I had to be there. Even though ceaseless drenching rain was washing in from the west, wild horses wouldn’t have stopped me going to the first Welsh Premier League (WPL) game in Cardiff for 10 years (to be precise, 10 years, 3 months and 3 weeks since Grange Harlequins lost to Bangor City at the old Leckwith Stadium to complete the now defunct club’s disastrous solitary WPL season). Cardiff Metropolitan, in their first home game since promotion to the top tier last season, took on Bala Town at Cyncoed Campus last Sunday, and I was in the very unfamiliar position of having a WPL ground not just in the city where I live but within walking distance of my front door! So it was that I wended my way up Cyncoed Road in the horizontal, penetrating deluge and joined the ‘crowd’ of 221 (that’s 220 plus me).
The fact that the Cyncoed Campus ground passed the FAW’s criteria necessary for admission to the WPL illustrates how minimalist those criteria are. In other words, it’s a typical WPL ground: a rough, rudimentary, amenity-free paddock that makes no concessions to comfort or aesthetics and wouldn’t have looked out of place a century ago. For those unacquainted with the sprawling Campus, developed piecemeal since Cardiff Met’s forerunner Cardiff Training College moved from Heath Park in 1961 onto the pristine woodlands of Llwyn y Grant Uchaf (the ‘coed’ after which Cyncoed was named), it is actually very hard to find the football ground. There are no signs whatsoever to help visitors navigate through the maze of undistinguished buildings, winding roads and bleak car parks and locate the small opening in the steel security fence that eventually leads to the one turnstile. Bordered on three sides by other sports facilities and only separated from the rumbling traffic on Llanedeyrn’s Circle Way at the eastern end by a barrier of high trees, the ground offers just one viewpoint: the worm’s-eye view. This is because the pair of 250-seat, covered stands opposite each other on the halfway line have a mere four rows of seats that barely provide the elevation you’d achieve by getting up on a saggy pouffe. The purpose-built north stand is a toytown structure in the plainest, most frugal style imaginable while the south stand is merely an improvised afterthought slotted under the overhanging struts of the adjacent indoor athletics stadium. You’ve got to hand it to the Met Uni, they sure don’t believe in chucking money around!
Toilet facilities are equally, er, crude: four portaloos stationed in open view close to each corner flag. My heart went out to the poor old crwt whose repeated visits to these uninviting blue boxes were cruelly captured by the S4C cameras from the TV gantry (that’s a ladder, some scaffolding poles and a couple of planks). Incidentally, if you carefully watch the highlights footage of the match (now available on the Sgorio pages of S4C’s website) you can snatch a brief glimpse of yours truly by the top right corner flag – I’m the shifty, bedraggled rat in the maroon hoodie.
As for refreshment facilities, now don’t be daft. The many canteens and social clubs of the Campus are for lotus-eaters in the Groves of Academe, not for the likes of the typical WPL spectator: seen-better-days blokes with enlarged prostate issues, transgressive teenagers, geeky anoraks and Welsh republican Trotskyites in maroon hoodies. The likes of us must make do queuing for a cup of stewed tea from the back of an old container unit (I had my trusty hipflask so avoided the ordeal).
None of this bothers me. On the contrary, I like the WPL’s total absence of money; the polar opposite of the EPL’s obscene, corrupt, ludicrous wealth. I like being able to stroll around the circumference of a ground during a game interacting randomly with friendly strangers and shifting my viewing angles; the very antithesis of being trapped on one of the EPL’s ticketed, allocated, monitored, photographed, stewarded, policed, £90-a-go plastic seats, surrounded by braying Brit blockheads farting into their Calvin Klein boxers. I like the pitch-level perspective; the down-to-earth riposte to the choreographed and deceptive flattery of the EPL’s sky-high camera angles. And I’ll take the stark Welsh reality of a humble, amateur club of Welsh students getting by on a shoestring over the deluded, aggrandising greed of the hyped-to-death clubs of England, whoring themselves to oligarchs, thieves, media moguls and tyrants and stockpiling platoons of overrated identikit mercenary millionaires.
Bala won 1-0, leaving Cardiff Met winless, goalless and pointless at the bottom of the table after two matches, having lost 1-0 at Airbus UK Broughton on matchday one. As club chairman Robyn Jones put it in his programme notes: “We know the season will be tough, with every point having to be hard won. To be competitive, we will have to exist at the edge of our capabilities.” The professor’s gnomic musings, incidentally, are going to be worth the £6 admission alone this season. Treating his readers as if they were educated, enlightened, well-informed adults rather than Murdoch-moulded ignoramuses, Prof. Jones even threw a quote from French literary maestro André Gide (1869-1951) into his densely-argued piece (“We must have the courage to lose sight of the shore”) – surely a first in the long history of soccer programmes! I picked up on something else in the programme: the 2000 merger with Inter Cardiff and all of Inter’s previous history and records have been erased from Cardiff Met’s history, which is now presented as simply that of the educational institution’s football team. This contradicts data in other publications and websites and if not amended means that Cardiff Met become the 40th different club to have played in the WPL and that Inter Cardiff must join Abergavenny Thursdays, Ebbw Vale, Grange Harlequins, Maesteg Park Athletic and Neath to become the 6th former WPL club that no longer exists – and this doesn’t include those reformed as ‘phoenix’ clubs (Barry Town, Llanelli and Rhayader Town) or those amalgamated into new identities (Briton Ferry Athletic, Llansantffraid and Oswestry Town). Such is the grievous casualty rate in Europe’s poorest domestic pyramid. The Inter saga is not lost however; I’ve written a fairly complete history of both Cardiff Met and Inter Cardiff here: http://tinyurl.com/hwex7bq.
Few opponents will be harder for Cardiff Met this season than the battle-hardened semi-pros of buoyant Bala, playing in the WPL for an 8th consecutive season and runners-up in the last two, so there was no disgrace in the defeat and no need to panic yet. In fact Cardiff competed very well and put together some quality football on the immaculate 3G pitch – a technological advance on the rutted mud-heaps of old that can only improve vital ball skills (here I will give a most unusual if not unprecedented small round of applause to the FAW for enabling 3G pitches with hard cash; they will get larger acclaim if this is just the beginning of a massive programme of ground improvements throughout the Welsh pyramid). Now that there are only two southern clubs, Cardiff Met and Carmarthen Town, in the 12-club WPL following Port Talbot Town’s demotion for failing to get the domestic license, it’s crucial that both survive (and then are joined by reviving Barry Town United next season). Whatever happens, it’s going to be an exciting season up the Campus and I intend to be a regular, urging on the Archers, shouting rude things at the referee – and hoping above hope that never again will there be a single season, let alone a shameful decade, when there’s no place in the capital of Wales for its own national football league.