Y bêl yn rownd

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.

Advertisements

28 thoughts on “Y bêl yn rownd

  1. Excellent analysis of the difficulties of Welsh football, esp the rugby problem. And great dedication to produce this piece so quickly. I know Gareth Davies (ex Palace, Hereford, Swindon, and errr Chippenham Town) – he’s working at grassroots for the Welsh FA, and when I see him, I’ll ask him re Welsh FA view on WPL.

  2. Quick point of note regarding egg chasing; the Ospreys are a Rugby Union side. The Celtic Crusaders are the Rugby League side in Wales, and they aren’t in Swansea; they were in Bridgend before they moved to Wrexham recently.

    Sadly, I can’t really add detailed thoughts on the Welsh game myself though; I’m an Ipswich Town (& to an extent Cambridge City) fan in exile and only moved here a couple of years ago. I would say though that the Welsh Premier could probably use more publicity, and given that the inability to sell out the Millenium for international matches, perhaps the FAW could use some of the bigger WPL grounds (rather than just the grounds of those clubs in the English league system such as the Liberty and the Racecourse) to try and draw in locals to a full international game and increase awareness that the clubs are there? The attendence at last November’s Wales – Scotland game at Cardiff City Stadium was only 13,844; Llanelli’s Scarlets Park is bigger than that for a start…

  3. I’m confused.

    FOOTBALL: “Cardiff and Swansea regularly get attendances of nearly 20,000”

    RUGBY: “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 hosts European Cup rugby in front of 7,500”

    YET, YOU GO ON TO SAY: “Rugby is the sport of South Wales.”

    How do you work that one out?

    Football has a lot of support in Wales (bearing in mind most here support English club sides anyway). it is just the case no one (unfortunately) goes to watch the Welsh Premier.

    • Provincial rugby teams such as Neath or Bridgend still get far bigger crowds than their respective football teams. Rugby is the biggest sport outside Swansea and Cardiff although a fair percentage of their fans come from away teams. Also, look back to when they were both in old stadiums and in Div 2? Crowd then were appalling.

      • True, they were low crowds in Div 2, but what is the relevance of that? The regional rugby sides play the equivalent of Champions League Football, yet can only manage average crowds of 10k – Cardiff City would fill the Millenium Stadium time and time again if they played top European sides in competitive matches.

        I feel you’re making a rather rash assumption in presuming that rugby is bigger in Bridgend or Neath just because the local rugby side get greater crowds than the local football team. You must realise that most football fans in these towns “support” a Premiership side. A pub in the centre of Neath is packed when Man Utd play Liverpool. This is obviously something that is not reflected when looking at the attendances of a semi-professional Welsh Premier side (ie only a tiny minority of football fans in Neath will go and watch Neath FC). After all, rugby fans in Neath don’t follow Wasps and Leicester do they?

        Also, it is worth noting that more than 50% of Cardiff City’s support comes from outside Cardiff (as seen from ticket sales).

      • I see your point but what I was trying to understand was why a sports fan in Neath will go and see Neath RFC play in the equivalant of the Welsh Premier League yet wont support their local football team. The answers I was getting first hand on Saturday was that Rugby is seen as THE sport at schools in the area, the media focus is on rugby and consequently the sponsorship money goes the same way.

        Look at the last internationals played in respective sports. Wales got 13,000 for a friendly with Scotland at Cardiff City’s ground whilst Wales v Argentina (more comparable than the games v Australia and NZ) saw nearly 61,000 in the Millennium Stadium.

        IN terms of Cardiff City’s support it would be interesting to see the demographics of ticket sales…does anyone outside of a CF postcode count as outside Cardiff? If so I would be surprised if any Premier League and Championship clubs have more than 50% support from within the same postcode area. I would imagine that Cardiff will draw support from Newport and the areas to the north which are only a few miles away.

    • Cardiff Blues regularly get over 10k as you have shown. Ospreys have regularly got over 10,000 in past two seasons – 20k v Llanelli in Dec 2008, 18k v Leicester Tigers in Jan 2009. Season 2007/8 almost 50% of games got 9,000 or over (6 out of 13), ditto 2006/7 where there were 7 out of 16 over 9,000.

      Whilst Swansea City and Cardiff City get more fans today, did they 3/4 years ago?

  4. Its all a question of scale- you can’t really compare amateur Welsh Premier League football to professional regional rugby union, entirely different levels of publicity and history, There is also a different culture among fans of both sports , football is much more liable to glory hunting fans and the lack of success domestically and internationally in recent times hasnt helped. Alot of this is perpetuated through national and in particular local media coverage Rugby Union getting more than it is really entitled for the numbers of people involved here. I follow the Rugby LEAGUE side ‘South Wales’ that plays out of the Gnoll in Neath with the football and provincial rugby union side and on your information we attract 4 times as many fans as Neath FC average attendance in our first ever season. The team play at a comparable level to the other sides we share the stadium with as well. This doesn’t mean however its the more popular sport in the area, Despite South Wales having a ‘RUGBY’ culture , Rugby League doesn’t get much of a look in either media wise. I think the reason people follow Neath RU and not Neath FC is historical, my dad did it so I do it too sort of thing. It seems to be you’re either a football or a Rugby Union fan not both. At an international level I think RU for fans is about the EVENT rather than just the match itself unlike football, plus again Wales Football has had little to write home about. Yet at club level, you compare the two professional football teams Cardiff and Swansea get more than the four RU ‘regions’ combined on a regular basis and have done for many years, both sports have seen attendances rise in recent years.

  5. Absolutely rubbish article. Listen mate, I could go along to see St Helens football team play in front of 200 people in the rymans unibond autowindshield division – compare that experience to going to see the local rugby league team play and decide that football’s not a very big sport in Lancashire. You’ve gone along to some of the most rugby obsessed towns in Wales, Britain even, and decided to simply perpetuate a load of nonsense streeotypes. You have no clue about Welsh football. Idiot.

    • “The most rugby obsessed towns in Wales”….Cardiff, Swansea, Llanelli, Neath, Port Talbot, Newport – some of the biggest towns in Wales I would suggest. You are right – I had no clue about Welsh football so that is why I went there in person and spoke to people to get their opinion. If fans at the football are saying “rugby is bigger here than football” should I call them liars? Fact of the matter is that Wales has its own league affiliated to UEFA yet is in mortal danger of not existing in a few years yet the rugby teams in some of these towns are going from strength to strength.

      • You went to matches in Llanelli and Neath! not the biggest places in Wales by any stretch of the imagination. If you had gone to the biggest cities in Wales (Cardiff and Swansea) it really wouldn’t have taken you long to find out that those cities football teams get on average TWICE the crowds that the rugby teams do- and that’s playing in the second tier!! I don’t think think you’d hear many people in Cardiff say ‘rugby is bigger here than football’…and if you did, I for one would certainly call them liars. The idea of the rugby teams going ‘from strength to srength’ is hilarious also. If you’d done a bit of research you’d have found plenty of articles from last season bemoaning the atrocious attendances for Welsh regional rugby when compared to their English and Irish counterparts. There are many problems with the Welsh football league, but it’s only existed since 1992, so to expect people who for years have been supporting teams in the English pyramid to suddenly switch is naive in the extreme. Anyway, I’m off to Warrington to write an article about how football in Lancashire is dying. Bye for now.

      • Hi Lenny,

        We actually went to Cardiff and Swansea last season (search on the blog for them) and spoke to people then as well. The rugby teams have gone from strength to strength – Cardiff Blues got to a European final this season, Ospreys and Llanelli have improved season by season and the Welsh national team? Under Gatland they have improved immensely or have I been watching a different team?

  6. Hi Stuart- listen mate, I’ve got a great idea for your next article. How about a treatise on the state of English football? For reserch I reckon you should go along to some Bath City and Gloucester City pre season friendlies. How about that? To be honest I haven’t watched much Welsh rugby recently. Its not that I don’t like rugby, its just that having been lucky enough to live in Australia and New Zealand for a while, I find European rugby generally quite dull in comparison. I think we might have improved a bit under Gatland, but under the previous regime we were losing to the likes of Fiji (population- roughly 850,000) so the only way was up really wasn’t it? Still, we usually finish in the bottom 3 of the six nations and never beat the All Blacks (57 years now..) so there’s loads to celebrate there!! As for Cardiff reaching a European final- yes, but you don’t seem to know that trophy is even called. That’s OK, neither do I. Neither, I suspect do many of the people of Cardiff, who were too busy watching the Bluebirds in the championship play off final that weekend to pay rugby much attention. Here’s a little something that might have been good for your research btw- enjoy!

  7. That was just supposed to be the second link Stuart. I don’t know what happened but enjoy the Simon Church goal against Scotland anyway. It is quality!

    • Interesting….you have given me an idea though. I am due back down in December to watch a Port Talbot game and same weekend both Llanelli Scarletts and Newport Dragons are at home (one at 5.30pm on Sat and other at 1.30pm on Sunday). I will do a piece on this issue for that…

  8. Maybe when you’re down in South Wales in December you could go along to watch Swansea City and Cardiff City play too? Preferably against each other… Then compare that to the Blues v Ospreys in the Magners league? Let me know if you want some more ideas for future articles.

    • I was a guest of a very good friend yesterday…Look at my last few games – Eastbourne Town v Lewes, Wealdstone, Canvey Island, Worthing, Fisher FC, Leyton…and my next games? Hornchurch, Ramsgate, Lordswood, Lewes….Can hardly say I am a glory hunter can you!

  9. I’m not calling you a glory hunter at all. You seem like a very nice bloke and a genuine football fan and you’ve made me sorry that I called you an idiot in my first post. Apologies for that. It’s just that when it comes to Welsh football I think your views are cliched, pre- concieved and ill informed. I wonder, do you have Welsh rugby loving in-laws or something?

    • I always have the power to delete any comments but as you will see I have posted the whole of our banter as I believe everyone has a right to make a point – so no apology needed. I do go to Wales probably more than any part of the UK outside the South East and have seen games over the past twenty five years. Funnily enough I do have some friends who hail from Swansea/Bridgend and their view is not quite the same as mine but they do see the point I am trying to make. And I did take all of the quotes from all the people we spoke to at Llanelli and Neath

  10. I’m sure you did take all your quotes from people in Llanelli and Neath, but that’s just it. You went to rugby towns with populations of roughly 45,000 and then made assumptions about the whole of South Wales. It’s like me going to Warrington rather than Manchester, or Gloucester rather than Bristol and then wrting an article about English football. You didn’t go to Cardiff, the biggest city, with a population of roughly 325,000 and get any quotes there. Here’s one for you though: ‘Cardiff is more of a football city. And although Cardiff City haven’t been in the top division for over forty years, they have always drawn bigger crowds than Cardiff RFC’ Or are you calling the most decorated player in English football history a liar?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.