A return to muddy nights sliding down a terrace in shin-high slime in Newtown. To playing in front of an empty Racecourse. To playing the likes of Pontlottyn Blast Furnace and Abergavenny Thursdays. And I’m genuinely looking forward to it desperately.
Why am I so keen to take a step back into our past, and contest a competition which has gone on without us for so long? Because it’s a step back into the history of our football club, a reconnection to our true identity. We’re rediscovering what we truly are by rejoining our neighbours from the League of Wales and beyond.
Our record in the Welsh Cup, and its consolation prize of a successor the Welsh Premier Cup, suggests that we should never have been made to live without it, and that Welsh football shouldn’t have been made to live without us.
There are plenty of League of Wales clubs who would dispute that, and I sympathise fully with their arguments. After all, the introduction of clubs from the English pyramid clearly threatens their chances of winning the trophy. True, but our absence has sadly devalued it. Although S4C has made an excellent effort to publicise the national league, with Sgorio and their live coverage of LoW games essential viewing for fans with the good of Welsh football at heart, the fact is that it is still very much a niche interest.
I love watching it, and have seen some very entertaining games this season. However, there’s no question I’m in a minority. For proof look at the League’s own publicity. They excitedly announced that average attendances had risen to an all-time high this season, and they are right to be proud of such an achievement (although some might argue it’s come about as a consequence of elitism in manufacturing the make-up of the top division.)
Furthermore, the average crowd for the season was up a commendable 25% on the season before, but just what was the record average? I’m afraid it was just 343.
I’m not intending to disparage the league in pointing this out as I’m an advocate of its charms. The crowds are an indication of the size of its market. However, to us, even in our diminished position, these are poor attendances; the traditionally larger clubs like Bangor, who attracted 1,707 for their final day title decider with TNS, can attract Conference-size crowds, but they’re the exception rather than the norm.
I’m not going to patronise the LoW clubs by suggesting drawing us would be like us playing a big team in the FA Cup. I’m sure the North Walian clubs would relish locking horns with us, but to the likes of Neath I suspect we’re not much of a draw; there’s no history between us and frankly we’re not going to pack out a ground which attracted just over five hundred fans on average last season. However, we would be a scalp of sorts, and the best way for them to register their dissatisfaction at our participation in the competition would be to knock us out of it!
Having returned to the competition, the next issue’s to regain a European spot. That will be more easily said than done, as opposition to the idea exists both inside and outside Wales. Until a couple of years ago, if you took a dispassionate view it was hard to claim we shouldn’t get a chance to participate in Europe. After all, we weren’t allowed to qualify through the FA Cup, so the fact that the other teams in the competition were offered something we weren’t seemed a clear restraint of trade, albeit a theoretical one rather than something that was ever likely to really happen. The fact that the FA, following Cardiff’s run to the final, has now relented and let Welsh clubs get into Europe through its competition, puts a different complexion on things though. Now we do have a path to Europe, if an unlikely one, and surely Swansea and Cardiff would be reluctant to want to give it away for the chance to play their youth teams in the Welsh Cup and hope to go through that way.
We’ll also find opposition amongst the League of Wales clubs too, of course. Why on earth would they support our hopes of clinching a European spot when it means we’ll be taking it off them? Perhaps that can be justified by the possibility of Newport and ourselves raising the Welsh coefficient, enabling more clubs to get into the Europa League, or to enter it at a later stage. However, the objections of Cardiff and Swansea will surely prove and impossible obstacle, and it’s hard to imagine UEFA making an exception for us, Newport and Merthyr, but not Cardiff and Swansea.
An interesting side-issue is where it leaves the status of the FA Trophy. Despite reaching the quarter-final in our first season in non-league, and having the incentive of Wembley at the end of the competition, we’ve hardly embraced it. Dean Saunders has seen it as an unnecessary distraction from the job of getting promoted, and he’s right. The way matches have to be cancelled once you get to the latter stages adds to an already congested fixture list makes it a hindrance more than a help; I was inclined to agree with his judgement when he sent a reserve team out at Salisbury when we were eliminated from the Trophy last season.
Saunders will have to juggle even more fixtures this season, and the Welsh Cup will be the more attainable goal. The FA Trophy will surely become a reserve and youth competition for us, as might the opening rounds of the Welsh Cup, but that’s no bad thing; the likes of Neil Roberts, Mark Cartwright and Neil Wainwright certainly benefitted from the early exposure to first team football that the Welsh Premier Cup brought. The man I feel most sorry for is Geraint Parry; he’s going to have some fun explaining to the other Conference clubs’ secretary that we can’t rearrange a game for next Tuesday because we’re playing Prestatyn in the Welsh Cup!