09/03/2008

Welsh FA looking for new roads to Europe.

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