The 1995-96 season was the first time that Welsh Clubs playing in England were excluded from the Welsh Cup, resulting in the final being an all-League of Wales affair. Thomas Crockett explains why the occasion didn't get the publicity it deserved
Many supporters felt that the absence of the holy trinity (Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham) devalued the Welsh Cup, one of the world’s oldest football tournaments. Pre-match prognoses in the press were pessimistic, Wales on Sunday dishing the dirt by predicting the FA of Wales would lose £30,000 by holding the final at the National Stadium in front of a low crowd – a self-fulfilling prophesy if ever there was one.
So the finalists had a point to prove, namely that the League of Wales is a valid national competition, whose gradual improvement in playing standards has come at a time when the Welsh clubs in England – at least in South Wales – are in serious decline.
The match united the two ends of the LoW spectrum: the full-time professionals of Barry against the country bumpkins of Llansantffraid. Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain is a tiny mid-Wales village which in 15 years of watching local football I’ve still not found. It probably has more consonants than residents. Rumour has it it’s near Welshpool (which in turn is near Shrewsbury . . . you get the picture.) The team even got a spot on Football Focus, and a kind word from Chris Waddle. This publicity, especially in Wales, rarely rose above the usual “. . . village team . . . dream come true . . . David v Goliath . . .” True, the team’s achievements in a short space of time are, quite possibly, unprecedented. In six years they’ve gone from dodging the cowpats on mid-Wales dairy fields to struggling to raise a team for the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
What none of the features mentioned, however, was that despite being part-timers to loadsamoney Barry’s pros, the Saints play football with imaginations, skill and flair, unlike the superfit but prosaic Barry.
Make no mistake about it, this was a terrific final, which had everything: barmy supporters in wigs, two stunning volleys from outside the area (a ‘Cantona’ from Garry Evans and a ‘Shearer’ from Anthony Bird), a ‘Branco’ style long-range free-kick, diving headers, a couple of hilarious goalkeeping cock-ups, two late Barry equalizers, and a breathless penalty shoot-out, a brilliant diving save from Mulliner eventually winning the Cup for the Saints.
For entertainment this Final compared very favourably with the FA Cup hypethon (not difficult, I admit) and yet only 2,666 Welsh people deigned to attend (ten times this amount would maybe have done justice to this game). And there lies the rub.
The people of Wales, force-fed a diet of clichés and negative propaganda by the media, still believe their national league to be a Mickey Mouse competition.
Attendances actually dropped this year. The League and its clubs now face a big challenge to make the public aware of the strides that have been made in the first four years.
The LoW makes for entertaining, absorbing and comparatively cheap viewing, containing a wide variety of styles, from the Route One-ers of Conway and Barry to the gifted young students of The Beautiful Game at Knighton, Llansantffraid, and (ahem) my team, Aberystwyth Town. We have our own Moneybags Uniteds (Bangor City/Barry Town), our own Leeds Utd (Caernarfon Town); why we’ve even got our own Forest, a team who did well in Europe a while ago, play nice passing football but are very boring (Cwmbran Town).
The League has a lively fan culture, growing all the time, with fanzines, supporters clubs and websites. But still it is not considered a ‘proper’ league.
The TV contract with BBC Wales is up this summer; a weekly 30-minute slot would seem to be a necessary prerequisite of any new deal. This gem of a cup final was granted 25 minutes of highlights by S4C (Welsh Channel Four) and an hour (after midnight!) by BBC Wales. Laughable, criminal.
OK, I admit, I’m biased, a tragically besotted Aberystwyth Town fanatic. But if you don’t want to take my word for it, listen to the family of uninitiated Cardiff City fans I met after the Final on the bus home, raving about what they’d just seen: “Brilliant, much better than the FA Cup Final, really exciting, best game in years . . .”
Look, I’m not saying it was Ajax v Milan, but it was a brilliant game of football and in the Welsh context a classic. If cup finals are really as significant as we make them out to be, then for LoW fans at least, this was the day our baby moved into adulthood.
From WSC 113 July 1996. What was happening this month