Swansea City will become the first Welsh team to play in the English Premier League in the 2011-2012 season, following their victory in the Championship play-off final on Monday. As I write, thousands are out on the streets of Swansea celebrating as the team bus drives through the southern Welsh city.
While to fans of MLS it may seem normal for a league to span two countries, the existence of Swansea in the Premier League, Cardiff City in the Football League and Newport County, Wrexham, Merthyr Town and Colwyn Bay further down in the English system remains a subject of some controversy to UEFA and within Welsh and English football. A potted history of Welsh football is in order to explain this anomaly.
The Welsh national association is one of the oldest in the world, founded in 1876, 13 years after the English FA and three years after the Scottish FA. Its original hotspot was in North Wales, mainly around Wrexham, where the sport had crossed the border from Cheshire in England. In south Wales though, rather than Association Football taking hold, it was Rugby Football that became the most popular organised game in the country in the late nineteenth century.
This distinction can be seen in the contrast between the country’s biggest professional clubs – Wrexham in the north date back to 1872, while in the south of the country Cardiff were founded in 1899 and Swansea in 1913. This delayed national development provided an immediate impediment to a strong Welsh league developing in the crucial early decades of organised football in Great Britain, and was unlike the story in Scotland, to contrast to another English neighbour. Challenging issues of north-south transit in Wales also proved to be a challenge to national play in the country.
Welsh participation in the English league system thus dates back to the country’s oldest club, Wrexham. Located close to the border with England adjacent to the Northwest hub of English football, it actually proved to be more profitable for the club to play in the English Combination minor league that ran from 1890 to 1911 than in the nascent Welsh League, with the inferior competition in Wales dettering spectators and players alike (Wrexham briefly played in the Welsh league from 1894-1896, easily winning it both seasons they participated in). Wrexham eventually rose up the English system to the Football League, and the newer professional Welsh clubs such as Swansea and Cardiff followed them across the border in the early twentieth century.
Cardiff had the strongest run of success in English competition in the twentieth century, winning the FA Cup in 1927, three years after finishing as runners-up in the Football League’s top division. Swansea themselves rose to the top flight in 1981 after three successive promotions from the basement division under John Toshack. They finished in sixth place in the 1981-82 season, but just as quickly fell back to the bottom tier by 1986.
Meantime, the Welsh teams playing in the English league system were still allowed to compete in the Welsh Cup, of course dominating it. This provided Welsh clubs with a route to European competition. This issue has proven to be controversial: in the early 1990s, a national Welsh Premier League was established, featuring both professional and semi-pro clubs, with all Welsh clubs invited to join it. The professional clubs from four of Wales’ biggest conurbations – Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Wrexham – all refused to join, remaining in the English system. Clubs playing in the English league system were thus banned from participating in the Welsh Cup in 1995, removing that route to European competition for clubs such as Swansea and Cardiff – though that may be about to change.
The Welsh Premier League even had considerable trouble attracting the smaller Welsh teams, issuing sanctions that forced clubs such as Merthyr Tydfil (now Merthyr Town) to take court action to be able to play their home games in the English system within Welsh borders. The Welsh Premier League struggles due to the absence of clubs such as Swansea, though it does allow for some glorious moments for some very small clubs in European competition – the champions of the league qualify for the UEFA Champions League, with Barry Town beating an admittedly weakened FC Porto team 3-1 at Jenner Park in Wales in 2001 (they still lost 9-3 on aggregate, though!).
Despite consistently trailing in bookmaker’s odds (from Ladbrokes to Bet365), Swansea City’s promotion to the Premier League is a fantastic achievement, and brings a touch of Welsh exotica to the league – along with a welcome commitment to continue playing attractive soccer from their manager Brendan Rodgers.