Welsh assembly

Football is becoming more popular in Wales, but Chris Hughes thinks there will soon be an unhealthy rivalry with the country's favourite sport

It’s never taken much to make the men who run Welsh football act like battery hens following an appointment with the guillotine. But it was still impossible to predict that the game in Wales would once again lapse into farce after the signing of a new, lucrative television contract… for rugby.

Not only did this latest row threaten the future of the League of Wales, the birth of which caused the last split in Welsh football, but it also highlighted football’s second-class status within the Welsh sporting establishment. Earlier this year, BBC Wales lost the rights to domestic rugby to HTV and Welsh language channel S4C (Channel 4 Wales). For years, the BBC have pumped out hours and hours of the sport in Wales, with equal time devoted to pontification and propaganda from the usual cabal of droning ex-internationals. Apart from regular coverage of the national team’s efforts, football has always taken second place to rugby on BBC Wales, both radio and television, even though it is played and watched by more people, especially in the north.

However, their ball snatched away from them, the BBC quickly had to fill a big hole in their sports schedule. “Welsh football is the people’s game,” said BBC Wales’ Dai Smith. As conversions go, it was like the president of the Flat Earth Society joining Chay Blyth’s crew for the next Round The World Yacht Race. But BBC Wales had one tiny problem. With a season of League of Wales games unlikely to be a ratings-winner, and the rights to the Nationwide League in the hands of HTV, they would be forced to create their own tournament.

At the launch of the new competition, the Invitation Cup, BBC Wales sports chief Arthur Emyr boldly proclaimed: “This competition will offer the game in Wales its biggest ever televised stage. It’s the beautiful game, and we’re about to re-ignite here in Wales. Welsh football is set to become bigger and better.” Words to make the average supporter splutter over their Brain’s or Wrexham Lager, given that they would not have reached Emyr’s lips if the BBC had retained the rugby contract. Predictably, it wasn’t long before this Frankenstein-like creation threatened to become an eight-headed monster with the power to cause more havoc than the original.

First there was the format. Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham were to be joined by the top four from the League of Wales, and to add spice, the best-placed ‘exile’ out of Colwyn Bay, Merthyr and Newport. The teams were split into two groups, with semis and a final, and regular live coverage. Everybody plays their group opponents home and away throughout the season with two-legged semis and a final at a neutral venue.

But ridiculously it emerged that it would be last year’s top four – Barry, Bangor City, Newtown and Conwy United – taking part, and not this year’s – Caernarfon, Inter CableTel and Ebbw Vale, Barry having run away with the championship again. The Welsh FA’s excuse? They wanted to get the names in the hat as early as possible. Then there was uproar at the participation of the exiles, who opted out of the League of Wales at its 1992 launch, a row which ended in the High Court with a £500,000 debt for the Welsh FA.

In recent months, an air of detente has settled over Welsh football, due mainly to president Brian Fear’s conciliatory attitude towards the exiles – a welcome contrast to his predecessors’ desire to see them go bust, because they were “as Welsh as Gateshead”.

They may still get their wish, with Merthyr Tydfil teetering on the financial brink. That cut no ice with the League of Wales clubs, though, who still wanted them out, pointing to Ton Pentre’s decision to quit the league after their own money worries.

So, the LoW clubs excluded from the Invitation Cup held out for a cut of the tempting £750,000 a year on offer from the BBC, with some threatening to quit the league if they didn’t get their way.

All this uncertainty, fuelled by rows about sponsorship and fears that the cup might affect Welsh representation in Europe, caused the BBC to get the wobbles and reduce their original three year deal to one season, with an option to continue if it proves a success. As I write, the row rages on, but as ever in Welsh football, some kind of compromise will be hammered out to the total satisfaction of no-one.

It remains to be seen how seriously Wrexham, Cardiff and Swansea take the new cup, especially if all their clubs are in the running for promotion again. Even at second-strength they will be too powerful for the League of Wales representatives, with the exception of Barry, whose professional status is threatening to cast a long shadow over the league, especially if they keep winning everything like they did this season.

Already, tiny Cemaes Bay have announced plans to go full-time, while Bangor have revived their ambition to become the ‘Glasgow Rangers of Wales’ by appointing Graeme Sharp as their new manager. But it’s clear that ersatz competitions like the Invitation Cup are not what Welsh football needs to recover its health. Instead, League of Wales clubs should be concentrating on developing young talent, nurturing juniors from nearby schools and improving skills. Desperate attention is needed to marketing too. The FAW has no proper commercial manager, and the League of Wales has had no sponsor for three seasons now.

They did, however, manage to attract a sponsor for the League Cup, the sports goods firm Gilbert. The footballs they produced for the competition led to hilarious results, as goalkeepers stood and watched previously deadshot strikers inexplicably hit balls way over the bar with alarming regularity. The reason for this sudden loss of form was quickly discovered however, as Gilbert were revealed as a leading manufacturer of… rugby balls. 

From WSC 127 September 1997. What was happening this month