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Are Wales ready for Euro 2016 success?

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“Why the hell can’t we qualify for Euro 2016?”

It’s now over a decade since Wales last threatened to qualify for a major championship. It was back in November when Wales welcomed Russia to Cardiff in the deciding match of the play-offs. Hopes were high after an impressive 0-0 draw at the Lokomotiv Stadium in Moscow, but a Vadim Evseev goal sent the Russians to Portugal and 70,000 Welsh fans home devastated. There was a brief bit of straw-clutching when it was revealed Yegor Titov tested positive for banned stimulant bromantan after the first leg, but it only led to an individual ban for the midfielder rather than the exclusion from the tournament the FAW wanted (the case was based on the idea that Titov should have been ineligible for the second leg due to the positive test, which theoretically is quite sound, but UEFA were always unlikely to overturn the result).

Thus, as a result, a generation of Welsh players missed out on competing at a major championship – some, like Gary Speed, Ryan Giggs and Andy Melville, were missing out for the second time after being part of the near miss in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, while others like Robbie Savage, John Hartson and Jason Koumas lost their only ever serious attempt.

Wales’ record in the decade since has been pretty miserable. In the immediate aftermath, Wales failed to win their next six competitive matches, destroying their bid to qualify for the 2006 World Cup from a very early stage. The disruption of losing manager Mark Hughes in late 2004, who was appointed Blackburn Rovers manager just after Wales had played their first two matches of the campaign and then proceeded to hold both jobs for a further month, was a definite hindrance.

Appointing John Toshack as his replacement was theoretically sound but a disaster in practice – yes, it was a difficult job managing a transition as so many experienced players came towards the end of their careers, but gradual decline became complete collapse. His five-year reign may have seen a win percentage of 42%, but many of these wins were against minnows. Soon Wales became one of them, dropping into the bottom pot behind the Faroe Islands for the 2014 World Cup qualification draw. It was terrible timing as Gary Speed was just turning our fortunes around with a stunning series of results in late 2011, with competitive wins against Montenegro, Switzerland and Bulgaria and a 4-1 friendly win over Norway – by the end of 2011, we were the highest climbers in the FIFA World Rankings over the last year. But the damage had already been done before this, and Wales were drawn to face Belgium, Croatia, Serbia and Scotland, making qualification virtually impossible.

Speed’s tragic death brought a halt to the progress. We lost six of our next seven matches, most of them coming under Chris Coleman. But creeping towards and into 2013, there were signs that all was not lost – two 2-1 wins over Scotland and a friendly win over Austria gave Coleman his first wins in the job, and there would be more positive results with a win over Macedonia in Cardiff and an impressive 1-1 draw with Belgium in Brussels.

It was always going to be a tough group, and it was made much harder in the circumstances. Recovery has taken a while, but it does seem to be coming – clearly progress has been made from the 6-1 thrashing in Serbia in September 2012 to the draw against Belgium, along with a friendly win earlier this year over an up-and-coming Iceland team. Wales’ 2-0 defeat in Amsterdam just over a fortnight ago, a respectable result with a very young and inexperienced side, was our first defeat in five matches. It’s no longer as bleak as it once was, and Coleman has escaped the clouds that followed him only a few months ago.

Unfortunately, Wales’ ranking hadn’t improved enough by the time of the Euro 2016 qualifying draw to escape a tough draw, leaving us in Pot Four. But I am beginning to develop quiet confidence that this is our time to mount a serious challenge of making it to France.

The draw – it’s not all that bad

Wales’ shock late draw against World Cup-bound Belgium has given new hope ahead of their upcoming rematches

Although I cringed at the time I heard the draw, examining the detail of it has actually given me a bit more confidence.

Wales’ campaign will begin in Andorra in September. Though it will be taking place on an artificial playing surface, there’s no reason why we should not win that match – if we don’t get six points from the two matches against Andorra, we don’t deserve to make a major tournament. This is followed in October by the visits of Bosnia & Herzegovina and Cyprus. Both sound intimidating, as Cyprus have a habit of popping up with decent teams once in a while which can disrupt a side like Wales, and Bosnia & Herzegovina did very well in qualification for the 2014 World Cup.

However, there is promise here. Bosnia’s World Cup will end in disappointment, as it was confirmed today that they will not progress into the second round. Coach Safet Susic, who has overseen Bosnia’s rise to prominence, thus may face some criticism. Even if he stays, there is likely to be disruption – captain Emir Spahic turns 34 in August, so will probably quit international duty after this tournament; vice-captain Zvjezdan Misimovic is now 32 and may follow him. This loss of two experienced players will no doubt affect them, although the bulk of the squad will most likely be kept in tact. In any case, this is an ideal time to play them.

As for Cyprus, they haven’t won a game since September 2012 when they beat Iceland at home, and haven’t even scored a goal since February 2013. They are currently ranked 130th in the world by FIFA. As with Andorra, Wales don’t deserve to qualify for a major tournament if they don’t beat them.

After this, Wales travel to Belgium in November, where they picked up a point in World Cup qualification, before possibly the defining tie of this qualification campaign – the trip to Israel in March 2015. Israel were the Pot Three team of the group. Ranked 78th in the world, they have always been there or thereabouts in qualification, never doing enough to qualify but being consistently tricky opponents with enough talented players to occasionally make even the strongest teams sweat.

But they often frustrate themselves as much as their opponents. In their most recent qualification campaign, they picked up draws home and away against Portugal en route to 3rd place in the group with 14 points, after being beaten only by Russia, but they only won three games, the last of which came against Northern Ireland in March 2013, with the other two being comfortable wins over Luxembourg – bear in mind that Azerbaijan were also in their group, and they drew twice with them.

If they continue that form into Euro 2016 qualifying, Wales should be confident of finishing ahead of them and picking up 3rd place. But that does mean they will have to avoid losing to them twice, and probably beating them at least once. The reverse fixture in Cardiff takes place in September 2015, ahead of the visit to Bosnia and the final match at home to Andorra (an ideal final fixture). Not slipping up late on will be key.

Is the squad capable? I believe it is, but it may require some stars to align:

Goalkeepers – perhaps the biggest issue

Wayne Hennessey is now effectively unchallenged as Wales’ number 1

This used to be a strong position for Wales: after the brilliant Neville Southall retired, we had two solid Premier League-level keepers in Paul Jones and Mark Crossley. Even after they moved on, in Wayne Hennessey and Boaz Myhill Wales had found two solid Premier League-level keepers. But in the last couple of years, it has developed into a problem. Hennessey’s stock has dropped considerable of late, the sign of a career disrupted by a serious knee injury and the downward spiral of his former club Wolverhampton Wanderers, but he remains Wales’ number 1 by default. Boaz Myhill’s recent retirement from international duty has left not so much a hole behind him but a great chasm.

The most recent squad demonstrated this. Behind Hennessey were 21-year-old Connor Roberts, recently released by League Two club Cheltenham Town, and 27-year-old Owain fon Williams, recently relegated to League Two with Tranmere Rovers. Others called up include Lewis Price, third-choice keeper behind Julian Speroni and Hennessey at Crystal Palace and recently found out on loan to League Two club Mansfield Town, and uncapped youngsters David Cornell of Swansea and Danny Ward of Liverpool. Jason Brown played in Chris Coleman’s first game in charge against Mexico in 2012, but has plummeted through the leagues since and was last spotted playing for Sutton United of Conference South.

Price and Brown are the only keepers other than Myhill and Hennessey to have been capped by Wales in the last seven calendar years. Myhill’s retirement has thus left a gap behind Hennessey which seems difficult to fill. Pray to God that Hennessey doesn’t get injured again…

Defenders – depth at full-back, short at centre-back

James Chester, capped for the first time against the Netherlands, is a useful addition to the defensive ranks

This area is actually pretty solid now. Reading’s Chris Gunter, with 53 caps to his name despite being only 24, is the preferred option at right-back, with Swansea’s Ashley ‘Jazz’ Richards, Celtic’s Adam Matthews and Blackburn’s Adam Henley as cover. All of these players are under 25 at the moment. At left-back, Swansea’s Neil Taylor and Ben Davies are likely to battle over the spot, with Davies perhaps the best bet for the future. Newcastle’s Paul Dummett and Cardiff teenager Declan John serve as further cover.

The centre-back position isn’t quite as secure, though it has improved with the addition of Hull City’s James Chester, who committed to Wales this year (he is eligible through his mother being born in Rhyl) and received his first cap against the Netherlands. Captain Ashley Williams is almost guaranteed his spot, and turns 30 this summer. The other natural option would be James Collins, who turns 31 this summer (he shares Williams’ birthday), but his relationship with Chris Coleman is frosty at best and it is unclear if he has much of a future with Wales. Danny Gabbidon, who will soon be 35, is surely not far from retirement, but remains available. Barnsley’s Lewin Nyatanga, who has surprisingly accumulated 34 caps already, was also called up in the most recent friendly. The versatile Sam Ricketts enjoyed a good season at Wolves, albeit in League One, but he will soon hit 33.

Other than that, though, it’s slim pickings, and it is a problem as it’s an important position, which explains why Chester has been brought in. It is a shame that Ryan Shawcross has resisted the advances of the FAW, as he is technically still eligible to play for Wales because his only England cap came in a friendly. But having said that, I’m not sure Aaron Ramsey would be overly impressed with his inclusion…

Midfielders – experience and promise

Aaron Ramsey may no longer be captain but he’s a vital player in midfield

Centre-midfield is another position where Wales do actually have considerable depth. It goes without saying that Aaron Ramsey is top of the list at the moment, with the Arsenal midfielder in sparkling form last season. But there are numerous options for sitting alongside him.

At 27, Crystal Palace’s Joe Ledley remains an important player and will be for some time to come, as will Liverpool’s Joe Allen, now 24. Leicester’s Andy King will arrive in the Premier League next season at 25, while free agent Jack Collison is amazingly the same age and serves as a useful utility player. David Vaughan has one more campaign in him at 31. There are also promising youngsters coming through. Palace’s much-vaunted prospect Jon Williams, now 20, can play through the middle and out wide, while Manchester City’s Emyr Huws demonstrated his promise at Birmingham last season.

If there is one gap, it is in the lack of a true ball-winning midfielder, which may explain why Owain Tudur Jones surprisingly returned to the squad for the Netherlands friendly despite being relegated with Hibernian this season.

The wings will always be associated with one Mr Bale, but there are other useful options despite Craig Bellamy’s recent retirement. Aside from the likes of Ramsey, Vaughan, Ledley, John and Jon Williams who can all play out wide, there is also Hal Robson-Kanu of Reading, who is still only 25. Promising youngsters Harry Wilson, Lloyd Isgrove and George Williams have been called up to the senior squad, with Fulham teenager Williams impressing in his first appearance against the Netherlands. Doncaster’s David Cotterill remains on the fringes of the squad.

Forwards – still a problem, but not a crisis

Prior to his serious knee injury, Sam Vokes looked to be Wales’ lead striker going forward

The issue of the striking position has been eased somewhat of late. Until a year or two ago, it looked like being a real problem – a position filled by the likes of Ian Rush, Dean Saunders, Mark Hughes, Craig Bellamy and John Hartson in the last 20 years had become a dead-end. For a while, target man Steve Morison seemed to have the place nailed down, but his formed collapsed dramatically and he has scored only eight league goals in the last two seasons. Craig Davies has been similarly disappointing in recent seasons, dropping into League One on loan at Preston by the end of last season.

Even though we’re still at a stage where Jermaine Easter is playing for Wales (God knows why), there is a saviour – or at least there was. Sam Vokes finally delivered on his promise last season with 20 league goals for Burnley, form that seemed to suggest he was the man for Wales’ number 9 shirt for the foreseeable future. His torn ACL in March was a cruel blow, though, and he will miss the opening qualifiers.

Charlton’s Simon Church thus started against the Netherlands, with Easter also featuring, but both are very mediocre players. 20-year-old Manchester United prospect Tom Lawrence was also called up, but he is one for the future. Surely the answer is therefore to play Gareth Bale as the central “striker” – there is no point messing around with average strikers when Bale has proved he can play through the middle and Wales have more depth on the flanks which they could also utilise.

The verdict

“Bring it on”

While it would be optimistic to suggest that automatic qualification for Euro 2016 is within our reach, Wales can certainly aim for a third place finish in Group B, which would guarantee at least a play-off tie. Aside from the formidable Belgian side, there is no team in the group that Wales should fear – even the Bosnians are beatable. Take twelve points from the Andorra and Cyprus games, at least two from the matches with Israel, and another one or two from the home ties against Bosnia and Belgium, and that may be enough to secure 3rd. The talent is within the squad to be able to do this.

But there are two obvious caveats. One is the fitness of key players. Hennessey, Ramsey, Bale and Vokes have all spent periods injured in the last year or so, and the lack of depth behind them leaves a massive void. With them out of the side, Wales drop from being an average European side capable of beating above-average teams to being a below-average side unlikely to trouble most teams. For Wales to do well, they have to hope that Bale and Ramsey stay fit and motivated, Hennessey edges back towards his old self, and Vokes recovers from his injury quickly and immediately picks up his form again.

The other caveat hangs over the head of the manager. When Tony Pulis was available last year and Wales were still stumbling to mediocre results, there was a strong case to dismiss Coleman. Pulis would still be an enormous step up in quality due to his organisational skills, something that would likely make him a very good international manager, and he has dropped hints that he would like the job. Certainly with him in charge I’d fancy us to make Euro 2016. But he is now engaged with a project at Crystal Palace. Coleman, meanwhile, was able to safeguard his job and recover his reputation somewhat with some improved results at the end of 2013 and the start of 2014 – as a result, we’re now up to 41st in the FIFA Rankings, which is actually pretty solid and a far cry from the depths of August 2011, where we were as low as 117th. But questions will always hang over him due to the poor start to his tenure.

As in 2011, I do think Wales are on the cusp of improvement once again. The talent is there, the mood has changed, and the fixtures have fallen kindly. This is a great opportunity. Wales probably have only two attempts at making the expanded 24-team European Championships with Bale and Ramsey, and there’s no guarantee they will have a supporting cast as strong as this come 2018. This may be the next big opportunity for qualification. Is this finally the time we put the ghosts of 1958, 1993 and 2003 to rest?

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Written by James Bennett

June 22, 2014 at 12:37

Aberdare and football – and the Torquay link

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You might not realise it, but Aberdare Athletic is a significant name in the history of Welsh and Devonian football. It is significant for Welsh football because Aberdare Athletic were one of 6 Welsh clubs in the Football League in the 1920s, after joining in 1921 from the Southern League. In their first seasdon in the Third Division South, they finished 8th, but it was largely downhill from there. Despite a 9th-placed finish in 1925-26, they sunk to the bottom the following season.

Back then, of course, re-election was the order of the day at the end of every season. The winners of the Southern League Western Division, one Torquay United FC (funny, that), applied for membership, and outvoted and replaced the Welsh side. Hence why it’s significant for Devonian football as well.

After exiting the Football League, Aberdare Athletic largely disappeared off the scene. Through numerous reincarnations, they became Aberaman Athletic, playing in the village of the same name just a few miles down the road from the market town of Aberdare.

However, for the 2012-13 season, there is movement. Aberaman Athletic are renaming themselves Aberdare Town, the club’s original name when it was formed in 1892. This returns the Aberdare name to Welsh football for the first time since 1947. As with Cardiff, the club is being completely rebranded, trading blue for yellow and black, the original colours of Aberdare. Former Cardiff City players Lee Jarman and Lee Phillips are currently joint-managers. They currently play in the Welsh Football League Division One, the second tier of Welsh football in South Wales, which they won in 2008-09. However, on that occasion they were denied promotion to the Premier League due to their ground, Aberaman Park, failing to meet the league’s standards – this is now being corrected with the addition of a new 300-seater stand.

Clearly, as with the Bluebirds Dragons just down the road, this is Project Promotion, with a different Premier League in mind. But with a club that has had so many identity changes down the years, it’s not exactly as controversial – apparently there has been “no opposition from die-hard Aberaman fans” according to the local paper, so it’s all good.

In some ways, the demise of Aberdare via the crude mechanism that was re-election (sunny Torquay survived, isolated northern industrial towns Barrow and Workington didn’t – convenient, eh?) does make you wonder what might have been for Welsh football had Aberdare got the votes needed to stave off relegation. The same goes for Merthyr Town, who folded in 1934, were refounded in 1945 as Merthyr Tydfil, and then became Merthyr Town again in 2010 after liquidation, but still stuck way down the English non-league pyramid. Newport County were also a solid Football League club for many years until they went under, while Wrexham were dragged into the Conference by financial troubles.

The obvious conclusion is that Welsh clubs have clearly suffered enormously from financial issues over the years, and the reducing Welsh presence has reinforced the Englishness of the FL, hence all the complaints about Swansea’s promotion into the Premier League from bigoted and presumably younger English fans. Had Wales been able to retain its initial set of clubs, things might have been quite different.

In particular, I’m thinking of the Welsh Valleys, a predominantly rugby area with a smattering of football support. In the space of 7 years, the Valleys lost both their Football League clubs. These days, my local area, the central area of the Valleys, tends to back Cardiff, while the Western Valleys tends to lean towards Swansea. It’s not quite the same. Even rugby has suffered in recent years with the franchising – the only true Valleys franchise, the Celtic Warriors, was dismantled by the WRU after just a season, while the Welsh Premier Division (of rugby union – including famous names like Cardiff, Llanelli, Pontypridd, Neath etc) is a shadow of its former self.

The Welsh Premier League of football doesn’t have any Valleys sides at the moment. Aberdare’s bid for the top could change this. A successful Welsh Valleys football team would be such a boost to the area and if Aberdare pick up that mantle, it would be great. Even if from a selfish point of view, it would be nice simply to watch a local team do well at a reasonably competitive level.

Written by James Bennett

July 22, 2012 at 21:54

I called it…

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A few weeks ago condescending Englishmen and the like were laughing and joking about how the Wales national football team was 117th in the world, our lowest ever FIFA World Ranking, and making us officially worse than Sudan, the Faroe Islands, Haiti, Gambia and the Central African Republic.

Now we can gloat – up to 45th, into the top 50 for the first time in 8 years, and now officially better than Cameroon, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Romania, Euro 2012 co-hosts Ukraine and Poland, and most importantly, all the Home Nations…well, bar England. We have risen 72 places in 2 months.

As the man brave enough to defend my nation’s football team in its darkest hour, I take great pride in telling you all that I told you we were good. And of course, with such a young team, this is only the start…

Written by James Bennett

October 19, 2011 at 11:11

Are Wales really that bad?

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So Wales are the laughing stock of Home Nations football. Not only that but we’re officially worse at football than Sudan, the Faroe Islands, Haiti, Gambia and the Central African Republic. Heck, we’re only 2 places above the mighty Liechtenstein, a country with a population of just under 36,000 – our win last week against Montenegro was our first competitive win since beating the micro-state 2 years ago. This being the nation that has produced the likes of John Charles, Ryan Giggs, Neville Southall, Ian Rush, and latterly Craig Bellamy, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey.

And now we have to play England again, which just gives the Anglo-centric media an opportunity to be condescending towards us and remind us how awful our football team has been of late, portraying it as the equivalent of an international FA Cup 3rd Round tie between a Premier League giant and a minnow from the Northern Premier League. I’m surprised we’re not hearing about how Darcey Blake works at a construction site or about Steve Morison’s rounds as a postman. The fact that England have little to shout about when it comes to achieving what it is capable of at international level in recent years seems to disappear out the window…

So how bad are Wales, really? Well, the results do sort of speak for themselves. In the 12 matches we have played since 2010, we have won 3 (against Luxembourg in a friendly, Northern Ireland in the Nations Cup, and Montenegro) and lost 9. But most of the results haven’t been that bad – quite a few of the defeats, such as against Montenegro in Podgorica, Bulgaria in Cardiff, and a friendly against Sweden in Swansea in March 2010, were narrow 1-0 defeats. Equally, to keep the score at 2-0 against England after 2 goals in the first 15 minutes when it could easily have turned into a rout shows some element of character. Even our biggest defeat, a 4-1 stuffing in Basel, saw us only 2-1 down until the last 10 minutes.

However, they are still all defeats. Without wanting to rose-tint too much, you would think that the Wales team of the early-to-mid 2000s of Giggs, Bellamy, Hartson, Savage, Speed, Simon Davies and co (providing all were fit and willing to play) would probably have ground out results in such situations. I firmly believe the talent to do much, much better than current form is there. The lack of experience in the side is probably the key factor here – not only are a significant number of the players young and inexperienced (as demonstrated by the fact that the captain is 20), but many also haven’t played regularly above Championship level. This is changing, though – Ashley Williams and Neil Taylor are part of the newly-promoted Swansea side, while Steve Morison has moved to another promoted side, Norwich.

This I believe is our strongest XI at the moment, and who would argue that it’s not good enough to compete with the majority of international sides in Europe?

GK – Wayne Hennessey
RB – Sam Ricketts
CB – James Collins
CB – Ashley Williams
LB – Neil Taylor
RCM – Aaron Ramsey
CM – Andy King
LCM – Joe Ledley
RW – Craig Bellamy
ST – Steve Morison
LW – Gareth Bale

Subs – Myhill, Blake, Gunter, Vaughan, Crofts, Robson-Kanu, Earnshaw

The problem is, by the time we get to the stage of having a talented, experience side, how difficult is it going to be to make headway? The group we were drawn into for Euro 2012 qualification was a tough group – 3 out of the 5 teams have recent experience of qualifying for major tournaments, while Montenegro, themselves pretty new to the international scene as an independent state, are proving to be a strong team. But for the 2014 World Cup, it gets worse – granted we have more matches, but having been demoted to the bottom pot due to sliding down the FIFA Rankings (I don’t know about you but I don’t think we’re worse than the Faroe Islands, really), we now have to face Eastern Europeans forces Croatia and Serbia, a young up-and-coming Belgian side, a Scotland team in crisis but one that still beat us 3-1 this year, and the difficult-to-beat Macedonians. It genuinely couldn’t have been much worse. It’s difficult to arrest a slide when the system is working against teams on a slide.

So 2016 remains the target – the Euros will be expanding from 16 to 24 teams, giving teams that don’t usually qualify for major tournaments a big chance to make them. What we have to do before then is to try and take whatever results we can in our remaining matches – Switzerland at home is the big one, and I fancy us to get something in Sofia too. And then it’s a case of winning friendlies and hoping for the best against the big boys in the World Cup qualifiers – that’s the only way we’re going to boost our ranking in time for Euro 2016 qualification, to move ourselves out of the bottom pot and give us a better chance of getting a decent draw.

And finally, we Welsh people need to get behind the team. We all know that Welsh football suffers from being second to rugby here, but I don’t feel that is an excuse for the abject lack of interest towards the national team in the past few years. Yes, the results haven’t been good for morale, especially those narrow defeats which are often more difficult to take. But no one seems to be even trying to rally the troops. Even if we play some matches in the Cardiff City Stadium, the Liberty Stadium and Parc y Scarlets, we need to fill them to create some atmosphere. Look at the Eastern European teams – they do well because they are intimidating places to go to and get a result. If we make Wales a difficult side to beat at home once again, as the rugby team have done to great effect, we can silence the jokes.

The glory days of the early 2000s, of beating Italy and Germany, and missing out on Euro 2004 by just that one solitary Russian goal in Cardiff, seem so long ago. That was our big chance, but it didn’t fall for us. However, I still believe we will get our chance one day. I know it sounds corny, but we just have to believe in ourselves. A good result today would be a great start.

Written by James Bennett

September 6, 2011 at 14:26

A league of their own

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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

Written by James Bennett

June 15, 2011 at 00:39