One of the quieter success stories of the last twenty years of British football has been the establishment of the Welsh Premier League. The foundation of this league, however, was far from harmonious with eight clubs which felt they were being corralled into leaving the English non-league pyramid ending up in a bitter dispute with the Football Association of Wales. Of those eight clubs – who were dubbed the “Irate Eight” by the press – five have since joined the league while two – Newport County and Colwyn Bay – remain in the English pyramid and one – Merthyr Tydfil – has subsequently folded without having joined the league and its successor club, Merthyr Town, opted also to stay within the English system.
In spite of these difficulties, the Welsh Premier League is still with us with crowds at a reasonably healthy level and media coverage – thanks in no small part to S4C’s excellent programme Sgorio – has helped to keep the league firmly in the public eye. Still, though, there seems to be no significant pressure on the biggest of the country’s clubs to leave the English system and join up. At the end of last season, the potential benefits of staying within the English pyramid were shown to their fullest possible extent when Swansea City won promotion to the English Premier League at the end of last season, and their progress in that particular lion’s den has been one of the pleasures to watch of this season. Similarly, Cardiff City have been knocking at the door of the Premier League for several seasons now without having quite made that final step. The idea of a South Wales derby in the English Premier League remains a distinct possibility for next season.
It is against this complicated and convoluted background that the possibility of Welsh clubs entering the Welsh Cup next season has to be considered. The Football Association of Wales has submitted a request to UEFA to allow all Welsh clubs that continue to play in the English league system to play in the Welsh Cup from the start of next season. Such an invitation would, of course, drastically increase the likelihood of Swansea City or Cardiff City having the chance to compete in the Europa League in a couple of years time through winning the competition, but there is, of course, a catch: clubs seeking to enter the Welsh Cup which play in England would most likely have to withdraw from the FA Cup and the Football League Cup in order to compete in it.
The Chief Executive of the FAW, Jonathan Ford, has stated that, “[It would be] a fantastic opportunity for Newport, Colwyn Bay even Swansea and Cardiff. Let’s hope they may play in the Welsh Cup soon as well”, but things aren’t necessarily as straightforward as it would at first seem. Until 1995, there was no issue with Welsh clubs plying their trades in England from entering the Welsh Cup. Indeed, the definitions over who counted as “Welsh” for the purposes of this competition were fuzzy enough to allow Shrewsbury Town to win the competition ten times, with their last victory in the competition coming in 1985, and the last English winners of the competition were Hereford United in 1990.
The jettisoning of English clubs and Welsh clubs playing in the English league system was perhaps a necessary by-product of the FAW’s need to give its own league an identity in its formative years. At the start of this season, however, six clubs playing in England – Cardiff City, Swansea City, Wrexham, Newport County, Colwyn Bay and Merthyr Town – were invited to play in the Welsh Cup, although only Newport County, Wrexham and Merthyr Town took up the offer. The appeal to the FAW of having an English Premier League side and a Championship side playing in their national cup competition would increase interest and revenues, even if it is not known at present how seriously they would take this competition.
But would the lure of the possibility of Europa League football be enough to persuade Cardiff City and Swansea City to jump ship and withdraw from the FA Cup and the Football League Cup? The tradition of the Welsh Cup may be tempting – after all, Wrexham have won the competition twenty-three times, Cardiff City have won it twenty-two times and Swansea City have won it ten times – but both clubs have reason to believe that success could come their way through English cup competitions. Cardiff City have appeared in both the FA Cup final in recent years, whilst Swansea City may well consider their English Premier League status to be sufficient to allow them to launch a serious bid for the same in the near future.
It is also worth considering the possibility – which may or may not be considered paranoia on the part of those that are concerned by it – that such a move could jeopardise the position of these clubs within the English pyramid system. There is little suggest any appetite on the part of anyone connected with any of the Welsh clubs currently playing in the English pyramid would want to join the Welsh Premier League, but some may consider that entry into the Welsh Cup could be the thin end of the wedge insofar as being nudged away from the English pyramid and towards the Welsh Premier League. There is at present nothing to suggest that this would be the case, but many supporters of the remaining Welsh clubs playing in England what aren’t already a part of the Welsh Cup may consider the potential risk not to be worth it.
As with most decisions in modern football, if UEFA can be persuaded of the merits of allowing Swansea City or Cardiff City into European football through winning the Welsh Cup, then economics may end up being the decisive factor in any decision that either club makes over whether to switch and the group stage format of the competition means guaranteed television money – albeit far from a Champions League-esque fortune – for whoever enters into it. It seems, however, highly unlikely that European football’s governing body will allow clubs a route into European competition through the domestic competitions, so a tough decision may yet await those that run Swansea City and Cardiff City. Perhaps the best that we can hope for is that, no matter what decision is reached by the FAW and UEFA after UEFAs executive committee meets in Istanbul next week, the final decision made rests with the clubs, and that they consult with their supporters before they reaching it.
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