It’s not all beaches, ice cream and lava bread down here in Wales you know. Part of my work for the week is to look at the state of Welsh football, quoted a month ago by Neville Southall as “in the last chance saloon” and obviously take in a game or two in the process. There are some real good news stories in the valleys of South Wales at the moment. Dean Holdsworth has led Newport County into the Blue Square Premier after walking the Blue Square South league last season and Cardiff City have been to Wembley three times in the past two seasons just missing out on a spot in the Premier League to accompany their new stadium a few months ago.
So what is Southall talking about? He was referring to the dire situation in the Welsh Premier League. On Friday 13th August the new slimmed down Welsh Premier League will kick off with The New Saints (aka TNS) taking on Prestatyn Town in what is seen as the last throw of the dice to make the league work. The Welsh Premier League have been ruthless this time, reducing the league by 6 teams and applying a strict entry criteria for the twelve that remain. The league does not have any major sponsor, vast pots of TV money or overseas commercial rights. It is a league where part time clubs face some long slow journeys to away games to play matches in front of a couple of hundred people, whilst in the pub next door more people will be watching Sky Sports.
Whilst Cardiff and Swansea get attendances of nearly 20,000 in their plush new (identikit) stadiums, the average crowd in the Welsh Premier League has never broken the 300 people barrier (bar one season in the mid 2000’s when it hit exactly 300). Last season saw a 5% dip in attendances from 2008/09 season, so why is there such a huge difference in attendances?
One reason is down to the culture of sport in Wales, especially in the south. Take Neath FC for instance. They have averaged 231 over the past decade at their Gnoll ground, the same ground they share with Neath rugby club who regularly get crowds over 1,500 for provincial rugby games. Football is simply not the sport of choice in the populous parts of the country. The restructure of Welsh rugby some years ago to create “super teams” such as the Ospreys (Swansea and Neath), The Dragons (Newport and Bridgend) and the Scarletts (Llanelli) has revolutionised the game and can lay claim to the resurgence of the international side.
New stadiums in Llanelli, Swansea and Cardiff are now filled with crowds of 10,000 on a regular basis as they play in the Magners League against the likes of Munster and Edinburgh. Parc y Scarletts, the new Llanelli stadium hosted European Cup rugby last season in front of 7,500 whilst just over a mile away at Sebonheath Park struggled to get a crowd of 250 in the round ball game. This is not a pricing issue as invariably the football admission is 20-30% less than the rugby one. It is simply a matter of culture. Rugby seems to be the sport of South Wales.
The second reason is down to the accessibility of the Premier League. Those fans who live in north Wales could quite easily be regular supporters of Prestatyn Town at Bastion Road, or Airbus UK Broughton’s aptly named Airfield. But instead they hop in their cars and head an hour eastwards to Anfield, Old Trafford or the latest fad venue, The City of Manchester Stadium. The Welsh Premier League has tried to vary kick off times, but with Sky Sports moving games all over the place it is a constant battle to avoid clashes.
The idea of reducing the size of the Welsh Premier League is a good idea, as too is the concept of bringing in a licencing model so that all clubs fulfil certain criteria on and off the pitch (such as the provision of an academy, minimum level of facilities, turnover v wages etc). Perhaps a move to summer football may be more successful as it has been in the Republic of Ireland?
Welsh clubs get regular opportunities to play in European competition. Every year four clubs are given the chance to progress. The league winners start in the second qualifying round of the Champions League, which meant this season TNS hosting Bohemians from Dublin, and for the first time in nearly five years they won the two legged tie with an impressive 4-0 2nd leg win (although technically the game was played in England as TNS’s ground is in Shropshire). Over a thousand watched this game, which stretched the facilities to the limit so an agreement was reached to hold the 3rd qualifying round at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground where 2,400 saw TNS lose 3-1 to Anderlecht. Just a few miles away from their Oswestry base on the same night Shrewsbury Town got nearly the same crowd for a meaningless friendly with Coventry City.
Llanelli and Port Talbot both went out of the Europa League before the World Cup Final had been played in Jo’burg, but Bangor City beat Finnish Honka to make it the best Welsh European campaign for over twenty years. However a tough trip to Maritimo in qualifying round three will mean that interest in Europe will be over in Wales by the start of the regular season.
So what is the answer? Where does the Welsh FA go next if the “super 12” doesn’t work? Perhaps a look at their rugby counterparts model by creating super clubs may just work. AirbuTNS, Bangstatyn City, Carmarthen Quay and Llaneath spring to mind…on second thoughts, that will never work – best send it to the Premier League – they will love it!
To do our bit for the new league we popped down the road from our Welsh office (yes we really have one) to Llanelli AFC where they were taking on Bristol Rovers in a pre-season friendly and then up to the beautiful valleys for Neath FC v Hereford United to see what the locals thought,
Llanelli AFC 0 Bristol Rovers 1 – Stebonheath Park – Friday 30th July
Wales can certainly do rain that is for sure. They would win any Premier League of changeable weather. In our ten minute drive from the upper reaches of Swansea to the lowlands of Llanelli we went through sunshine, rain, hail and then mist before we parked on an incredibly steep hill overlooking Llanelli’s Stebonheath Park ground. This is a UEFA approved venue and would not look out of place in the English Blue Square. Seven pounds for entry – very reasonable. A swift half in the adjoining social club gave us some answers to our question on the Welsh game.
The focus on the big screens on the bar was Rugby League, with Leeds Rhinos taking on Wigan. Dozens of people seemed happy to pass on the game outside and stay in the dry comfort of the bar.
“They’re OK, but there is no supporters. How can the players get motivated playing in front of one man and his dog” Our first fan told us. And he was right. Just over 130 had made the effort, and even the PA announcer tried to mitigate this with the fact that the weather was so bad.
I have to say that I was impressed with the standard of Llanelli as a team. They had gone full time a few years ago and you could see they were sharper than the visitors, having played a couple of competitive games. Boss Andy Legg, still player-manager according to Wikipedia at the age of 44, once held the world record for the longest ever throw in at 44.6m but his side showed little of a direct approach, preferring to pass the ball around on a greasy surface.
“Football will never be anywhere as near as Rugby in Llanelli. The curse of THAT All Blacks game in October 1972 still sits powerfully in the town. Look at virtually every playing field and you will see rugby posts, not football ones. Kids are taught to run with a ball before they can kick it.”
Bristol Rovers scored the only goal of the game in the 14th minute when baby faced Elliot Richards got the final touch to a cross, although none of the spectators actually saw the ball go in. However, the reaction of the players suggested the ball had crossed the line. This was a rare attack from Rovers though and the lions share of player came from Llanelli.
“There is a football following in the town but you will never see a Llanelli (football) shirt. Plenty of Liverpool and Manchester United shirts. Youngsters don’t come because their parents wont bring them. we need to do more to get families here.”
The overwhelming feature of watching a game at Stebonheath Park is friendliness. Everyone, from the policewoman with the lovely smile to the ladies in the tea bar wanted to chat. First sign of my English accent and they wanted to know what I was doing spending my holiday at the football. The fans appreciated football – “oohs” and “aahs” in the right place but there simply isn’t enough to create an atmosphere. The row of houses that sit above the ground with perfect views were dark yet on our walk back to the car they were filled with the light of the TV at the front – a crying shame that even with a free view they chose Eastenders instead of their local team.
Neath FC 2 Hereford United 6 – The Gnoll – Saturday 31st July
Whilst Llanelli separates its football and rugby, in Neath they are entwined. The Gnoll is one of the most historic sporting venues in Wales, having hosted Rugby Union for over 130 years as well as cricket (it was an occasional home to Glamorgan CCC), Rugby League and now football. Whilst the creation of the “super provinces” has driven rugby league down the road to Swansea’s Liberty Stadium with the Ospreys (50% owned by Neath RFC), football remains at the stadium.
Neath had also gone full time recently and added to their squad a real legend of Welsh football in the summer with Lee Trundle signing for the club. It is hoped that Trundle will add some floating support from down the Tawe valley from Swansea fans who idolised him during his successful spell with the club. And Trundle was the main attraction when we arrived with kick off approaching and there was a queue to get in! First time I have ever seen a queue at a pre-season friendly I can tell you.
The good news to report was the number of black Neath shirts in the crowd. The bad news was that they belonged to the oval ball variety. Still 11.45am on a Saturday seemed to be a good kick off time as the locals had flocked in. Another passionate affair, with a fair bit of anti-English sentiment running through the players too and on more than one occasion the referee had to have words in the first half.
Hereford scored first, Joe Colbeck stealing in unmarked in the seventh minute but then the balance of play swung in favour of Neath, although far too much emphasis was being played on the presence of Trundle on the right. Every forward pass seemed to go out right, every corner and free kick was taken by Trundle. Five years ago it may have worked but today….When Trundle did at last give up a free kick to Cooper he struck it low and hard into the corner of the net. Five minutes later and Hereford were back in front when Canham slotted home from the left hand side. The one thing that was common between Llanelli and Neath from the past 24 hours was their inability to defend the counter attack. That and the fat linesman was the same person.
In the course of research we headed into the spacious bar at half time and had a chat with a couple of fans. Thomas, bedecked in his Ospreys rugby shirt explained why he was here.
“The club are trying to do new things to bring people in for the football. Admission today is £7 and kids are free. That is a great offer so I have dropped the missus in town and come here. But I pay double that to see the Ospreys and that is better value for money – we have a top team down there. Trundle is a bold move for the club.”
I asked another chap (sorry, forgot to ask his name) about the future of the Welsh game:-
“There is little affinity between the club game and the international team. Club players do not stand the chance of a call up, but perhaps considering how bad we have been in past few years they should give some of the (Welsh Premier League) players a chance. I like the idea of the licence model – some of the debt in England is not fair.”
So deep in conversation were we that we missed the opening five minutes of the half. Not to worry though as both teams seemed content to pass the ball around rarely pushing forward. I had a limited time licence from CMF and so on 75 minutes with the score still 2-1 to Hereford, we left to return to Swansea. Of course as soon as we left the goals flooded in with Hereford United finally winning 6-2..thanks for that!
So Welsh football. Is there a future? Based on what I had seen off the pitch in terms of facilities, absolutely. Both Llanelli and Neath would be welcome into the Blue Square South any day. Nice club houses, good viewing facilities and easy to get to. In terms of on the field then again it is all about setting expectations. Welsh football is comparable with Conference standards – the results of the last 24 hours proved that. But the Conference is sustainable to an extent too – although it does have the carrot of promotion at the end AND there are some big clubs there. If they could persuade a club like Merthyr Tydfil into the league then it just may start to persuade the likes of Wrexham.
Welsh football needs a boost. Perhaps that could come from success at International level but that is hard to see in Euro2012 having been drawn in the same group as England and Switzerland. The answer surely has to be in the restructure of the clubs itself, modelling the success of the rugby model, or is that me just being too sensible?
More pictures from the games can be found here.