A feature on Cardiff Met as they reach the Welsh Premier League play-off final.
A team of students from the Welsh capital are 90 minutes away from qualifying for the UEFA Europa League. Promoted to the Welsh Premier League last summer, it is almost inconceivable that they could be spending this summer competing on the continent. With a top-six place assured before the mid-season split, Cardiff Met came away from Carmarthen Town with a 2-1 play-off semi-final victory on Sunday, and will now take on Bangor City to decide which team will claim the last European place. Former champions and regular European competitors, Bangor City are the established club in this particular contest, but Cardiff Met have shown this season that success can be achieved by doing things a little bit differently.
At the top of an experienced management team sits Dr Christian Edwards, the former Swansea City, Nottingham Forest and Wales defender who is currently Director of Football. Edwards guided his students through the Welsh pyramid system to the domestic top-flight, but a change in structure at the start of the year saw Dr Wayne Allison take charge of side. Allison played over 750 Football League games as a striker for clubs including Bristol City, Tranmere Rovers and Sheffield United, and is a valuable addition to the Welsh Premier League as well as the club. The players are students at the University, and enjoy the benefits of first-class sports science and training facilities at their Cyncoed Campus. The team also compete in the British Universities and Colleges Sports (BUCS) competition around their Welsh Premier League commitments. There is no doubt that Cardiff Met have already made a positive contribution to the league. Likewise, Cardiff Met Ladies have dominated the Welsh Premier Women’s League in recent seasons, and have been regular competitors on the UEFA Women’s Champions League stage as a result.
But Cardiff Met’s success this season has also been welcomed across South Wales. Barry Town have made headlines as a Welsh League title for Gavin Chesterfield’s side has confirmed their return to the division that they used to dominate in their glory days. Joining Cardiff Met and Carmarthen Town next season, South Wales representation will increase to 25% of the 12 team league. Previously, the geographical power belonged to the south, with the likes of Barry, Cwmbran Town and Llanelli all lifting the league title. Meanwhile, Port Talbot Town, Neath, Carmarthen, Inter Cardiff, Ebbw Vale, Ton Pentre, Haverfordwest County and Afan Lido have all competed in Europe. Out of that list only Carmarthen Town remain a Welsh Premier League team. The geographical imbalance has been a major concern, but if Barry Town can continue their revival next season and establish themselves once again in the league, then there is a brighter future for South Wales teams in the top-flight.
An exciting and talented side, Cardiff Met have embraced the 3G revolution that has changed the face of the Welsh Premier League, and their style of football is suited to such a playing surface. But like the semi-final, the final will also take place on grass at Bangor City’s impressive stadium in Nantporth, and the home side will be well-supported for what will be an intriguing tie. The prize is huge, from both a financial and footballing perspective, and the losers will leave with nothing. But while Cardiff Met boast a wealth of Football League experience in the dugout, Bangor City boast the same on the pitch, and with former Blackpool striker Gary Taylor-Fletcher currently in charge of a side that includes a number of ex-professional players. There is no doubt that they will also be well-prepared for the challenge ahead.
The twelve club format of the Welsh Premier League has its critics, but one overriding positive has been the introduction of the end of season play-offs for the final European place. A match with everything at stake, the final has proved to the perfect way of bringing the domestic season to a close, and while discussions continue behind the scenes over the future fixture format of the league, it is vital that the play-offs remain. The New Saints, GAP Connah’s Quay and Bala Town are already assured a return to European football this summer, and whether they are joined by Bangor City or Cardiff Met, both sides have shown enough this season to suggest that they are equipped to do the league proud when the qualifying rounds begin in July.
Meanwhile, Llanelli have enjoyed title success in the third tier this season, and they will now look to emulate the achievements of Barry Town next season and return to the Welsh Premier League. It is vital for the league to have an even geographical balance, and with established clubs slowly but surely returning to a level for which they are remembered, these are encouraging signs for domestic football in South Wales. Cardiff Met now have the opportunity to represent the capital on the European stage for the first time since Inter Cardiff were enjoying domestic success. No club from South Wales has competed in Europe since Llanelli in 2012, and the students are now just one match away from ending that five year exile.