Charting recent investigations in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the Netherlands and Brazil, it seems appropriate to return to terra firma – or as close as can be accustomed without deferring to absolute monotony. Fixation on Welsh football is certainly a rare form of British-based sporting enthusiasm, yet with a structure unique in the circumstance of devolved identity – evidently, in the instances of Swansea City, Cardiff City, Newport County, Wrexham, Colwyn Bay and Merthyr Town, far from the largely self-reliant, if economically faltering, devolved extent of Scottish or Northern Irish contemporaries – and due to its socio-economic internal inferiority, three million-strong Wales inherits a daunting national sporting prospect. Is their deep-rooted marriage of convenience with English overseers – also replicated in the framework of the England and Wales Cricket Board, for whom the often disparaged territory has produced a mere 15 players, of the institution’s historic accumulation of 680 – detrimental to the exploits of a drastically unheralded Welsh Premier League amidst the unprecedented exponential swelling particularly of English modern football economics, or, in fact, the underlying factor from which Chris Coleman’s national team has most notably prospered from, as the zenith of a heroically overachieving establishment’s performance? Is their constitutional domestic inability to compete on the same platform as a vast majority of European competitors, devolved or otherwise, and symbiotic relationship with their noisy neighbours, paradoxically the geographically rugged nation’s differentiating blessing, enabling the belying of socio-economic circumstance to not only qualify for major tournaments, but compete in their latter stages?
Evidently, in a nation of 20,779 km2, yet less populated, by around 600,000 citizens, than the 1,761 km2 of the Birmingham metropolitan area, the task of assembling competitive sporting squads of any form is particularly challenging, especially when considering the national, largely southern-focused, fervour for rugby union. Outsourcing their assets, in a significant example, from the inner-city academies of what appears to be an advert for England’s tourist board; the veritable smörgåsbord of London (three current national squad members), Birmingham (two), Bristol, Exeter, Shrewsbury, Leicester, Bournemouth, Southampton, Reading, Sheffield, and, most prominently, the proximate Manchester (five) and Liverpool (two), while also registering ten current members – captain Ashley Williams, Andy King, Dave Edwards, Ethan Ampadu, Jonny Williams, Sam Vokes, Hal Robson-Kanu, Ben Woodburn, Marley Watkins and David Brooks – who were born and, Watkins aside, bred in England, Welsh football is far from disloyal to a proven formula. Quite the extent to which they will apparently invade the heritage and naïve allegiance of teenagers perhaps offended by English FA advances, or the lack thereof, however, is largely unprecedented even in the modern form of the sport; with Woodburn and Ampadu – both 17 years old – approached at under-15 and under-17 levels respectively, solely intent on fast-tracking their evident, and thus uncompromised, talents to the senior squad prior to English retort. Opportunistic, as aforementioned, and a characteristic factor of the demands of survival in the international scene; where a gilded talent or two could define the accomplishment of an entire generation, with unfathomable potential commercial rewards.
Devoid, however, of national team representation for Welsh Premier League players in the entire reciprocal history of the two institutions – yet, admittedly, with Barry Town record appearance holder, WPL Hall of Famer and former left-back Gary Lloyd having once been promoted to the senior squad, without appearance, against Belgium in 1997 – it strikes onlookers that prestige is valued far higher within the FAW than the loyalty that Lloyd encapsulated, or any encouragement to, what remain, largely, WPL semi-professionals. Even as the most decorated individual in the post-1992 history of the Welsh Premier League, the eight-time league victor, quadruple-crowned Welsh Cup champion and six-time Welsh League Cup recipient Lloyd couldn’t breach the threshold of the national team; an opportunity that will never realistically arise ever again, with only one current WPL club registered as a professional entity – The New Saints – based in Oswestry, five miles over the English border, and unparalleled in their capabilities.
Having also represented Barry in European competition against Aberdeen, Boavista and an Andriy Shevchenko-inspired Dinamo Kiev, and exercised his lethal left foot in dispatching a victory-clenching penalty in the locally renowned 3-1 home defeat of a Porto side including the prodigious youth of Ricardo Carvalho and Hélder Postiga, while chasing an eight-goal 2001-02 Champions League first leg deficit, Lloyd – representative of his unglorified teammates on that day, yet not of fellow semi-professionals throughout the WPL’s concise history, having been fully employed by Barry – certainly had an extensive pedigree for an unglamorously robust prospective national team representative. Token though his inclusion may have been, in retrospect, by calamitous national team boss Bobby Gould amongst a squad that contained Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes, Dean Saunders, Robbie Savage, John Hartson and Gary Speed – and only lost 3-2 in the aforementioned visit to Brussels, in the final stage of a futile 1998 World Cup Qualifying campaign – what Lloyd encapsulated was the unremitting humility and fortitude of localised sides upholding the image of previously non-existent Welsh national divisional football.
Even from formative stages, the League of Wales – as it was then referred – as an institution transpiring from the mire of seemingly chaotic annual Welsh Cup arrangement, which decided – other than in the 21 instances of an invited English outfit’s victory – the nation’s representative in continental competition, regardless of their role in the English league pyramid, had proven a controversial innovation. Dubbed the ‘Irate Eight’, Bangor City, Barry Town, Caernarfon, Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Newtown and Rhyl proved themselves stubbornly defiant objectors to the concept, which would have witnessed them sacrifice their roles in English non-league for the purposes of the FAW’s evidence of internal structure and international relevance to an unconvinced FIFA and resentful global contemporaries at the time. Bangor, Newtown and Rhyl led the reluctant embrace in 1992-93, followed in successive seasons by Barry and Caernarfon, as, eventually, the clubs of unfavoured suburbs, resourceful borders and antiquated coastal resorts – who had previously been members either of the northern and centrally-based Cymru Alliance or the southern Welsh Football League – received the comparatively high-profile adversaries required for the institution to prove financially viable.
As the increasingly self-reliant clubs of the division, and subordinate leagues, have since realised, however, the economic prospects of the establishment rather petered out as globalisation has elevated alternative European regions to authoritative positions in UEFA coefficients; if not a self-evident conclusion in the results of Champions and Europa League competitions, then certainly in the financial irrelevance of the division in comparison to similarly-populated Slovenia’s PrvaLiga, the considerably smaller Cyprus’ First Division or Iceland’s nature-defying Úrvalsdeild karla. Valued a lowly 50th of 55 nations in current UEFA algorithms dictated by continental performance in the previous five seasons, the disproportionate and desolate circumstance of Welsh domestic policy fares worse than Luxembourg, Malta, Montenegro and Liechtenstein; the latter by a significant 19 positions. Only superior to the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Andorra, San Marino and the formative establishment of Kosovo, fundamental flaws could be rendered no harsher.
Yet when Llanelli and Barry have attempted the professionalism recently implemented by The New Saints’ opportunistic bi-nation base, you cannot accuse member clubs of lacking the requisite aspiration of a continentally competitive outfit. Instead, the FAW’s detrimental accountability has been criminally understated for too long, or at the very least blatantly ignored by a preoccupied Welsh public and oblivious British media. The former Irate Eight, nor any current league constituents, have no legal obligation to remain under the jurisdiction of the WPL; it is, rather, the opposite, as decreed by a 1995 High Court defeat for the Association, which ruled Welsh-based clubs were perfectly within their own rights to opt out of any national division. When such vulnerable framework upholds a division presumably intended as the immediate public interaction within the FAW’s admittedly constrained armoury, and such negligible incentive exists for sides in the ilk of director of football Lucas Cazorla Luque’s short-lived, bankrupting 2005 insurgence of professionalism in Llanelli, or the eight seasons of eventually administration-beckoning fully-paid Barry exploits – which, at their height of obscurity, witnessed John Fashanu recruited as Chairman, the aborted attraction of Chinese and African TV deals and a ruinous influx of Nigerian internationals that could only be replaced by local amateurs in the midst of 2003 liquidation – to pursue palpably fracturing dominance, the only seat of blame can lie with the organisers; the reprehensibly distant FAW.
The ultimate insult, particularly for the beleaguered Barry fans involved in the decade-long deterrence of closure so desired by chairman and financial dictator Stuart Lovering amidst two relegations, a 16-month relocation, a botched takeover and their assumption of all administrative and funding responsibilities, was the Association Council’s absolute malice at hearings in the summer of 2013, following the now-costless Lovering’s totalitarian withdrawal from Welsh Football League competition with two 2012-13 season matches remaining. Declaring, primarily, that the Barry institution – Welsh football’s historic authority – would have to play “recreational football” prior to any hopes of semi-professional reinstatement, and reconvening a month later only to demonstrate total insensitivity and vote against even discussing the future of the South Coast side within five minutes, against the advice of their domestic committee and legal advisers, the FAW’s era-defining opportunity to reclaim credibility in salvaging the fortunes of a fundamental establishment piece in the once well-intended WPL was tellingly spurned. Landing them their second High Court defeat in what had then been the mere 21 years of the division, such actions were derided as unlawful, “flawed” and “irrational”, thus causing a partial reconciliation in the admittance of the reformed guise of Barry Town United into the Welsh Football League Division Three – or fourth tier – where, under a pivotal managerial figure during Lovering’s reign in Gavin Chesterfield, they would achieve immediate promotion followed by subsequent Division Two promotion.
As a 2015-16 season of consolidation – mainly notable for the implementation of a 3G playing surface at the hallowed Jenner Park, for which Chris Coleman was present – witnessed enhancement in a remarkably defensively resolute (18 goals conceded in 30 matches) 2016-17 campaign, a title-winning margin of just five points assured the Linnets of long-overdue Premier League reinstatement; the pinnacle of achievements for the fan-owned, community-orientated reformation. And yet, how it could have all been prevented by administrative self-interest. But for legal intervention, there would be no Barry Town United FC in the 2017-18 Welsh Premier League, battling former adversaries, revisiting old haunts and, hopefully, imposing a degree of preceding prestige upon usurping contemporary pretenders.
Ultimately, however, the undermining fallacy of the Welsh Premier League, the wider domestic structure of the devolved entity, and of ambitions of professionalism, is that the facilities simply don’t exist to enable progression. Economic stagnation, migration to English cities, the growth in popularity of commercialised broadcast outlets and the degradation of national sporting amenities all contrive to isolate Wales as a footballing nation amongst the broadening horizons of globally interconnected markets and mutually beneficial investment. Cardiff and Swansea aside, that is.
Encapsulating 18.74%, according to 2011 census figures, of the entire Welsh population – contrasting only marginally with the 18.09% share of the 54 million-strong English population housed in London and Birmingham – and usurping a monopoly of the population in employment or education, the capacity for the retailing and sustainable expansion of football in the Glamorgan-based cities, especially in the context of an elite Premier League standard that has graced both the Liberty Ground and Cardiff City Stadium in the past five seasons, constitutes an economic lightyear from the remaining Welsh expanse. Yet it has only arrived after abandoning the home-emphasised principles of yesteryear; only three Welshmen constituting Neil Warnock’s present Championship-topping Cardiff ranks, while not a single patriot has survived Swansea’s Premier League consolidation, currently with Paul Clement at the helm. Financially empowered, presently, by Malaysian and American wealth respectively, since the inception of the WPL, they have employed just four Welsh managers – interim terms aside – in national team icon Terry Yorath, Swindon-born Paul Trollope, Brian Flynn and Watford-derived Kenny Jackett, thus defining the futile exertions for the progression of overall national significance, or even self-sufficiency. Delivering a heavily saturated Welsh presence to English footballing structure, regardless of the attraction for audiences otherwise loyal to rugby in South Wales, is detrimental, if anything, to both the FAW, and factually scandalous in the midst of the plights of WPL clubs, and those in divisions below; with Barry and Llanelli prominent examples.
Critical in their presence, however, as feeders between grassroots and an apparent elite – five current Welsh senior squad members having graduated from Cardiff academies, while another three have pedigrees in the Swans’ youth ranks – with their hereditary ability to harness the fervour of urban administrations into honing a trio of Champions League-quality talents in Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies, pragmatically the arrangement of the conurbations within apparent FAW constructs does appear rational. Systematically, however, it seems imprudent to expect a squad of 23 individual characters to merge into a cohesive unit when, effectively, only isolated duos will have spawned from overlapping youth squads; Ramsey and Chris Gunter, despite a two-year age gap, and Joe Allen and Marley Watkins, the sole present examples. Thus, the degradation of domestic club football strikes the audience as a significant, shameful sacrifice to make for inner-city, English-orientated rule and academy production that, evidently, only amounts to anything between two and five players of substantial quality every generation.
This diaspora of south-eastern cities has undoubtedly denied the economic opportunity of semi-professional local outfits in the shared region; ensuring that in the 2017-18 WPL, the only sides within a 74-mile radius of either the Premier League or Championship outfits are the aforementioned phoenix side Barry, Cardiff Metropolitan University – who remain an exclusively student-founded outfit, and as such source half of their players from England – and Carmarthen. Port Talbot, Llanelli, Bridgend, Cwmbrân, Neath and Caerphilly – despite reputations as some of the most culturally influential and heavily populated towns in Wales – have no Premier League sides amongst them, with familiar tales of mismanaged ambition defining many; the former having been relegated in 2015-16 on financial grounds, the second liquidated in April 2013 following seven consecutive seasons of European football, Pen-y-Bont having been formed in a 2013 merger for Bridgenders at the exact mid-point between the titanic cities, and finishing runners-up to Barry in 2016-17’s Division One, inaugural WPL champions Cwmbrân Town unable to pay staff by the 2006-07 season, and having fallen to the Gwent County League, or fifth tier, since, Neath Athletic handed their winding up orders in 2012 after a single season of Europa League action, and Caerphilly registering no significant recorded senior history of the sport since the 1920’s. Despite national heritage dating back to Victorian times, then, and the status of the Welsh Cup as the world’s third oldest – founded in 1877, after English and Scottish precedents – national cup competition, the gleeful pursuit of superficially untold riches is jeopardising the survival of omnipresent member entities. Fundamentally, that is founded from the failure to attract sufficient attendances to the local sport; 2016-17 attendances averaging only 308.5 spectators per match, halving to 157 in the Cymru Alliance. For WPL sides last season, they had experienced a considerable slump from preceding seasonal averages – 325.58 in 2013-14, 328.75 in 2014-15 and 327.5 in ’15-16 – yet one that appears to be remedied immediately by Barry’s reintroduction this term; rising to 386.92 after seven rounds of matches following seismic home clashes with Aberystwyth and TNS to date.
Equalling attendances around the seventh or eighth tiers of English football, however, is not where the ambition of WPL clubs should refrain itself. Their product is unique, and should welcome the support of fans with footballing spirits awakened or reprised by the 2016 European Championship semi-final run. Yet that campaign was founded in the long-term ‘Together Stronger’ FAW marketing ploy, representing an organisation whose ill-attention has compromised the entire survival of the clubs of towns central to Welsh culture. Rather than publicly divulge personal financial and promotional support to what is, legally, their creation and property, nor aid the cause of sides aiming to advance league standards and capitalising their economic situation in the midst, it has appeared their preoccupation as an establishment has laid solely with Coleman’s fortunes. The 2013 opening of Dragon Park in Newport only exemplifies this; £5 million worth of funding, a significant fee for such a minor European state, invested in a complex for the development of various age groups and female sides under national prerogative, as opposed to funding from the very grassroots, and not feeding the elite another exclusive form of opportunity. 3G pitches, in addition to those in Barry, Bala, Newtown, Oswestry and Bridgend, I’m certain would prove beneficial to sides at all stages of the FAW’s domestic control – especially in the face of notoriously atmospheric Gaelic weather conditions – as would a programme through which a nationally-tailored form of Financial Fair Play was introduced. The FAW wield sufficient power to do so, yet refrain for apparent disinterest, or disdain for their aspirational creation.
It speaks volumes, then, that there is even a single current national team representative who has played a WPL match in his career; uncapped third-choice goalkeeper Chris Maxwell having spent the 2008-09 season on loan at Connah’s Quay Nomads while serving Wrexham, also in his native Clwyd. If Welsh football is to maintain any form of stability, it is this region that will be heavily relied upon; as historically, with the metropoles of Manchester and Liverpool under 25 miles distant, existing as poignant bases of resources and regions for the education of prodigious talent. A career path well worn, it has formed part of the framework of a Welsh football tapestry artfully majestic at best, yet slanderously disloyal at its nadir. Such an approach will continue to divide opinion, reaching both extremes of the spectrum in portrayal.
Focusing on this route of player development, though, typifies the oblivion of the FAW presently; at no point is the WPL, or any form of Welsh football, actually discussed or held in similar regard. Yet they can ill-afford to fade further into obscurity, especially with the passing of each spurned generation, and cannot be argued to deserve the ill-fitting negligence of their overseers. The instance of mismanagement cannot be derided solely as a club’s responsibility, and is not an excuse for institutionalising cynicism. Providing more constituent embassies studied Barry’s, or Llanelli’s, faults and implemented due corrections, rather than enforce such torrent upon themselves, then the future of the division could be secured as unfanciful, community-centric and sustainably entertaining, with professionalism an ambition only for the naïve or well-endowed.
Regret – in this context for the formation of internal structure – may be a tolerable sentiment to disclose in private, yet to publicly shun the citizens mired in your errors; surely the most blatant and reprehensible dictatorial crime, as evident in the derision of Llanelli Town in an official FAW article as the victims of “financial problems” who personally “insist that lessons have been learnt from that experience”, appears entirely indefensible. Certainly, it shouldn’t be the entire responsibility of FAW Councils and chiefs to bailout institutions whose ambition has blinded their financial reasoning, but to lead them astray with membership of a division that realistically has little current capability to provide effective continental competition, and fail to demonstrate any culpability or sympathy in the extinction of valued sides amidst such transient aspirations, can be adjudged as utter, unmodified incompetence. Exhibiting an incredulous disregard for the survival of national minnows, they have aimlessly subscribed to a global trend – despite their unique circumstance – to pursue both financial gain and the patronage of a gilded elite, as opposed to ethically sustainable domestic qualities. In its present guise, the WPL appears objectiveless, and devoid of any hope for change. Thus, the FAW could very easily be the subject of a quote from American entrepreneur and philanthropist Warren Buffett; “the plan itself is opportunism. There is no plan before that.” When such preposterous states exist, and amongst a climate of self-congratulatory international exploits, it is challenging to maintain focus on the menial exploits of loyal, downtrodden locals. Despite their plight, they continue to forge the poignant survival of proceedings dutiful to the spirited populations of unheralded towns and villages. Humility, perhaps, that their overseers could take heed from.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!