Reflections on becoming #WelshLeagueCurious

There’s a nascent movement advocating Welsh independence, and imitating the more vibrant – and inevitable – Scottish movement it has coined the hashtag #indycurious. It is designed to appeal to people frustrated with the current economic and global order and for whom previously beyond-the-pale options might now be attractive: dip your toe, have a little taste, try before you buy…

In a similar way I suppose you could describe me as #WelshLeagueCurious and I indulged my curiosity recently with two domestic games: the first was the Nathaniel MG League Cup final at Cardiff Metropolitan University between The New Saints and  Barry Town United; the second was Bay’s visit to Afan Lido.

My in-laws live on the outskirts of Wrexham and I have taken in games at Connah’s Quay and Cefn Druids previously, as well as visiting Barry, Merthyr Town and earlier this season saw a plucky Cardiff Met FC side test The New Saints at Cyncoed. When I was a student at Aberystwyth University in the early days of the League of Wales I frequented Park Avenue and trekked across mid Wales to Newtown’s Latham Park for a FAW Premier Cup game against Cardiff City; though ostensibly that was to see Cardiff’s classic Super Furry Animals-sponsored shirt in the flesh. Another highlight of which was a stray shot from Matt Brazier in the half-time warm up knocking my wife’s hot chocolate from her hand and all over her lap. Memories….

So I’m not a complete Welsh League virgin, but you could say I am still a bit, ahem, fumbly.

The Cup final was an excellent game with over 1,100 fans in attendance and was a great advert for the competition and for Cardiff Met as a finals venue. It is easy to be churlish about the students’ inclusion in the WPL but they earned promotion on merit and have proven a worthy addition to the domestic top flight by making the mid-season split with an outside push for a Europa League spot. It has long been said that the lack of a club from the capital has undermined the profile of the WPL among people in south Wales and Cardiff Met are sating this to great effect this season; there were many local neutrals in attendance among the fans from down the road in Barry or the Marches.

It is easy to moan about modern football and it is not my intention here to bore people with how I fell out of love with Cardiff City or the English Premier League, except to say that chief among the push factors has been the increasing corporatisation of professional football in England: the trend of leveraging corporate debt onto clubs; foreign owners intent on exploiting global markets at the expense of local fan base and communities; and top clubs’ intolerance and marginalisation of my beloved international game.

A local student side is a nice antidote to this and is no way meant as a slight to other Cardiff based sides in the Welsh League such as Caerau Ely. If the reverse of corporate football is a game more in touch with the pulse and interests of its community then in Wales the domestic game should reflect Welsh society and communities; and the more it does, the more it appeals to me. In this respect, Cardiff Met FC reflects its status as one of the principal Welsh institutions for training generations of teachers (after coal, lamb and steel, one of Wales’s greatest exports?). Similarly, clubs owned and supported by local employers, or clubs who continue to honour their industrial heritage, are a reflection of the importance and role of large industry in many Welsh communities – Airbus UK, Shotton Steel or Cambrian and Clydach come to mind. In a previous era the huge Lovell’s sweet factory in Newport sustained a professional club – Lovell’s Athletic – in the English pyramid between 1918 and 1969 when it finally folded. Lovell’s won the Welsh Cup in 1948.

Clubs with ‘welfare’ in their title or a club such as Trefelin Boys and Girls Club reflect the extent to which sport and community is intertwined, particularly in valleys communities. And like Lovell’s there have been many others in the annals of Welsh sport; and neither is football alone in this respect with rugby union and cricket littered with similar examples.

As a nipper playing in the Barry and District League I recall playing against clubs supported at various times by Cardiff Airport, the RAF base at St Athan and the BP Dow Corning works in Barry. These types of clubs are no less legitimate, as I have occasionally heard some people criticise, than other clubs. Indeed, I’d argue that ownership by oligarchs and supra-national billionaires is far less a legitimate form of club ownership; though the transfer fees they can pay and talent they can attract can be intoxicating and (deliberately?) distracting.

The New Saints’ relentless march to another domestic clean-sweep was ushered along as their class and fitness told in the end with them scoring four goals from the 78th minute onwards. Though had Jordan Cotterill scored rather than hit the bar when the game was goalless in the 76th minute then Barry’s fortitude and defiance may have earned them a massive upset. Their fans were a raucous credit to the club, while The New Saints had brought several youngsters with them to sample the atmosphere and occasion. The players and coaching staff from both clubs were also a credit to themselves with how they indulged my son and his friends’ requests for pictures and autographs.

A week later we caught Barry again at Afan Lido in Port Talbot. The day out was a boozy one on account of my brother’s birthday but again was nothing but a massive enjoyment. £3 to get in and another quid for an excellent programme is great value. The clubhouse stocked some great ales and was adorned with the largest hall of fame honouring local caps that I have ever seen. With European rugby, FA Cup football and horse racing on in the clubhouse, fans’ other sporting allegiances and interests were catered for while a gritty game was played out outside. The attendance was a fraction of what it was a week earlier in Cyncoed, with again Barry turning out in noisy number. Three excellent goals were witnessed in a 2-1 away win for The Linnets; proof that talent and quality can be seen in the domestic scene, rather than turf warfare on an allotment of a pitch as some might expect. Refreshingly, there is little play-acting, feigning and ‘simulation’ either. It won’t be long until I return.

So if you’re #WelshLeagueCurious take the plunge, pick a fixture and have a grand day out. You will be warmly welcomed, rewarded and hopefully tempted to do it again. And again…and again.

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