A league of their own
The recent rise of Cardiff and Swansea to the verge of the Premier League has brought an old issue back to the fore in the eyes of many fans – that of the position of Welsh teams in the English league system. On the one side, there seems to be a core of fans who do not want to see a Welsh team in the Premier League and have questioned their presence in the English system altogether; on the other, there have been claims of a conspiracy to prevent the Welsh teams reaching the top flight, since disproven by Swansea’s victory in the play-off final last month. So, on the occasion of the Swans’ arrival in the top flight for the first time since the 1980s, it is an ideal time to look at the history of Welsh football’s relationship with the English system and the formation of the Welsh Premier League.
It is amazing to think now that Wales did not have a unified national league until less than 20 years ago. And if it wasn’t for FIFA politics (yes, that old chestnut again), it may not have happened at all. The Welsh Premier League, or the League of Wales as it was known until 2002, was born from political necessity after other nations became jealous of the footballing independence of the UK’s constituent countries, especially considering Wales had no national league.
This is not to say football didn’t exist in Wales prior to the 1990s, of course. Six Welsh clubs in total have played in the Football League – Cardiff City, Swansea City and Wrexham who were there at the time, Newport County who had recently reformed as Newport AFC (they would later revert to the original name) after liquidation in 1989, and early members Aberdare Athletic (who were replaced in the FL in 1923 by a certain Torquay United, gradually evolving into what is now Aberaman Athletic) and Merthyr Town (who were voted out in 1930 and later re-emerged as Merthyr Tydfil before reverting to the original name after a second liquidation in 2010). Numerous other Welsh clubs played in the English system, notably including Bangor City, who were founder members of the Alliance Premier League, or the Football Conference as it became known and reached the final of the FA Trophy in 1984. Plus it wasn’t only one way traffic – among the winners of the Welsh Cup since its inception in 1877-78 are Chester, Crewe Alexandra, Hereford United, Tranmere Rovers, Bristol City, and 6 times winners Shrewsbury Town.
The basis for the League of Wales was set out in 1991 with a start set for the 1992-93 season. Naturally the larger of Wales’ clubs weren’t overly enamoured with the prospect of a 20 team league including mostly semi-pro teams – it would be akin with Brazil having to compete against the likes of Luxembourg and Andorra in the World Cup group stages. This went beyond the Welsh clubs in the Football League clubs – in total, eight non-league clubs objected to playing in the League of Wales. These became known as the ‘Irate Eight’: Bangor City, Barry Town, Caernarfon Town, Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport County, Newtown and Rhyl. Three backed down in time for the first season, with two (Bangor and Newtown) competing in the first season of the LoW and Rhyl being forced to start from the second level of the pyramid for North Welsh clubs, the Cymru Alliance (as opposed to the South Welsh second tier, the deceptively-named Welsh Football League).
The five that remained obstinate weren’t going to be allowed to get away scot free, though, with the FAW threatening legal action to force them to play in the Welsh system. Thus four of the five were forced, quite literally, into exile. Barry were forced to play for a year at St George’s Lane, home of Worcester City, under the name Barri Dragons, before submitting to pressure and switched to the Welsh system. Newport, who had already spent their first year after reforming in exile at Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds, left their Somerton Park for the last time to share with Gloucester City at Meadow Park (which ironically the home club themselves are currently exiled from due to flood damage). Colwyn Bay played their first season in exile at Drill Field, Northwich Victoria’s ground, before switching to Ellesmere Port the following year, while Caernarfon were forced even further away, sharing with Curzon Ashton in Manchester, some 100 miles away from the town famed for its magnificent Edwardian castle. This obviously made it very difficult to attract much of a ‘home’ crowd so something had to give.
The three remaining exiled teams would challenge the FAW in the high court in April 1995, where justice ruled in favour of the clubs, allowing them to return home, although Caernarfon would switch to the League of Wales for 1995-96 regardless. Conversely, the following year, Oswestry Town, based just over the border in England, made the switch to the Cymru Alliance and would later play in the LoW until their merger with TNS in 2003, after which the combined club has continued to play in Oswestry. The former exiles that remained in the English system have since done well for themselves, with Newport reaching the Conference in 2010, just one short of their ambition to reclaim their Football League status, and Colwyn Bay gaining promotion in 2011 to the Conference North one level behind them.
Despite the behind-the-scenes bickering, the League of Wales went from strength to strength. The arrival of teams such as Rhyl, Barry and Caernarfon raised the bar, particularly the Glamorgan team who would dominate the league in the mid-90s and provided the only realistic opposition from the league in the FAW Premier Cup, a competition created in 1997 to make up for the English system clubs being barred from the Welsh Cup. The top LoW teams would compete against the top English system clubs for a wooden football-shaped trophy and £100,000 in prize money. Barry won the tournament in 1999, the last time for 8 years that it would be won by a LoW team.
Also noticeable was the improvement of Welsh clubs’ performances in European competition over the 1990s, with Barry in particular making progress, including beating Azeri champions Shamkir in the first qualifying round in 2001-02 before meeting Porto in the second round, where they would lose 9-3 on aggregate despite winning the second leg at home 3-1. However, Barry’s ambition was unrealistic for a League of Wales club, and soon it all went horribly wrong, with the club crashing out of the league in 2004 in financial disarray. By this time, John Fashanu was involved in the running of the club – that is how desperate things got.
The mantle of league powerhouse was picked up by the village of Llansantffraid’s greatest export. Originally named Llansantffraid FC, they were renamed Total Network Solutions Llansantffraid (succinct, eh?) as a result of a sponsorship deal in 1996, with their home town cut out of the name the following year. TNS, as they became most widely known, picked up their first LoW title in 1999-2000, ending Barry’s run, and would later collect a hat-trick of trophies from 2004-05 to 2006-07, the latter being their first season under the name The New Saints after their sponsors were bought out by BT in early 2006.
Other forces in the league have come and gone. Caernarfon and the very first champions Cwmbran Town have both dropped out of the league, while Rhyl, twice champions in the 2000s and the best-attended club in the league, were ejected in 2010 as part of a revamp which saw the number of teams reduced from 18 to 12. With Carmarthen enduring an up-and-down time of late, the only consistent forces since the beginning have been Bangor City, who reclaimed the title in 2011 for the first time since 1995. The other major force in the league at present is Llanelli, who have only one title victory but have finished in the top 4 every year since 2006.
The restructuring of what is now known as the Welsh Premier League that was introduced for 2010-11 will hopefully be the beginning of a new era for Wales’ top tier. By limited the league to 12 teams, as in Scotland, it is hoped to boost its professionalism by removing some of the weaker clubs. It will be interesting to see if it pays off. The league is already stronger and more competitive than when it was first established. Now the aim is narrowing the gap to the English non-leagues and other European leagues, and getting people to come and watch. If it works, Welsh club football has a bright future. And of course it will help having a club competing against the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea week in week out too…
Coming soon – the teams that have competed in the League of Wales/Welsh Premier League