A feature on Port Talbot Town’s admission initiative and the local interest in two Welsh Premier League clubs.
Last weekend Port Talbot Town invited the public to show what they believe to be the real value of Welsh Premier League football. The 285 in attendance for the 2-1 victory over Bala Town could pay whatever they liked at the turnstile, and while some took advantage by digging deep in their pockets for some loose change, others parted with what they genuinely thought was a reasonable amount for 90-minutes of our national league. The current admission price of £7 is the average across the league, but attendances are again down in the area, with Port Talbot Town, Afan Lido and Llanelli the three clubs at the bottom of the Welsh Premier League attendance charts. There are many reasons why people choose to ignore and neglect their local clubs, but last weekend’s initiative offered the chance to rule out the price of admission as one of the obstacles facing the league and its members.
The average admission price of £7 offers decent value when compared against levels of a similar standard and attendance in the English pyramid system. Clubs in the Blue Square Premier charge at least double that amount, some closer to treble, while clubs in the divisions immediately below charge a minimum of £10. Various offers and season ticket discounts can reduce the cost of supporting English non-league clubs, but even with such reductions, the Welsh Premier League compares favourably for value for money. Last weekend at the GenQuip Stadium however, few parted with £7 at the turnstile, and a quick survey around the ground would have probably suggested that the majority consider £5 as an acceptable price, even if the average amount paid on Saturday was a few pounds less than that. Those responsible for balancing the books will disagree, but if attracting interest from the local community is the clubs aim, then the club must listen to those that they are trying to tempt.
The biggest indication of resentment to the Welsh Premier League in the area slapped both Port Talbot Town and Afan Lido in the face during the two derby games. Bad weather at both fixtures and the presence of the live television cameras in the return match last weekend were detrimental to the attendance, but less than 300 turned up at either fixture for a match that has attracted almost treble that figure in the past. Although the Boxing Day fixture lacked the usual intensity, three red cards in the return match showed that the traditional derby passion does still exist despite both sides lacking in local identity, but the biggest concern will be the low number of people that turned up to see the latest instalment of what has been a famous fixture in the recent history of both clubs. Both clubs have tried different initiatives to attract crowds in the past, but with each passing season both are starting to accept the sad fact that there is no interest for the national league in the town.
Recently a wrote a piece on the lack of Welsh identity of the ‘big four’ Welsh clubs that compete in the English pyramid. In one particular December weekend, Swansea City started their match with only two Welsh players, Cardiff City with only one. In the Blue Square Premier, Newport County did their bit to address the imbalance by naming four Welsh players in their starting line-up, but their efforts were countered by Wrexham who, like Cardiff, named only one Welsh player in their first eleven. In addition, none of the four clubs have Welsh managers. While the changing culture of modern football means money will attract players from outside the traditional catchment areas, maintaining a local identity can have far-reaching benefits as clubs look to re-associate themselves with alienated supporters, and a similar debate emerges with a look at the two sides competing in the recent Port Talbot derby games.
Traditionally a club with a strong policy of encouraging youth development, local players have sampled the Welsh Premier League experience at Afan Lido this season, although a limited budget and a summer exodus has made the step-up to senior football a necessity for some of those coming through the clubs ranks. By comparison, local influence has again been limited at Port Talbot Town this season, and the starting line-ups of both clubs during the festive fixtures reflected this unfortunate trend. However, while players based in Swansea, Cardiff and the surrounding areas may appear local when compared to North Wales clubs who field players from the areas around Liverpool and Manchester, it is concerning that the best of Port Talbot’s current crop of local talent are almost all playing for West Wales rivals Carmarthen Town and not for one of the town’s two Welsh Premier League clubs.
Liam McCreesh, Carl Evans and brothers Corey and Casey Thomas are familiar names to football supporters in the town, and all four are capable of commanding a starting place at either Port Talbot Town or Afan Lido. However, all four, and others, have elected to pursue their football careers in Carmarthenshire. Financial gain is an obvious factor in this situation arising, but with both Afan Lido and Port Talbot Town having two of the worst average attendance figures in the Welsh Premier League this season, questions must be asked about how both clubs can connect with the local community. While there are other distractions, both clubs work to avoid playing at home on the same day or when Swansea City are in action at the Liberty Stadium, but despite the town boasting two Welsh Premier League clubs there remains a clear lack of interest. Both clubs have included more local players in their respective squads during the past decade, and their presence has made for a far more entertaining derby, but how important is it for each club to boast players from the town?
There is an argument that the current situation is simply the price of progress. As the Welsh Premier League improves and clubs become stronger, clubs like Port Talbot Town and Afan Lido must look beyond the benefits of signing players with local roots in order to compete. The ‘big four’ of Swansea, Cardiff, Newport and Wrexham now look not just outside of their own locality, but also outside of their own country, to ensure they continue with their respective, relative successes. The influx of foreign players at the top of the English system shows further escalation of the problem, but it is a problem reflected in the clear lack of connection between those funding the Premier League soap opera from their seat in the stand, to those starring in it and reaping the financial rewards.
A lot has changed for the football fan in the area over the last decade too. Swansea City have moved from being bottom of the Football League to competing against the best teams and players in the game, while Cardiff City appear on-course to join them in the top-flight next season. Respective new stadiums have brought a significant increase in the attendance figures at both clubs and it has suddenly become acceptable for kids to support either as their ‘first-choice’ club. For the older fan, a change in television coverage now means that a choice of Premier League fixtures are available in most Port Talbot pubs on a Saturday afternoon, and the continued growth of the Premier League’s profile means that fans have more connection with the stars that feature on the front and back pages of the daily papers than with the players at either one of their local clubs. This distraction applies to potential sponsors as well as potential fans, and both clubs have suffered in both departments as people lose touch with their local team.
While the problem will not be fixed simply by bringing back the West Wales absconders, it would help in creating a bit more local awareness. While the problem will not be fixed by bringing through more youth players to the senior ranks either, it will help in attracting new families and friends through the turnstiles, as well as helping the playing budget in the process. Those fans that do continue to support their side against the outside distractions will always have far more time and patience for an emerging youngster than an well-paid outsider, and anything that brings back some pride and belief in the actions of either club will have a positive effect. Local pride for the supporters of Port Talbot Town and Afan Lido is traditionally never felt more than on occasions like the derby, but those that remember players such as Chris Pridham, Karl Lewis, Phil Holmes, Shaun O’Leary, Gary Underwood and Robert Cockings amongst others competing in this fixture, inevitably found this seasons double-header lacking in all the areas that once made it the highlight of the season for both clubs.
The situation was highlighted between Port Talbot Town entertaining Afan Lido pre-transfer window, and then introducing their admission initiative the following weekend as Afan Lido captain and local product Mark Jones left the area for Aberystwyth Town. A talented striker, Jones has represented both of his town’s clubs in the domestic top-flight, but followed a goal on his New Years Day debut for his new club against Newtown by scoring a hat-trick a few days later in the impressive 4-1 win over Prestatyn Town before claiming the Welsh Premier League’s December Player of the Month award. His move and early success confirms that the majority of Port Talbot’s best players now play outside of the town, and the situation has had a significantly negative impact on the overall interest for the two clubs competing in the top-flight. Port Talbot Town and Afan Lido have started to bring back some local representation in their early January transfer window signings, with Chad Bond returning to Port Talbot Town and Remi Whitelock, Damon Thomas and veteran Paul Evans all returning to the Lido, but it may be too little, too late.
Returning to Port Talbot Town’s attendance initiative, there is a clear culture in the town that people want something for nothing, and there is clear ignorance to the costs involved in competing at this level and sustaining a place in the Welsh Premier League. There are many other distractions that well-documented, from other sporting events to the extensive television coverage of the English Premier League in every local pub and club. The obvious lack of support for the work being done at both Port Talbot Town and Afan Lido is seriously demoralising for those involved however, and each week confirms that there is no quick-fix solution to the problem. How much longer either club can continue to sustain their place in the Welsh Premier League with little support from the turnstiles is a concerning question.
What is demoralising for both Port Talbot Town and Afan Lido is the lack of reward for their efforts in the local community. Both clubs run a number of junior teams and offer hundreds of local youngsters the opportunity to play organised football under the guidance of qualified coaches every weekend. Both junior sections are run by volunteers for the betterment of the players that represent them, but the support from the families and the players themselves is noticeably absent at senior level. Both clubs could at least double their average crowds with the support of their junior teams, but while this sounds a simple solution, the fact that this fails to happen suggests there is a very clear lack of any connection between the young players and the clubs they wear the badge of on a Saturday morning. It is also an issue not unique to the town of Port Talbot.
There was a surprise benefit to the ‘pay what you like’ initiative however, in that the club received far more press and media coverage than they have for any other fixture in recent seasons. In the build-up to what is a traditionally low-profile game, the club enjoyed extra newspaper, radio, internet and even television coverage which made the experiment worthwhile regardless of the difference it made at the turnstiles. There was also a degree of success in the fact that the club welcomed their highest attendance of the season, but the fact that figure was just 285 only highlighted the problems facing the two Port Talbot-based clubs. For the sake of a few positives, the initiative simply deserved better than its eventual reward.
The majority of regular supporters watching last weekend’s game paid much less than usual, and the curious few new faces will parted with the minimum as they took advantage of an opportunity to take an enquiring look at the Welsh Premier League. Hopefully some will return, but the overriding verdict from assessing the experiment is something that the club was unfortunately already aware of, that there is little local interest in the club or the Welsh Premier League, and sadly no quick-fix way of changing this opinion and culture. Both Port Talbot Town and Afan Lido deserve better support, but the town does not deserve two Welsh Premier League clubs, and their long-term status at this level is in serious question as a result of this now obvious resentment.
This article was also published on the WalesOnline Magazine Sports Blog here – http://blogs.walesonline.co.uk/sport/2013/01/admission-initiative-confirms.html