Never mix Welsh politics and sport, that’s rule number one boyo.

16 06 2012

 Here’s an interesting take on Welsh football;

Submission to Communities, Equality & Local Government Committee’s Inquiry into the Welsh Premier League

Any inquiry into the state of the Welsh Premier League (WPL) that does not concentrate on the fundamental flaw at its very heart would not be a genuine or credible inquiry. Therefore unless the CELG Committee confronts the fact that six Welsh football clubs (Cardiff City, Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Town, Newport County, Swansea City and Wrexham) play in the English football pyramid, and treats it as the paramount issue to be dealt with, then, ladies and gentlemen, you are wasting everybody’s time including your own. To discuss the WPL without including the position of the six Anglo clubs would be as silly as talking about WW2 without mentioning the Germans. The one and only reason the WPL has, pro-rata, the lowest gates, worst grounds, weakest sponsorship, least media coverage, tiniest prize money and, oh yes nearly forgot, smallest support from government in all of Europe is because Wales, uniquely in the world, permits six of its clubs to desert it and play in another country’s competitions. These are not just any clubs; they are, historically, Wales’ five “biggest”(plus Colwyn Bay). This is a crippling handicap no footballing nation in the world could cope with – and no other but Wales would countenance for one moment. It means that Welsh football holds some very undesirable records: the only country without a club from either its capital city, its second city or its third city in its national league. Try to imagine the health of, say, the English Premier League (EPL) minus Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool and you’re getting warm: gates would collapse, sponsorship would dry up, TV would lose interest, etc. And England has a population of 50 million compared with our 3 million, plus a vast web of professional clubs that might at least fill some of the gaping void. It shouldn’t need saying, but in a Wales without a pluralist media it sadly does: we need every Welsh football club to play in Wales, and until that happens Wales’ flagship national league will remain a laughing-stock. Every single WPL problem your Committee identifies can be traced directly to this question: not so much an elephant on the doorstep, more a herd of mammoths rampaging in the FAW boardroom. And yet the FAW, incredibly, DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A POLICY on the matter. What would cause outrage the world over goes without a whimper of protest here. On the contrary, this perverse Welsh anomaly is treated as utterly natural and non-negotiable, enjoying the backing of the entire Welsh establishment, while those who argue for change are marginalised and ignored.

To allow the selfish, short-term dreams and delusions of the six clubs, their owners, officials, fans and pals in the media to be prioritised to the detriment of the thousands of other football clubs of Wales is not just wrong, it is monumentally stupid. The damage is there for all to see, not just in the impoverished Welsh pyramid, but in Wales’ pitiful international record. In case it has escaped your attention, Wales has not qualified for the World Cup for 54 years and counting – the worst record in Europe bar Finland and microstates like San Marino with the population of Abergavenny. The reason for this is simple: we hardly have any players. For the forthcoming World Cup qualifying campaign manager Chris Coleman has a total pool of around 50 pro-footballers to select from: again another shameful pro-rata record low for Wales. The dearth is explained by our lack of a professional domestic league, without which Wales is left in the humiliating position of hoping English clubs accidentally develop the occasional decent player for us or, failing that, scouring the English lower leagues for players with a Welsh grandparent. No other FIFA country operates in this hopelessly doomed way. There is no mystery about how to build a successful footballing nation: just check out how the rest of the planet does it. To play football you require players. To create players you require clubs. To build clubs you set up leagues. To operate viable leagues and make the imperative connection between your domestic and international games you have all your clubs in those leagues. How difficult is this to grasp? Now, the last time I looked, Cardiff, for instance, was located in the geographical entity called Wales. Not England: Wales. Nobody can satisfactorily explain to me why Cardiff City FC ply their trade in another country. When I press City fans for a justification, they cite “tradition”, until I inform them that the club spent its first 11 seasons in Welsh leagues, and then they are reduced to what the refuseniks’ case always boils down to: “because we want to.” They have no argument, and they know it. And had this ‘Welsh’ club won the recent Carling Cup final against Liverpool (a game in which not one Welshman featured in their starting XI), then next season would have seen the grotesque, Euro-wide debasement of both our capital city and Wales when the words “Cardiff, England” were put in the hat for the Europa League draw. Meanwhile, Swansea City might beat the Bluebirds to the ‘honour’ of representing England if they continue to do well in the EPL. Apparently, it’s not enough that England already has the wealthiest clubs in the world to represent them, they need our help too. The Welsh government continually bewails Wales’ global invisibility, yet government minsters and many AMs always fall over themselves to be associated with the recent on-field successes of Swansea City and Cardiff City, inevitably uttering the words “this is good for Wales” – flagrant Orwellian double-speak for Wales’ actual erasure. While these clubs throw their weight behind the richest football pyramid in the world and strive to assist already-mighty England in Europe, Wales is left to be represented in the world’s most important club competitions by part-time clubs operating on a shoestring from villages and small towns. The message is loud and clear: a Welsh championship is not worth the winning, representing Wales in Europe is unimportant, Wales does not matter. Does the Welsh Assembly agree?

There are wider issues at stake here than merely football; issues of sovereignty, of territorial integrity and of identity. But in football terms the issues are crystal clear. Taking Cardiff City as my example again (a club I have supported since a boy), their English-fixation has been a disaster. For the sake of their empty trophy cabinet, perpetual financial crises, notorious hooligans and dubious property deals the club acts like a giant Leylandii tree planted by an anti-social neighbour, blocking out all light, consuming all nutrients and making it impossible for anything else to grow. While every ball kicked by their collection of shipped-in mercenaries is feted, hyped and fetishized in what passes for the Welsh media (London corporations TrinityMirror and the BBC), the entire Welsh pyramid suffers an almost total media black-out. In Cardiff’s south-east Wales catchment area not only are there no clubs from the capital in the WPL, there are also no clubs from the Taff, Ely and Rhymni valleys and all of Gwent, meaning that 40% of the entire Welsh population has no club in Wales’ national football league. If I want to watch a WPL match the nearest is 30 miles away at Port Talbot – guess what, that’s another Welsh record: the longest journey any resident of any capital city anywhere must make to watch his nation’s top league. And here’s another disgraceful record for you to ponder: of all the capital city clubs on Earth, Cardiff City has produced the fewest players for its national side. That’s because 92 years shuffling up and down the English leagues have compelled them to wheel and deal in players on the English model who can out-muscle Stoke, rather than nurture Welsh-qualified talent who can out-think Spain. Like the other five, the club is a cuckoo in the nest, sucking the life out of the Welsh game for ultimate purposes that are never spelt out (holding the European Cup aloft for England?). And because the very existence of the WPL calls into question their Welsh credentials, the six clubs are acutely aware that it threatens their untenable position. That’s why they all these days bedeck themselves in Wales-lite symbolistic garbage from dragons to Cross-of-St-David kits in absurdly obvious attempts to mask the treacherous reality. Sure they’re Welsh – if it has no practical purpose. Sure they’re Welsh – if it comes with no obligations. Sure they’re Welsh – if you pay them enough. Because, one thing you can be sure of: if, in the unlikely event the positions were ever reversed, playing in the WPL was more lucrative than playing in England, Cardiff et al would be rushing to join.

The WPL will not conveniently die to save the six clubs’ embarrassment. It cannot, because without it Wales would no longer have the right to enter European club tournaments and could no longer claim to be an independent footballing nation in any meaningful sense. Then there would be no bulwark to stop a complete amalgamation with England and the abolition of our international side – something always hovering in the background threatening Welsh footballing independence, as the row over the GB team for the Olympics attests. And, despite all its travails, the WPL has gradually progressed as it reaches the conclusion of its 20th season. You wouldn’t know it from the Western Mail with its 4-page ‘Swans in the Prem’ supplements, but the Welsh pyramid is stocked full of intriguing clubs, fascinating sagas and promising young Welsh players. Performances in Europe, although still bought to a halt annually by fearsome thrashings at the hands of crack professional outfits from around Europe, are improving against the odds (the WPL is currently ranked 46th out of the 53 European leagues – an overachievement given we have the poorest pyramid). This gives an inkling of what would be possible if all Welsh clubs pulled in the same direction. The fact is that football is woven into the fabric of Welsh life, with clubs from Amlwch to Angle and Chepstow to Connah’s Quay, a geographical coverage not equalled by any other Welsh sport, more registered semi-pro players per head of population than Brazil, and a record of producing world-class individual players for over a century, from Billy Meredith, via John Charles to Ryan Giggs. Our football-mad country could have thrilling success, as has happened in similar-sized nations like Denmark, Greece, Ireland and Uruguay, were it not for the traitors in our midst. The time is well overdue for the Welsh government to intervene where the petrified FAW dare not and resolve this self-destructive, ridiculous mess. That is what the Assembly is legally and morally obliged to do. Forget your individual allegiances to the Swans or whoever; your job is to protect and further the interests of Wales as a whole.

The very first thing that needs to be extracted from the FAW (it will not be easy) is a statement of opinion, intent, or just long-term aspiration, about the position of the six clubs – something they have never done. Then the government should set a timetable for the rapid, orderly movement of the six clubs into the Welsh pyramid in liaison with all the relevant bodies (FIFA, UEFA, the FA), seek compensatory damages from the FA for the 20 years and counting when the income and trading health of Welsh clubs has been decimated by the absence of the six, and put funding in place to bring all clubs in the top tiers of the Welsh pyramid up to minimum UEFA standards. Then Wales can at last begin the long hard task of building a professional club structure that can generate the conveyor belt of players needed to have a chance, one day, of reaching World Cup tournaments – and perhaps future generations won’t have to endure the lifetimes of defeat and despair that are inevitable when a nation is divided against itself.”

Cardiff fans will already be justifiably pissed off by the events of the last fortnight. Now they are faced with this document, and it’s written by one of their own!! As if the visible and wanton attempts to erode the soul of their club wasn’t bad enough, it looks like the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) would like to force them into the Welsh system. In case you’re wondering why such a submission exists well, WAG is conducting an inquiry into the effectiveness of Welsh Premier League. Or to put it another way;

“The Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee is to undertake an inquiry into the Welsh Premier League. The terms of reference for the inquiry are to look at issues around the Welsh Premier League (WPL) including:

  • the extent to which the standards of football in the WPL have developed during the past 20 years;
  • the competition format, looking at possible alternative models such as a move to a summer season;
  • the development and progression of players, coaches and managers from the WPL to other levels of the game;
  • how the WPL contributes towards player development and participation at lower levels, including issues of equality of opportunity;
  • the WPL’s standing within the Welsh sporting landscape and its visibility in Welsh media outlets;
  • the member clubs, their infrastructure and resources;
  • how the FAW’s recent Strategic Plan 2012 will contribute towards strengthening the WPL, and how the WPL will contribute towards the Strategic Plan’s aims”

Looks can be deceptive. When a person hears of the WAG’s interest in the WPL and then reads a submission like this they may think “Oh aye, the fucking Welsh Assembly are gonna force Cardiff into the WPL” However that person shouldn’t worry too much, there were more than 20 submissions to the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee and this is just one. In reality the submission is little more than an impassioned plea for something to be done about perceived injustices. It was also written about 2 months ago. (Thanks to the Welsh football bush telegraph I only became aware of its existence this week.) so the person shouldn’t worry too much

When you look at this logically there is a cogent argument. It is strange that the three biggest clubs in Wales (Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham) are outside the national system when this doesn’t happen anywhere else. It’s even stranger than the other three Welsh clubs (Newport County, Merthyr and Colwyn Bay) have been permitted to remain outside the system for two decades. In fact it’s a slap in the face to everyone in Welsh football that the last two clubs remain footloose and fancy-free, it’s taken Colwyn Bay two decades to achieve a shaky hold on a position in the English system that Bangor City, Caernarfon and Rhyl used to take for granted. I’d better leave it there lest I become incoherently irate.

There would be many positive sides to the incorporation of the six rebel clubs into the Welsh domestic system. A brave new world would exist in Welsh football. Firstly all Welsh clubs would be playing in Wales, all areas of Wales, including the biggest settlements, would be represented. Secondly, when it comes to European competition Wales would be represented by its biggest clubs and our European ranking, and then seedings, would improve almost immediately. Wales could even start to be represented in the group stages of European competitions, imagine that! Theoretically everything would improve, crowds would be bigger, the standard of players would be higher, the attention of the media would be higher, the money generated would be greater. Well that’s the theory.

As a theory it has merits, as the authors states. The whole of Welsh football pyramid would be revitalised. It could even provide something for the big three in terms of European competition. I can see the logic and I can feel the optimism behind the idea. I may even go far as  saying that I like the ideas but that’s all they are, ideas. The submission is basically an appeal from the heart.

Before we all drift of into an enchanted reverie, there is one massive problem with the whole process; what will it achieve? WAG can accept submissions regarding the problems but what will happen next? Can WAG actually change anything? FIFA’s ban on political interference militates against explicit WAG action.

From another point of view the romantic view overlook practicalities. Saying something wonderful will happen won’t make the something wonderful happen automatically. Firstly, is there a general will for change  from any of the parties that would be involved (The FAW, the clubs, the fans) with the change to the present situation? Secondly, what if Swansea and Cardiff do as they threatened and join the English F.A.? Where would this leave plans to incorporate them in a souped-up Welsh domestic system?

We must consider whether the incorporation of Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham would bestow benefits upon Welsh domestic football. Would they would make the WPL as marketable as the premier league? Would those clubs bring the attributes  that they have gained in the English system (players, fans, infrastructure) with them? Even if they did would it all rub off on the other clubs?

You  could assume that a lot of the fans of those clubs would see their clubs’ inclusion in the Welsh system as step down in standard and refuse to go along with it, the fact their club now had indisputable access to the Champions League as champions of Wales probably wouldn’t mean very much.

As for the national side, I can’t see how the incorporation of six clubs would benefit the national side. I can’t see how more players of international standard would be produced. In the proposed settlement the Welsh Premier League would be lower-level pro league at best and the historical pull and glamour of English football system would still exist. The best Welsh players will still be attracted to the biggest English clubs, just as they are now. The best players from Ireland (Republic and Northern) all play in the English system despite the fact there is a mature league system with roots and famous clubs in both places. We mustn’t forget that the magnetic pull of premier league hype is an insurmountable obstacle at nearly every level.

The submission is a good piece of wishful thinking. Indeed I’ve often wondered what would have happened if the Welsh clubs followed the example of the clubs in the constituent parts of the FSR Yugoslavia and Soviet Union during the dissolutions in the early 1990s. What if all Welsh clubs had joined a new national league in 1992 like Dynamo Minsk and Dynamo Kiev did? (They joined the Belarusian and Ukrainian leagues respectively). Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham would have been massive fish in a small pond just like them and the Dynamos haven’t had less access to European competition since they entered their new leagues.

There’s a simple answer that explains why the WPL isn’t as big, organised or special as other leagues in Britain or Europe; the WPL started 100 years too late.

If the WPL had commenced at roughly the same time as the leagues in England, Scotland and Ireland , the Welsh Cup started at around the cup competitions in those countries so it’s not such a fanciful idea, then I’m sure we’d see a better WPL. Unfortunately going back in time 120 years and improving Welsh transport links in order to facilitate the development of a Welsh national league is not an option that’s open to anyone. Which is a shame really.




2 responses

17 06 2012
Jac o' the North (@JacotheNorth)

Fairly well-written crie de coeur, but more likely to be successful if it was more realistic in its aims.

As is suggested in the comments, the more attainable option would be to insist that Colwyn Bay, Merthyr and Newport return to Wales from Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. Swans fans, and Malaysian Dragon fans, will never buy in to the WPL; nor will Wrexham fans for as long as there’s a chance of their club getting back to the ‘Big Time’. Further, Swans and MD fans would be needlessly alienated by being lumped with Merthyr and Colwyn Bay.

As for not producing enough Welsh-born players, the WPL could bring in rules that any WPL side should at all times have 7 Welsh players on the field during every game. This to address a problem that goes back many decades, long before the creation of the WPL. That of clubs in Mid and North Wales preferring to sign over-the-hill English players because they had ‘experience’ rather than bringing on local youngsters. The A55 on a Saturday sees Welsh fans going one way to support their English clubs and broken-winded thirty-somethings coming the other way to earn a few quid. More Welsh players in the local WPL team would also help with locals identifying with – and supporting – that club.

Another issue that could, feasibly, be resolved, is the absence of a WPL club in either Swansea or Cardiff. As for Swansea, there are clubs on either side in Llanelli and Port Talbot, but the city could still support a WPL side. The situation in Cardiff is untenable. I can only conclude that the FAW is afraid of upsetting the Malaysian Dragons. Because if it so wished, then I’m sure the FAW could ‘encourage’ the creation of WPL clubs in both cities.

Now we have a bunch of third-rate politicos looking into the situation. What can we expect? Well, they sure as hell aren’t going to take on the Swans and the MD – too many supporters, too much aggro, too much work, too many lost votes. They might make a ‘recommendation’ that the other four ‘consider their position’. The only issue on which they might provide any practical help or leadership is in addressing the absence of WPL clubs in our two largest cities. By taking some initiative here they would also take the pressure of the FAW.

But I ain’t holdin’ my breath. After a lengthy debate, ‘careful reading of submissions’, ‘weighing up the options and potential benefits’, blah-di-blah-di-blah, I predict they’ll hoof it into Row Z and adjourn to an agreeable little taverna before going out for the night and getting seriously legless.

16 06 2012
Welsh not British (@welshnotbritish)

I read that piece by Dic and the fact is that as good a read as it is it’s not based on any facts what so ever. There are over 40 clubs around the world that play in the league of another country. Therefore FIFA and UEFA, AFC and OFC are all fine with it.

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