The plans to restructure the Welsh Premier league have been met with an equal amount of support and opposition, as Paul Ashley-Jones reports
In May the Football Association of Wales (FAW) published plans to restructure the Welsh Premier (WP). The move, the greatest change in Welsh domestic football since the WP (previously the League of Wales) was created in 1992, proposed a cut from 18 teams down to ten by the end of next season. This plan didn’t come as a shock and had been endorsed by the clubs themselves some time ago. What did surprise them was that the FAW rejected a ten-club second division.
Under the original plan the eight relegated teams would be joined by a further two to form a WP Division 2. Unsuccessful clubs hoped they would still share the sponsorship, publicity and financial support received presently. Now, however, those who fail to make the cut will find themselves relegated, either to the North Wales Cymru Alliance or, in the south, the Welsh League. The repercussions will be felt right down the Welsh pyramid system and will be exacerbated by the FAW’s decision that feeder leagues will in future have a maximum of 16 teams. All of this will inevitably see a number of teams drop further down the pyramid and some into local league football.
A compromise of sorts was agreed at the League’s AGM in June whereby after next season the top ten WP clubs together with one promoted club from each of the two feeder leagues will form a 12-team league. With three relegated and two promoted over the following two seasons the league will be reduced to ten by 2012-13. This revised proposal will still see up to eight WP teams relegated next season. Imagine the scenario if a similar proposal was adopted in England, with nearly half the Premier League teams relegated to the Championship and the resulting knock on effects for Leagues One, Two and beyond.
This all goes back to the fact that since its creation the league has struggled to obtain its fair share of publicity and financial support. There is huge incentive to play in a league where the winners qualify for the Champions League and second and third also qualify for European football. However, the lack of funds available to support member clubs is illustrated by the money received from league sponsor, the Principality Building Society. While very welcome, it gives each club an annual amount that barely covers their wage bill for a fortnight. Financial support from the FAW (given as grants to support ground improvements) is also recognised as too little to make a tangible difference to 18 clubs. That participation in the League and in Europe is financially risky is demonstrated by the decline of previous winners and European representatives Barry Town and Cwmbran, both of whom now play in the Welsh League with unpaid players.
In this context the move to the so-called “Super Ten” can be seen as an attempt to drive up standards. Fewer teams mean a bigger share of sponsorship and available grant money which the FAW hopes will help speed up improvements in squads and stadiums. The 12 clubs who will participate in the 2010-11 Welsh Premier will be decided on the basis of their final league position next season providing they hold a domestic licence, having achieved minimum standards in six criteria. This is far from a simple tick-box exercise as clubs are required to have a stadium with a minimum capacity of 1,500, with at least 500 covered seats – a stringent requirement for a league with an average attendance of less than 300.
The reaction from clubs has been mixed. Some have welcomed the move and recognise it as an essential part of the FAW’s strategy to drive up standards. Those likely to lose out are not so supportive. Cefn Druids chairman Brian Mackie was quoted as saying that the move will be a “major step backwards”. The club hopes to qualify for a domestic licence by moving to a new stadium, but Mackie says: “My view is that it will now become an invitation league with the qualifying criteria being adjusted to suit the clubs the FAW want in the league. With no help for clubs in the feeder leagues the Super Ten will become stagnant.”
Many clubs are going to face a battle on and off the pitch next season if they are going to play in the future Welsh Premier. Together with the knock-on implications of the FAW’s reduction of clubs in the rest of the pyramid, it’s going to be an acrimonious and difficult few seasons for administrators and supporters alike.
From WSC 270 August 2009