TNS, the Welsh side famously named after a computing firm, have kept their initials but have a new name, a new ground – and a new country to play in. Owen Amos reports on the Oswestry border wars
Which two sides with grounds in England don’t play in an English league? There’s Berwick Rangers, of course. And now, joining them in the pub quiz, are The New Saints, of the Welsh Premier League. The Saints, formerly known as Total Network Solutions – them who played Liverpool in 2005 – moved in September from Llansantffraid, in Wales, to Oswestry, half a dozen miles away and over the border in Shropshire.
Chairman Mike Harris believes the shiny new stadium will allow TNS, a full-time club, to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League. Some rival fans, however, insist the club must leave Welsh football now they have left Welsh land.
The old ground, Treflan, was standard Welsh Premier League: two small stands, plenty of grass, more spit than polish. But for Harris, who took charge in 1997, that standard is not good enough. The new ground, Park Hall, has a FIFA two-star artificial pitch – a dark green one with black rubber bits – and the temporary stand will be replaced with 3,000 seats inside a year.
Alongside the ground is The Venue, a leisure centre with a restaurant, a bar and a ten‑pin bowling alley. The club will need more bowlers than they get fans. In the past three seasons, attendances have averaged 321, 357 and 333, according to the ever-excellent Welsh-Premier.com. Park Hall’s first game, a 6-0 derby win over Caersws, attracted just 312. Harris – a genuine fan who promotes his club like a savvy car salesman – insists that figure will rise. “I believe our average gate will jump up to 500 within the next 12 months,” he says. “And if we continue to play well it could go higher than that. We only had the thumbs up to use Park Hall the day before the game – we didn’t have time to publicise it. As well as the 312 spectators, there were probably 70 to 90 invited guests. We’re very encouraged.”
Oswestry’s nearest Football League club are Wrexham, 13 miles north, and the town has 16,000 residents – 15,000 more than Llansantffraid. But The Saints – whose years named after a communications company grated with most Welsh fans – have now caused more anger. On Welsh‑Premier.com, under a thread called “Why an English club in this league?”, an Aberystwyth Town supporter writes: “It seems they want the benefits of playing in an English town whilst at the same time they also want the benefits of playing in Wales – ie being one of only two professional clubs, and the guarantee of European football year in, year out. The whole situation stinks.”
Yet it’s not that simple. TNS merged with Oswestry Town in 2004-05, who were on the verge of extinction. Oswestry were part of the Football Association of Wales at formation in 1876, and played in the first Welsh Cup a year later. After a century hopping between leagues, and countries, Oswestry returned to Welsh leagues in 1993. Harris argues the move – approved by UEFA on appeal, after being initially rejected – continues Oswestry’s Welsh tradition. “The borders have been fluid since time began,” he says. “If you look at where the borders have been, they’ve been as far as Staffordshire. We are that quirk of geography. Any team that has been successful are going to have fans of other clubs not liking them. If you look at Manchester United, Chelsea, it’s the same.”
TNS, as they are reminded at away games, have never won a European tie. Being drawn against Liverpool and Manchester City in the past three years hasn’t helped, but neither has playing home games at Newtown – the nearest UEFA-approved ground – Wrexham and the Millennium Stadium. If the Saints qualify, 2008 will see their first real home game in Europe.
“Our aim is to get into the Champions League group stages in five to ten years,” Harris says. “When we first qualified the team wasn’t good enough. Over time, we have got that experience. The last two seasons we’ve gone out simply down to the luck of football.”
Before the Welsh Premier’s formation in 1992, clubs such as Rhyl and Bangor City played in the English pyramid. Some fans look wistfully over the border. Harris has no such yearnings. “Why would we want to go backwards? The money that people think is available in England isn’t there. If you look at League Two clubs’ books, they’re struggling. Our league is progressing. If you look behind us, at Llanelli and Rhyl, they have taken up the challenge. The standard of play has improved in the last few years beyond recognition.”
For years, the Welsh Cup was taken over the border by, among others, Shrewsbury, Crewe and, as recently as 1990, Hereford. Come April, the Welsh Premier League trophy may also leave home.
From WSC 249 November 2007