On Saturday, Haverforwest County, Aberystwyth Town, Llanelli AFC, Carmarthen Town, Newtown AFC and The New Saints will play out the final fixtures of the first part of the Welsh Premier League season. After these games the league will, for the first time ever, split in two. From there the top six of the ‘Super 12′ will play each other twice more, as will the bottom half. The teams in the bottom half of the table won’t be able to finish higher than 7th after the cut off point. Once all of the league’s 32 fixtures have been completed, the team in first place qualifies for the Champion’s League, with second place and the winners of the Welsh Cup being entered into the Europa League. The teams placed from 3rd to 7th will then play-off for the final Europa League spot and the bottom two teams will be relegated.
This might seem to be overly complex, and that’s because it is. For the life of me I can’t work out how a five team play-off is going to work. I’ve put a huge amount of effort in trying to find out what the Welsh Premier League’s plans are for the play-offs, but I really, really can’t find anything about it. So instead of spending any more time over that, I’m just going to assume the Welsh Premier League have a cunning plan up their sleeve and discuss what the newly introduced system means for Welsh football.
The idea behindthis change in format is simple; the quality of Welsh football needs improving. To do this the Welsh Premier League has cut down the number of clubs from 18 to 12, with a further cut to 10 clubs likely. This means that the TV money the Welsh Premier League receives will be spread out amongst fewer clubs and will mean that these clubs will be able to afford better players, infrastructure and so on. This will in turn attract supporters as the standard improves and Welsh teams will be better able to compete in European competition.
Well, that’s the theory at least. It’s far too early to tell if this is going to work as planned (although early indications are that attendances are at an all time high this year). To carry out this plan, as well as the restructuring of the league, the FA of Wales introduced a domestic licence which teams had to havein order to host Welsh Premier League football. The criteria for this licence is strict. Mandatory obligations include: a minimum 1500 capacity with 500 covered seats, minimum 500 Lux floodlights, 13-person capacity home and away dugouts and a TV studio. This is a clear signal of intent by the FAW that it wants clubs in its top league to havetop quality facilities in place. Other criteria include things to do with off the field matters. The quality of the club’s administration, personnel, having financial codes of practice and club charters and so on all having an affect on whether or not a club will be awarded a licence or not.
This licence is no ‘toothless tiger’ either. The FAW withheld a licence from one of the best supported clubs in the division last year, RhylFC, as they failed on the criteria the FAW had set out. This may seem like a counter productive move, but shows that the FAW realise that if standards really need to improve in the Welsh leagues, there can be no room for sympathy or sentimentality. Even those clubs who have fallen foul of the new licence, or league restructuring, understand its importance. Phil Jones, the chairman of Porthmadog said “I’ve no qualms about the domestic licence andit’s something that will benefit the game in Wales. It’s weeded out many clubs that haven’t been willing to standup or improve things and make sure clubs cannot just invest in playing squads but the whole infrastructure instead.”
For all of the FAW’sgood intentions however, there are a few problems with the new set up. The first is that for a club to obtain a licence, most will haveto spend money on improving their infrastructure, money which may not be readily available to them. Outside of the Welsh Premier League only Portmadog and Llandudno had licences in place ready for the start of this season, so for any club that wishes to be promoted next season, they will have to put the work and money in without any guarantee of getting their money back through promotion. This situation is very similar to the one that exists in the English Championship at the moment as some clubs go hell for leather to get into the ‘promised land’ of the English Premier League, only to fail and face the financial implications. Rhyl, currently 2nd in the Huws Gray Alliance, have already stated that they will not be applying for a licence for promotion due to the financial difficulties the club are facing, difficulties which could have been alleviated through a promotion back to the Welsh Premier League.
As well as this there is also a much more worrying problem. That of youth development. It’s all very well the top 12 sides in the country getting more money, but what about those who have had to cut their budgets due to dropping out of the top division? Phil Jones stated that “Because we’re not in the Premier we will have a £4,000 shortfall to fund our academy next season.” A vast figure to have to cover at short notice. Actually, scratch that, at any notice. The FAW could therefore be accused of a certain amount of short sightedness with regards to youth development in Wales, increasing the money available for youth teams in the lower divisions would be the solution to this, but so far there hasn’t been any great increase.
However, in general the Welsh Premier League seems to be on the right track for the improvement in standards it is seeking. There is a way to go of course, the league is currently ranked 46th out of 53 according to the UEFA coefficient. The long term aim would be to be able to compete more readily with the Irish leagues, and to see one or two qualifiers for the Europa league. This may seem a distant dream right now, but if the FAW keep making strides in the right direction, it can only be a matter of time before the Welsh league improves.