Would English reserve sides ‘sexy up’ the Welsh Premier League

I’ve heard the line probably as many times as you have. It’s usually heard in a pub showing the unmissable Manchester United vs. Liverpool ‘South Wales’ derby on Sky Sports from the dribbling lager spewing mouth of someone who hasn’t watched a live game of football since his childhood.

“You know what would make Welsh football better? If they allowed Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham to put their reserve teams in the Welsh Prem! That would make it way better!”

It’s easy to assume from the passive vitriol expressed in the tones of my opening paragraph that I am somewhat against the idea of allowing English pyramid sides to field reserve teams in our national Premier League but I’m going to at least debate the idea with myself to try and evaluate at least some of the pros and cons of such an idea ever becoming a reality.

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Could Cardiff City Reserves find themselves playing at Stebonheath in a few years?

It’s easy to forget that the English pyramid Welsh based clubs used to play a regular role in the Welsh football season. Until 1996 the likes of Cardiff City, Swansea City, Wrexham, Newport County, Merthyr Tydfil/Town and Colwyn Bay were regular competitors in the FAW’s Welsh Cup competition.

In fact, the three most successful teams in Welsh Cup history are Wrexham (23 cup wins, 22 runners-up medals), Cardiff City (22 cup wins, 10 runners-up medals) and Swansea City (10 cup wins and 8 runners-up medals).

Following the expulsion of the English pyramid clubs from the FAW Welsh Cup in 1996, English pyramid clubs continued to play the FAW’s conveniently created FAW Premier Cup, which ran until 2008 when the BBC pulled the plug on the competition by removing their sponsorship money that pretty much ran the tournament.

Is the likelihood of a Vincent Tan visit at The Genquip Stadium possible?

Is the likelihood of a Vincent Tan visit at The Genquip Stadium possible?

Since the death of the FAW Premier Cup, competition between English pyramid and Welsh pyramid teams has been limited to the odd pre-season friendly.

So I ask would there be any genuine value in allowing English pyramid clubs the right to play reserve or development sides in our national league?

I’ve decided to tackle this idea on the basis of looking at several points I tend to hear from people.

“Putting Cardiff and Swansea’s reserve sides would break up the dominance of TNS and therefore make the Welsh Premier League a more competitive league”

Interesting point, I must admit on first thought I believed it would as well but surely if we’re assuming that Cardiff City and Swansea City’s reserve sides are better than The New Saints then wouldn’t we just be creating a similar scenario?

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The age of The New Saints’ level of dominance isn’t something that is completely brand new to Welsh football. Let us not forget that the mighty Barry Town once won seven titles in eight years during the late 1990s and early 2000s and they only lost that one missing title by a mere two points!

What would be the point in admitting these clubs into the league if all they were going to do was walk away with the league title every year. Wouldn’t we just be creating another Scottish Premiership?

We’re also assuming that these sides would indeed go and walk away with the league title. As someone who has watched more than a few pre-season friendlies between Cardiff City reserve sides and Welsh Premier League sides I’ve often found the Bluebirds have quite often failed to impress as much as expected.

I saw a Cardiff City reserve side go to The Genquip Stadium to meet Port Talbot in a pre-season friendly in 2011 only to be totally outplayed for the whole 90 minutes and truthfully they were very lucky to come away with a 2-2 draw after a very late equaliser.

The same Cardiff City reserve side went to Richmond Park in the Summer to play Welsh Premier League outfit Carmarthen Town, a Carmarthen Town who finished in the bottom half of the Welsh Premier League last season, and only came with what I’m told was a very unconvincing 1-0 victory.

The final example of this fairly underwhelming record against Welsh pyramid sides is rounded up with a Cardiff City development side actually losing to Welsh League champions Caerau Ely by 2-1 in August of this year.

Newtown celebrate at the final whistle.

Admittedly as I don’t follow Swansea City’s results as closely as I do with Cardiff City I don’t know how they’ve got on in recent pre-seasons against their Welsh allies but I think it’s fair to assume they probably have a similar record.

Therefore, is it safe to simply assume that Cardiff City and Swansea City reserve sides would simply walk the league given examples like these?

I’ve watched a lot of Welsh football this past year and I’ve also watched a lot of Cardiff City’s development sides over the last two or three years and I, like others, believe that Cardiff City’s development and youth system has never been poorer. The days of your Aaron Ramsey’s, Darcy Blake’s, Joe Ledley’s and Chris Gunter’s are a distant memory. The truth is that the Bluebirds haven’t produced a young player who has made a dent in their first team since the likes of Darcy Blake. The nearest the Bluebirds have to a homegrown player in their first team setup is their current midfielder Joe Ralls, who although he spent some time in the Cardiff City Academy system was actually bought from Farnborough at the age of 16. (I’m excluding Declan John from this list because although he played a fair bit of first team football for Cardiff in the Premier League during the 2013/14 season, he hasn’t played a string of games for close to 18 monthhs now)

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I’m convinced that any of the sides who finished in at least the top half of the Welsh Premier League last season (The New Saints, Airbus UK, Bala Town, Aberystwyth, Port Talbot Town, Newtown) would certainly give any English pyramid development side a run for their money.

“If Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham played reserve sides in the Welsh Prem it would improve attendances!”

See, I’m not sold on this idea at all. I admit that yes, the odd game would get a few punters interested but would this interest be sustained?

Put it another way, as I mentioned earlier I used to watch a fair number of Cardiff City development games. The club have started in recent years to treat development games correctly and all credit to the club for doing so. Instead of putting on games during the working day at the Cardiff International Sports Stadium, they’ve started playing games in the evening at their home ground, the Cardiff City Stadium. Making it far easier for supporters to pop along to games without having to take extended lunch breaks or even taking time off work to watch.

Getting to Cardiff City development games pre-2013 was something of a “need to be in the know” affair. Fixtures were rarely officially announced by the club, I’d usually find out of an upcoming match by some rumour on a messageboard or on Twitter the day before.

Even when games are played at night, attendances are still quite poor. In fact I remember only 18 months ago or so going to watch a Development league match between Cardiff City and Swansea City which ended in a 2-1 victory for The Bluebirds. Danny Graham scored a late consolation penalty for the Swans in what was surely one of his last appearances in a Swansea shirt.

Jon McCarthy can only look on in horror as his side fail to put the game to bed.

On the night something like 300 people found time in their schedule to take in the game, which for a competitive match between Wales’ greatest domestic rivals is fairly poor.

Neither first team side were playing as well that evening and to my recollection there were no big games being broadcast on Sky Sports that evening either. People just weren’t enthralled by the prospect of the game.

Now, 300 spectators for a south Wales based Welsh Premier League game is actually a pretty average attendance, probably a little higher than average to be truthfully honest but it’s not that dramatic an improvement is it? Wales’ two biggest clubs meeting and only truthfully pulling in about 50 more punters than a Port Talbot Town vs. Aberystwyth Town fixture would bring isn’t too great really is it?

Would a Swansea City development game in the Welsh Premier League at their Landore training complex against Rhyl honestly be that highly attended if their first team side were playing Manchester United at the Liberty Stadium and the game was being broadcast live on Sky Sports at the same time?

Likewise, would Bluebirds fans even bother traipsing over to the Cardiff International Sports Stadium to watch their development side entertain Llandudno in the Welsh pyramid while their first team played a crucial Severnside derby against Bristol City over the road at the Cardiff City Stadium?

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I’m not convinced in the slightest if I’m being completely honest.

“This would be better for the Welsh national team in the long run”

I guess the question here is whether Cardiff and Swansea’s brightest youngsters would be better placed playing week in, week out against kids of their own age and skill level (The English Reserve system) or against fully grown adults in a competitive but tough league that is probably being played at a skill level far lower than these youngsters hope to be playing at in the future (Welsh Premier League).

If we take Cardiff City as a sole example as I alluded to earlier, the side haven’t really seen a young player emerge from the development/youth system since the burst of youth talent around the time of Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley and Darcy Blake. It’s easy to forget that it has been a good eight years or so since these players starting making their break into the Cardiff first team.

As an ex-season ticket holder I saw loads of youngsters being talked about as being the next best thing. These ranged from those who were talked of in tones of being truly the next best thing like Nathaniel Jarvis (released from the club, now playing at Circencester Town), Aaron Wildig (released early in the Mackay era, now at Morecambe), Ibby Farah (released by Mackay, last seen at Cardiff Grange Quins in Welsh League Division Three) to the potential talents of Josh Yorwerth (Personally highly rated by me but was released by the club last Summer and immediately snapped up by Ipswich Town), Ben Nugent (Released) and Declan John (Struggling to hold down a place in the Development side at present).

Cortez Belle competes for possession

All of these players could have potentially represented Wales in the last two or three years had they been given the opportunity to play regular football and develop their skills in the adult game but this never happened.

The problem is that football is a results-oriented business. I’m not the biggest fan of Russell Slade as a tactician or even as a manager let it be known but there is one thing for certain that I know. If he gave two or three youth/development players a shot in the first team and they went on to lose four games on the run then he’d not only face the fury of the fans but would likely be condemned to the P45 by Vincent Tan.

This certainly isn’t only limited to Cardiff City either. Despite being arguably the best young manager in Britain at the moment, do you honestly think Garry Monk would survive the chop if he introduced three or four youth players into the first team and lost six games on the bounce? As liberal as Swansea City’s fan ownership model may indeed be, six games on the run can easily make people change their mind!

Port Talbot Town, very sportingly, form a guard of honour for TNS.

Port Talbot Town, very sportingly, form a guard of honour for TNS.

Football is results-oriented and there is no loyalty left in the professional game. There is always a Steve Mclaren, Sam Allardyce or an Alan Pardew waiting around the corner ready to jump in a manager’s grave before the undertaker has even started throwing the compost onto the casket.

If Cardiff City, Swansea City or Wrexham were to enter the Welsh Premier League the level of expectation would be so unrealistically high that whatever small amount of supporters followed them over to the Welsh pyramid would simply not be able to entertain the idea of not going the whole season winning every game.

Call me cynical if you like but it’s true! Can you imagine the uproar if Cardiff went and lost to Welsh Premier League strugglers Bangor City at home? Or if a pretty strong Swansea City side became unstuck against their rivals Carmarthen Town?

A Swansea City side in the English pyramid and a Swansea City side in the Welsh pyramid would be completely different entities, operating under the governance of different Football Associations (this is of course assuming FIFA would allow something like this, which is so unlikely I debated whether writing this article was even worth it!) so players would presumably only be able to move from the Welsh pyramid ‘reserve’ side to their English pyramid ‘first team’ by way of an official transfer.

Therefore, call me cynical but isn’t Mr. Slade or Mr. Monk only ever going to allow players to represent their Welsh pyramid equivalents who have absolutely no chance of playing for the first team ever that season?

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I mean think about it, if Swansea, Cardiff or Wrexham suffered five or six injuries (it happens!) then these reserve players would suddenly be needed. Do you honestly think Russell Slade or Garry Monk would ever take this monumental risk?

The reality is that any Cardiff City, Swansea City or Wrexham side playing in the Welsh Premier League would be made up predominantly of players with slim to no chances of ever breaking into the first team, given not only the risks associated with fielding a club in two different nations but also the lack of success all of these clubs have in bringing youth talent through into the first team in recent years.

I mean this is all before we even debate the ethical and moral issues behind simply injecting these sides into the Welsh Premier League and cheating all of the sides who have played their football for decades, even over a century in some cases looking to slowly work their way up the Welsh football pyramid on their own terms.

“Putting Cardiff or Swansea in the Champions League or the Europa League would be good for the country!”

I’ve heard this one probably more times than my wife and I have stumbled home wrecked from The Otley Arms in Treforest and ordered a Uni Takeaway at 2.30am despite their licence only allowing them to serve until midnight!

Proudly sponsored by Jonjo Shelvey and Jazz Richards

Proudly sponsored by Jonjo Shelvey and Jazz Richards

Simply put, FIFA and UEFA have dictated that English pyramid sides would never be able to qualify for European domestic competitions via the Welsh pyramid. This is the very reason these clubs do not enter the Welsh Cup any more.

The very problem this uncovers is whether current Welsh pyramid clubs’ places in the European tournaments would be put under risk with any potential introduction of ‘English’ clubs?

Would The New Saints for example still be allowed to qualify for the Champions League if they finished as low as 5th in the Welsh Premier League? (My imaginary scenario here has the league finishing (for example) as: 1st, Cardiff City. 2nd, Swansea City. 3rd, Newport County. 4th, Wrexham. 5th, The New Saints.

Are we saying that the single Champions League spot currently offered to the Welsh pyramid should fall to what I can only best describe as “The highest finishing Welsh pyramid side who only play their football in the Welsh pyramid”.

Consider the scenario: The New Saints, who play their football in England but compete in the Welsh football pyramid have their Champions League spot vetoed by the arrival of professional clubs who play their football in Wales, but usually compete in the English football pyramid?

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It’s almost too complex to put into a sentence.

Any idea such as this which potentially risks the already limited places the Welsh pyramid clubs are afforded in the European domestic competitions potentially holds the risk of completely destroying top tier Welsh football.

“Putting Cardiff and Swansea Reserves in the Welsh Premier League would make broadcasters like Sky Sports and BT sit up and take notice”

I’m the first to admit that if Cardiff City and Swansea City moved their first teams over to the Welsh Premier League then yes, it probably would interest the likes of Sky Sports and BT. In fact I’d probably say that under a non subscription based purse, S4C would struggle to hold on to the Welsh Premier League rights.

But this point really breaks down to two things.

  1. Is the fact that Sky Sports and BT Sports pretty much ignores all Welsh domestic football at the moment inherently a bad thing?
  2. Wouldn’t the broadcasting of the Welsh Premier League become some sad affair very much like that of the Spanish La Liga and the Scottish Premiership on Sky, where you are pretty much guaranteed that 95% of live matches just so happen to be “Barcelona vs. Whoever, Whoever vs. Real Madrid, Celtic vs. Who Cares? and Some Team No-one Cares About vs. Rangers?”
  3. Are we simply assuming that broadcasters would suddenly care about the Cardiff City and Swansea City reserves sides, who they don’t actually broadcast at the moment despite there being nothing stopping them from doing so!

Sky Sports, for all of their convenience and money in my view is inherently bad for the sport. It turns the game into a commodity that can be bought and sold. We’ve all no doubt become aware over the years of Sky Sports somewhat crude censorship of the game pre-1992 as if mentioning anything before they owned English football is something offensive.

Don’t get me wrong. I subscribe to Sky Sports, I watch football when it’s on. I’m as much a cause and a symptom of the problem as anyone is but I’m also more than aware of the damage they do to the game.

Whether they are right or wrong, convenient for the consumer or not, think of a few of the things that Sky have essentially dictated down to the Premiership:

  • Friday games.
  • Saturday lunchtime games.
  • Saturday evening games.
  • Sunday lunchtime games.
  • The awkward re-arranging of fixtures such as Arsenal vs. Liverpool from a Saturday 3pm kick off to a Tuesday 7.45pm kick rendering the game impossible for any Liverpool fans to get home.
  • The mass dramatization of Transfer Deadline Day, which underneath all of the glamour and intrigue is really just an administrative deadline no different to when you have to get your overtime form in at the end of the month or the money doesn’t show up in next month’s payslip!

And this is just what came off the top of my head!

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I asked on my Twitter feed for some reader’s views on the issue and one of the more interesting I received back was from Mark Tanner, who among other things said:

“One change that would be great for the league though is to offer a place in the Welsh system to the non league based Welsh clubs. They would have to start in the lowest Welsh Saturday league and earn their promotions up to the Welsh Premier League. This could then see Wrexham, Merthyr Tydfil and Colwyn Bay in the WPL within 5 years making the league a lot more competitive”

This is a very interesting idea, one which would of course require co-operation from the clubs and the leagues in question. I guess this point kind of harks back to the days of the ‘Irate Eight’ and the question of where they see their future.

Colwyn Bay at present seem to be on something of a downward spiral that threatens to take them into some form of complete oblivion at present. Whilst Wrexham and Merthyr Town certainly seem to be clubs who would consider themselves ‘on the up’ at the moment.

The real question is whether Merthyr Town and Wrexham feel they would benefit more getting into the Football League (admittedly Wrexham are probably a few years ahead of Merthyr Town on this one) or moving over to the Welsh Premier League and aiming for Champions League qualification every year.

One thing I’m not sure of with Mark’s point was whether his idea involved the likes of Wrexham and Merthyr Town co-existing in the English and Welsh pyramids or simply switching over in a cold turkey fashion. Would his plan involve a Merthyr Town reserve side slugging it out through the Merthyr Leagues, up the South Wales Alliance, through the Welsh League and then at some point their first team players would migrate over to their Welsh pyramid side?

So, Nicky… are there any positives?

I guess from reading this article, you’ve already guessed that I’m somewhat against the idea of Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham reserve sides entering the Welsh Premier League but I must admit that of course there would be some positives that could actually help improve the Welsh football pyramid.

  1. Money.

The introduction of Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County and Wrexham would of course bring with them sums of money into the Welsh Premier League that are somewhat lacking at present.

Even if the appearance of a Cardiff City or a Swansea City added a mere 100 paying punters on the gate for a Port Talbot Town game for example, this would mean the club taking in an extra £600  in gate receipts which at this level of the game is simply not to be snuffed at.

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Their appearance in the league and the assumption that a Sky Sports or a BT Sports followed them would probably result in increased television money which could be used to improve club facilities, youth facilities and put more clubs closer to working under a ‘professional model’.

2. Exposure

There is simply no denying that the introduction of the ‘English’ sides would lead to an initial rush of exposure towards the league in general. If FIFA were (very unlikely) to allow such a situation to happen the likelihood of the world’s footballing press taking the story and running with it is very likely.

In fact, I’m convinced that for the first season or two games would probably be reported on very intently by the likes of Wales Online, The Mirror, The Sun etc.

The question is whether this interest and exposure would last? Once the footballing press figures out that all Swansea City and Cardiff City are doing is playing their 16 and 17 year olds against all of these sides would the media’s initial interest simply die out?

Can the current crop of Welsh Premier League sides take advantage of that season or two in the sun in order to take advantage of the higher interest in the league and the potential to pick up a couple of hundred regular followers?

A Conclusion?

Although a distinctly bad idea (in my view) and an idea that hasn’t even been discussed at a high enough level to warrant realistic discussions with FIFA/UEFA as of yet, the introduction of English pyramid reserve sides into the Welsh pyramid at such a high level is something that certainly runs the risk of completely obliterating Welsh domestic football.

Welsh football is on the rise at the moment. Our national team is currently sitting comfortably within the Top 10 of the world. Two of our current starting midfielders are considered to be two of the best midfielders in the world, I’m of course talking about Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey.

Welsh Premier League attendances are slowly on the increase, the league is starting to attract players more attuned to the professional game (see: Lee Trundle, Leon Jeanne etc.). The league has enjoyed exposure in recent years from the goalscoring exploits of Aberystwyth Town’s Chris Venables whose recent striking form has lead to him topping the goalscoring charts throughout the whole of Europe outstriking the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney on a regular basis.

The reality is that the credit crunch that Britain has been under for about seven years or so has in an unlikely way been not all that bad for Welsh domestic football. I’ve spoken to so many Cardiff City and Swansea City fans over this last year that I’ve met at grounds who simply haven’t been able to afford the £400/£500 for a season ticket at their beloved club that they used to afford so easily, so they’ve binned their season ticket and started going to matches at The Genquip for a fiver, or down to Ynysangharad Park to watch Pontypridd Town for £3 instead to get their Saturday afternoon football fix and only picking the odd home game here and there to see their ‘old’ side choosing to pick up the slack by catching up with their sides on Sky Sports.

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In my view the best way English pyramid clubs can engage with Welsh pyramid clubs and secure playing experience for the youth players and to ensure the future of young Welsh players is to adopt a ‘feeder’ club model of sorts.

One club who do this very well is a club like Barry Town United who enjoy a very close working relationship with Cardiff City. A Summer pre-season friendly between the two clubs has become something of a tradition since Malky Mackay’s reign at the club, resulting in a near-sell out crowd at the club’s Jenner Park ground which is always great for the club kitty.

This relationship has improved over recent years to the point where Cardiff City were so assured of the playing quality at the club that they actually loaned Barry Town United two young players in the form of Jamie Bird and Elvis Menayese, whom I recently saw play at a match against Penybont.

I would love to see a system whereby the bigger clubs like Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County and Wrexham are actively encouraged to ‘adopt’ a club or two that are local to them and have a somewhat informal agreement in place where the English pyramid clubs act as ‘older brothers’ if you will, loaning the odd talented youth player here and there, maybe putting a bit of loose change into the club for improved youth training facilities – after all, these youth players are the very same players that these clubs will probably be negotiating over signing when they turn 18!

Whether this agreement turns more formal and the ‘feeder’ English pyramid clubs are afforded ‘first option’ on players should they be placed on the transfer market or released at a later date is open for discussion.

I would love to see a system in place whereby English pyramid Welsh based clubs do a lot more to help out clubs in the lower reaches of the Welsh pyramid. For example would it really hurt Cardiff City that much to offer their 3G surface ‘House of Sport’ training complex out to Welsh League based clubs for a couple of empty hours a week for free when it isn’t being used by paying customers?

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Would it really damage Swansea City that much if they were to offer out their Landore training complex to the likes of Briton Ferry Llansawel, Garden Village or even Port Talbot Town for a couple of empty hours a week?

Of course it wouldn’t! Surely this should be the first step we should be taking to encourage English pyramid based clubs to get involved in the Welsh game rather than just offering up a golden invite on a plate?

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2 Responses to Would English reserve sides ‘sexy up’ the Welsh Premier League

  1. twmowen says:

    I raised this very issue with Lee Trundle when I spoke to him in my role as a newspaper reporter back in the summer. Trundle didn’t seem to keen on the idea and I think the same day I published the interview on my blog a Cardiff City development side lost 7-1 at Newtown.
    It’s worth pointing out that Cardiff City and Swansea both used to field reserve sides in the Welsh League you are currently spending a year in. I’m not sure when that stopped but I’m sure it was sometime before the Welsh Premier was established.
    I like your idea of a an ‘adopt a club’ approach and it isn’t dissimilar to the sort of relationships City are supposedly building with Tan owned clubs in Bosnia and Belgium or that which Man U apparently had/have with Antwerp?
    I think the likelyhood of enticing those clubs playing in the English non league, specifically Merthyr, to the Welsh pyramid were dealt a heavy blow by Newport winning back a place in the (English) Football League. For years I would suggest Newport would be better playing in Wales and Europe (again) than pottering around the English lower leagues. May 2013 changed that.
    Here’s my interview with Trundle for those who are interested https://newsattwm.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/lee-trundle-welsh-footballs-royal-show-man/

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment!

      You’re correct. Both sides had quite the heritage in the Welsh League at one point. Although I also couldn’t find any record of when they knocked it on the head.

      I will definitely check your Trundle interview out when I get home!

      Liked by 1 person

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