One of the perceived anomalies in European club football is the presence of the six Welsh clubs in the English league system. What a lot of people don’t realise, however, is that historically the Football League was the pinnacle of a system that encompassed both England and Wales, and that prior to the launch of the Football Conference in 1979, Welsh football clubs mainly competed in regional leagues that were the pinnacle of non-league football in England and Wales. Teams from North Wales mainly competed in the Northern Premier League, while the Welsh Football League catered for the teams from South Wales. Once the Conference was formed from teams from the Northern and Southern Leagues, the Welsh Football League became a feeder league for the Southern League. The main reasoning for this was down to logistics. With most of the clubs based in the north or south of the principality, as well as the road layouts favouring west-east travel, rather than north-south, playing English clubs nearer to their part of border was always more favourable than playing those at the other end of the Wales.
It was only in 1991, that the Football Association of Wales got around to establishing their own national league. While the timing suggests that this was in response to the FA’s launch of the Premier League in England, the creation of the Welsh Premier League was related to the fear of certain people within the FAW – specifically Secretary General Alun Evans – that the lack of a national league could be a threat to the national side. That Liechtenstein were subsequently accepted by both FIFA and UEFA into national football suggests that Evans’ fears were unfounded. The creation of the WPL did open up the option of Welsh sides entering the European Cup and the UEFA Cup, in addition to the Cup Winners Cup, which clubs had already been entering though the Welsh Cup.
The WPL was not favoured by all Welsh clubs. The three professional clubs – Cardiff City, Swansea City and Wrexham – and eight non-league sides, known as the ‘Irate Eight’ initially refused to join. A power struggle initiated by the FAW, which saw the rebellious non-league clubs expelled from the Welsh Cup and barred from playing in Wales, saw Bangor City, Newtown and Rhyl perform an about turn and apply to compete in the WPL’s inaugural season. After a season in exile, Barry Town joined them, while the other four went to court in order to be able to stay in the English pyramid, but continue to play at home. The court case was successful, but Caenarfon Town decided to join the WPL anyway, leaving Colwyn Bay of the Northern Premier, Newport County of the Southern League and Merthyr Tydfil of the Football Conference (the latter two clubs playing at homes to former league clubs). For the latter two clubs, staying in the English football pyramid is more than just a matter of principle; it keeps a dream of returning back to a level their predecessor clubs had reached.
One man that almost wrecked Merthyr Tydfil’s stay in the English pyramid was Wyn Holloway. As chairman of Merthyr Tydfil, Holloway had allegedly managed to run up a debt of over half a million pounds, leaving the club in administration, and his aborted suggestion to merge the club, and move it to England left a bad taste in the mouth. The club’s Trust – Martyrs To The Cause – spent months trying to take over the club, but with only a limited amount of funds (after spending thousands helping prop the club up for no return), and relations between the Trust and Holloway clearly having broken down to the point that he was unlikely to accept a reduction of his reputed six figure debt, a CVA would not be possible, therefore financially, the only choice was to liquidate the club and create a new company, therefore losing their place in the Southern League Premier Division.
From a footballing perspective, they had two options. The first option was to bite the bullet and, against the wishes of the fans, join the Welsh pyramid, the second option was to find a way to stay in the English Pyramid as a reformed club. And in this respect they had an unlikely saviour. Last May, the Football Association made a one word change in their rules, one presumably with the Stephen Vaughan situation at Chester City in mind. The criteria for accepting a club as a reformation includes the club satisfying all creditors, and the rules before last May stated that it was a criteria that a reformed club had to fulfil, now the criteria is one that the FA may use. With all creditors bar Holloway satisfied, the single word change has allowed the new Trust run club, named Merthyr Town, to start two divisions lower in the Western League, alongside clubs from Devon, Dorset and Somerset. However, it’s not all good news.
Both previous Merthyr clubs had played at the town’s Penydarren Park, a ground built on the site of an old Roman fort, so further development on the site being unlikely to gain planning permission. The ground is also owned by the Merthyr Tydfil County Borough, and therefore was not an asset of the club’s. However the old club did hold the lease on the ground, and with none of the clubs creditors seemingly interested in taking over the lease, the prospect of the new club acquiring the lease seemed great – however, the club’s Administrators advised the club that they were in negotiation with a property developer over the lease. With the club’s administration period ending in June, the club were forced into a decision of finding a different venue for the forthcoming season and taking a long term view on the ground. As a result, the new Merthyr Town club will begin life playing at Taff’s Well AFC’s ground at Rhiw’r Ddar, on the outskirts of Cardiff, some 20 miles down the A470. The club still hope to buy the lease on the ground, but won’t be able to return to Merthyr this season.
In the meantime, Merthyr Town are looking to keep the club linked with the town. The club’s Community Team have announced a Football Cinema night, the first taking place last night in Merthyr Tydfil, with the town’s Railway Club hosting “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery”. The event is planned monthly, with next month’s film being “Escape To Victory”. With no football in the town for the first time since the FAW imposed exile, the new club are taking their community commitments seriously.
Merthyr Town take on Scarborough Athletic tomorrow in the Supporters Direct Shield at AFC Telford United’s New Buck’s Head ground, kick-off 3.30pm, with the Supporters Direct Cup between AFC Telford United and FCUM taking place at the same venue at 1.30pm. The gates open at 12.45, and tickets are £8 for both games.