3 May ~ The recent history of the Welsh Premier League (WPL) hardly suggests a robust product. The league has just completed its 20th season, its second with a reduced 12 clubs. "On balance I feel the new format has been a success," said outgoing league secretary John Deakin. "But obviously there have been criticisms levelled at the league and a review should be carried out in the summer." Hardly a vote of confidence. Some discontented member clubs are keen to move back to the old format of an 18-club league.
The last restructuring in 2010 was designed to improve playing standards and increase public and media interest. The first season of the "Super 12" saw the highest ever average attendance, which dropped this year to 314, a 7.4 per cent reduction.
One of the main criticisms of the new format has been that clubs play each other too often. Including a Welsh Cup match and a two-legged League Cup tie, Afan Lido and Port Talbot Town played each other seven times last season. Even the most diehard fans struggled to motivate themselves for that many local derbies.
Further tinkering with the formula this season involved the league's first winter break, which was brought in after yet another failed attempt to introduce summer football, a concept which has consistently been rejected by the majority of member clubs.
The season culminated in a last-day title decider between the New Saints and last season's champions Bangor City. The New Saints won the game 5-0, with their comfortable victory providing them with some revenge for last season's title-deciding final day defeat.
Neath, who finished third in the league, failed to retain their domestic licence and were relegated. They had gone fully professional, signing players such as Lee Trundle, playing their part in attracting both media and crowds to the league. This season their support dropped substantially and a major sponsor withdrew, meaning they struggled to pay wages. Neath have now emulated former champions Barry Town and Rhyl in dropping down to a feeder league.
As the WPL clubs comprise a national league, they are subject to the same licensing criteria as other clubs who wish to compete in Europe. They also have to hold a domestic licence covering various areas, including a commitment to youth coaching. It is a massive amount of work for clubs who are run mainly by volunteers.
For the league to prosper, the Welsh football association need to provide clubs with the financial backing to employ more full-time staff. However, their current plans seem limited to looking at a possible salary cap and revisiting, yet again, the concept of summer football. Both may have their merits, but the reality is these plans are simply tinkering around the edges. Paul Ashley-Jones