It was always likely to cause something of a shit storm, and now it’s likely to get completely out of hand. All of this is happening, as well, whilst the likelihood of it even mattering is still arguably less than fifty per cent. The fact of the matter is that Cardiff City will start the 2008 FA Cup Final as underdogs, but the small issue of whether they should be allowed to enter the UEFA Cup next season is already threatening to completely overshadow the match itself, which conveniently overlooks the fact that they have still got to beat Portsmouth in order for it to become a reality.
To the casual observer, it may seem pretty obvious. The winners of the FA Cup should play in the following season’s UEFA Cup. Cardiff City, although Welsh, play within the English league system and enter the English cup competitions, so why should they not be allowed to take what would appear to be an automatic right? The answer, you’ll probably be unsurprised to hear, is administration. Although Cardiff City (along with Swansea City, Wrexham, Newport County, Merthyr Tydfil and Colwyn Bay) are fully paid-up members of the English league system, their registration lies with the Football Association of Wales, and UEFA rules state that clubs can only qualify to play in the European competition of their country of affiliation. The decision of the FAW to start (what is now known as) the FAW Premiership in 1992 caused a considerable amount of bad blood within Welsh football. The FAW initially rail-roaded all Welsh non-league clubs into it, but eight of them (the “Irate Eight”) opted not to join. The FAW banned them playing in Wales, leading to the ridiculous situation of eight Welsh clubs playing over the border in England until three years later, when a court ruling allowed them back. By this time, five of the clubs had conceded and joined the Welsh league, while the other three plod gamely on, below the Conference.
Against this sort of a background, it’s not difficult to see why such a commotion has begun. The Welsh places for the European competitions go to Welsh Premier League sides, but the Welsh sides that play in Europe are left in a theoretical limbo, although it was a limbo that, largely due to their mediocre performances on the pitch, no-one had paid any attention to until now. One suspects that Alun Evans, the chair of the FAW, still harbours the belief that Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham (who were never petitioned to join the Welsh Premiership in 1992) should be members of it rather that members of the English system. He has certainly made public comments about his desire to have their reserve teams play in the Welsh Premier League (including in his recent work of Communist Manifesto-esque importance, ‘FAW Strategic Plan 2007-2012’) , though it strikes me that this would be pretty demeaning to the league itself.
Over the last couple of weeks, though, a storm has been brewing. First up, UEFA weighed in, with Michel Platini (who is, in theory, a supporter of the smaller clubs in Europe) stated that he hoped that Cardiff would be able to compete in the UEFA Cup next season, and the FA confirmed that they would be happy for them to compete as England’s representatives in it should they beat Portsmouth next month. The FA seem to be doing what they can to be accommodating towards Cardiff, having also confirmed (after some complaints about them playing “God Save The Queen”) that they would also play “The Land Of My Fathers” before the kick-off at Wembley. The FAW, however, seem to be taking this all as a sleight on their authority as a football association. The FAW is, ultimately, powerless, and the Cardiff chairman Peter Ridsdale has gone public in stating that he will, if required, resign Cardiff from the FAW and register them in England instead.
It seems to me that the FAW’s attitude is coming across as small-minded, and Cardiff are right to be concerned – their supporters might not be too bothered about the UEFA Cup, but what if they were to follow this up by getting into the Premier League and (suspend your disbelief for a moment here) qualify for the Champions League? There would be rather more at stake then, and they would have set a precedent which ends their hopes of something that could be very important indeed. A successful run in the UEFA Cup for Cardiff might just, regardless of who is registered to who, ignite a bit of interest in Welsh football, and this could be seen in many different ways, from the national team (and the number of empty seats at many of their recent home matches has been notable) down to the Welsh Premier League, where money is always tight. Frankly, when Alun Evans says this: “But in administrative terms and in terms of the credibility of Welsh football on an international basis then I don’t think the argument for their entrance into Europe can be sustained”, he’s not making very much sense. One gets the feeling, however, that it doesn’t really matter very much what he thinks.