If we disregard the rebranding of Cardiff City for a moment, 2013 is turning out to be rather a good year for the Welsh clubs which continue to play within the English league system. At Wembley Stadium yesterday afternoon, in a match almost completely devoid of the cynicism that has come to be a hallmark of twenty-first century professional football, Swansea City brushed Bradford City aside to win the Football League Cup to lift their first major trophy within the English league system after one hundred and one years of endeavour with a performance of almost complete polish which underlined exactly why the Swansea City manager Michael Laudrup has been receiving such praise this season. It might have been easy for a Swansea side which came so badly unstuck at Liverpool last week to have bitten by nerves ahead of yesterday’s match, but their five-nil win – the biggest win in a major English cup final since Bury demolished Derby County by six goals to nil in the 1903 FA Cup final – underlined the extent of the progress that the team has continued to make since Laudrup took over.
Swansea, should they actually recognise them if they actually come to play them again next season, will likely be joined in the Premier League next season by one of Cardiff City, Cardiff FC, Cardiff Red Dragons or Cardiff Kuala Lumpur, and Cardiff managed another step towards a first year in the top flight since 1962 with a two-one win at Wolverhampton Wanderers yesterday afternoon which reopened an eight point gap between the club and the chasing pack, with Hull City losing heavily at Bolton Wanderers to allow Watford to claim the second automatic promotion place after a narrow home win against Derby County. Cardiff’s home defeat at the hands of Brighton & Hove Albion on Tuesday night had provoked some to the opinion that we might be about to see a closing run-in choke of spectacular proportions, but yesterday’s win will have settled a few nerves amongst those Cardiff supporters for whom being in the Premier League has become such an obsession that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s Cardiff City or not that is playing in it next season as long that gets there. Who will join them there, however, remains anybody’s guess.
A little further down the football pyramid, there was further good news for Welsh football last weekend when Wrexham reached a Wembley final for the first time in their history after a two-legged FA Trophy semi-final win against Gainsborough Trinity of the Blue Square Bet North. They’d already won the first leg at The Racecourse Ground by three goals to one, meaning that a two-one loss on Saturday afternoon was enough to book them a trip to Wembley for the first time in their one hundred and forty-nine year long history, but only a year and a half after the club was taken over by its supporters trust after years and years of mismanagement. They will play Grimsby Town, who drew at Darford in their semi-final second leg to win the tie on aggregate by three goals to nil, in the final at the end of March. Perhaps more importantly than this, Wrexham stay top of the Blue Square Bet Premier this weekend, although the steamroller-like form of Kidderminster Harriers means that they may be dependent on the form of others in order to stay there. Kidderminster, who are an English club but did used to play in the Welsh Cup, went second in the table with a win against Alfreton Town at the weekend, while Newport County stay in third place in the table without having played a match. There are now just five points between Wrexham at the top of the table and Mansfield Town in sixth place, but the possibility of Welsh football being represented by two clubs in the Premier League and two in the Football League next season is quite a real one.
Meanwhile back in England, Wigan Athletic’s win at Reading at the weekend kick-started those of the opinion that, for some reason presumably, Wigan only start playing as well as they can as winter starts to melt into spring. On the off-chance that this is true – and who knows, it might be: okay, it isn’t – then it all spells bad news for Aston Villa, who lost narrowly at Arsenal but find themselves teetering on the brink again this morning.
Arsenal’s win certainly seemed to confirm an annual pattern which has emerged in recent years – crisis klaxons go off throughout January and February, only for the team to regain its composure and snatch that fourth Champions League place yet again. Chelsea’s defeat at Manchester City yesterday afternoon now means that the third and fourth Champions League places will now be going to two from Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, and trying to determine which of those three might miss out is not a game that sensible gamblers would want to play. Oh, okay then. It’ll be Spurs who choke longest and loudest. Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, has subsequently claimed that Arsenal can still beat Manchester City to second place in the final Premier League table, a statement which would seem to indicate that he hasn’t even been paying attention to his own team this season. Mathematically it’s possible, of course, but there are few of sound mind and body that would bet on it.
And all the time, in the periphery of everybody’s vision, Manchester United just keep winning. Steadily and relentlessly, with mathematical precision. The gap between first and second place in the table remains at twelve points, and it does at least now feel as this team is getting the credit it has deserved all season for what it is in the process of achieving. That twentieth league title as near to a certainty as can be seen anywhere in English football and perhaps the only question that remains is that of whether title number twenty could even be won by a twenty point margin. That question is one that will have to wait for another day. This weekend belonged to the Welsh clubs that play in in the English league system.
And that was the weekend that was, after a fashion.
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