Welsh rare hits

TNS did Wales proud against Liverpool, but Carmarthen and Rhyl went one better, as Paul Ashley-Jones explains

You wait for ages for a European club success for Wales, then three come round at once. While TNS’s 6-0 aggregate defeat to Liverpool in the Champions League may look like a whitewash, the Welsh club did not disgrace themselves and the result would have been a lot closer had it not been for Steven Gerrard’s late goals. The real plaudits, however, must go to Rhyl and Carmarthen Town for their first preliminary round victories in the UEFA Cup.

Till now no Welsh club had ever progressed in this competition and the wins against FC Atlantas and Longford Town were welcomed by a league that have constantly had to defend a poor record in Europe. The first-round experience of both clubs could not have been more different. Contrast the warmth of Longford and their fans in a 5-1 defeat against Carmarthen with the reaction in Lithuania, where Atlantas manager Vacys Lekevicius ran on at the end to punch one player while a forward struck keeper Ged McGuigan.

The results have lifted the Welsh Premier League, who recently sent a working party to Ireland to look at how successful summer football has been there. Until this season only one team, Barry Town, had got past the first round of any competition. What impact this season’s performances will have on the final decision waits to be seen. Critics of summer football argue that it is a huge change just to give teams a better chance in Europe and that chances can be increased in other ways that would not lead to such disruption. One would be to improve the infrastructure of the league through stadium development. Of the four Welsh clubs in Europe this season only one, Rhyl, were able to play their home legs at home. None of the other teams have grounds that meet UEFA criteria. Carmarthen had to play 100 miles away, in Newtown. With the Irish fans making up more than half the 800 crowd all “home” advantage was lost, which made their 5-1 victory all the more laudable. This has increased the controversy over the FAW’s decision to spend UEFA money provided for infrastructure development on relocating their Cardiff headquarters rather than on grant aid for ground development.

Carmarthen’s second leg with Longford was overshadowed in the media by the news that they planned to sign convicted football hooligan Craig Hughes and hoped to obtain his release to play in the game. The publicity surrounding Hughes, who was serving a 33-month prison sentence for fighting at Cardiff City’s match with West Ham in September 2003, overshadowed the build-up to the game. Eventually the authorities at the open prison decided not to release him, even though they had done so previously for a pre-season friendly. Hughes had played for Town manager Mark Jones when both were at Port Talbot and the planned signing had been local knowledge for some time before a News of the World article kicked off a media scrum.

Carmarthen then found themselves involved in another row, when they drew FC Copenhagen in the next round. They hoped to play the home leg at Swansea’s new stadium, but management company Stadco’s fee of £25,000 was beyond their means. Cardiff came to the rescue, offering Ninian Park for free. This caused an outcry in the press and poor publicity for Swansea, whose offer to provide the stadium at a much lower cost came too late. With Hughes released from prison we were then treated to the sight of a Cardiff hooligan, banned from all grounds until 2012, playing on the pitch. All this slightly overshadowed two excellent performances against the Danes, who contained a number of full internationals, one of whom, Michael Gravgaard, followed his first leg goal against Carmarthen by scoring in the same stadium against England six days later.

The European performances this season has brought much publicity to the Welsh Premier, the majority of which has been positive. It is also likely to have killed off the chances of a move to summer football for now. The challenge for the league is to show that this season is no flash in the pan.

From WSC 224 October 2005. What was happening this month