A feature on the increasing number of artificial playing surfaces in the domestic top-flight.
They have become the Marmite of the Dafabet Welsh Premier League, but 3G playing surfaces are taking over the domestic top-flight, and there is a significant chance that the majority of clubs that make up the league could be playing on plastic as early as next season. Significant financial support and investment from the Football Association of Wales has made the sudden shift away from grass a reality, and with Bala Town the latest club to announce that they will swap soil for synthetic in the summer, the plastic-resenting purist may have to find their football fix elsewhere from now on. However, the decision to make such significant investment is far more than a cosmetic exercise, with off field benefits providing clubs with the opportunity to become self-sufficient, while improving the on field product at the same time. With rich benefactors and generous sponsors becoming increasingly scarce, and clubs continuing to struggle to cover even basic expenses through the turnstiles, 3G playing surfaces have become the only viable means of generating a steady income, and the growing trend is set to become the biggest single development in the history of the Welsh Premier League.
Champions and current league leaders The New Saints proved to be the trend-setters in this particular artificial genre, and have recently been joined in the 3G revolution by Airbus UK Broughton, Llandudno and Newtown. Bala Town are now set to follow, while there are reports that Aberystwyth Town are closing in on making a similar announcement and there have been long-standing discussions in South Wales about Carmarthen Town and Port Talbot Town also converting from grass to a more resilient product in the very near future. Meanwhile, promotion candidates Cardiff Met and Barry Town United have already moved with the times. While the eventual numbers for next season will depend on factors ranging from promotion, relegation, domestic licensing, grants and external funding, it already seems inevitable that the number of artificial pitches in the Welsh Premier League will increase from next season, and will continue to do so in every subsequent season for the next few years.
A few weeks ago, Port Talbot Town made the comfortable journey through to the last eight of the JD Welsh Cup with a convincing 3-0 victory over Caerau Ely at their GenQuip Stadium. But while the two sides battled through the mud on a largely forgettable afternoon of football, Barry Town United were preparing for their biggest fixture since they were the dominant force in Welsh domestic football. In fact, a crowd fifteen times the size of that at Port Talbot Town was at Jenner Park for the visit of The New Saints, and the most-anticipated cup tie of the season did not disappoint as the holders claimed a 5-2 victory. However, Gavin Chesterfield’s Barry Town United side made their full-time opponents work for their win, and the match served as a timely reminder of how much better the Welsh Premier League could be with the return of the former champions.
With a new 3G playing surface, Barry Town United are set-up for a return to the domestic top-flight, and are currently challenging at the top of the Welsh League table. Of course, Barry Town United are a club that know only too well the dangers of spending to succeed in the Welsh Premier League, and their period of dominance came to an undignified end when the club went into administration in 2003. Their plight over the course of the next few seasons is well-worth researching, but the club are now back on a solid platform, and performances and results have consistently matched the efforts of the supporters who have given so much to ensure that the club return to the level where many believe they should be. But while promotion would start a new and significant chapter in the club’s history, it could prove equally significant for the Welsh Premier League, with the current North Wales majority leading to failing interest in the fortunes of clubs in the south
Well-supported by a group that have been continually proactive in making sure the club survived through its darkest hour, taking on the best that Welsh domestic football has to offer would ensure that the team were supported in numbers wherever they play. The facilities at Jenner Park are ready to welcome the rest of the Welsh Premier League, and the potential of the club suggests that it may not be too long before they return to the European stage that defined their period of dominance in the past. A club with a long and proud history, Barry Town have recently been overtaken by The New Saints in terms of domestic honours, and losing their status provides them with a short and long-term goal to return to the summit that they sat at for so long. Competing against the full-time professionals of The New Saints will be a difficult prospect, but the champions also need competition to continue at their current level.
But there is even more happening in the South Wales feeder league. It is again highlighted by the JD Welsh Cup, and it is also being played out on a 3G surface. Next month is set to be an exciting one, and possibly a defining one, for the students of Cardiff Met. While a three point lead and a game in hand over closest rivals Barry Town United would be enough in itself to breed optimism for the remaining weeks of the season, the side, managed by former Wales international Christian Edwards, are also looking forward to a Welsh Cup quarter-final tie against GAP Connah’s Quay. Last season, the side missed out on promotion on goal difference to Haverfordwest County, but now sit in pole position to replace bottom of the table County in the domestic top-flight, and the evidence suggests they will be in a far better place than when they last experienced domestic top-flight football when they eventually do return.
Edwards made only one substitute appearance for his country, replacing current national team manager Chris Coleman in the 1996 friendly defeat to Switzerland. However, he brings to his current role a wealth of Football League experience, and the knowledge and intelligence required to combine his coaching duties with his position at the University. In addition, a spell in charge at Aberystwyth Town during the end of his playing career has provided a valuable insight into what is required for his young side to compete in the Welsh Premier League, and there is no doubt that they will be an interesting addition should they finally achieve promotion. Meanwhile, the Welsh Cup still offers an outside chance of qualification for the UEFA Europa League, and there appears to be exciting times ahead for a team that will boast some of the best training and sports science facilities should they make the step-up.
Cardiff Met booked their place in the last eight of the Welsh Cup with a 2-0 win over Welsh League rivals Afan Lido earlier this month. Two goals from Adam Roscrow proved to be the statistical difference on the night, but a commanding defensive performance from Emlyn Lewis was just as effective in the side claiming victory, and GAP Connah’s Quay will have to perform to their best on the artificial surface at the Cyncoed campus in order to progress to the semi-finals. Like Barry Town United in the last round, the match has been selected by S4/C as the live fixture, and the broadcaster will hope for a match of similar quality and drama when the students take on the Nomads. Managed by Manchester City favourite Andy Morrison, the North Wales side have made massive strides forward in recent years, but having played against Airbus UK Broughton in the 3rd round of the competition last season the students will be more than aware of what they will need to do against one of the better teams from the Welsh Premier League to progress.
And so, as 3G playing surfaces make headlines in the Dafabet Welsh Premier League, it is two already converted clubs in the South Wales feeder league that are making headlines in the JD Welsh Cup this year, and both have ambitions to add their own respective artificial pitch to the increasing number in the domestic top-flight next season. Meanwhile, the debate over the suitability of plastic surfaces will continue, and many will prefer to support the option chosen by Bangor City and GAP Connah’s Quay in combining the best of both with an artificial surface adjacent to their respective grass-surfaced stadiums. Few will miss the grass surface at Bala Town’s Maes Tegid ground, and there is no doubt that Welsh Premier League fixtures played on 3G have been consistently better in terms of quality. But while there will be opposition to their increasing popularity, the investment over the last couple of years that has made so much change possible is the most significant single development since the league was formed in 1992, and clubs will be holistically better for it.