One of the few things that unites football fans, regardless of which team they support, is the collective dismay and disbelief that often follows decisions taken by those who run the game. Sadly, too many national and continental associations are populated by faceless bureaucrats who enjoy the substantial perks of their job, and are more concerned with keeping themselves in the style that they have become accustomed to, than educating themselves on the relevant issues of the game, so they can make the decision that best benefits those who play and watch football.
One of those national associations is the Football Association of Wales (FAW).
Recently, and against all advice, the FAW made a decision that may irreparably damage domestic football in a large part of Wales. This week, the FAW met and had the chance to reconsider their decision. Instead, they chose not to even bother discussing it.
While organised football has been played in Wales for well over a hundred years, Wales didn’t have a national league until 1992, when the League of Wales, which later became the Welsh Premier League, was formed. Poor transport links between north and south Wales meant that it was easier for clubs to play in the English league system.
When Wales formed its own league, the FAW decreed that every Welsh club (the vast majority of whom were semi-professional) that was playing in the English league system, with the exceptions of the professional teams Cardiff City, Swansea City and Wrexham (plus Merthyr Tydfil, who at the time were one division below the English leagues, so were given three years to gain promotion) had to join the League of Wales, or face playing home matches outside of Wales.
This didn’t go down well with eight of those clubs, dubbed the ‘irate eight’, who launched a legal challenge against the FAW. As a result; three of the clubs (Newport County, Colwyn Bay and Merthyr Tydfil) were allowed to remain in the English system, whereas the other five eventually accepted places in the League of Wales. One of those sides was Barry Town.
In the late 90’s/early 00’s Barry Town were the dominant force in Welsh football. As the only fully professional side in the Welsh Premier League, they were just too good for the other teams. At one point they won seven league titles in 8 seasons, including three successive league and cup doubles.
Barry also had a modicum of success in European competition. They became the first Welsh league side to win a European tie, when they got through the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Cup. They also managed to beat Porto 3-1 on one occasion (though that was the 2nd leg of the tie, Porto had won the first leg 8-0!).
Unfortunately, Barry’s success came at a great cost. The Welsh Premier League is not a good standard of football, it’s considered by UEFA to be one of the worst in Europe, and crowds rarely reach four figures, even for the best teams. As such, it didn’t take long for Barry to rack up some huge debts.
Despite a bizarre attempt to turn the club’s fortunes around by installing former Wimbledon striker John Fashanu as Chairman, whose promises of being able to attract investment from Nigeria and China, and signing players like Taribo West, came to nothing; Barry ended up having to dismantle the team and coaching staff that had just won their seventh title, and gave up their professional status.
The following season, Barry, had to field a team largely drawn from an amateur side five divisions below the Welsh Premier, and as a result they suffered badly on the pitch, not winning a game until February, and were relegated. Off the pitch, the club faced being wound up over their debts, but were saved by local businessman Stuart Lovering. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for Barry fans to realise that with Lovering, they’d jumped out of the frying pan straight into the fire and that they now had probably the worst owner British football has ever seen.
Just before Barry’s relegation was confirmed, Lovering announced that the following season he would raise ticket prices, making Barry Town the most expensive side to watch in Welsh football. Understandably, the supporters weren’t happy, so Lovering came up with a solution. He banned the supporters club from fundraising outside the ground, despite having just received £4,000 from them.
During his time in charge, Lovering announced his intention to build a 40,000 seater stadium. Barry’s attendance was closer to 400 at the time. He also tried to get local businesses to pay off the club’s debts and seemed surprised when they said no. Similarly, after a second relegation down to the third tier of Welsh football, he tried to get the Welsh Premier League to promote Barry two divisions and grant them exemption from relegation, and again seemed surprised when he was told no.
On several occasions, Lovering tried to sell the club. Even though his asking price was far in excess of what he paid for the club, there were interested parties, which at one time included a consortium headed by former Wales striker John Hartson. Each time a bid seemed close to completion, Lovering would change the terms of the deal and caused the deals to fall through.
The supporters had had enough. They formed their own company, the Barry Town Supporters Committee, and in 2009 the BTSC assumed day-to-day control of the club, including financing the team.
This season, Barry Town were top of the league when Lovering stated that, unless he found a buyer for the club, he would withdraw Barry Town from the league. The league told him that he didn’t have the power to do so, only the club secretary. So, Lovering set about making himself the club secretary.
One of his first acts as secretary was to withdraw Barry’s under-19 team from their league, claiming a lack of players, despite Barry’s assertion that 17 players were ready and able to play. In May, Lovering cancelled Barry Town’s league match with Ton Pentre for no apparent reason. A week later, with only two games left in the season, he withdrew Barry Town from the league.
The BTFC refused to roll over, and announced they had formed Barry Town United. An agreement was reached for the new club to play in the same stadium Barry Town had used, a sponsor had been found, they’d even arranged a pre-season friendly with Cardiff City’s under-21 team. In short, they had done everything to show that Barry Town United were ready and able to compete. It was hoped they could just assume the place Barry Town had had the previous season. All that was needed was the seal of approval of the FAW.
In mid-June, the FAW held one of their bi-monthly meetings. On the agenda was the future of Barry Town United, as well as the future of AFC Llanelli, another ‘phoenix’ club formed after Llanelli AFC, another one of the Welsh Premier League’s most successful clubs, were wound up after a tax debt.
It stands to reason that those who make the decisions about football aren’t always in a position to immediately make a decision on every issue that is put to them. So, what happens is committees are formed to investigate these issues and make a recommendation as to what action, if any should be taken. This is what happened when the issue of the futures of Barry Town United and AFC Llanelli were up for discussion. A committee was formed, made the relevant enquiries and came up with a recommendation that Barry Town United be put into the third division of Welsh football, and Llanelli in the second division.
However, the FAW council rejected their own committee’s recommendation by a margin of 21-3, and stated that as both Barry Town United and AFC Llanelli are new clubs, they would not be given FAW membership, and as a result, must apply to the relevant regional Football Associations to play in the tenth tier of Welsh football, the bottom of the pyramid. This is pretty much park football.
This decision was condemned by clubs, fans, players and the media. Yes, technically, Barry Town United are a new club, but as it was essentially the same club it had been for years, with the same players, same manager, same stadium, only minus the owner who was trying to undermine the club at every turn, it was thought common sense would prevail.
On Tuesday, the FAW council, which consists of 29 people, plus legal representatives in case they were required, gathered to discuss this decision. The clubs were due to present new evidence which they hoped would cause the FAW to reconsider denying them membership. The meeting descended into farce as the FAW council voted 15-14 against hearing any new evidence, meaning that 15 FAW councillors turned up to a meeting to discuss an issue, only to vote against discussing it!
The decision of the FAW council not to even discuss the Barry Town and Llanelli issue has cause massive ructions within the FAW. Andrew Edwards, who was the Welsh Premier League’s representative on the FAW council, immediately resigned in disgust saying:
"It’s a complete shambles. This is not just about Llanelli and Barry Town. This is about Welsh football. This was a chance to right the wrongs of the first decision, but they would not even listen to the arguments.
“I made the long journey to Caersws in order to have a proper meeting, but it didn’t even last ten minutes. It’s embarrassing for Welsh football.
“I went for this role in order to make a difference and improve Welsh football, but it’s been so frustrating, I didn’t get into the FAW for the trips and free lunches but, unfortunately, that is the case for some people.
“To be fair to Jonathan Ford (FAW chief executive), he’s trying to make changes but unfortunately the council has to approve any changes. It’s damaging for Welsh football.”
Currently, the FAW president, Trefor Lloyd-Hughes, is considering his future too.
The vast majority of the population of Wales live in the south of the country. The three biggest Welsh cities are all in South Wales, and are Cardiff and Swansea, who are both in the English Premier League, and Newport, whose side have just made it back to the English leagues after a 25-year absence.
With that in mind, it’s tough for South Walian clubs playing in the Welsh football system to attract fans and establish themselves. Increasingly, the Welsh Premier League is being mostly comprised of clubs from North Wales, with only three South Walian clubs playing in the Welsh Premier League next season. This problem is being exacerbated by clubs from South Wales often not seeking promotion to the Welsh Premier League for financial reasons.
So it seems ludicrous that the FAW would be so flippant about losing two, relatively well-supported clubs, from two of South Wales’ larger towns, clubs that do have the will and the infrastructure to play in the Welsh Premier League and effectively further weakening domestic football in the South of Wales.
Also, both Barry and Llanelli had thriving youth academies, with hundreds of children regularly playing. It seems likely that these academies will have to close, as both Barry and Llanelli will take a huge financial hit. So, what happens to those kids? Are they just lost to football?
The slogan of the FAW is 'your voice, your game'. Those words seem to have escaped the notice of the FAW council, whose actions fly in the face of what is right for Welsh football.