the WPL and the total FAW funding of £75,500 – hey, both record European lows! – remain unaltered, therefore with 2%+ inflation they have been cut. These sums wouldn’t buy Ryan Giggs a super-injunction, yet Welsh clubs are supposed to operate in the modern world on such chicken-feed. Llanelli’s plight is not worthy of mention in the media; in stark contrast to continual drum-banging for more millions to be poured into the six Anglo clubs operating as a fifth column behind Welsh lines (imagine: Carmarthenshire Council giving Llanelli a £30 million free gift courtesy of the local taxpayer – well, that’s what Cardiff Council handed over to Cardiff City in the Leckwith property deal – oh, but Llanelli aren’t reinforcing British Wales, so they don’t matter…). Meanwhile, the FAW spends its money on property deals, pie-in-the-sky ‘centres of excellence’, implementing the edicts of up-his-own-arse 21-year-old millionaire Aaron Ramsey, sacks of rose petals to strew at the feet of Sepp Blatter when he grants an audience, and high-spec PR material presenting an Orwellian Never-Never Land of smiley people basking in glorious achievements. The WPL, only ever a sop to satisfy FIFA, is left to sink or swim in the unforgiving oceans of market forces – and when soccer’s biggest market of all, the Rupert Murdoch English League, isn’t just camped on your borders but trading around your hearth, then the conclusion is as foregone as when the corner shop takes on Tesco.
As usual European involvement ended before the league season began, all four clubs being eliminated at the first hurdle. Blink and you might have missed the brave but ultimately unsuccessful efforts of TNS, Bangor, Llanelli and Druids, especially as they received virtually no coverage in – clear throat – the Welsh media. Actually all four acquited themselves with honour, especially Cefn Druids in their first ever European campaign. Wales’ oldest club, the first 2nd-tier Welsh pyramid club to represent Wales in Europe, drew 0-0 at the Racecourse against experienced Finnish outfit MYPA before losing the Europa League second leg 5-0. All four clubs drew at home and lost away. Both Bangor, who played their inaugural European match at Nantporth, and Llanelli came agonisingly close to progressing in the Europa League against Zimbru Chisinau (Moldova) and KuPS (Finland) respectively, while The New Saints looked the part for long periods in the Champions League against classy Helsingborgs IF of Sweden, ranked 184 places higher than TNS in UEFA’s club co-efficients, before eventually going down 3-0. Disappointment must be tempered by the knowledge that all four were punching well above their weight to even be on the same pitch as these well-drilled and technically expert professional outfits, and the fact none lost at home gives perennial optimists like myself the hope that at least a ‘fortress Wales’ mentality might be beginning to develop for these tough European challenges.
World-weary cynic Dic Mortimer a perennial optimist? I hear your mocking laughter, reader(s). But remember it takes a monumental optimism to keep on fighting for causes as profoundly minority, dissident and counter-intuitive as the WPL. It actually takes a child-like belief that, one day, the Baddies will be vanquished and the Goodies will win. And I’ve been doing it from even before the WPL’s birth as the League of Wales in August 1992. Below is a cutting from the letters page of footie mag When Saturday Comes, issue 61, March 1992 (it’s still going strong and has reached issue 307). Note, in those days I had not yet adopted my Cymrufied Dic nom-de-plume. Long aside coming up… What a good move that turned out to be! Google ‘dic’ and hit the space bar, and I’m second only to Dic Penderyn as the most famous Dic on the planet – I’ve pushed an Archdruid into third place! Google ‘richard’, on the other hand, and I’d be lost in the depths of the 280 billion suggestions. Right, where was I? Oh yes, here’s that letter in WSC and below it, my antagonist’s response in the next issue (no. 62).
A few thoughts occur to me re-reading this exchange:
• Even allowing for the fact WSC cut my original epistle by at least half, my letter’s bloody awful. But I’m quite fond of that “abject toadying of an Anglophiliac sycophant” and might dust it down for re-use in future.
• Whatever happened to Phil Tanner? He was the spokesman for the anti-League of Wales brigade in those days. I suppose nowadays he’d be among the crowds in the hospitality room at Rodney Parade licking the boots of the lottery winner who intends to buy Newport County back into England’s 4th tier after a 25-year gap – yes, they soon will be rubbing up against a tripe and onion stall on some Lancashire B-road! Either that or methinks he’s dead.
• My Welsh-language quote looks a little wrong to my non-expert eyes 20 years later – but giving it a re-airing on this blog secures brilliant Siôn Mowddy’s first, and long overdue, internet mention. That’s well worth the public humiliation.
Everything’s changed, the arguments have evolved, but one fact remains immutable: Cardiff, Colwyn Bay, Merthyr, Newport, Swansea and Wrexham are located in WALES. Here’s another indisputable fact: It would be to the enormous advantage and benefit of the WPL and the 1000+ clubs in the Welsh pyramid if those six clubs played in the Welsh system not the English. If you think Wales matters at all, that’s the end of the debate.
Another unchanging certainty is that, despite all the travails, the forthcoming WPL season will be as fascinating as ever. Two of the league’s shining lights have been signed by English clubs and will be missed. Rhys Griffiths, WPL top scorer for the past seven consecutive seasons (a UK record and, maybe, a European record – but that is taking me some time to establish) as well as Llanelli’s all-time WPL top-scorer with an incredible 180 goals in 181 games and the league’s 2nd highest scorer in total with 237 goals in 320 games, has moved to Plymouth Argyle at age 32. You watch: if Rhys gets in Argyle’s first team, plays a couple of games and gets a couple of goals, Chris Coleman will call him up for Wales. The same can be said about Craig Jones, signed by Bury from TNS after 225 WPL games for four clubs. The skilful winger has been my favourite WPL player for the past few seasons, and now that he’s moved to England I expect him to sail into the Wales squad – the better to big up the English system as the place where it’s all happening and maintain the marginalisation and news blackout rigorously applied to the Welsh system. Founder members Connah’s Quay return as Cymru Alliance champions after a two-year absence (I can’t bring myself to add sponsors Gap to their name) and look equipped to survive with highly-rated player-manager Mark McGregor at the helm. Ambitious Bala will be interesting to watch, I wonder if Tomi Morgan, in his 8th WPL managerial job, can finally spark the potential of his first love Aberystwyth Town, and the 12 clubs’ efforts to unearth and develop young Welsh talent will, as ever, be the key sub-plot. Being a mere Cardiffian I have no WPL club to watch, so most of my live football will be at Jenner Park urging on the slow rehabilitation of tier 2 Barry Town. Finally, for what it’s worth, here are my predictions for the coming season:
Champions: The New Saints (they’ve got Mike Harris, the league’s only sugar-daddy – say no more)
Runners-up: Bangor City
Relegation: Airbus UK Broughton, Afan Lido
Promoted: Haverfordwest County, Rhyl
Welsh Cup: Bala Town.