With the division struggling to grow, the Welsh Premier League could be set to move to the summer, writes Owen Amos
Summer – great, isn’t it? Warm air, green trees, and light nights. Marvellous. But there’s one problem: no football.
From 2010, that could change. The Welsh Premier League – not for the first time – is considering summer football. It was last proposed in October 2005, but only two clubs of 18 voted in favour. Some argued players, bereft of holiday, would move to England; others insisted windy, wet Wednesday nights were football’s tradition.
But a March to October season is back on the agenda. The league – which formed in 1992 – has stagnated. This season’s average attendance, according to Welsh-Premier.com, was 274: a grand increase of six on last season, and down 26 from 2003-2004. Six matches had fewer than 100 fans. Something must change.That something, the Welsh Premier League thought, was structure. At a meeting in April, clubs agreed to split the league into two divisions of ten from 2010-2011, subject to FAW approval. An informal vote was also held on summer football. Here we go again, thought league officials. Another refusal. But, of eight clubs who voted, seven were in favour.
League secretary John Deakin is a well-known fan of summer football. He looks enviously at the League of Ireland, where summer football – in place since 2003 – has boosted European results. In 1999, for example, Irish champions St Pat’s Athletic lost 10-0 on aggregate to the mighty Zimbru Moldova. In 2006, Derry City won two Uefa Cup ties before losing 2-0 on aggregate to Paris St Germain. “I’m a firm believer that summer football is advantageous, and the main reason is Europe,” says Deakin. “We have games in June and July, and pound to a pinch of snuff we are drawn against sides in the middle of their season. A lot of those sides are better than ours, but a lot aren’t. Sides would fare much better if they were match fit.”
European runs boost clubs’ profile and revenue – however, only Barry Town, in 1996, have won two ties in a season. And only them, Rhyl, Carmarthen, and Llanelli have even won one tie. In July, for example, then-TNS manager Ken McKenna blamed lack of match fitness for their away goals defeat to FK Venstpils of Latvia. Deakin believes summer football has other benefits. “Think of spectator comfort – it’s a lot better to watch a match in your shirt sleeves in July, than having to wrap up warm and bring your wellies on a February evening,” he says.
“Also, for a lot of summer season, we wouldn’t be up against the quality of product available over the border. We have to compete, but it’s difficult with the television coverage and the ease of access. Clubs say to me ‘From our area, we have buses taking fans to Liverpool every other Saturday’.”
Summer football would also avoid the Six Nations, which empties Welsh high streets on Saturday afternoons in February and March. And postponements and boggy pitches would be rare: currently, some games are played on fields not fit for third form PE..The revived idea has provoked cautious optimism. Caernarfon secretary Elwyn Hughes said it would reduce competition with televised football – “It all boils down to bums on seats” – and Port Talbot chairman Andrew Edwards said it needed serious consideration. “Things need freshening up and we need to attract bigger attendances,” he said. Message board fans– in the main – are supportive. Other figures, such as Rhyl manager John Hulse, think summer football won’t work.
The clubs will formally vote at the league’s AGM in Cardiff on Saturday, June 6; approval would need ratification from the FAW. “We’re quite a small nation – around 2.9million people – but I totally accept attendances are not good enough,” says Deakin. “We have made a lot of progress from day one but it seems we have plateaued a little bit – and that’s not acceptable. The fact ten clubs felt unable to give an opinion (at the April meeting) makes it difficult to judge. But even the seven in favour is a significant shift on the two last time.”
The league’s playing standard, most agree, has risen hugely since 1992. Grounds are improving – Carmarthen and Port Talbot, for example, recently opened large, UEFA-approved stands – but profile remains low. Action, says Deakin, is needed.“I am optimistic for the future of the Welsh Premier League,” he says. “I haven’t got long left – next season will be my last in this job – but I am positive. But allowing it to drift is not an option. Doing nothing is not an option.”
From WSC 256 June 2008