This month I should have been revelling in Wales’ Euro 2020 campaign, but the tournament has been delayed for a year due to the pandemic. The pause in international football prods me to take a rare look at the ever-changing and ever-fascinating domestic game. To be honest, I’ve been avoiding the topic for years on this blog – not because of any lack of interest or enthusiasm on my part; on the contrary, for me the Welsh football pyramid is more or less the best thing about living in Wales today. No, it is simply because the entire subject has been far too painful, far too infuriating and far too soul-destroying for me to tackle.
Leaving to one side issues like the non-existent media coverage of the Cymru Premier (as the former Welsh Premier/League of Wales was renamed in 2019 when the FAW formed the new licensed 2nd tiers, Cymru North and Cymru South), the regular demise of clubs (twice champions Rhyl were the latest to be wound up in April; phoenix club CPD Y Rhyl have duly been formed and will start at the bottom of the pyramid next season), and the crushing handicap of the despicable Anglo clubs and their apologists, one of the most depressing and distressing features of the domestic game is the invincible hegemony of The New Saints (TNS), winners of a record 13 titles since the League was founded in 1992 and champions for an incredible EIGHT consecutive seasons since 2011/12. I was becoming grimly resigned to TNS eventually breaking the all-time record of consecutive league titles (14, jointly shared by Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar and Skonto Riga of Latvia). What a humiliation: the one club in the Welsh pyramid located outside of Wales (Oswestry, three miles the wrong side of the border in England) is the one club with a wealthy benefactor (tech business wonk Mike Harris) and the one club able to attract enough investment to win the League year in year out and thus pocket a minimum £½million annually to further entrench their dominance while all the clubs of geographical Wales look on impotently, barely surviving on a wing and a prayer with not a sugar daddy in sight. It’s the old, old story of Wales’ meagre resources being systematically poured into filthy-rich England leaving Wales itself with nothing – and it makes me sick.
But then, as coronavirus swept across the planet, the FAW sensibly decided to curtail the 2019/20 season and settle all league rankings by the points-per-game (ppg) method. Nomads, four points ahead of TNS with six games remaining, ended up with a ppg of 2.15 compared to the 2.00 of TNS – and so, lo and behold, Connah’s Quay Nomads are champions of Wales and the TNS stranglehold is over! Now I feel better!
Quay’s first ever Welsh title means they will have the honour of representing Wales in the Champions League next season. This is the biggest prize in Welsh football, guaranteeing a minimum of four European games as clubs once eliminated from the Champions League enter UEFA’s secondary competition the Europa League. The windfall is a pittance in the wider picture of a global ‘industry’ awash with the dirty money of corporate sharks, media moguls, oligarchs and despots, but in the chronically impoverished Welsh game it is a transformative fortune – and at long last it will stay in Wales.
What a fantastic achievement for Andy Morrison, manager since 2015, a superb motivator, organiser, tactician and team builder as well as a great character, and what a testament to the way the club has been sustainably well-run for many years. With the important backing of local recruitment agency gap personnel, Nomads have been getting stronger and stronger since setting up an academy in 2009 under current director of football Jay Catton, enhanced by the opening of a state-of-the-art 3G facility at Connah’s Quay High School in 2016 and a deepening engagement with the people of the town on the Dee estuary through a number of community projects. The academy is now a thriving success story with teams at all age groups from under-8s to under-19s and a full-time scholarship programme in partnership with Coleg Cambria, increasingly supplying a continuous stream of well-coached, skilful young players to the senior team. Each season Nomads have narrowed the gap with TNS, finishing 4th, 2nd, 3rd and 2nd before this season’s triumph, winning the Welsh Cup for the first time* in 2018, becoming the first non-Scottish side to get to the final of the (invitational) Scottish Challenge Cup in 2019 and qualifying for the Europa League for four years running. Their early European performances have been good when compared to the generally poor record of Welsh clubs in Europe (Wales are ranked 47th out of 55 by UEFA coefficients). Twice Nomads have progressed past the first qualifying round, bringing their current overall European record to a respectable: P12, W3, D1, L8, Goals F7-A17. And in August Connah’s Quay Nomads face the next thrilling European challenge in the Champions League. The draw will not be made until July, so their opponents are unknown, but we do know that qualifying rounds will be single-leg showdowns due to coronavirus. If Nomads get a home draw the match would be played 25 miles away at Belle Vue, Rhyl, as their Deeside Stadium has too small a capacity (1,500; 500 seats) to be UEFA compliant. Incidentally, the aforementioned CPD Y Rhyl have reached an agreement with the stadium owner to play at Belle Vue next season and are planning to buy the ground – who knows, there might yet be a silver lining to the dark clouds that have shrouded soccer in Wales’ 17th-largest town since the Lilywhites’ downfall.
TNS must envy Nomads’ 25% win rate. The Saints have represented Wales in Europe 21 times, more than any other club. As Llansantffraid, still based in Wales, the club first qualified for Europe by winning the Welsh Cup in 1996 and they have now qualified for 20 years running. Results have slowly improved in the last few seasons but Mike Harris and manager Scott Ruscoe don’t need me to tell them that it’s about time TNS really boosted the Welsh coefficient and improved on the paltry 17.7% win rate in a record that stands at: P62, W11, D9, L42, Goals F53-A134. As runners-up TNS will have another crack at Europe in the Europa League in August, along with 3rd and 4th placed Bala Town and Barry Town United. Barry qualify for Europe because the automatic qualification of the Welsh Cup winners had to be dropped on this occasion after the 2019/20 competition (the 132nd) was postponed having reached the semi-final stage (Caernarfon Town v Cardiff Met, Prestatyn Town v TNS). The FAW aim to complete the world’s 3rd-oldest football competition at a later date to be announced – too late for entry to UEFA competitions.
It will all come out in the wash, as my mother used to say, but for now my heartfelt message is…Congratulations Connah’s Quay! Llongyfarchiadau Cei Connah! Do Wales proud boys!
Connah’s Quay Nomads, founded 1946, are not the first club from the Flintshire town to win the Welsh Cup. Short-lived Connah’s Quay & Shotton, founded 1920, won the trophy in 1929 before going bust. The original Connah’s Quay club, founded by ironworkers from Lancashire in 1893, also made a mark in the competition, getting to the final in 1908 and 1911 before disbanding in 1913.