Colwyn Bay’s Existential Dilemma

The very existence of the United Kingdom means that football and nationality have always been a little more complex than they would be considered elsewhere in the world. Scottish clubs routinely entered the FA Cup in England during its early years, with Queens Park reaching two consecutive finals in 1884 and 1885 before the Scottish Football Association banned their clubs from entering it in 1887, whilst five Northern Irish clubs – during a period when the whole of Ireland was considered a part of the UK – also took part in the years between 1886 and 1889, with Cliftonville reaching the Third Round of the competition during the 1886/87 season.

Matters were always a little different in Wales. Poor north-south transport links meant that clubs were always likely to look towards England, and for a century Wales remained in the unusual (though far from unique) position of having a national football team but no national football league. By the start of the 1990s, concerns within the Football Association of Wales were growing that this anomaly threatened their very existence. It was believed that many FIFA members were resentful of the permanent place on the International Football Advisory Board (the body which determines the laws of the game) and were pressing for the four associations to unite into one combined side for the whole of the United Kingdom.

So it was that in October 1991 that the FAW announced that it would be withdrawing its permission for Welsh clubs continue to play in the English non-league pyramid, although Swansea City, Cardiff City and Wrexham would be allowed to continue to play in the Football League. The announcement was not met with universal acclaim. The eight affected clubs – Bangor City, Barry Town, Colwyn Bay, Caernarfon Town, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhyl, Newport AFC (now Newport County) and Newtown – were unhappy at the decision and, having been given the nickname “the Irate Eight”, appealed it immediately, but at the appeal only Merthyr (who were playing in the Football Conference at the time) were exempted.

Of these remaining seven clubs, Bangor City, Newtown and Rhyl accepted the decision of the appeal and switched countries (although a late application meant that Rhyl had to drop a level to the Welsh Alliance for a season), but the others all continued to complain that they were having rights stripped away from them and moved their clubs to ground-share in England in order to continue playing where they were. Barry Town only lasted one season playing at Worcester before returning to (what was then called) the League of Wales, but in April 1995 the remaining “exiles” won a case at the High Court which allowed them to return to their home grounds but continue to play within the English league system. Of these, only Caernarfon Town have switched to the Welsh leagues, a decision taken just a couple of months after the court found in their favour.

It’s been almost a quarter of a century since the High Court reached its verdict, and much has changed since then. Newport County are now a Football League club again whilst Wrexham are (for now) a non-league club and Merthyr Tydfil folded in 2010 (their replacement club, Merthyr Town, remain in the English system, in the Southern League.) Colwyn Bay, meanwhile, haven’t won a trophy since their return, although they have made a couple of appearances in the competition proper of the FA Cup and reached the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy in 1997. Over the last few seasons their fortunes have ebbed and flowed a little. Two successive play-off wins took the club into the Conference North in 2011, but after four seasons playing at that level their slide back was as quick as their rise had been, with two successive relegations in 2015 and 2016 taking the club back to the regional divisions of the Northern Premier League.

Earlier this week, the club’s chairman Bill Murray revealed the full extent of the club’s problems to supporters. Colwyn Bay, he confirmed, needs £100,000 per year in order to continue to compete in England, a figure which cannot be reached on the basis of current attendance figures and the level of investment coming into the club from local businesses. It’s not even that the team is playing particularly badly at the moment. The team is currently in tenth place in the Western Division of the Northern Premier League and last weekend put nine goals without reply past bottom of the table Skelmersdale United. With attendances having slipped to below 200 per game, though, Colwyn Bay are now attracting less than half of the number of people required to keep the club’s financial head above water, and Murray warned that will fold in the next two years unless something fundamental changes.

With applications to remain in the Northern Premier League required by the end of this month, the clock is now ticking for Colwyn Bay, and Murray has outlined three options for the club:

  • Stay where it is and see the club die.
  • Stay in England on a drastically reduced budget and face repeated battles against relegation.
  • Start again in local Welsh Football and look to re-build from there to possible Welsh Premier status in three or four years.

Set against this is the fact that the Welsh Premier League has enjoyed greater success than naysayers thought it would upon its formation. Although the major population centres of Wales remain, if anything, under-represented in the Welsh Premier League on account of the size of Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County and Wrexham, the WPL does now offer European football in the qualifying stages for both the Champions League and the Europa League, whilst media coverage is excellent, with S4C broadcasting both live matches and highlights in Wales and throughout the rest of the UK via digital satellite, with an interactive option for English-language commentary available via digital satellite. Put simply, the Welsh Premier League isn’t quite the cul-de-sac that many assumed it would be upon its formation. Moving leagues would reduce travel costs (a common thorn in the the side for many clubs playing at this level of the game in England) and shorter travelling distances for matches would likely reduce the wage bill and increase the pool of potential players at the club’s disposal.

Having said that, though, several clubs within the Welsh league system have found themselves in difficulty in recent years (although the highest-profile current case, that of Bangor City, is most likely down to the thoroughly predictable mismanagement of its owners, the Vaughan family, rather than any environmental factors), whilst increases in attendances this season have to be considered in the light of several years of steady decline and a spike up in crowds at Caenaerfon Town, whose average attendance this season of 921 is comfortably the highest in the league, and almost twice that of the second best-supported club, Barry Town United. And in addition to this, there are no guarantees of the level at which the club would be accepted back into the Welsh league system.

As with most decisions of this nature, there is no one answer that will act as a panacea for Colwyn Bay’s recent financial problems whilst keeping all supporters happy. Remaining in the English league system offers the carrot on a stick of progress up through the divisions, if only someone can find the right formula to make that happen. The club’s recent history has indicated how difficult that can be. Transferring into the Welsh league system would make European football a realistic possibility in a few years time and would vastly increase the local media profile of a club which receives precious little attention in the nether regions of the English game, but any decision to move would carry an element of gamble about it, and any subsequent financial issues that the club might face would almost certainly be laid at the feet of this decision, whether they were relevant or not.

Colwyn Bay have something of a history of transferring between the English and Welsh league systems. Having played its first half century in various Welsh leagues, the club played a couple of years in England before the start of the Second World War but returned to the Welsh League in 1937. They stayed within the Welsh system before joining the North West Counties League in England in 1984. As such, the club should already be fully aware of the fact that these decisions are big decisions, and that this one in particular would likely be irrevocable, this time around. In addition to this, the club’s press release on the matter stated that it had “reluctantly decided to explore a possible return to Welsh football on financial grounds”, and that use of the word “reluctantly” suggests that a shift in mind-set may be required if the club is to make this switch and embrace it to its fullest extent. There’s an element of gamble about whichever decision the club ends up making. What they know for certain is that things cannot, in the most literal sense possible, carry on the way they have been.