A blog on the flagship team of the Dafabet Welsh Premier League that divide opinion.
They are the Welsh champions that are based on the English border and have just reached the semi-finals of the Scottish League Cup. Ironically, they are also on-course to set a new British record for consecutive league victories during a domestic season. The New Saints FC are the team in question, and as manager Craig Harrison grateful accepts the plaudits that have been bestowed on his side by the national media over the last few weeks, there is still a lot more to come from the only full-time professional side in the Dafabet Welsh Premier League. Of course, The New Saints are no strangers to success, and are already the most decorated club in the history of the domestic top-flight. On Wednesday night the champions take on Rhyl in a rearranged fixture that could see them make it 19 consecutive league victories, but there remains a long-standing ambition to achieve even more in both Wales, and beyond.
Domestic dominance brings with it regular UEFA Champions League football, and the prize money for qualifying for this elite competition plays a significant role in sustaining the club’s playing budget. Progression through the opening round is considered to be of relative success for Welsh Premier League clubs in either of UEFA’s club competitions, and The New Saints have achieved this in recent years. However, there is a long-term vision of owner Mike Harris to see his club compete in the group stages of the Champions League or the Europa League, and Irish sides Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk have shown that this is possible for clubs on a level similar to that of The New Saints. If any Welsh club are to achieve such a feat it will be The New Saints, and it is their European campaign that provides the motivation to continue to keep their domestic standards so high.
This season the club were invited to compete in the IRN-BRU Scottish Challenge Cup, and they have taken the competition in their stride despite being drawn away in both of their opening games. The New Saints began their campaign with a 3-1 victory at Forfar Athletic, and made a big impression when they eased past Livingston 3-0 a few weeks ago to reach the semi-finals. Once again, Craig Harrison’s side will travel to Scotland for the semi-final, this time to face St Mirren, and whatever the outcome there is no doubt that these additional fixtures will provide the side with some valuable preparation ahead of when they inevitably return to the Champions League next summer. Already well on-course to complete an unprecedented domestic treble-treble, the side extended their new league record last week with a 3-1 win over Cardiff Met at their Park Hall Stadium. The victory was number of 17 of the season, having already beaten the record for the best start to a campaign that was set at 15 by Bangor City back in 2010/11 the weekend before. Carrying on from last season, it made for 18 consecutive victories for The New Saints, and extended another domestic record set during the current campaign.
The figures don’t lie, and when compared against other clubs across Europe, The New Saints come out on top in terms of the number of goals scored per game and on their points return. But success brings resentment, and while the flagship side represent the Welsh Premier League positively in Europe, and now also in the Scottish Cup, there are questions over the monopoly that their regular participation in UEFA’s premier club competition brings. Other clubs have attempted to challenge by investing heavily with little in the way of a sustainable foundation, and have inevitably, and literally, paid the price for doing so. A brief challenge Airbus UK Broughton over the last few years has subsided, and it will be interesting to see how the likes of GAP Connah’s Quay and Bangor City manage to upset the current order with their new and ambitious plans for the future. There is no doubt that recent increases in UEFA prize money for Champions League participation in particular has had a significant effect on smaller nations throughout Europe, and recent concerns over the impact of making the rich clubs richer has been raised by the likes of Gibraltar following their acceptance into the UEFA family.
However, while The New Saints also began their journey to the top almost 20 years ago with financial investment, they have strived to find the balance between success and creating a sustainable environment which will ensure the longer-term security of the football club. They were the first club to see the benefit of an artificial playing surface, and after being criticised over it for a number of years, the majority of their Welsh Premier League rivals have now followed their lead. It is just one example of how the club have set a standard for others to follow. Now the club are looking to break a British record for the number of consecutive league victories in a single season. Currently held by Scottish champions Celtic, former manager Martin O’Neill masterminded a run of 25 straight wins back in 2003/04, and it will take something special to stop The New Saints from overtaking the other British champions in green and white hoops. National success stories can only help raise the profile of the Welsh Premier League, and The New Saints are a trailblazing side that Welsh football should really be proud of at a time when too many are only too keen to criticise the domestic game.