I drove for an hour last night to watch Bangor City’s home fixture in the Champions League versus HJK Helsinki. The game was being played at Belle Vue, the ground of Rhyl FC, as Bangor’s own ground, Farrar Road, has long been deemed unsuitable for European football with Bangor’s home games being held in recent years at The Racecourse in Wrexham, over 70 miles away. The welcome at Belle Vue was warm, and the atmosphere at the ground was much better than it has been at Wrexham, with 1,200 supporters packed into the smaller ground.
But the question that is being raised among some football fans in Wales is whether the club should be admitted to European competition at all if their home ground is not capable of hosting matches. After all, the FAW has its own stringent requirements for clubs who wish to progress into the Welsh Premier League, as Connahs Quay discovered this season, when they were denied promotion after the club failed the FAW’s licensing requirements.
Bangor are in a transitionary period. Farrar Road has been allowed to disintegrate as the club has been planning a move to a new stadium for several years. That move will come to fruition in September as work begins at Nantporth. By the 2012/13 season, Bangor will be playing their home games at a shiny new ground near the Menai Strait. But as I write, it is believed that the new ground will also fall short of the requirements needed to host European games.
The situation is not stainable, but there is not much the club can do about it – Farrar Road has been sold by the council and it is the ground’s buyers and developers, Watkin-Jones, who are paying for Nantporth. But should Bangor be allowed to represent Wales if they don’t have a stadium which meets UEFA requirements? And should Llanelli be allowed to host their own European games away from Stebonheath? Tonight they face Dynamo Tbilisi at the town’s rugby stadium. Neath also played their European tie at a rugby ground, though this is currently their usual venue. TNS played at their usual leisure centre/stadium, with temporary seats (bolted down to make them official) and a plastic pitch.
Logically, the clubs should meet the requirements of any competition they enter. If the FAW refuse entry to the WPL for Connahs Quay, then UEFA should refuse entry to the Champions League for Bangor City and Llanelli. But I don’t believe in a “computer-says-no” mentality, and I think that one of three things should happen.
Firstly, and most obviously, UEFA should relax its own stadium requirements. Bangor were forced to kick off at 6.30pm last night because Rhyl’s floodlights didn’t meet the required brightness. Yet it was still sunny when I arrived home at 9.30pm. And while Belle Vue is a lovely ground, it isn’t noticeably better than Farrar Road. Bangor fans stand on crumbling terraces every week – they really wouldn’t mind doing the same for European games. And the truth is that the local people love it – the move to a concrete facility with clean toilets is being dreaded by the fans. So who are the people that decide we need bucket seats and a 500 decibel tannoy system blaring Europop to enjoy ourselves? Meanwhile, TNS’s Park Hall Stadium is deemed fit for European games despite it being the worst place in Wales to watch football. Actually, it isn’t even in Wales, but it has a big room for hospitality and boasts the required three-ply toilet roll for the referee’s hairy arse, so it passes.
I’ve watched European football at grounds all across Wales. I’ve seen games at Merthyr, Barry, Aberystwyth, Bangor, Newtown, Newport and Ebbw Vale. They were great – all of them, and nobody minded that the floodlights didn’t light up like a space ship. Those venues gave the games some character and personality which has been lost as clubs are forced to use big unfamiliar stadiamiles from home, even though they are totally unsuited to the event.
If UEFA won’t relax their requirements (and of course they won’t), then they should fund ground improvements. If a team is good enough to qualify for the Champions League, then UEFA should help them pay for the improvements required to compete at home. It should be part of the qualification prize. The association has made millions from seeding qualification groups, allowing multiple entries from the biggest countries, and in doing so it has lent a huge bias to the giant clubs of Europe – it should re-invest that money in the small clubs who struggle to compete. The situation where Wales’s European-qualified clubs play both legs away from home should not be allowed to continue. It’s embarrassing for both Wales and UEFA.