A fair wind in the Willows

As I gradually get stronger and more able to do mundane things like gardening, cooking and housework, I’m finding that the toughest physical challenge of all is, perhaps surprisingly, writing. On reflection it shouldn’t be surprising, since the brain is not just the most complex organ in the human body but also the largest muscle. Recovery from illness, debilitation and general damage is therefore always going to be slowest and most demanding for the squidgy grey matter of the cerebrum. I’ve got ideas galore and numerous draft blogs in the works, but bringing them to satisfactory completion is very challenging when I need at least 14 hours sleep a day and concentration can fizzle out with no warning. If only I wasn’t a perfectionist who refuses to put out a sentence sloppy!

At least my legs are coming back and I’m walking increasing distances around the streets of Splott. Last week I went on my longest trek since coming out of hospital when I trudged the mile+ down to the Willows School home ground of Bridgend Street FC to watch their vital Welsh League Division 3 match against Swansea University. In this last game of the season Bridgend Street had to beat the already promoted student champs from ugly, unlovely Swansea to pip Trefelin (from Cwmafan, near Port Talbot) as runners-up and grab the 2nd promotion place.

In front of a record Willows crowd of 412, a huge gate for the Welsh pyramid’s 4th tier, Bridgend Street won 2-0 with second-half goals from inspirational captain Paul Fowler and battle-scarred striker Jeff White. To those unacquainted with the myriad delights of the fascinating and fantastic Welsh football pyramid (ie: 99.9% recurring of the Welsh population), I will forebear from complicated explanations of what this means in the scheme of things, except to say that this promotion to Welsh League Division 2 has elevated Bridgend Street to their highest ever level (tier 3 south) in the Welsh pyramid. Next season they will join Caerau Ely (just relegated from Welsh League Division 1, tier 2 south) and STM Sports as the main challengers to Welsh Premier League Cardiff Met’s currently unassailable position as the leading Welsh football club in the capital of Wales.

To give a hint of the kind of media coverage the Welsh pyramid deserves but doesn’t get from the BBC and TrinityMirror, the English corporations that scandalously monopolise the abysmal ‘Welsh’ broadcasting and print media, here is a tabulation of Bridgend Street’s historic 2017/18 season:

12 Aug H Neuadd Wen                      W 7-0 Smith 3, Jeanne 2, Burge, Gulley
26        A Treharris Athletic Western  W 8-2 White 2, Murphy 2, Fowler 2, Smith, Franklin
16 Sep H Ynysygerwn                         D 3-3 Martin, Murphy, Smith
30        H Treowen Stars                     W 5-1 Fowler 2, White 2, Smith
14 Oct H Panteg                                 D 2-2 Smith, Murphy
11 Nov H Newport City                      W 2-0 McDonagh, Grant
18        A Tredegar Town                    W 4-1 Smith, Murphy, Dingle, OG
25        H Chepstow Town                  W 5-2 Smith 3, Fowler 2
2 Dec   H Trethomas Bluebirds           D 1-1 Smith
16        H Treharris Athletic Western  W 3-1 Burge 2, White
23        H Trefelin Boys & Girls Club   W 3-1 Grant 2, Bancroft
30        A Ynysygerwn                         W 2-1 White, Murphy
13 Jan  A Treowen Stars                     W 3-1 Fowler, Burnett, White
20        A Swansea University              L 1-5 White
3 Feb   H Caerau                                 W 6-1 White 2, Fowler, Bancroft, Burge, Murphy
17        H Pontyclun                            D 3-3 Fowler 2, Bancroft
24        A Newport City                       W 2-0 Davison, White
17 Mar A Trethomas Bluebirds           L 1-3 White
23        A Ely Rangers                         W 2-0 Burge, McDonagh
14 Apr A Trefelin Boys & Girls Club   W 3-0 McDonagh, Davison, Burnett
18        H Tredegar Town                   W 2-1 Davison, Fowler
21        H Penrhiwceiber Rangers      W 4-2 Murphy, Bancroft, Carro, Fowler
28        A Neuadd Wen                      W 4-1 White 2, Fowler, Murphy
3 May  A Caerau                                W 5-1 Davison 2, Fowler, Bancroft, Brooks
5          A Penrhiwceiber Rangers      W 2-1 Gulley, White
8          A Chepstow Town                 W 5-2 White 2, Davison 2, Murphy
16        A Panteg                                W 3-2 Noyes, White, Davison
19        H Ely Rangers                        W 7-0 Fowler 3, Davison 2, Bancroft, Murphy
22        A Pontyclun                           W 5-0 Murphy, White, Brooks, Martin, Burge
24        H Swansea University            W 2-0 Fowler, White

P       W      D     L      F-A      PTS
30      23     5      2    105-41   74

Note the following:
a) This results list looks fine when I type it, but comes out all wonky when published on wordpress. God knows how it will look on smartphones. I haven’t a clue how to resolve the problem – tech geek wanted!
b) Apropos of nothing in particular, five of the 16 clubs begin with the suffix ‘Tre’, the Welsh for ‘town’ or ‘home’, and eight of the 16 are based in Gwent;
c) Bridgend Street had to squeeze seven games into 21 days in May, because of the preponderance of early season Cup games and a host of postponements due to waterlogged pitches. This is normal in the lower reaches of the Welsh League. Panteg, for instance, played 10 games in 23 days in May, nine of them at home. Their Panteg House ground at Griffithstown in Gwent seems to become unplayable after a light shower – something of a handicap in wet Wales.
d) Swansea University gave up on competitive football in 1985, but reformed (initially as Team Swansea) in 2011, no doubt galvanised by the progress of Cardiff Met. The club won the Swansea League last season and then beat Neath League winners Cwm Wanderers in the West Wales regional play-off for promotion to the Welsh League. Now they’ve immediately been promoted again. I can’t see them rising much further since, unlike Cardiff Met, sport is not fundamental to the Uni and they will always be dependent on the randomness and high turnover of student talent.

In the Welsh pyramid meteoric rises like Swansea Uni’s are often followed by spectacular collapses. Bridgend Street’s ascent has been much steadier and might therefore be sustainable. Founded way back in 1899 as the team of the Bridgend Street Mission in Splott, the club survived the demolition of the Mission, the eponymous Street and virtually all of Lower Splott in 1972 (see https://tinyurl.com/y8olxelb) to eventually climb out of the parks soccer of the Cardiff & District League and make the step up to the South Wales Senior League in 1994 as the FAW began the long overdue process of putting a pyramid system in place. Promotion to the Welsh League took another 17 years and now, after seven seasons in Division 3, another promotion has been achieved. The next major hurdle for the club will not just be to establish themselves in Division 2 in 2018/19, but to put the measures in place that will make sure they are not demoted in a year’s time.

From 2019/20 the FAW are introducing licencing to tier 3 of the pyramid and Bridgend Street’s ground as it currently stands would certainly not pass the criteria. Licensing was introduced to the WPL in 2010, and so far has seen four clubs demoted for failing to meet the basic but essential requirements (Rhyl in 2011, Neath in 2012, Port Talbot Town in 2016 and, sensationally in the licensing process just completed, WPL founder members and ever presents Bangor City). Less stringent but still vital tier 2 licensing came into force at the end of 2017/18. These criteria were applied to the WPL’s two feeders, Welsh League Division 1 in the south and the Cymru Alliance in the north, and resulted in the demotion of Caerau Ely (who had finished in a relegation place anyway) and Monmouth Town in the south and Queens Park and Llandudno Junction (both had finished in the relegation places) in the north. Five clubs only obtained the tier 2 licence by coming to temporary ground-share arrangements: Cwmbran Celtic, already at tier 2 south, will relocate to Goytre’s Plough Road ground five miles north; Pontypridd Town, promoted from tier 3 south, shift 12 miles south to Leckwith Stadium in Cardiff; Llanrhaeadr, promoted from tier 3 mid, move five miles west to the old Treflan ground of TNS at Llansantffraid; and STM Sports and Ammanford of tier 3 south, both just pipped for promotion, will presumably not now make the permitted moves to Taff’s Well and Briton Ferry respectively, at least for one more season. In addition a further 12 tier 3 clubs that had applied for a tier 2 licence were refused it, so would not have been promoted to tier 2 had they attained a top two position: Abergavenny Town, Caldicot Town and Pontardawe Town from Welsh League Division 2; and Chirk AAA, Corwen and Llanuwchllyn from the Wrexham Area League, Llanrug United from the Welsh Alliance, and Berriew, Carno, Knighton Town, Llandrindod Wells and Welshpool Town from the Mid Wales League. Those last three leagues all feed into the Cymru Alliance, a ridiculous imbalance between north and south Wales which makes promotion to tier 2 much easier for northern clubs. Commendably, the FAW has at last grasped the nettle under the dynamic leadership of Jonathan Ford, and will sweep away this anomaly when tier 3 licensing is introduced in 2019. Parochial mini-kingdoms will be scrapped, the rungs of the pyramid will be equalised for all regions of Wales, dead-wood ‘blocking’ clubs that refuse to take Welsh football seriously will be dispatched to the recreational county levels where they belong, and the FAW itself will take over the entire running and administration of remodelled leagues containing 108 clubs in the top three tiers: 12 in the WPL, 32 in the WPL’s northern and southern feeder leagues at tier 2, and 64 in four new feeder leagues at tier 3, roughly covering NE Wales, SE Wales, NW Wales and SW Wales. At last: logic, rationality and reason – better late than never, the Age of Welsh football Enlightenment is imminent!

For my local club the challenges are immense: the council-owned Willows ground will need floodlights, at least 100 seats under cover, a TV gantry and press facilities, areas of covered hard standing, turnstiles, toilets and much else besides, while the club will have to put its administration, finances and structure on a more professional basis. All this in the next 12 months. Some grant aid is available from the FAW and the Welsh Football Trust, although in nothing like the vast sums pumped by the Assembly and local government into non-Welsh sports clubs like, say, Cardiff City FC and Glamorgan CCC. Cardiff council might also provide some help – pause for hollow laughter – I’ll have a word in the shell-like of my mate Huw Thomas. Whatever happens, the Mission are on a mission and I have faith.

See, I told you, there’s nothing harder than writing…