There was a time when amateurism was an honour – a fiercely defended status which drew great praise for those who played their sport for fun. But Welsh sport now seems to be imploding on the self-imposed clamour for professionalism.
I rarely touch on rugby in the pages of this blog, but there is a row going on between the self-appointed, manufactured regions and the WRU which has implications for the sport of football in Wales. And the row is taking place in public, with the bitterness between the rugby union and the professional businessmen of the regional franchises barely concealed. The argument resolves around star players and competition structure. International players are flocking in their droves to better paid jobs in England and France. They used to leave for professional northern rugby league clubs, but now its rugby union clubs that have the clout. The regions want to halt this exodus by joining joining an Anglo-Welsh league. And a proud union does not want to face the unpalatable truth, which is that professional sport in Wales cannot survive outwith English competition.
Professional rugby in Wales is unsustainable without subsidy from the union. The WRU are comparatively rich, turning over £63m in 2012 and showing a profit of £2.4m. And only a £19m debt of the £75m cost of building the Millennium Stadium remains. The professional regional franchises were subsidised to the tune of £6m by the WRU in 2012. But still that is not enough to compete with the professional English and French clubs who have decided that there is money to be made in this once amateur sport.
The truth is that rugby in Wales is funded by a series of international matches which are massively popular as a social event. It isn’t really the rugby that brings in the crowds. These spectacular corporate eisteddfodic jollies generate enough income to just about cover the costs of professionalism. But what’s the point of spending huge sums on keeping players on big wages at the fabricated regions, and how is any of this relevant to football?
Well firstly, for rugby’s regions ambitions, you only have to look at Cardiff City and Swansea City. These two large businesses ply their trade in the big money world of English sport and the rugby regions look on enviously. Also – you’d think that this conflict is something new, but as always history tells us that these problems have occurred before, and that lessons can be learned from their outcomes. So let’s go back to the start of competitive football in Wales and the birth of professionalism in our sport.
The best Welsh footballers were tempted by money from English cubs even before professionalism was legalised. Bolton enticed four players from the great Druids team after one FA Cup tie in 1883, just seven years after the competitive game began in Wales. The FAW, unable to stem the flood had no choice but to allow payment of players from 1893.
But this new rule had no effect. Players like Billy Meredith were forced across the border to make a living, joining dozens of other Welshmen at English clubs. Those English-based players still qualified for Welsh national side selection, in contrast to the Irish, who complained bitterly.
“Even against Wales we are still at a disadvantage, which however arises from no other cause than our own conscientious scruples. The Welshmen have no hesitation in scouring the best of the English clubs, and picking up all their available countrymen who have gone over to professionalism. This practice we have not yet descended to, as we feel it our duty to recognise not only the ability, but the patriotism of the men who remain amongst us, and refuse to yield to temptation of English gold.”
The Welsh clubs dipped their toes into the waters of professionalism but soon found the commitment was overwhelming. They admitted openly that they simply could not find enough quality of opposition within our own borders, and looked for English competition to sustain growth. Just look at the history of a typical Welsh club, like Rhyl FC, who have struggled ever since formation to find their place in the world.
Rhyl began life in The Welsh League in 1890, before taking part in the North Wales Coast League, North Wales Alliance and the National Welsh League (North). A period of post war success saw the club apply unsuccessfully to the Football League in 1929. A frustrated Rhyl then migrated to the Birmingham & District League before settling in the Cheshire County League. In 1982 this became the North West Counties League, and they were promoted to the Northern Premier. In 1992, under pressure from the FAW, they reluctantly decided to join the newly formed League of Wales .
Such a patchwork of history and status is common in Wales. Most of our clubs’ natural level is amateur with just a few exceptions. Wrexham emerged as the top club in north Wales , though their early history replicated that of Rhyl. The Robins were fortunate to have their Football League application accepted in 1921. This left them as the only professional club in a large geographical area and they managed to survive in the Football League until 2008. That might have been Rhyl’s story had they been luckier in 1929. As recently as 1978 Bangor City applied for Football League status but were rejected in favour of Wigan Athletic. And now look what Wigan have achieved.
The development of professionalism in the south is slightly different. The emergence of Cardiff and Swansea as relative superpowers in the Welsh game can be traced back to the boom days of the English Southern League.
Between 1906 and 1910, a huge expansion of the game took place in the south, with the number of clubs affiliated to the South Wales FA rising from 74 to 262. English scouts were regularly seen at south Wales club matches, keen to prise away the cream of local talent. Populations in the south Wales coalfield were expanding massively and the Southern League saw the untapped potential income in those hills. They only had to look at the many thousands of supporters who travelled from south Wales to watch professional clubs in Bristol and the Midlands. League Officials toured the valleys signing up clubs, and at one stage the entire Second Division of the Southern League was Welsh. Then as the Southern League was absorbed by the expanding Football League, the Welsh clubs were sucked in with the flow. By 1926 there were six professional clubs in Wales playing in the English Football League. People who complain about Welsh clubs playing in the English system should remember that we were invited. We did the English a favour and helped to expand their domestic game, at great cost to our own.
But it has always been impossible to keep the best players in Wales, even with our big professional clubs. From the days of Billy Meredith, to Dai Astley, John Charles, Ivor Allchurch, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, Welsh clubs have lost players to the English. But Welsh football has never wrung their hands over this problem; they just accepted the transfer fee, and developed some new players. So why is Welsh rugby tearing itself apart instead of accepting the state of play and readjusting?
Rugby was in a healthy state in Wales when it was an amateur sport. Ponty played Pooler in front of several thousand fans and the players got a few quid in their boots and free ale at the clubhouse bar. That is the natural level of our domestic sport, and there is nothing to be ashamed about. Welsh club rugby was strong, popular, and sustainable.
Many amateur Welsh football clubs have tried to throw money at their team in Wales, but any success is short term and devastating. The League of Wales is littered with the debris of good community clubs spoiled by the gambling whim of a businessman or merely exhausted by trying to compete at an unsustainable level. Where now Llansantffraid, Oswestry, AFC Cardiff, Ebbw Vale, Conwy, Cwmbran, Llanelli and Neath? And how different would the landscape be if Bangor, Merthyr, Llanelly and Barry had all been successful in applications to join the Football League in 1947?
The answer is this. Welsh domestic sport is fine and healthy when we compete amongst ourselves as amateurs. The events are cheap and popular. But we can only attract enough support to pay players a wage when we are part of the English system. And that’s why the Celtic League was never an answer. The creation of supposed Welsh regions, which in truth was a thinly-veiled method of legalising unfair financial support for Cardiff, Newport, Llanelli, Swansea and Neath, has wrecked domestic Welsh rugby. Is there a single Welsh rugby club who is in a stronger position since the introduction of the regions?
The only way that sport can be professional in Wales is if our clubs can be a part of the English system. There is still enough flickering emnity to make these contests attractive and bring out the public. Domestically, we should settle for a lower standard but nonetheless satisfying amateur experience. I enjoy the semi-pro Welsh Premier League but the experience can be just as good in the more amateur Huws Gray Cymru Alliance. One of the biggest events in the past two years in my region was a 4th tier Caernarfon derby between Town and Wanderers that drew almost 2,000 spectators. TNS are currently coping with professionalism thanks to regular European prize money, but who is benefitting apart from Mike Harries the owner, and his squad of players, half of whom travel from England?
The Welsh Premier League was founded to preserve Wales’ fragile national status in the World game. It’s been successful in that respect, but its relationship with UEFA seems to cause more problems than it solves. Clubs run by volunteers are forced to meet stringent and unnecessary ground regulations. Most teams are unable to play European fixtures at their own ground, and despite an obvious improvement in standards, crowds have remained stagnant. At the other end of the scale, Cardiff City and Swansea City have only tenuous links to the FAW and have even investigated membership of the English FA.
The WRU should learn from Welsh football’s struggles with professionalism and let the stars go to their cash-rich foreign fields. Instead of propping up the business concerns of a few high profile franchises, they should concentrate on developing the roots of the game. Let the regions stand alone, just like Cardiff and Swansea City, and forget centralised contracts. Welsh rugby is extremely lucky that the Six Nations have become the Spring Break of Europe. If the FAW enjoyed even a slice of that good fortune, I doubt they would employ players for Cardiff and Swansea at the expense of the grassroots game.