2 August ~ It has been a momentous summer for Welsh football. A sense of optimism has been fuelled by relative European success for The New Saints and Bangor City - TNS's win over Bohemians was their first in Europe and the second-ever Champions League victory for a Welsh club. It was also only the second time that two teams from Wales have won in Europe in the same season. This has helped to ensure an increase in publicity for the Welsh Premier League (WPL) which has often struggled get attention even in the local media.
The league has also generated some headlines through the capture of former Swansea City talisman Lee Trundle by Neath, who are rapidly becoming the Man City of the WPL. Trundle is believed to have turned down a number of League One clubs to sign a three-year contract worth an estimated £2,500 a week. Neath, a few miles down the road from Swansea, hope to attract a lot of Swans fans to come and watch their former hero. How sustainable a business model this is for a club whose average attendance last season was 211 remains to be seen, but there is no denying the beneficial publicity for the League as a whole. TV channel S4C are in current negotiations to markedly increase coverage by showing a live match every Saturday throughout the season.
The backdrop to all this, however, has been an acrimonious downsizing of the Welsh Premier League to 12 teams. The new format is complex – 22 games and then two ten-game mini-leagues, plus an end-of-season play-off. Former champions, and the League's best-supported club, Rhyl, were unable to satisfy the strict financial criteria to enter the new Premier League after the withdrawal of their main financial backer. Their omission is an undoubted blow but the Welsh FA (FAW) must be praised for sticking to their principles, sending a message that you must be financial solvent if you want to participate in future. The impact on teams in the North and South Wales feeder leagues has also been traumatic. With all leagues across the pyramid reduced to a maximum of 16 teams, and six teams dropping from the WPL, 10 of last season's 17 second-level Cymru Alliance teams found themselves relegated.
Only time will tell whether the pain of the restructuring over last few months will be worth it for the FAW and the clubs. The new league format, better media coverage and arrival of high-profile players may capture the imagination of the public enough to see a sustained increase in attendances. But the recent history of Welsh club football suggests that it will not be an easy journey. Paul Ashley-Jones