OVER the years, I’ve heard many football fans say “The Welsh League’s are so boring, what’s the point in watching it?” or “There’s just no interest in those Welsh leagues” but I’ve come to realise that this is a very unfair criticism of our local footballing sides.
In truth, I used to slate it myself, as of course the standard is far away from even the lower realms of English football. However, once I actually started attending games regularly, a good five years or so ago now, I began to understand why people so many people support this league.
In this article, I explain exactly why the Welsh Premier League is underrated and give you, the readers, details that you may have never heard of before. So, sit back, relax, read and learn about the wonderfully weird world of Wales’ highest division.
Number one: Madness of the split!
One of the craziest things about the WPL is that the table “splits” into two separate leagues after Christmas with the top six fighting for Europe/ the title (if TNS are having a rare bad season) and the bottom six battling to stay up.
The 12 teams in Wales’ highest division face each other twice before December and then twice again during the split to make a 32 fixture season.
The messed up thing is that no club in the bottom six can finish higher than seventh, no matter how many points are gained during the split stage. So, the team finishing the season in seventh could have more points than the team in sixth but still finish below them. MAD.
Clubs finishing in third to seventh position then take part in a play-off to determine who gains the third Europa League spot the following season. Last season Bangor beat Newtown and Cardiff Met Uni to earn themselves a place in the Europa League qualifiers. They unfortunately crashed out 4-0 to Lyngby BK last month.
Should the Welsh Cup winners be amongst those clubs place third to seventh however, the eighth placed club would be invited into the play-offs.
I recently discovered that we aren’t the only nation to be using this system. I realised that the Polish Ekstraklasa League also have a similar split situation, so we’re not alone!
Number two: Football leaguers!
“Those playing in the Welsh League’s never go on to ‘bigger’ things”, WRONG.
Many a player from the Welsh Prem have gone on to play in England’s football league system and some have managed to make a real name for themselves.
Swansea City legend, Lee Trundle, scored 15 goals in 18 league appearances for Rhyl in the 2000/01 season, before making a move to Wrexham (who were in the football league at the time) the following season. He went on to play 94 league matches for the Dragons before moving to the Swans, who he absolutely dominated the lower leagues with.
His ability to pull of ridiculous skills made lower league defenders look silly and after scoring 78 goals in 146 league games for the South Walian club, he moved on to the likes of Bristol City, Leeds and Preston. He’s now an ambassador for Swansea City and playing for Llanelli, where he is continuing to score for fun despite being 40 years old.
Another former WPL man who made it in the big time was Mark Delaney. The centre back started off at Carmarthen Town before he became a regular feature for Aston Villa in the Premier League. Between 1999 and 2007 he made 158 appearances for the Midlands club and represented Wales 36 times.
The likes of Tom Bradshaw (Aberystwyth, now at Barnsley), Jamie Reed (York City, now back in WPL with Newtown), Rhys Healey (Connah’s Quay, now at Cardiff City) and Gary Roberts (Rhyl Bangor and Welshpool, now Portsmouth) have all progressed from the WPL to the English league’s too.
It’s not just the players though, some managers made the move across the border as well.
Former Southampton boss, Nigel Adkins played for Bangor once upon a time and made a name for himself as a manager there too when he guided them to the Welsh Prem title in both 1993/94 and 1994/95. He still regularly tweets about the club on Twitter and had sparked rumours of a move back to the club before Kevin Nicholson was appointed back in May.
More recently, TNS manager Craig Harrison opted to make the move to Jeff Stelling’s beloved Hartlepool, who have just been relegated out of the football league last season. The talented gaffer will now be looking to take them back to where they belong, but it won’t be easy.
Number three: Players are coming in the opposite direction too!
Yes, that’s right, professional players are actually now more than ever I would say, wanting to join certain WPL clubs.
Whilst the majority of the players in the league are semi-pro, (and TNS are the only current full time club, hence why they have won seven titles on the bounce!), in recent times, more pros are singing on at teams across the league.
Last summer, Bangor City recruited former Premier League players Dan Nardiello and Gary Taylor-Fletcher and have recently just signed Steven Hewitt, Luke Wall and Brayden Shaw from Accrington Stanley. They also had former Swansea City youngster Henry Jones on their books last season and have recruited Tom Kennedy from AFC Fylde and Danny Holmes who is a former Tranmere player.
But of course it is TNS who have most of the league’s professional players, with a long list of former football league stars on their books. Former Swansea City youth player Tom Holland has just recently signed on at the club and he joins the likes of fellow new signing Blaine Hudson (Chester and Wrexham), Adrian Cieslewicz (Wrexham) and Ryan Brobbel (Middlesborough, York City and Hartlepool) as pro’s at the club.
Neil Ashton (Former Wrexham and Shrewsbury player) has just signed for Cefn Druids, brothers Marc and Mike Williams who used to play for Wrexham play for Llandudno, the list goes on.
The league is arguably stronger now than it ever has been and with more and more professional players interested in joining the WPL, it promises to only get better.
Number four: Passionate fans!
If you thought that nobody gives a damn about the Welsh Premier League, the you’re wrong again I’m afraid.
Sure, it’s no secret that the crowd attendances at the majority of matches in the WPL are less than impressive, but the interest in the league is plain to see amongst fans, particularly on social media.
Bangor City are most commonly known for having the best support in the league, drawing average crowds of around 500 (although they did draw 1,400 to that Europa League match against Lyngby the other week!). Other clubs such as Aberystwyth (helped by their student population) are well supported, as are Welsh Prem comeback side Barry Town United.
The popular misconception is that the WPL is very underappreciated by people in Wales, but for the most part, it seems as though people DO care and there are a lot of journalists (of all ages!) currently getting involved with promoting the game, which is great to see!
Number five: It’s NOT as bad as you think!
The number of times I’ve heard the phrase “Welsh football is such a poor standard” is unbelievable. The truth is however, that it’s not as bad as most of those who have never watched it think it is.
TNS may have won the past seven titles now and 11 of them in total but since the league’s establishment in 1992/93 (which was coincidentally in the same year as England’s Premier League was formed), there have been five other champions too. Barry Town United were the original dominant side and won seven titles between 1995 and 2003 before they fell on hard times. Bangor City have won it three times (1993/94, 1994/95 and 2010/11), Rhyl have won it twice (2003-04 and 2008-09) and Llanelli (2007/08) and Cwmbran Town (1992/93) have won it once each.
Of course, it’s along way away from what fans of the English Premier League will be used to, but it does have its moments and often rains goals. The League’s top scorer over the years is Marc Lloyd Williams, who hit 318 goals in 467 appearances for Bangor City, Newtown, TNS, Aberystwyth, Rhyl, Airbus and Porthmadog during his illustrious career and is still to this day regarded as the best player to have played in the WPL.
The introduction of more professional players has undoubtedly seen the standard of football improve in recent years. The improvement of other players has seen certain clubs such as Connah’s Quay and Bala Town go from strength to strength and become two of the best teams that the league has to offer.
The league is ever growing in terms of popularity and many believe that the 2017/18 campaign promises to be one of the closest that there has been in a long time, as champions TNS have lost their long-term manager, Craig Harrison, and the other teams around them have continued to strengthen in numbers and quality.
Make sure you keep reading AFEFootballNews for more updates on the Welsh Premier League!