Change, change, change in the WPL?

25 01 2014

Last Saturday Dave broke a Welsh Football exclusive whilst we waited for kick off. He told us that the FAW would like to hear opinions about the structure of the Welsh Premier League (WPL). I watched Dave’s lips move but I could only hear the voice in my head; “FINALLY, THEY WANT TO HEAR FROM ME!! …. FINALLY, THEY WANT TO HEAR FROM ME!!”…. FINALLY THEY WANT TO HEAR FROM ME!!”.  I’m just the sort of person they want to hear from.

I checked out this frankly unbelievable story when I finally got home and  found out that it was actually a real story. The FAW are actually about to present people with an opportunity to address choice words and heartfelt expressions in their direction.

This post represents a first draft of what I’ll say when I get my turn, if they let me carry on after the expletive loaded introduction of course.

AHEM!!!!!!

Dear cXXXs in charge of Welsh Football,

Pin back your ears darlings, for I’m about drop wisdom in to your laps. So pray silence for the self-evident truth you load of cXXXs….

………The problem we all face is your league. Our, when I say “our” I mean “the fans”, problem is that we want the league’s structure to be changed but we can’t see change happening. On the surface the FAW’s public appeal for opinions appears to be a great step in the right direction, or even prelude to change, but noise is often deceptive. It could all prove to be an empty PR gesture.

Forgive my cynicism but we’re dealing with the FAW and they are hardly pro-active about change, they won’t change even when the people high up in the association desperately want a modern-looking organisation.

The FAW may want to hear from us but we’re not even sure that they want suggest change within their headquarters let alone implement change. It’s well known that their employees are quite happy with present system and the standard of football it produces, for example they were ecstatically happy in May when their system allowed Bala qualified for Europe after finishing in 7th place in the league.

Change won’t happen………………I mean “fair play to the FAW” for asking our opinions and all that.

I will now highlight what’s wrong the WPL system. At this stage I feel that a little background is necessary.

Basically the WPL underwent three radical changes in 2010.

Firstly, the 18 team WPL was replaced by a 12 team WPL nicknamed “The Super Twelve”

Secondly, the WPL became a league of two phases. During the first phase the 12 clubs play league football in the traditional manner. When the first phase ends the league splits in to two conferences; “The Championship Conference” (the top six from the first phase) and “The Play-Off Conference” (The bottom six from the first phase). The teams within each conference play league football in the traditional manner.

Thirdly, the WPL’s season now ends with Europa League play-offs. In the Super 12 only the top two in the “The Championship Conference” directly qualify for Europe. The remaining European place via the league is now be decided by the European play offs (In the 18 team WPL the third place was taken by the team that finished third). The play-offs begin after the Welsh Cup final and feature the following clubs;

  • The clubs that finish from 3rd place to 6th place in  “The Championship Conference” (Unless the Welsh Cup Winners / Runners Up if the champions do the double are in “The Championship Conference”. These clubs will not feature in the play offs as they will have already qualified for Europe. In this scenario only three teams from “The Championship Conference” will feature in the play-offs)
  • The top team from “The Play-Off Conference” (or top two teams if the Welsh Cup Winners / Runners Up if the champions do the double are in “The Championship Conference”).

We have learnt both of the sides of the Super 12 idea since 2011. In 2011 the structure felt like a breath of fresh air, the air now feels stale.

On one hand the Super 12 format has lived up to its founding idea because it has created more relevant matches towards the end of the season; the top half competes for Europe and the bottom half competes for a European play-off and against relegation.

On the other hand there are several downsides.

Firstly, the proponents of the system provide a slightly misleading picture of the benefits of the Super 12. For example they often say that it has helped raised standards. Does this idea stand up?

Progress in Europe is often the measure of raised standards but if we use this measure as justification for the Super 12 we have to be careful. The last season in which more than one Welsh club progressed through a round in Europe was 2010-’11 and this was just before the start of the Super 12.

The best claim for progress using this measure is that Welsh clubs seem to have lost by less over the last three seasons than they generally have in the past. However we must be careful about drawing conclusions from shaky evidence. Is the indication of “narrowed gap” a reality? If there is a “narrowed gap” is it the narrowing related to the structure of the Super 12 or the effect of UEFA’s prize money? UEFA’s prize money has enabled to clubs to afford better players on better wages and the prospect of UEFA’s prize money has spurred some clubs in to taking an educated gamble by signing highly paid players, that’s “highly paid” by the standard of the WPL anyway.

Proponents will also tell us that increased average crowds are a testament to the increased popularity of the Super 12. We must be careful about these claims as well. Even if we believe the crowd figures reported by some clubs – and you have to doubt the veracity of the some of the figures given when you watch Sgorio – you have to doubt this claim. Dan put this well on a Bangor forum;

“Lies lies and statistics.

Attendances haven’t really changed at all despite the average going up. Sounds wrong I know but its a true fact!

With twelve teams there are six games a weekend. If we are at home and get 600 attendance and the other five get 200 each, the average attendance per match is 267.

With 18 teams there are 9 games a weekend, again saying 600 watching us and 200 for the others the average is 244.

So without ANY extra people going through any turnstiles anywhere at all there is a massive 10% increase on the average.

Or another pie.

Get 2 equal pies (I recommend Johnny 6 steak and kidney) cut one into 9 piecez and the other into 6 piecez.

Without any difference whatsoever in the size of each whole pie, each piece of the six cut one is a third bigger than the 9 cut one.

So a 33% increase, congratulations a great success, pat yourself on the back everything is wonderful.”

In other words the same people are going to watch WPL matches. Mind you I could have told you that without recourse to stats because I keep bumping in to the same people.

The proponents also sold us the idea that the Super 12 would remove meaningless dead rubbers. The theory is sound as theoretically the issues – the championship, relegation and places in the European play-offs – can remain unsettled until the final matches of the season. In practice the guaranteed chance of European qualification – a place in the end of season play-offs – that goes with a place in “The Championship Conference” has been enough of a prize for some clubs that they have virtually given up when they had no chance of catching the clubs at the top of the table. This turned some match into dead rubbers.

Secondly, the European play-offs are as imperfect as every other set of play-offs. A club that’s only denied the promotion spot, or European qualification in the case of the WPL, on the last day of the normal season can be beaten by the club that’s been consistently worse over the whole season if they have a bad day in the play-offs. But there’s no point moaning about this as it’s the nature of play off systems, I must point out that in two out of the three seasons of this format the club that finished third in the league qualified for Europe via the play-offs.

People might also say that the system has been manufactured to create excitement but there’s no point moaning about this either as football has been manufactured ever since they started formulating rules in the mid 19th century.

I can see a genuine problem with the Super 12 system, it subverts the WPL from a sporting sense; the Super 12 not only makes easier to avoid relegation – the clubs of “The Play-Off Conference” can’t play the stronger clubs – it also makes it harder for clubs other than the strongest ones to win the league – in traditional league structures blips, losses of form or fantastic winning runs often help unexpected clubs to become involved in title races. The repetition of fixtures in the Super 12 allows clubs with greater resources and bigger squads the chance to cancel out advantages by allowing them to make up for previous negative results.

Lastly, the most damning drawback of the Super Twelve is that it has caused boredom to take root in the imaginations of some fans.

There are two reasons why boredom has taken a grip. The first reason is that clubs have played less clubs in the Super 12 system than in the previous system. Between August 2006 and May 2010 Bangor played 32 clubs. Between August 2010 and May 2014 Bangor will have played 26 clubs;

August 2006-May 2010 August 2010-May 2014
Aberaman Ath
Aberystwyth Town
Airbus UK Broughton
Bala Town
Bridgend
Caernarfon Town
Caersws
Carmarthen Town
Cwmbran Town
Elements Cefn Druids
Flint Town United
Gap Connah’s Quay
Garden Village
Guilsfield
Haverfordwest County
Honka Espoo
Llandudno
Llandyrnog Utd
Llanelli AFC
Llangefni Town
Midtjylland
Neath
Newtown AFC
Newport County
Newport YMCA
Port Talbot Town
Porthmadog
Prestatyn Town
Rhydymwyn
Rhyl
XXX XXX XXXXXX
Technogroup Welshpool Town
Aberdare
Aberystwyth Town
Afan Lido
Airbus UK Broughton
Bala Town
Bryntition Ath
Carmarthen Town
Caernarfon Wanderers
Colwyn Bay 
Denbigh Town 
Gap Connah’s Quay
Glantraeth
Haverfordwest County
HJK Helsinki
Honka Espoo
Llanelli
Maritimo
Meliden
Nantlle Vale
Neath
Newtown
Port Talbot Town
Prestatyn Town
Rhyl
XXX XXX XXXXXX
Zimbru Chisinau

While these totals are generally comparable the figures are clouded by two things. 1. Bangor played European matches in every season and  2. Bangor didn’t always enter the North Wales Coast FA Challenge Cup (NWCCC).

If we eliminate the clubs that Bangor have played in the NWCCC and in Europe we now find that between August 2006 and May 2010 Bangor played 28 different clubs whereas between August 2010 and May 2014 they played only 16 different clubs

August 2006-May 2010 August 2010-May 2014
Aberaman Ath
Aberystwyth Town
Airbus UK Broughton
Bala Town
Bridgend
Caernarfon Town
Caersws
Carmarthen Town
Cwmbran Town
Elements Cefn Druids
Flint Town United
Gap Connah’s Quay
Garden Village
Guilsfield
Haverfordwest County
Llandyrnog Utd
Llanelli
Llangefni Town
Neath
Newtown
Newport County
Newport YMCA
Port Talbot Town
Porthmadog
Prestatyn Town
Rhyl
XXX XXX XXXXXX
Technogroup Welshpool Town
Aberdare
Aberystwyth Town
Afan Lido
Airbus UK Broughton
Bala Town
Bryntition Ath
Carmarthen Town 
Gap Connah’s Quay
Haverfordwest County
Llanelli
Neath
Newtown
Port Talbot Town
Prestatyn Town
Rhyl
XXX XXX XXXXXX

A lack of variety for clubs is an obvious side effect of the WPL restructuring, WPL clubs have been facing 6 less clubs a season in the league since Aug 2010.

The WPL’s club reduction is not the only reason that clubs are playing a narrower range of clubs than they used to, the FAW has also cut back on the amount of Welsh Cup rounds that WPL clubs can play. By the time the WPL clubs enter the Welsh Cup nowadays more clubs have been knocked out and the possibilities for exotic opponents has been narrowed even further. Life seems mundane both inside and outside the WPL.

The second, and most powerful, strand of boredom comes from the volume of matches that the WPL club play against each other. Again this is an obvious side effect of the WPL restructuring. The WPL may have been reduced by 6 clubs but the amount of league matches in a WPL season has only been reduced by 2 (Clubs played 34 matches in the 18 club WPL but play 32 matches in the Super 12).

The following figures give the boredom a tangible sense. Between the start of the Super 12 and the end of this season (4 seasons in total) Bangor City will have played XXX XXX XXXXXX 19 times, Prestatyn 18 times, Airbus at least 14 times, Port Talbot 13 times, Newtown AFC 12 times, Carmarthen Town at least 12 times, Bala Town 11 times. Bangor even played clubs that were subsequently liquidated many times in a short period; Bangor faced Llanelli 12 times in three seasons and Neath 8 times in two seasons.

The large volume of games against the same clubs is hardly an incentive for people to become frequent visitors. Instead of anticipation there is nothing and without anticipation football is rendered virtually pointless,  In this environment local derbies lose their lustre and hardcore fans begin to treat matches like missed buses; “It doesn’t matter if I miss this one, there’ll be another match against Prestatyn in a few weeks.” Much as I like going to Bastion Gardens and the Airfield I’m started to get bored of seeing the same places. As for the delights of Park Hall I’d rather not think about that void.

My idea? I’d like an 18 team WPL and I’d like Colwyn Bay to be forced in to the Welsh Alliance where they belong.

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