This week the FAW announced the names of clubs who had applied for a Domestic Licence for the 2016/17 season.
What is a ‘Domestic Licence’ you might ask? Although a big chunk of my regular readers come from within the Welsh football ‘scene’, it’s fair to say my blog attracts a fair few readers outside of Wales, so it’s probably worth defining what the ‘Domestic Licence’ is.
The ‘Domestic Licence’ (I’ll stop doing the ‘speech marks’ thing now just in case it sounds like I’m being ‘funny’ about the Licence) is basically a licence that clubs from the second tier of the Welsh football pyramid (Cymru Alliance and the Welsh League Division One) require in place before entering the Welsh Premier League.
The requirements of this licence range from the rather simple (Clubs must adopt a strict anti-doping policy on recreational and performance enhancing drugs, Clubs must adopt a ‘fair-play’ methodology) to the more challenging (Clubs must run a full and thorough youth football system, yearly medical exams for players, minimum capacity of 1,500 with at least 500 seats, a ground with at least two turnstiles, a control room, a minimum of 5 shower heads in the changing rooms, internet connection at the ground etc.)
Clubs are required to have all of these measurements in place in time for the annual FAW inspection which I believe occurs towards the end of the season before clubs move into the Welsh Premier League. If clubs do not have any of these measurements in place they have to prove to the FAW that they would be able to install/change/arrange these features in time for the start of the new season. Cardiff Metropolitan University I believe were told when they applied for a Domestic Licence for last season that they had to make adjustments to the availability of toilets for spectators and I also seem to recall hearing that the FAW weren’t too happy with the distance between the playing surface and the changing rooms (The changing rooms are set back in the main university campus).
Clubs are required to apply for this licence very early on in the season prior to being promoted, which can often create the scenario of some clubs applying for promotion even though they end up finishing the season well off a promotion place. This gives adequate time for all grounds and clubs to be inspected and for a fair and appropriate appeals process to happen in time for the start of the new season.
There are reasons for these rules and the FAW have put them in place for a reason, after all if the Welsh Premier League is going to improve, things like these need to be in place. A lot of the requirements I understand and respect. On the other hand I disagree with a few of the requirements but I’ll go into this in greater detail later on.
A healthy splattering of clubs from the north of the country in the Cymru Alliance put their name forward for potential promotion to the Welsh Premier League. It’s fair to say that the Welsh Premier League has been dominated by clubs from the north over it’s history.
The applicants from the Welsh League in the south of the country came in the form of Barry Town United, Cardiff Metropolitan University and Penybont.
As I alluded to earlier, Cardiff Metropolitan University successfully applied for a licence last season but were cruelly denied promotion on the very last day of the season by a single goal. Finishing third in the Welsh League, they were pipped at the post by Haverfordwest County who gained promotion into the Welsh Premier League on goal difference, finishing second in the Welsh League.
Penybont have previously applied for the Domestic Licence under their pre-merger alias of Bryntirion and have in recent years made massive improvements to their Bryntirion Park home ground and show a lot of ambition to move forward in the Welsh pyramid.
Barry Town United were always going to apply for promotion, such is the ambition at the club. Promotion for the club would mark another chapter in what has been a truly remarkable rise from the ashes following the club’s reinvention two years ago.
I’ve spoken to several fans at the club who commented that although other clubs and onlookers may see their application as ‘presumptuous’ given that the club only two years ago were threatened with the realistic prospect of playing their football at Sunday parks level in the Vale of Glamorgan, some ten levels of the pyramid lower than they currently play, that the club simply wouldn’t have been able to forgive themselves if they chose not to apply for the licence and found themselves finishing high enough to seek promotion to the Welsh Premier League.
You see, winning the Welsh League isn’t necessarily required to gain promotion to the Welsh Premier League. If the club who finishes in first place decides not to take up the promotion place then the position is offered to the runners-up.
Caerau Ely won the Welsh League last year but Haverfordwest County finishing five points below them took the honour of winning promotion. Monmouth Town won the league the season before this and West End won the league in the 2012/13 season without seeking promotion to the first tier.
Cambrian & Clydach, Goytre United and Aberaman Athletic have also won the league in the last decade or so, all of whom chose not to apply for promotion to the Welsh Premier League.
So is this a case of clubs not wanting to take the financial risk of competing at the highest level or does not come down to clubs being simply unable to afford sending 52 seater buses on ten hour round trips across Wales every other weekend?
So why then following Barry Town United, Penybont and Cardiff Metropolitan University’s application you might ask, did the other 13 clubs in Division One of the Welsh League not apply for the Domestic Licence and seek promotion to the Welsh Premier League where they would meet some of the best teams in the country, some of the best players in the country, feature regularly on Sgorio, be interviewed by the majestic Nicky John, be scrutinized by the tactical genius of Malcolm Allen and potentially gain entry to the UEFA Champions League or the Europa League come the end of the season?
From speaking to people at many of the current crop of Division One clubs much of the problem comes from the somewhat troublesome geography of Wales itself.
Take a club like Ton Pentre for instance. A club who once scaled the heights of the old League of Wales. The club represented Wales in Europe, they came tantalisingly close to silverware and for those of a similar age to myself made a lot of friends by way of their inclusion on the somewhat seminal football simulation game ‘Sensible World of Soccer’ or as it was more colloquially known ‘SWOS’.
Ton Pentre have a old, lovely ground at Ynys Park. Groundhoppers love it. A simple Google search for the ground yields many hundreds of positive reports from those like myself. It is simply impossible not to take in a night game under the Rhondda floodlights at Ynys Park and not fall head over heels in love with the old ground.
Aside from the romance of the old ground it’s not a bad ground to be truthfully honest. It has the ability to hold two separate turnstiles, it has the ability to offer spectator segregation if needed, the floodlights are of great quality, there is ample room surrounding the pitch to chuck a few more seats here and there if need be and as recently as 1987 it hosted a game against Cardiff City in the FA Cup which reportedly attracted as many as 5,000 spectators so it has more than enough room for a potential 1,500 spectators as per the FAW’s requirements.
Ton Pentre’s situation is repeated throughout most of the current crop of Division One clubs. So why is it then that these clubs don’t see the Welsh Premier League as a viable move?
As I was going to touch on before I started talking about SWOS and daydreaming about the time I took Ton Pentre to Cup Winner’s Cup glory on my old Commodore Amiga. The problem in Wales lies with the geography and poor transport infrastructure of the country as a whole.
I can drive from my house in Porth in the middle of the Rhondda Valleys to Central London in about two hours if I hit the M4 at a quiet time and I watch out for speed cameras on the way. Last time I checked I think that was a journey of something like 160 to 170 miles.
Yet when I attempt a Google Maps search of the distance between my house and that of Bangor City’s Nantporth home ground, I’m lead to believe I’ll be on the road for the best part of 5 hours to travel the similar distance of 160 to 170 miles.
A recent drive to Newtown’s Latham Park home ground for their Europa League tie against Valletta took a surprising three and a bit hours to travel the relatively small 100 mile journey.
I’ve heard of friends heading up to games at Bangor City and Rhyl going as far as travelling to Liverpool on the English motorway system before navigating their way across the north Wales coastline as it has worked out quicker for them.
The enemy of football clubs in the south is the A470 and for clubs a little west of the south Wales territory I’m talking about, then probably the A487 coastal road.
If you do a quick Google search on the A470 you’ll probably find it listed as being a high quality, high grade dual carriageway that serves the south Wales area and gets commuters into the very centre of Cardiff quickly.
The problem is that when travelling north on the A470 after roughly Brecon the road becomes a somewhat challenging series of poor quality roads that navigate their way clumsily through small hamlets and tiny villages in mid-Wales changing from being a 30mph road to a 50mph road back to a 30mph road before becoming a 60mph, all of these in the space of two miles.
Transporting a team of 18 players, 2 or 3 backup players in case of a late injury, a physio, the coaches, the management team and the loyal supporters who want to carry on their record of not missing a match for fifteen years on a ten hour round trip up the A470 every other Saturday can suddenly become a very expensive task.
In fact, for the purpose of writing this blog I phoned a couple of reputable coach companies in the south Wales area to get an idea of how much it would for me to send a 52 seater coach up to Bangor and back, leaving at around 7am to ensure my imaginary team were there with a couple of hours to spare before their 2.30pm kick off and returning at about 6pm to ensure they had enough team to properly cool down and get ready prior to leaving.
The quotes vastly ranged depending on which company I called but it became quickly clear that I was probably unlikely to get much change from about £1,500 and the highest quote came back at £3,500!
When adding a few mid-week cup games in and the odd weekend cup game, most clubs in the Welsh Premier League will typically play about 20 away games per season.
£30,000 purely on transport costs suddenly looks daunting doesn’t it? Especially when you consider that all clubs in the Welsh Premier League (excluding TNS who are a fully professional side) exist purely at Semi-Professional level.
These potential ten hour round trips would have a massive detrimental effect on player condition and fitness as well. Overnight stays the night before a match are very much the exception rather than the rule.
When players are asked to hold down Monday to Friday jobs as their football wages wouldn’t quite pay the mortgage, those difficult five or six hour trips to Bangor on a Wednesday night suddenly look even more difficult don’t they?
So yes, transport is a problem. We’ve all established that. The more eager among you will be asking ‘Wait, why is this a problem. These clubs won’t be travelling to Bangor or Rhyl every single week will they?. What about when they go and play Port Talbot Town at home or Carmarthen Town’, for most of the clubs in the Welsh League this represents an hours travel at most. Even mid-Wales side Aberystwyth Town could potentially be a viable mid-week away trip!
The problem here lies in the very nature of the Welsh Premier League format. As you may or may not know, the league splits in two halves around the January/February period and clubs from the top half play the rest of the season out against each other whilst clubs from the bottom half play each other twice to decide who gets relegated and who enters the Europa League play-off come May.
What if little old Ton Pentre, for example, finished in the bottom half of the Welsh Premier League whilst all of their ‘local’ rivals in Port Talbot Town, Carmarthen Town, Aberystwyth Town and Newtown finished in the top half? Suddenly Ton Pentre’s ten trips or so up north could easily become fifteen or sixteen, potentially more if they went on to reach the Europa League play off.
Clubs like Ton Pentre, Caerau Ely and Garden Village for instance, although they exist at what is truthfully the pyramid equivalent of the English SkyBet Championship, are a million miles away from that in terms of finances and the idea of just writing upwards of £30,000 a year off in travel costs suddenly becomes excessively prohibitive.
Coupled with the requirement to provide at least 500 seats, two separate turnstiles and the ability to segregate crowds at the request of the local council and police force, the Welsh Premier League starts to look a very difficult summit to reach for many clubs in south Wales.
So what is the solution? What can the FAW do to encourage more clubs from the south of the country to apply for promotion to the Welsh Premier League?
There are a couple of potential solutions for me, some are of course better than others. I’m no authority on the game – just an interested onlooker so my opinion counts for very little. However, here’s how I see it.
- The problem with the Welsh League is that once clubs enter the Welsh League system at Division Three (Tier 4) level, there are no further ground requirements placed upon clubs until they reach Division One and apply for promotion to the Welsh Premier League.This means that clubs who have met the relatively low ground requirements of the Welsh League (100 capacity stand, 1 manned entrance, suitable barriers, match day programme) they face no further improvement requirements until they apply for the Domestic Licence (500 seater stand, 2 turnstile entrances) and with attendances in the Welsh League typically averaging around the 150 mark there is very little reason for Welsh League clubs to improve their ground capacity, whether seated or not seated.
The Welsh League could potentially introduce a stricter set of ground criteria for clubs who wish to enter the First Division of the Welsh League, a set of criteria that is roughly in line with those of the Welsh Premier League. This would put clubs in a far better position to potentially achieve the Domestic Licence should they actually wish to apply for it.
Admittedly the problem with this idea is that it doesn’t really resolve the problem, it just puts the problem elsewhere. True, more clubs would probably apply to join the Welsh Premier League but it’s going to be a certainty that less clubs would seek promotion to Division One of the Welsh League from Division Two due to the increased level of ground criteria.
- The FAW could potentially increase interest in clubs seeking promotion into the Welsh Premier League from both the north and south of the country by allowing promoted clubs a ‘Probationary’ period of say one or two seasons where promoted clubs would be permitted to join the League regardless of ground condition, capacity etc. This would allow clubs who would have normally struggled with the financial implications of playing at the highest level of the game a couple of years to sort their finances out, put some of their TV money in the bank, maybe have a shot at making the Europa League and tackling things like improving the quality of their stands, installing more seating and opening a Directors box gradually over the course of two years.Of course, this isn’t to say that clubs with unsafe grounds shouldn’t be forced to at least improve the safety of their stadia but should a club who won their tier 2 league by for arguments sake say, 20 points really be denied promotion because their ground only has 400 seats as opposed to 500?
This idea also reduces the risk faced by many newly promoted clubs. No club wants to spend £200,000 or more getting their ground up to scratch for the WPL to find themselves relegated from the league nine months later and wondering they bothered spending so much money on their ground when they returned to playing Welsh League fooball in front of 70 punters every Saturday.
- The most extreme possibility is to perhaps introduce the idea of making promotion from the Welsh League and the Cymru Alliance mandatory or clubs face the possibility of disciplinary action. This is certainly a more extreme solution and not really one that I support if I’m honest.
Is there a better way clubs from the south of the country can be encouraged to seek promotion to the Welsh Premier League?