A blog on how feeder league promotion can improve the Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League.
Promotion was achieved by the finest of mathematical margins, but on Tuesday night Haverfordwest County ended a four-year exile from the Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League as they claimed the necessary runners-up position at the top of the Welsh League. Success came at a price for another ambitious club, as County’s 5-0 win over Aberdare Town edged Wayne Jones’s side above Cardiff Met only on the basis that they had scored more goals than their rivals from the capital, as both sides ended the domestic Welsh League season tied on both points and goal difference.
The last club to be promoted from the Welsh League to the top-flight was Afan Lido in 2011, ironically swapping places with Haverfordwest as the West Wales side dropped out of the Welsh Premier League for the second time in their history, the first voluntarily in 1994. In addition, Llandudno from the North Wales Cymru Alliance will join Haverfordwest to compete in the Welsh Premier League next season, and their respective successes mean that two clubs will be promoted to the top-flight for the first time since 2008 when Neath and Llangefni Town achieved Welsh Premier League status.
However, regular promotion and relegation is vital for the Welsh Premier League to remain competitive, and clubs that compete in the league must achieve their status on sporting merit. Far too often, clubs have been reprieved from relegation due to clubs in the feeder league either being unable to meet the criteria to achieve a domestic licence or lacking in the ambition to take the next step into the national league. Smaller clubs will voice concerns over the costs associated in competing in the Welsh Premier League, with expenses ranging from travelling to the financial expectancy of players with the pedigree to compete in it, but few of these clubs have made calculated research into the reality of competing in the Welsh Premier League and have instead held a stagnated belief that it is just not for them.
Infrastructure costs are an additional concern, and while a number of clubs in the South Wales feeder league have previously competed in the top division, standards have improved beyond recognition for many during their absence. Domestic licensing has been integral in improving the standard of the domestic league for those clubs that have grown with it, but those who have failed to follow its progressively increasing demands have now been left well behind. Measures are being taken to bridge this gap with the proposed introduction of a more conservative licensing criteria for clubs playing in the pyramid system, but it appears to be a reactive measure to the lack of interest shown primarily from clubs in South Wales, and only time will tell what ambition now remains.
Although the same procedure applies in the Cymru Alliance, the North Wales feeder league benefited the Welsh Premier League was reduced from eighteen clubs to twelve in 2010. The six relegated clubs that season dropped down into the Cymru Alliance, and immediately improved the quality and profile of the league both on and off the field. Since then, Rhyl, GAP Connah’s Quay and Cefn Druids have returned, although the Druids return last summer proved short-lived and they now return to the Cymru Alliance next season alongside Prestatyn Town. This of-course being the same Prestatyn Town that won the Welsh Cup in 2013, qualified for the UEFA Europa League as a result, won their opening round tie in the Europe, collected significant prize money from both competitions in the process and finished bottom of the Welsh Premier League two seasons later. A story for another day.
But while the two-up, two-down novelty is a welcome change and a boost for the Welsh Premier League, it has not come without controversy, and the administrators of the Welsh League have been challenged over the fact that Haverfordwest County were able to finish their domestic season four days after Cardiff Met completed their fixtures. As a result, Haverfordwest knew that a five-goal victory over Aberdare Town would be enough to confirm the runners-up position and Welsh Premier League promotion at the expense of Cardiff Met. Subsequently, they went out and won 5-0. Of course, the Welsh Premier League would have welcomed Cardiff Met in equal measures, with both clubs having achieved the necessary domestic licence, but many have quite rightly questioned why Haverfordwest were provided with a blueprint of what was needed on the night through some obscure fixture scheduling. However, Haverfordwest have achieved their position on merit, and their success should not be clouded.
Promotion for Haverfordwest County will also serve as a step-forward in addressing the imbalance of clubs from the North and from the South. With Cefn Druids and Prestatyn Town departing, Haverfordwest’s promotion increases South Wales representation to a quarter of the league as they prepare to line-up against Port Talbot Town and Carmarthen Town. Meanwhile, two former Welsh Premier League champions in Barry Town and Llanelli are quickly progressing through the South Wales pyramid system, and both have strong ambitions to return to where they once ruled. Similar ambitions apparently exist at other clubs such as Penybont and Monmouth Town, and the fact that two promotion-pushing clubs were able to achieve a domestic licence this season is another positive sign of progress.
Haverfordwest County are a welcome addition to the Welsh Premier League, with excellent facilities at their Bridge Meadow Stadium and a grass playing surface so good it questions the current 3G boom, manager Wayne Jones now has the responsibility to assemble a squad capable of competing at a level he will remember as a player at Carmarthen Town and at Haverfordwest. While Jones’s squad already have a degree of Welsh Premier League experience, the former left-back will have keen eye on personnel changes at both Port Talbot Town and Carmarthen Town this summer, and the start of the usual player merry-go-around is not far away. Jones will of course need the support of his board, and the league has improved since the club last competed in the top-flight, but there is every chance that Haverfordwest County can once again establish themselves as a leading club as they did a decade ago when they qualified for Europe.
Whatever the future holds for the Welsh Premier League, and whatever format this future should take, this summer should be considered the most positive for a number of seasons. It is vital that more clubs follow the lead of Haverfordwest County, Llandudno and the other feeder league clubs that attained a domestic licence, and once annual promotion and relegation can be achieved than the league will naturally become more competitive and interesting for supporters and neutrals alike. There remains criticism over the repetitive nature of the current fixture format, but this situation has not been helped by the same clubs competing in the league each season, and the arrival of Haverfordwest and Llandudno will at least start to make a positive impact in this area. As a result, small steps may yet prove to be the quickest fix.