Archive for March, 2008

The Portuguese Connection

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Although Easter is not normally a good time to travel, with high prices all around due to school holidays, I found good enough prices to allow me to go to the airport at the centre of nowhere, Frankfurt Hahn. Flying out of a Saturday, back on a Sunday, I thought I might miss some of the high holiday traffic, but too many other people had similar thoughts; both Stansted and my plane proving to be as busy as ever.

Saturday was the day for the Coupe de Luxembourg. I love Luxembourg, few smaller places can have such a confused history. The country was once four times in current size, although not then properly constituted as a country. The French, Germans (or Prussians), and Belgians taking giant slices off it at various times, while Napoleon just claimed the whole territory for France, (it was the treaty after the defeat of Napoleon that defined the Grand Duchy, less the Prussian bits – Belgium snatched its selection a few years later, and even grabbed a bit of the German slice in 1919).

The major languages are French and German, but then there is always the local language, Luxembourgish sitting somewhere in the background. Added to this, the country’s position at the centre of Europe have drawn in other people from all over the EU and many from further afield. Fortunately for me, most of the locals speak English as well. Luxembourg has a single professional league of 14 teams, although with average crowds, one wonders if this is completely full time. The second division, known as Promotion D’Honneur (in French, anyway) is also a National division of 14 teams, while there is a small pyramid of more localised leagues below this. All the teams play in the National Cup, with the more senior clubs exempt from the earlier rounds. In February, all the top division teams entered and all were given away draws. Eight of them went through and of these, seven had away ties at Easter, the exception being the one all top division tie, there was also one tie which was only Promotion D’Honneur teams, (two lower teams had made it to this round).

My first match was at FC Mamer 32. The name tells you most of what you need to know about the club, it comes from Mamer (a small town, just West of the capital), it is a football club, and it was founded in 1932. In 2006, they won promotion into the top division, but had a miserable season, finishing bottom of the table and were replaced by PH champions, the rather over-named Rapid Mansfeldia Hamm Benfica. Hamm Benfica play in the capital, and have merged several different club names over the years, including FC Hamm 37, Manseldia Clausen, Rapid Neudorf, and from 1986, Rapid Mansfeldia. Playing for a while as Rapid Mansfeldia Hamm for a few years, they were ‘adopted’ by local fans of the Portuguese club Benfica two years ago. It appears that any connection between this club and the Portuguese giants is tenuous at most, although it may be part of a plot to take over Europe. There is already a Benfica club in London as well, although Sport London e Benfica (the Lisbon club’s official name is Sport Lisboa e Benfica) plays only in the Spartan South Midlands League.
In London, the Benfica club is linked to the local Portuguese population through its players, while its only support are friends and relations of the players; in Luxembourg, it is the supporters who are Portuguese, whereas the team is from a wide range of sources such as the Congo, Tunisia, France, Portugal and even Luxembourg.

The town of Mamer seems small, quiet and mainly residential (and by and large, closed – as shops and bars all seemed to be closed), but when I drove a little further down the road, I found a hive of activity in the form of a major out of town shopping mall, featuring C&A and Habitat (there was a time where you could find something different in the shops by travellng). Returning back towards the centre, past a school named after Josy Barthel, Mamer’s only ever Olympic gold medallist (actually, Luxembourg’s only ever Olympic gold medallist), one finds the football ground. It is next to a sports hall and within a running track, and overlooks a field between here and the town hall. There is one small covered stand, clearly recently erected, probably in honour of Mamer playing in the top division last season.

The match ticket is €6, which thanks to a drop in the value of the pound is almost £5, there is no programme, but just an magazine giving an annual review of the club. I soon find out why Hamm Benfica were promoted and Mamer were relegated last season – the visitors are ahead after just three minutes, thanks to their Tunisian striker, Aoued Aouaichia. The score is three within 24 minutes, after which the game appears to be more of a training effort, with no pressure on either side, Hamm end up 4-0 winners.

From Mamer, it is only 12 km to Steinfort, the last village on the road before the Belgium border, (which makes the use of a German name, rather than a French one slightly surprising). Steinfort have also decided to go ‘Portuguese’, although not with much noticeable success. The club is now defined as Sporting Club de Steinfort, (which is really only a small change from last season’s Sporting Steinfort). By changing the name, which according to their magazine brings them within the family of Sporting Club de Portugal, they have gained a new badge (identical to the Lisbon club, except the name), and have switched from playing in red to green and white hoops. Unlike Hamm Benfica, who had a number of supporters wearing both their own colours, and those of their Portuguese namesake, there was no obvious connection among the fans. As it turned out, one member of each side’s starting XI for the match was Portuguese, while the home side could also both players from France, Belgium and Senegal, the visitors were, with that one exception, made up entirely of Luxembourg citizens.

The visitors here were Etzella Ettelbruck, who had finished as runners up last season. This allowed them to play their fifth European campaign, but they lost both legs of the tie against HJK Helsinki. In ten matches, Etzella have yet to win a single game in Europe, and have only three goals to their credit. The ground was tightly enclosed, with concrete paving only on the side where the entrance is. A shed like stand is set well back from the pitch, with a wide expanse of concrete between it and the barrier. This has a few rows of plastic seats, but these were widely ignored by the spectators, except for a group coming from Ettelbruck who considered this to be a good place to situate their crate of beer.

An unusual feature of the ground was that although the dressing room block formed a boundary to the ground, it has no entrances at all pitch side – the players have to leave the dressing rooms roadside, and enter the ground through the same gate as the spectators. Perhaps the walk from the dressing rooms is a feature of the division – at Mamer, the players changed in the sports hall facilities, and then walked along a path and across a small wooden bridge, which brooks the stream running between the hall and the playing field.

For the spectators, a small club room and bar is situated by the entrance and a traditional barbeque where German style ‘wurst’ was available by half time. The game was much more competitive than the earlier one, despite Etzella again being well placed in the league.
The game was far more competitive than the afternoon venture and the first half ended goalless, with Steinfort having the best chances. It was not until the hour mark that Etzella broke the deadlock with a goal from Alphonse Leweck. By this time the amount of beer being consumed was having an effect, and it became clear from chants that the visitors preferred the moniker Etzella, while the home support did stick to the town name, but not Steinfort as in the club name – they preferred Stegefort (three syllables, Steg-e-fort), which is the Luxembourgish pronunciation.

Steinfort level the scores from the penalty spot with just over ten minutes to play, and the game goes into extra time. Chief beneficiaries appears to be the bar, which is now doing a roaring trade, there being no ban here on drinking around the pitch and the visiting fans original supply being well finished. Along the side of the pitch, just inside the barrier fence, the area seems littered with empty bottles; even within a sliding tackle’s distance of the touchline.

Ten minutes into the extra period, Claudio da Luz put the visitors back into the lead, (despite the name, he is a Luxembourg international), and Charles Leweck added another soon afterwards to give Etzella a 3-1 final score. As it turned out, there was a run of away results, and seven of the final eight in the cup are from the top division. The only home win was in the all top division game, whereas the only survivor from the lower division is Sporting Mertzig, who won away at fellow Promotion D’Honneur club Muhlenbach, thanks only to a penalty shoot-out.

Return Trips.

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

My groundhopping trips are not all far flung foreign adventures. I also spend my time trying to keep up with the game at home.

Returning to visit clubs who have moved to new stadiums allows me to see again some significant rivals of old. Two successive days last month not only followed this pattern, but also gave me the satisfaction of once again having completed the visits to all grounds in the top four levels of non-League football in England.

The first club of the trip was Chelmsford City. The old ground in New Writtle Street was in the centre of town. It was especially well known for the atmosphere at night games, which then, as well as now traditionally took place on a Monday night. Cheltenham and Chelmsford had a long rivalry, with Chelmsford joining the Southern League in 1938, just a couple of seasons after us. They were Champions of the Southern League in their second season, and repeated the feat in the first post war season, then again in 1968 and 1972. They have, however always had a reputation for more ambition than their finances permitted. The 1970s was a period when non-League football on the whole lost was finding support hard to come by, with a drastic reduction in gates compared to a decade before. Chelmsford’s directors remained ambitious in this period, but ambition with dropping crowds, and a council set against other means of improving income (they rejected an ambitious bid to add office accommodation to the ground in the early seventies, and also the idea of using the ground for greyhound racing later in the decade) led to inevitable financial problems.

A drop in form through the seventies led to the club being relegated from the Southern League’s Premier Division in 1977, just two years before the formation of the Conference. Hence they were not among those applying for the new national league, and have been playing ‘catch-up’ ever since. The club returned to the Southern Premier when it was reformed in 1982, and almost made it to the Conference (then Alliance Premier League) when finishing second to Welling in 1986. This was a flash in the pan, though and Chelmsford were struggling more than successful over the following years, (and relegated for a singular season, 1988-9). The story almost ended in 1993, when a supporters club buyout saved the club from liquidation. Somehow the club limped along in the Premier Division for another four seasons before relegation. But worse was to befall them in that season. When the club went through administration, the ground was one of the few saleable assets, and with it sold by the official receiver; they finally found themselves without a home at the start of 1997-8 season.

The club found solace ten miles away as tenants of Billericay Town, (they later also shared at Maldon Town), and they should have won promotion within a single season. However their promotion bid fell foul of the Southern League. In what is seen by many people as a political decision as part of long running arguments between the Southern and Isthmian Leagues, the Southern League refused the accept the ground as suitable for Southern League Premier Division, even though it was graded to allow host club Billericay to be promoted that summer. In 1998, the Southern and Isthmian League’s set their own standards for promotion, but the inconsistencies between leagues was still showing last season when the Southern League graders failed the facilities for Evesham United, despite the fact they now share at Worcester City, playing at a higher level. Chelmsford had to wait another three seasons before promotion was again available.

Those here that remember the Southern League will remember a league with a footprint covering most of the Southern part of the country, but with practically no clubs in the London area – that being the domain of the Isthmian League. By the start of this decade, most of Chelmsford’s near neighbours were Isthmian League sides, rather than Southern. Chelmsford were therefore one of the winners when the FA finally managed to bring about a reformation of pyramid. The Southern League Premier area covers much of what we remember, but no longer includes any clubs in London, Sussex, Kent and Essex – the Isthmian League now had all of these, but has lost those clubs to the West and North of London, (some of whom have suffered since, as their travel bills have shot up). So Chelmsford are now one of the former Southern League sides that have moved leagues, and they are again on the up.

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Two Views of Chelmsford’s new Ground

Last season, they returned to playing in their home town, (despite the name, Chelmsford has never been a city). The situation is not ideal, playing on an athletics stadium in a residential area some two miles from the centre of town. The ground consists of a main stand, with around a thousand seats, and raised well above ground level to allow reasonable viewing despite the track. A disabled section to the front of the stand is also raised, which made my viewing better as my friend Chris, who is confined to a wheelchair joined me for this one. Opposite this are a few more rows of seats, covered by a roof hung from an adjoining building – but this would be much poorer to watch from, lacking the height above ground. While most of the pitch surrounds are just level tarmac outside the track, behind both goals there about four steps of metal framed terracing – built up on the curve of grass inside the track – with walkways across the track defined by temporary fencing removed after every game. Apparently the ground has received a grading sufficient to allow it to be promoted to the Conference South, but the ambitions of the club must reach higher, and it is difficult to see how this can be achieved within the current surrounds.

As for the game, visiting Carshalton Athletic are struggling in the lower reaches of the league, and never looked like a challenging opponent for league leaders Chelmsford, who won 3-0. The crowd was just over 1000, following 1190 two days earlier for the visit of Horsham. Since I visited, Chelmsford have consolidated their position at the top of the league, and the big result, a 3-2 win over AFC Wimbledon last Saturday (attendance 3201) means they are 11 points clear of their rivals with just seven games to play.

Another day, another game. After heading East on the Monday, Tuesday was North to Wakefield. Now you may remember at the start of the article that I was visiting old rivals of Cheltenham – but you may also say that Cheltenham have never played Wakefield. This is because of another tale of ground moves and obscure ground grading regulations. While Cheltenham have not played in Wakefield, they have been up on the moors above the town, where they played Emley in the quarter-final of the FA Trophy. Cheltenham won that afternoon, (a fraction short of 9 years ago) with a single goal from Neil Howarth, in front of 1239.
Emley started to make their name in the 1960s, when as a member of the Huddersfield League, they reached the last 16 of the old FA Amateur Cup and squeezed over 5000 into the Welfare ground when losing to Barking. They joined the Yorkshire League the season after that victory and won the title four times before the league became part of the Northern Counties (East) League which was founded in 1982. It took a couple of seasons before Emley found their feet, but by the middle of the decade they were one of the leading lights of the new league. Emley reached the semi-final of the FA Vase in 1987 and then the Wembley final a year later – losing to the well financed Colne Dynamoes by a single extra time goal. Also in 1988, Emley were league champions, but promotion was denied as the ground was considered not up to standard. Retaining the title a year later, they were now promoted to the Northern Premier League’s lower division. Two seasons later they reached the Premier, and also went on a run to the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy, losing to Kidderminster. More success followed, with a run to the third round of the FA Cup in 1998, beating Lincoln City in round 2. When they finished runners-up in the Northern Premier League to Stalybridge in 2001, 3708 people turned up for the final home game, when Stalybridge won 3-2 and ended up taking the title by just one point. Still, knowing that whatever happened, promotion to the Conference would be denied to Emley at the Welfare ground, the following season they moved in to share the Rugby League ground of Wakefield Wildcats. After a year the renamed themselves Wakefield & Emley (and later tried Wakefield-Emley), but this did nothing to help the club out of decline, and crowds have dropped season by season since the move. The club’s reserve team never moved away from the Welfare ground, and in 2005 they divorced themselves from the old club and joined the West Yorkshire League as AFC Emley, gaining election to the Northern Counties (East) a year later. Wakefield-Emley reacted to the change by dropping the Emley part of the name and moving again, from the rather oversized Rugby League ground, to the smaller confines of the what was a Rugby Union ground, until the club had gone bankrupt. They also suffered relegation at the same time. What they have gained is a neat ground, with seating for around 300 and some terracing each side of the stand. The badge on the stand is that of the old Rugby club, and in fact the name Wakefield Football Club is displayed. A small piece of cover has been erected, for no apparent purpose behind the goal furthest from the entrance. This consists of scaffold poles covered by thin plastic above three steps of terrace.

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Wakefield in action on their new ground

Having narrowly avoided relegation last season, Wakefield have done a little better this time, and are currently in mid-table. I saw them lose a disappointing game to promotion challengers Curzon Ashton by 1-0. The crowd was just 98, close on the average for the season of 102 (the lowest in the division). Meanwhile, two divisions lower, AFC Emley are also in mid-table – but have average crowds of 121.

David Beckham and The London Legal League

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

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A Thursday night in South East London. The area around the Millennium Dome (to be more accurate, the O2 Arena is its current designation), is eerily quiet. Most of the area around North Greenwich tube station is given over to car parks, and the only life appears to be those people changing from the tube onto local bus services. The dome itself is lit up, with advertising for coming attractions, and behind the dome, one can see across the river where the towers of Canary Wharf are lit brightly against the night sky.

In the opposite direction, there is an inconspicuous building, what appears to be the curved roofs of two warehouses. As one gets closer, you can see that these are not standard warehouses, the roofs and upper walls are made of a fabric which rustles in the wind, and the logo on the end sections are that of a stylised footballer. The building is, in fact, the David Beckham Academy. A place where the youngsters of today have the chance to get a day’s football training for the not exactly paltry sum of £80. As a business venture, I am sure that it is going to be a success, (there are other similar ventures (without the icons name attached) running in London, and I am sure they will be hitting the rest of the country soon) – but this goes beyond just being a training facility. It provides two full size football pitches, (using the most modern of artificial surfaces) inside tents, and therefore protected from all but the worst that British weather can throw.

When the good people met back in 1863 to form the Football Association, they had in mind the ideals of amateur sport which has not survived the subsequent mixing with the real world. One can mourn the passing of these ideals, but had football not grown up; it would have stayed an elitist sport and something else would be the ‘game of the people’. There was one group of people that would have no truck with the introduction of professionalism, with the result that the Amateur Football Alliance split from the FA just over one hundred years ago. The split did not last long – the AFA returned to the FA fold as a County Football Association, with the ability to run its own competitions. Their game has developed since mainly in London and the South East based on old boys clubs and large sports clubs, (some of which are private, some company owned). It is not co-incidental that AFA members include the sports clubs of large financial institutions, (all the big banks, including the Bank of England and major insurance companies). While there is no absolute model, AFA clubs are typically on large playing fields with many pitches (and often other sports as well as football) and a large club house. The building of spectator facilities are minimal. These clubs do present a style of exclusivity that can make non-members feel unwelcome at first.

The two main leagues are the Southern Amateur League and the Amateur Football Combination. The latter was a merger of two leagues about 10 years ago and includes a large number of Old Boys clubs. The Southern Amateur League is considered to strongest of the leagues – until the FA introduced ground facility regulations, SAL clubs could compete in the FA Vase although they were never over successful.

It is another feature of the Amateur game that made the Amateur game of interest to the groundhoppers. This is their regular representative games. When I was first introduced to these, there was a regular series of games, although always organised on a slightly informal friendly basis – between the various leagues, the AFA itself, and representatives of the major Universities (Oxford, Cambridge and London only), the Civil Service and the Armed forces. Most of these took place on midweek afternoons, allowing the more crazy football supporter to run around and tick additional games. Although the Amateurs themselves may have been in it for fun, and selected their home venues as ones suitable to put on a ‘bit of a do’ for the old boys in blazers who run the AFA and followed these fixtures, some of their opponents had more serious events to build up to. For Oxford and Cambridge University, these matches were all about the build up to the Varsity game, and for the Services, it was in preparation for the inter-services competition each spring. The Civil Service may play games against the services and the AFA, but they never stuck to amateur players – I have seen players from Enfield (then the top non-League side in the country), Liskeard Athletic and Newcastle Blue Star playing together for Civil Service.

Until this week, I had not been to a representative game for 16 years. I think partly this primarily due to changes in my life, meaning I wanted to use my leave for other purposes. More recently, when I might have gone to a few, I have found the pattern of afternoon games has been lost in recent years, replaced by floodlit matches on standard non-League grounds.
But back to the David Beckham Academy. As well as staging its training courses, the Academy hires out its pitches every evening. One of its regular tenants is the London Legal League, which stages matches there most Thursdays. I would not consider the Legal League to be the pinnacle of non-League football, or even of the AFA game. I have never considered going to one of their league matches, and this is not likely to change. What attracted me to this match was the uniqueness of the venue. In this I was not disappointed, and as a bonus I got to see a half decent football match as well. The entrance to the academy is just like any other leisure centre, but one then walks down a corridor displaying mementos of the icon’s career – some of his England shirts, some shirts from illustrious opponents, and a series of boots.

The pitches themselves are below two curved fabric roofs held up by a steel infrastructure. The buildings have the feel of small aircraft hangers. The pitches are full size, and by that I do not mean legal minimum size for football, but suitable for league and international games. The curves of the roof are not very high at the sides (the supports come to the ground between the pitches) and the ball twice hit them during the game. The referee restarted with drop balls. The pitch is surrounded by inflated ‘sausages’ about three foot in diameter, and continually inflated with compressed air, like the outside of a massive bouncy castle. There are no spectator facilities as such, and a cafe area for parents use while their children are on the courses was closed.

The Legal League team are drawn from teams which in turn are drawn from the employees of the various legal firms in the city. The visitors, Cambridge University are students vying for places in the varsity game. The remains of the old amateur ethic is still present in two ways. Some uncompromising tackles, which would have David Beckham himself writhing on the ground for several minutes were not actually treated, and the referee was treated with respect, the only cards given being for fouls, not dissent. The first half was entertaining and even, with a number of chances going begging before the University took the lead from a penalty. The Legal League equalised with a powerful header from Rob Carter just on the stroke of half time, and the same player added a second early in the second half. But as the game progressed, the students were demonstrate ably fitter than their opponents and also appeared to benefit from having played together more. It was no surprise they eventually turned out 4-2 winners.

One final feature, and again one of those of the amateur game – as the crowd of 30 persons (all but one of them groundhoppers) left the ground, the Cambridge side shouted out “Three cheers for the London Legal League!!!”

A Night to Remember

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

I am not one to steal other people’s words as a general rule, but I hope no one minds a few quotes from Phil Hay’s report in the Yorkshire Evening Post.

“In a community made famous by thoroughbreads, the inhabitants of Cheltenham are of irrepressible ilk…
“Cheltenham Town are not a national treasure in the way that their annual (racing) festival is, but tradition plays a less influential part in football than it does in racing.
Leeds and Cheltenham are in different leagues historically and, before this season, the clubs have never shared the same division.
But after a 2-1 victory at Elland Road which was more emphatic than the final score, the unfancied squard possessed by Keith Downing had the satisfaction of being the first to beat United both on home soil, and in the shadow of Beeston Hill”.

If anyone wonders what drives the football fan to take time off work and travel the length and breadth of the country, then this match is the answer. One cannot beat the shared elation of being in the crowd that has just seen their team pull of an unlikely vcitory.

As recently as 1997, Cheltenham were in the Southern League. Leeds were members of the Premiership until 2004, and have reached the semi-finals of both European competitions since Cheltenham joined the league. Even if the two teams play on the same field, there is still a difference between them – this game was the lowest crowd of the season at Elland Road, but it was near enough three times the figure for the best crowd of the season at Whaddon Road. It should not be a surprise to learn that that game also involved Leeds.

I don’t know if Cheltenham can build on this result – hopefully the team will use it to drive their push to maintain their league position in final nine games of the season – but everyone knows that when the dust settles the public of this town will not head through the gates of Whaddon Road on a regular basis.

But for the moment, let us forget about the people who were not there – let us remember that we were there on the day that Cheltenham Town won at Elland Road. This is what it is all about

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Welsh FA looking for new roads to Europe.

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

There may have been a time when the football authorities listened to the people they were supposed to represent, and had some agreement before they started making statements on changing competitions – but what on earth would be the fun of that? In the current world, leagues and associations make statements first, and discover the consequences afterwards.
The FA of Wales has always been a good one for this – the history of the league of Wales from its inception has demonstrated their inability to communicate with its own members. Until 1993, things were straight forward enough – the FA of Wales ran non-League football in Wales, the International team and the Welsh Cup, but the biggest clubs in the principality played in English leagues. All those clubs playing in English leagues, plus a few selected other would play in the English FA Cup, and by reciprocal arrangement some English teams would play in the Welsh Cup. When European competition came along, the Welsh Cup was considered important enough to enter a team in the Cup Winners Cup almost from the start. It was soon agreed that this team had to be Welsh, and could only be the winner or runner-up of the actual cup. This did not present a problem as except for a short period in the mid 1930s, there has always been a Welsh side in the Welsh Cup final. Wales’ first representatives in European football were Swansea Town, who lost to the East German team, Motor Jena. Oddly the next two seasons saw non-League teams Bangor City (then Cheshire County League) and Borough United (Welsh League North) in Europe. Bangor drew with Napoli and had to play a third game before they went out. Borough were the first Welsh side to win in Europe, beating the Maltese side Sliema Wanderers before losing to Slovan Bratislava. These were one-offs, as Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham took the majority of the places and it was more than 20 years before non-League football (Bangor, then Northern Premier in 1986, and Southern League Merthyr Tydfil in 1988) again qualified. Newport County, although in the Football League, played only once in Europe. This was of course a legend – they reached the quarter-final but like Swansea could not get past Jena (now known as Carl-Zeiss Jena).
The League of Wales was started in 1992-3 despite much opposition within Wales. The first champions were Cwmbran Town, who entered into the European Cup the following season, beating Cork City 3-2 in their first game, but going out on away goals. (In four returns to Europe since, Cwmbran have lost every game). The FA of Wales arguments for starting this league were numerous – creating a league that had European status was just one of the reasons, while another was to create a clear division between English and Welsh football at a time when they thought their status as a separate member of UEFA and FIFA was under threat. Although the idea of a combined British international team had been made on several occasions, it was mostly newspaper talk, and there was little international call for this to happen. In the early and mid 1990s, a large number of new footballing nations were emerging thanks to the breakup of post-communist Russia and Yugoslavia, while in other areas of the world, more and more smaller nations were joining the confederations. UEFA realised they needed numbers to keep them one step ahead in international terms of the growing Asian and African federations, and so they were not about to deny Wales their existence. By the end of the decade, they have even added San Marino, Liechtenstein and Andorra to the club competitions, despite the fact that all these cases, the territory’s most senior clubs play in another country. (All Liechtenstein’s clubs play in Swiss football, and as such the principality does not have a league, only a cup; AC San Marino play in the Italian Serie C2, while Andorra has had a club in the Spanish second division, even if they have now dropped down to a local Catalan division).
The next move by the FA of Wales, however was the worst one. In an attempt to improve their fledgling league, they withdrew their sanction for Welsh clubs to play in English non-League competition. They decided not to take on the league clubs, and to give Merthyr Tydfil a period of grace. This did not go as expected, as some of the clubs refused to tow the line, even though this meant a period of expulsion, playing in exile on shared English grounds before a high court ruling stated the club’s rights to stay in the English pyramid even with grounds in Wales. This led to the end of the exchange rule where some English clubs could play in the Welsh Cup in return for the Welsh clubs in the FA Cup. Meanwhile in England, the FA had made clear that although Welsh clubs continued to play in the English leagues, there was no chance of them qualifying for Europe through the League or FA Cup.
There has in fact, only been one occasion when a Welsh team could have qualified for Europe through the English game, and this was Swansea back in 1982. As it happened, they managed to qualify for Europe through the Welsh Cup, and this took priority over their league position. In 1995, the Welsh Cup final saw Wrexham beat Cardiff City 2-1, and Wrexham lost to the Romanian side Petrolul Ploiesti by a single goal in the following Cup-Winners-Cup. Since then, only clubs entered into Welsh completion have entered the Welsh Cup. Curiously, despite the FA of Wales abandoning their clubs to English football, they retain control of disciplinary procedures for these clubs, resulting in many accusations that the football league trio get an easy ride.
The League of Wales allowed more Welsh participation in Europe, but by keeping the league sides out, put paid to any positive results for the Welsh, apart from the odd win against some non-entity from Eastern Europe. (This season, The New Saints lost to Latvians Ventspils, and runners-up Rhyl to Finnish club Haka (both on away goals), while Carmarthen went down 14-3 on aggregate to Brann Bergen).
The FA of Wales have long recanted, and been trying to get their big clubs back into Europe, but have found that UEFA are now determined not to change the rules for them. The creation of a Welsh Premier Cup did not help as UEFA ruled it could qualify clubs for Europe. Had the FA of Wales made an effort to find a true champion of the country in the early 90s, when UEFA rules were in flux, then a place might have been found for a Welsh Champion, with the competition to decide it running in parallel to the English and Welsh competitions.
Earlier this season, the FA of Wales announced a new change to the Welsh Premier League (giving it its new title). The league would reduce from 18 to 16 teams and include the reserves from Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham. This was announced without consulting the administrators of the Welsh Premier League, any of the clubs, the League clubs or UEFA. It turned out the clubs did not fancy it, and UEFA would not sanction the idea, (if one of the reserve clubs qualified for Europe by this route, they would only be able to use players registered to the Welsh club, and there could be no dual registrations across the border). It is worth thinking though, that Cardiff City, the loudest opponent of the plan had suggested something very similar some time ago (different chairman), when they considered taking over one of the Welsh teams.
Another attempt will take place next month to get Michel Platini’s backing for a change in the order, (which even if successful would have to get full UEFA backing later). There is just a possibility that this might come to something if it was for a return of the exiles to the Welsh Cup, and a simultaneous withdrawal of the clubs from the English FA Cup (if they will accept that). This is similar to the situation where all of Liechtenstein’s clubs play in the Swiss Leagues, but they also play their own national cup, (and not the Swiss Cup). With FC Vaduz normally winning the cup and playing in the Swiss second division, Liechtenstein’s clubs now have a higher UEFA co-efficient than Wales! (Liechtenstein are 37th of 53, Wales are 48th, ahead only of the Faroes, Luxembourg, Malta, Andorra, San Marino and new entrants Montenegro). Back in 1992, there were only 33 countries, but Wales were in 25th place. If UEFA were to accept the idea, then the FA of Wales may still find that the clubs may reject it. Indeed, it may be more interesting to clubs such as Merthyr Tydfil, who could get a serious shot at European competition, than to Cardiff City – whose run to the semi-final of the FA Cup has netted them £420,000 in prize money alone. I would estimate well over £1 million when additional gate money and TV fees are accounted for. These are not sums that can be equalled by clubs losing in the early stages of the UEFA Cup