Owen Amos uncovers the facts surrounding Lee Trundle's mysterious move Welsh Premier League side Neath
When Lee Trundle was released by Bristol City in May, he was expected to stay in the Football League. This, after all, was a forward with 118 league goals in 320 games. Indeed, Trundle was a million-pound striker: three years earlier, he'd moved from Swansea to Bristol for seven figures. But, despite offers from Swindon, Tranmere, Yeovil and Newport, he signed for Neath in the Welsh Premier League, a club with an average gate of 221. Trundle, the showboating star of Soccer AM, probably gets bigger crowds for his book signings (Lee Trundle, More Than Just Tricks – £16.99 in hardback if you're interested).
Why Trundle chose Neath is just about understandable. He's a celebrity in South Wales. In four seasons at Swansea, from 2003 to 2007, he scored 86 goals and was stepping out with a pop star (Atomic Kitten's Liz McClarnon). He even signed an image rights deal with the Swans. "It's the first deal of its kind outside the Premier League," he said at the time. "It's a big achievement for me."
So Neath's location, nine miles north-east of Swansea, was key. And, fair to say, so was the salary. Although Neath dismissed rumours of £2,500 a week as "way wide of the mark", he won't have come cheap. What's less clear is where Neath's money comes from. As well as Trundle, they've signed other ex-Swans, including Kristian O'Leary, who was released after more than 300 appearances in 15 years. Not bad for a club that formed in 2005 when Skewen Athletic merged with the existing Neath side (two teams with long but less than glorious histories). In short, Neath are paying wages that aren't sustainable for a small club with gates of 221. But, publicly, they won't say how they're managing it.
Locally, the main benefactor is presumed to be Geraint Hawkes, a successful plywood merchant. Hawkes is chairman of the rugby club Neath RFC, a semi-professional side and champions of the Welsh Premier Division. In 2007, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, Hawkes was worth £25 million. Neath FC began ground-sharing at The Gnoll, home of the rugby club, in 2008.
Hawkes said the prospect of European football at the ground was "a truly exciting one". Exciting enough to bankroll Trundle, O'Leary, et al? Neath's secretary politely declined to say: "The questions you ask are ones that most clubs would want to keep internal and private, and not publicise."
However they're doing it, it seems to be working. After eight games, Neath had won five and lost one. Trundle has scored seven and some have been stunners, as the Welsh Premier highlights on S4C.co.uk will show. Even pub players score pearlers but watching Trundle in the Welsh Premier you feel he doesn't belong.
Trundle has come a long way since starting in the Welsh Premier League, ten years ago, with Rhyl (scoring 15 goals in 18 games, before moving to Wrexham). Airbus, Bala and the rest won't know what's hit them. More important than Trundle's stepovers, though, are Neath's gates. By mid-October their average attendance was 808, boosted by three games on Sundays, to avoid clashes with the Swans. For the home game against Carmarthen, three Trundle fans even came from Essex. "Lee Trundle is a bit of a legend," said one. "We have been to see him play for Swansea City, Bristol City and Leeds Utd. The only problem was the club shop was shut on the day, so we weren't able to buy a Neath shirt with Trundle on the back." In fact, for that Carmarthen game, all under-16s were admitted free in order to – according to Neath's website – "help celebrate Lee's 34th birthday".
Of course, the new fans may be one Trundle injury away from never watching Neath again. And signing a 34-year-old superstar with mystery money is not sustainable, for obvious reasons (although Trundle is reportedly on a three-year deal). But how else would Neath have attracted a gate of 921 for a home match against Carmarthen Town? Or 884 for the visit of Newtown?
It's not, of course, the ideal way of building support. But, in the Welsh Premier's 18 seasons, the league's average gate has reached 300 only once. Attendances of over 1,000 are rare. Trundle signing for Neath is a shot in the arm for a club, and a league, that desperately needed one. For now, things look healthy. Somewhere, a plywood merchant might be smiling.
From WSC 286 December 2010