Doubling up

Paul Ashley-Jones explains why TNS will be a force to be reckoned with in the Welsh Premier next season

When this year’s UEFA Cup draw was made, there cannot have been any greater sense of anticlimax than that felt by Manchester City when they were drawn against Total Network Solutions. Still, at least it should mean a straightforward passage into the next round for Kevin Keegan’s team, with no one really expecting an upset against a team based in Llansantffraid, a mid-Wales village of under 1,000 people. No one, that is, except Mike Har­ris, chairman and owner of TNS Football Club, who has gone on record as expressing his condolences to City for the fact that their long-awaited European adventure is to finish so soon. This is the same Mike Harris who has predicted his TNS side will become the second largest team in Wales, behind only Cardiff City, within five years.

The usual nonsense of an upbeat chairman designed to hype up interest? Possibly. But Mike Harris is different to the average chairman in that he has a track record of making his predictions come true. The multi-millionaire owner of a data communications company, Harris first got involved with the club in 1995 when he agreed to sponsor the shirts. Within a couple of years he had taken over the club and renamed them after his company, Total Network Solutions, seeing it as a cost effective method of promoting it, not just within Wales and England, but throughout Europe.

Since that time he has turned this village side into a fully professional team who lately signed a partnership agreement with Ken Bates. He was also instrumental last season in organising the League of Wales’s sponsorship deal that saw it renamed the “JT Hughes Mitsubishi Welsh Premier”. While the title hardly trips off the tongue and the money is very little, it was at least better than nothing, which is exactly what the League had had for the previous eight years. The fact that TNS will play their UEFA Cup “home” tie with City at the Millennium Stadium is again proof of the man’s ambition. Beaten to the title by Barry Town after leading for much of last season, TNS will be the team to beat this year.

However, even Harris has realised that his ambitions are limited in a village the size of Llansantffraid. To resolve the problem he has effectively taken over club number two, the financially stricken Oswestry Town, who are less than ten miles east. While an English club they have lately played in the Welsh pyramid and were promoted to the Welsh Premier a couple of seasons ago. With the merger under the TNS name approved by the Oswestry board, the club has effectively ceased to exist and there will be 17 teams, rather than 18, play­ing in the Welsh Premier next season. While TNS will alternate between their normal green and white kit and the blue of Oswestry next season, all home games will continue to be played in Llansantffraid. The sweetener is that Harris plans to build a new stadium in Os­westry ready for the team to relocate for 2005-06 season, with the youth academy and re­serves continuing to play in Llansantffraid.

The Football Association of Wales Council have ratified the merger but a potential sticking point is over their non-commitment as to whether the merged club will be eligible to rep­resent Wales in European competition, given that the new ground would be in England. European football is crucial to Harris’s plans and without such a guarantee the proposed merger will not happen. Harris has accused the FAW of dithering while the FAW say they are awaiting a response from UEFA. With the new season less than a month away and Os­westry having all but ceased to exist already with their players moving on, a collapse of the merger at this stage will leave egg on a lot of faces and throw the already published fixture list into chaos.

While the matter will be resolved one way or another, this is likely to be only the first of many battles between Harris and the FAW. In truth he is too big for the Welsh Premier, both in terms of financial clout and ambition. If the FAW do not sanction his ambitions then he will surely look elsewhere.

From WSC 199 September 2003. What was happening this month