Welsh Premier League Faces A Difficult Few Years
Since its inception in 1991, the Welsh Premier League has had a troubled time. In the years before the 1992/93 season, many of the top semi-professional sides looked towards England for their competition, due in part to the poor transport options between North and South Wales. Bangor City, for example, reached the final of the FA Trophy in 1984, and were founding members of the English Football Conference as it is called today. Eight of these clubs were reluctant at first and refused to join the new Welsh league. As of 2012, three of these clubs still remain within English football.
For years, the system was somewhat similar to that in England. Champions of the two feeder leagues, the Cymru Alliance in the North and the Welsh Football League Division One in the South were promoted, if they wished, to the eighteen club Premier League, subject to their application being accepted on the basis of meeting stadium and infrastructure criteria. However on April 13th 2008, all eighteen clubs met to vote their support of a proposal to restructure the Welsh system, replacing the Premier League with a first and second division, each consisting of ten teams. Eventually, the plans were scrapped, and instead an alternative proposal was accepted, one which reduced the league from eighteen clubs to just twelve, starting from the 2010/11 season.
“On balance I feel the new format has been a success,” said John Deakin, the retiring league secretary behind the restructuring proposals. “But obviously there have been criticisms levelled at the league and a review should be carried out in the summer.” The restrictions had been designed to remove certain flaws from Welsh football – improving the standard of clubs in the top league thereby increasing fan interest and as well as television coverage. And although last year, the first year of change, saw the highest ever average attendance, the figures have already dropped by roughly seven per cent during the season just finished.
Getting the structure of a league in such a small country right is a hard thing to do, and they certainly haven’t got it right in Wales just yet. One of the main criticisms levelled at the top league stems from the decision to reduce the number of clubs – teams play each other far too often. For example, Afan Lido and Port Talbot Town faced off against one another seven times in the one season, although a cup tie and two legs of a League Cup are included in that figure. Still, seven derbies in any competition would be enough to test a fan’s motivation.
Chief amongst the issues facing the league today is its finances, or at least those of individual clubs. Third placed club Neath FC spent large on marquee signings and went fully professional. However following a drop in support and the withdrawal of a major sponsor they struggled to pay wages and began to struggle financially. As a result they were refused both a FAW domestic licence, as well as one from UEFA, which would have allowed them, because of their 3rd place finish, to play in the qualifying stages of the Europa League and they were relegated to the feeder leagues. In order to become successful, clubs must spend more to attract more media and public attention yet the warning of Neath FC will quite possibly deter other clubs from following their lead.
And even for those who are relatively financially secure, retaining their domestic licence and thus their position in the Premier League is a difficult thing to do. As the WPL is a national league, its top division clubs must hold this licence and abide by its provisions. In order to keep their licence, clubs must meet a checklist of criteria, including an approved youth development programme, adequate infrastructure, a list of specified personnel and finances in perfect order, a checklist difficult to ensure when clubs are run often by volunteers. Add to this the difficulty in drumming up support for the league. Major stations provide little to no coverage of Welsh games, often just a footnote at the end of a results bulletin. And although matches are often covered by more local media, they are always in competition with Premier and Championship coverage, and even Scottish league games. In addition, there is poor use of social media in the 21st century, club websites are more often than not poorly designed, and would fail to attract or hold any attention.
Plans to revitalise the Welsh League are limited – a winter break has already been introduced, summer football has been tentatively floated as well as a wage cap to prevent clubs like Neath losing their places in the League through financial issues. Basically, the Football Association is fiddling about on the edges instead of implementing proper change.
The solutions are simple and should be implemented soon if Welsh football is not only going to survive, but grow. Financial support should be provided by the FAW to semi-professional clubs, ensuring that the best staff can be appointed and be well paid, perhaps some upkeep towards stadiums and ensuring youth development programmes – overall making sure that domestic licences are maintained, and that a situation like that of Neath FC doesn’t occur again. The FAW should also encourage community ownership – clubs would be better funded, and enjoy better support from the community who would have a stake and a say in club matters, and would better increase the profile of teams across Wales. In addition, the Association should consider an increase to sixteen teams playing at the top-level of Welsh football. Eighteen might be too much but twelve is certainly too few. Not only would this draw more support to the national Premier League it would also liven matters up, decreasing the chances of certain clubs playing each other six or seven times in the one season. And finally, the FAW should really push for the inclusion of their clubs in the English FA Cup alongside fellow Welsh teams already playing in English leagues. If this were to happen then the Welsh Premier League and its clubs would ensure more national television coverage and exposure, especially if drawn against any Premier League side, as well as the chance to test their capabilities against similar English opposition.
At present, the Welsh league is simply stagnating, and officials in the FAW must be bold and relentless in their drive for the league to grow and succeed. Otherwise the small attendance, financial irregularities and overall poor administration will simply remain and the Welsh Premier League will stagger along as it has done for the past twenty years.