Football Sport

Have lower league teams in Wales been left behind?

Dressing room of Ardal SE side Monmouth Town (Source: Monmouth Town)

By Tom Walker | Head of Sport

On February 4, the Football Association of Wales (FAW) released a much-anticipated statement regarding the near future of football in Wales. The surface decision was no surprise, but delving deeper into the intricacies there emerges some uncomfortable reading for many of the lower league clubs and their players across Wales. 

The statement explained that the top two tiers of the Welsh football pyramid will be completed whilst the seasons for Ardal Leagues and all leagues at recreational level were to be cancelled.

The JD Cymru Premier season will aim to get going from March 5 to May 31, while the Orchard Welsh Women’s Premier League season will look to resume on March 5 and end on May 23 all depending on Welsh Government guidelines.

Good news for all those involved, including locally based side Barry Town United, but teams in the lower divisions of Wales have been made to set their sights towards the 2021-22 campaign. 

The Welsh football league system recently underwent a reconstruction, with the introduction of the Ardal (translated as district) leagues for the 2020-21 season. The leagues are split into two divisions, covering North and South Wales. Both Northern and Southern leagues have two regionally-based sections of sixteen clubs each, with the winners of each league being promoted to either the Cymru North or the Cymru South.

The 2020-21 league campaigns had yet to get off the ground before the recent news of its cancellation. 

“The FAW fully understands the frustrations felt by many throughout the country of not being able to play, volunteer and support their clubs.” The FAW statement read, “However, these are unprecedented times and the FAW is not responsible for the national COVID-19 policies and guidelines, which are in place to keep the nation as safe as possible.”

I spoke to the Treasurer of Ardal South West (SW) side Cardiff Draconians, David Harding, and the first team manager of Ardal South East (SE) side Monmouth Town Scott Russell, to discuss their reaction to the decision and the effect of the pandemic at large.

All opinions from David and Scott are representative of their individual views and not that of their respective clubs.

Cardiff Draconians finished runners-up in the South Wales Alliance League Premier Division in 2019–20 on a points-per-game formulation following its pandemic-enforced cancellation. The club initially failed to gain a place in the new league system, despite being granted a Tier 3 licence by the FAW. 

There was much frustration about this from many at the club who had worked hard throughout the pandemic to ensure the Tier 3 requirements were met, including several renovations to their ground and on-site facilities. However, the withdrawal of STM Sports opened a space in the SW Ardal League, and to much delight the Draconians were admitted.

The eagerness to compete in Welsh football’s third tier was clear, but the cancelation was no surprise. “I thought that this was the correct decision to make given the circumstances of a global pandemic and the requirement to follow Welsh Assembly and FAW guidelines.” David explained that, “This would be the clubs first ever season in what was the old Welsh League and we want to give it our best shot over a full season.”

Similarly, Monmouth Town are in the process of building a new 250-seater stand to meet the FAW ‘s Tier 3 requirements and maintain their place in their current division. The club was relegated from Division One of the Welsh League in 2018 because of their inability to offer seating for supporters and visitors, but a recent rallying from the community to the council ensured the stand could be built, removing further demotion from the cards. 

On the league being cancelled, manager Scott Russell said, “Obviously we are disappointed the season ended but as time went on the writing was on the wall, as a club we were saying back in December we could not see it actually starting sadly. As much as we love football, people’s safety and wellbeing is far more important.”

It was evident that plans to resume the season were in place heading into the new year, but rising COVID-19 cases brought the whole nation to a standstill once again, and with that football, too. 

“We had been contacted about a shortened season of 16 games.” David explained, “At the time we supported this but as we moved through the early part of 2021, we could see that this shortened season was not going to happen.” 

Similarly, Monmouth were informed of a potential restart come 2021: “We were told that our league was to be 15 games instead of 30, but that was basically it, there were a few emails that were sent out which did not really give any updates or future plans.” Scott explained. “As time went on you did not need a degree to understand that we were running out of dates to play these fixtures.”

One of the points of contention, particularly on social media, was that of registration fees. The statement explained that teams that entered into the 2020/21 season would be automatically entered into the equivalent competition next season, and that player and referee registration fees would not be refunded but instead offered at a discounted price for the next season. 

It states the player registration fees paid by clubs to the FAW have been used to pay the respective leagues, and the FAW’s Personal Accident Insurance Scheme.

I asked both David and Scott their opinions on the rolling over of the registration fees: “I am a little disappointed as the 2020/2021 season registration fees were paid on time.” said David, the Draconians Treasurer, “The current registrations should be rolled over and clubs should only pay for any changes.”

“We can see why so many clubs, including us, are upset that they are still having to pay for something we have had no return on.” Scott, the Monmouth Town manager exclaimed. “It seems very harsh for all Tier 3 and lower league teams, who are not after all elite. If they have any common decency, they will simply defer payments until 2021/22 season. We have lost money over the last 12 months as our outgoings have not stopped.”

Lydstep Park, home of Cardiff Draconians, is based in the heart of Gabalfa in Cardiff (Source: Nick Driscoll)

I wanted to find out how the communication from the FAW to it’s clubs had been over the course of this difficult period, and whether the clubs themselves felt neglected in favour of teams in the higher divisions.

“Lower league teams can see the process that the FAW are following through the FAW website just as we did during the start of the pandemic.” Observed David, “I know that our local league, Cardiff and District, have had communication with our club over this period, so in terms of understanding what is happening with grass roots football, in my opinion they have not been neglected.” 

Scott had another view on the issue: “Firstly, the FAW have been put in an extremely difficult position as the pandemic was new for everyone, however, communication is key and I know a few times I was left frustrated that we did not get more regular updates, but understand that they are at the hands of the Welsh Government about what can and cannot happen.”

“It’s important for certain people of power within Welsh football to remember that football is nothing without grassroots teams and the hundreds of volunteers that keep those clubs alive. It’s hard not to feel slightly bitter, but it has felt at times, over the last 12 months the teams at our level have felt like a second thought.”

“It would have been nice to have potential dates of a return to playing with a view to review those dates nearer the time instead of no interaction, we were left guessing for months” Scott added.

On the issue of receiving any sort of financial assistance in the future, the Dracionians Treasurer said: “I would anticipate that all clubs would welcome some form of financial assistance. It has been difficult for all the clubs, but I can also appreciate it has also been a difficult period for the FAW.”

Scott also echoed a similar sentiment but cast doubt over its actuality: “We have worked extremely hard to keep cost down to a minimum over the last 12 months, whilst a financial package would be warmly welcomed for Tier 3 teams and lower, we would be surprised if that happened.”

Gair Rhydd reached out the Football Association of Wales for a comment, though they declined to make any further comment on the situation.   

By no means is football the be all and end all, but local teams are often the beating heart of communities and towns across the country, let alone the mental and physical beneficiaries to those playing. It is incredibly important grassroot football and non-league clubs receive the help and guidance they need to get back off the ground when the new season begins. 

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