Mark Pitman, our Welsh wizard, brings us another Welsh football weekend double as Neath take on The New Saints in the Principality Welsh Premier League and Wales take on England in a European Championship qualifier. With little in common initially a glaring familiar theme emerges however, as the wallets of football fans across the country become subject to situation exploitation at every level of the game and the occasion of it.
Neath 2-2 The New Saints – Principality Welsh Premier League – 25th March 2011
A popular football phrase for a flash of on the field brilliance before it was replaced with modern day Sky nonsense such as ‘take a bew, son’ or ‘unbelievable tekkers’ is the more traditional ‘that was worth the admission price alone’ or variations thereof. Neath invested in their own brand of tekker-potential in the summer with the signing of Lee Trundle headlining the arrival of a number of former Football League stars with significant Swansea City connections, and while the flashes of brilliance have been few and far between, a new initiative by the South Wales club seems set to backfire spectacularly.
A common debate in the English Premier League revolves around the fact that the everyday football fan is being priced out of the game by the greed of their clubs. From over-priced merchandise to four-figure season tickets, the revenue streams at Britain’s biggest clubs play a significant part in the young players from across the world becoming very rich, very soon. The average fan in the street resents the exploitation but the worldwide interest of the Premier League means there is a constant stream of revenue. Interestingly, the Principality Welsh Premier League acknowledged this growing resentment, and used it in their marketing campaign at the start of the season.
“No inflated ticket prices” and “No overpaid superstars” screamed the posters at the launch of the new ‘Super-12’ league. The profile was further increased when Neath stepped-up their big spending by bringing in Trundle and company, leaving the “No overpaid superstars” slogan a little dated as rumours over the weekly wage bill at The Gnoll became the talk of the Welsh Premier League. The club remained well aware that they would need the support of the town if their ambitious project was to succeed however and admission prices remained at the league average of £7 with discounts available for Swansea City season-ticket holders as they attempted to tap into the potential a new market of fans that were quickly gaining an interest in the club through the arrival of Lee Trundle and his former Swansea City team-mates.That all changed on Friday night however. With champions The New Saints the visitors to The Gnoll for a vitally important match for both clubs, Neath decided to break a Welsh Premier League record and hiked up the admission to £10, the highest ever amount charged by a club in the history of the league. To non-league regulars across Britain this may not seem excessive, to regular Blue Square watchers it may even appear quite reasonable, but in the Welsh Premier League such actions are significantly frowned upon and despite the attraction of the fixture, over two-hundred less than the clubs average gate were in attendance as a reported 421 took their seats to take in the match.
Lee Trundle has been criticised in some circles for his contribution, or lack of it, for Neath in the majority of games this season. Within minutes of the kick off however a neat bit of showboating (another tekker-style Sky induced phrase) set up Chad Bond for the first chance of the game. Neath enjoyed the better of the initial exchanges, but the full-time professionals of The New Saints soon settled into the match and adapted to a surface desperately in need of a rest. The visitors began to dominate and focused on using their pace upfront against the lack of it in the Neath defence but would not take the lead until the 40th minute. Impressive winger Chris Jones knocked a fine ball from the right into the area where an unmarked Chris Sharp showed that he has indeed inherited some of the quality of his Everton and Scotland-legend father Graeme with a well-placed header past goalkeeper Lee Idzi.
The New Saints were deservedly ahead at the break and with the turnstiles now open a number of spectators originally turned off by the £10 admission 45 minutes earlier made their way into the ground to take in the second half. Once again Neath attempted to turn people away with their choice of blaring half-time music but a significantly improved crowd took their place for the second half while those who had witnessed the first were left to wonder why the visitors were not further infront having dominated for so long.
But then Neath have quality and experience in their ranks, and while it is not consistently apparent, when they do click together they are a match for any side in the league. Within nine minutes of the re-start referee Dean John awarded Neath a free-kick on the edge of the area and it was Lee Trundle who took hold of the ball. With the wall in-place and goalkeeper Paul Harrison sufficiently covering all angles, a moment of magic from the daps himself saw him curl a low shot around the wall and inside Harrison’s near post. The scores were level and Neath were starting to play on a par with their expectations.
Their form continued as The New Saints struggled to make any sort of impact in the home sides half. Harrison had to be at his best to deny Chad Bond and the impressive Chris Jones while Trundle enjoyed another moment of magic that brought back memories of his best days in front of the Vetch Field’s North Bank as he weaved his way through six opponents before eventually being dispossessed. Minutes later Trundle hit the post with a superb strike and on 72 minutes he was brought down in the area by goalkeeper Harrison as The New Saints began to tire of his dominating performance.
Referee Dean John correctly pointed to the spot with few complaints from the visitors but Neath were soon incensed as John only produced a yellow card for Harrison when the keeper should have been sent off. Despite the protests, Harrison took his place in goal as Trundle stepped up and made no mistake with a well-taken penalty to put his side in front. It seemed as if Neath would now cruise to victory. The New Saints made changes but they only added to Neath’s dominance as midfielder Barry Hogan struggled to keep possession and striker Matthew Berkeley failed to make any sort of impact.
On 88 minutes however everything changed. A speculative long-range effort from Scott Ruscoe caught goalkeeper Lee Idzi short and the ball crept into the corner of the net to hand The New Saints an equaliser. Undeserved in the second half but probably a fair result overall given the chances they created but failed to take in the first, the visitors had snatched a share of the points from what was an entertaining contest, unfortunately not witnessed by as many people as usual at The Gnoll. Neath’s performance in the second half was up there with their best of the season, but was it worth the admission price? That’s another story.
Wales 0-2 England – European Championship qualifier – 26th March 2011
And so onto Saturday and to Cardiff for the European Championship qualifier between Wales and England at The Millennium Stadium. With a host of Premier League stars on show as new Wales manager Gary Speed attempted to outwit Fabio Capello in front of a full house, the occasion had been the big Welsh football talking point for a number of weeks before. With tickets sold-out weeks in advance, the cheapest just a fiver more than the price of watching Neath, the Welsh football public went into the match with a new belief and optimism that was just waiting to be snatched away.
And within six minutes it was. James Collins, a steady campaigner in defence for Aston Villa but a constant calamity for Wales, slipped at a crucial time and attempted to make amends with a messy challenge that handed England a penalty. Frank Lampard converted and the old enemy doubled their lead after 14 minutes when Glen Johnson and Ashley Young combined to embarrass Danny Collins on the left before Darren Bent scored from close range. The game and the weeks of belief that this just could be the game for Wales were both over. The remaining events of the match are well-documented elsewhere, the aftermath of the defeat and the performance will follow in the coming days and weeks while the doubts over the potential of this new era of Welsh football will continue for a lot longer.
But what the International occasion appeared to offer over Neath v The New Saints was value for money. A new cashback initiative form the FAW resulted in hundreds of clubs earning significant amounts of money just by acting as ticket agents and while administrative errors deprived other clubs, the general feedback has been good and that the initiative should continue for the upcoming games as Wales once again try to earn the respect and belief of their football public. There were well-documented problems with ticket distribution and there were reported problems with ticketing on the day, but they FAW should be praised on the value for money aspect and for the contribution the cashback scheme has made to a number of clubs.
The same cannot be said for the rest of Cardiff however. Unhappy with making their usual ten-fold profit, pubs, burger vans, fast-food retailers, transport operators, unofficial merchandise stalls etc took their usual stance of ‘making hay while the sun shines’. Long queues for over-priced beer to wash down over-priced and under-cooked variations of food substitute all made for an exploited occasion with no escape for the many families in attendance. Sadly, it is a situation that has come to be expected.
And so on a weekend that brought together the two opposite ends of the Welsh football spectrum, the overwhelming consistent is in the fact that cash is king. Neath will not make any new friends with their admission hike while an all-inclusive week abroad could be a financially viable alternative to a day out in the capital on International day. But then the 421 at The Gnoll were treated to a far more entertaining match than the 69,000 in The Millennium Stadium the following day, and still paid less for the privilege, so it does ask the question – Which one really was worth the admission price?
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