9 October 2009 ~ In a league of Airbus UK, GAP Connah's Quay, Technogroup Welshpool and Elements Cefn Druids, it's nice to see a sponsorless, four-letter name leading the Welsh Premier League: Rhyl. The league's public profile was once boosted by a sponsored club – TNS gave Liverpool, the European champions, two good games in the Champions League in 2005-06; they also played a UEFA Cup tie against Manchester City in the Millennium Stadium. But, until 2006, TNS – which now stands for The New Saints – stood for Total Network Solutions. Nice marketing, perhaps, but the name became a punchline.
As the Welsh Premier found out, having a Shropshire-based communications company as champions does nothing for your image. TNS last won the league in 2007. In 2008 it was Llanelli – who also benefited from a benefactor – and in 2009 it was Rhyl, who also have a wealthy chairman. But Rhyl prove there's more to the Welsh Premier than sponsors and short-lived European runs. Their home, Belle Vue, has the things a top-level football ground should have: turnstiles instead of a tatty ice cream tub on a table, a club shop with home and away kits, two tea-huts instead of one burger van and, best of all, 2,000-plus seats instead of 250.
The ground is also UEFA-approved – unlike most in the league – and has hosted European football for the past six seasons. This year Rhyl played Partizan Belgrade but, after a decent start, lost 4-0. Reaching the Champions League, however, almost killed the club. At the start of 2008-09, Rhyl spent – for Welsh standards – big money. Signings included Neil Roberts, a former Wales striker, Greg Strong, who had a long career in England and Scotland, Josh Johnson, a Trinidadian winger and Lee Kendall, the league's best keeper. Rhyl took the title winning 29 games out of 34. But the squad, like the wage bill, wasn't sustainable. Roberts joined Manchester City (in a non-playing role), Johnson, who disappointed after a bright start, was released, Kendall left for Port Talbot. Craig Jones, a flying winger, went to TNS, Luke Holden, an energetic midfielder, joined Charlton Athletic. Even the manager, Allan Bickerstaff, left although Rhyl insisted that wasn't financial.
As players departed, rumours started. Would Rhyl go bust? Was it Barry Town all over again? Rhyl asked the FAW for their £300,000 European prize money early. The FAW said no. The rumours got louder. The club said the decision was "an inconvenience", which would cause "reformulation" of the budget but it denied administration. The squad is smaller but the first team is arguably better. Lee Hunt, who left Rhyl for Barrow in 2008, has returned and is scoring. John Leah – surprisingly released by TNS – has fitted into midfield. The new player-manager, Greg Strong, is yet to lose a league game.
This year's title race will feature the usual runners: Rhyl, Llanelli, TNS and possibly Neath, who are now full-time. But of those Rhyl have the most heritage (while playing in England, they reached the FA Cup fourth round, the third round twice and have beaten, among others, Stoke, Wigan, Barnsley and Notts County). They have the most fans, with the highest average attendance in the past six seasons. And, of course, they have a simple four-letter name. Owen Amos