Salvation For Domestic Celtic Nation Football In League Unification

celticnationsMark Pitman offers a Welsh football perspective to the potential of a Celtic nation amalgamation.

This month the Champions League once again dominated the football headlines as the knock-out stage of UEFA’s flagship competition matched the biggest, best and richest of the European game against each other. Such is the attention and interest demanded by what is now considered football’s leading competition, the Champions League has grown from strength to strength since ditching its European Cup title for a new image and format, while maintaining the silverware traditions of past glorious with what Jose Mourinho refers to as ‘the cup with the big ears’. The escalating profile and riches now associated with the Champions League justify its revamp, but its new-found status was created out of necessity in order to prevent the creation of the European Super League and the breakaway of Europe’s leading clubs. The idea has since been muted, but it remains an underlying threat to the current establishment, and raises its head whenever there is unrest between UEFA and its clubs. 

The expansion of the Champions League has provided a viable and eventually successful alternative to the idea of a European Super League. Now its evolution over the last two decades may also help to shape a similar development across the Celtic nations, as Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland become increasingly concerned about the sustainability and continued viability of their respective domestic leagues. Unique factors across the Celtic nations have caused such justifiable concern, and the potential in May 2012 of a joint bid between Wales, Scotland and Ireland to host the Euro 2020 Championship sowed the initial seed that an ambitious plan could provide some sort of salvation for each country’s national league. The creation of a Celtic League provides the basis for this blog, but while the implementation of such an idea in place of the current domestic arrangement would cause unparalleled problems in Nyon and beyond, it would also significantly jeopardise the future of all four national teams, especially in the aftermath of the Olympics and Team GB. But the UEFA Champions League offers hope of a viable alternative, and a similar move on a smaller scale could provide a viable solution.

Welsh football has experienced a number of changes both on the domestic and international stage over the last two decades. The formation of the national league in 1992 caused a significant split as a number of clubs fought against the Football Association of Wales and their demand for them to return from the English pyramid system. It was an embarrassing start for the then-named League of Wales, and the negative stigma has proved difficult to shake-off as crowds remain small and competing clubs struggle to make their financial ends meet. High-profile clubs such as Barry Town, Rhyl and more recently Neath have struggled to sustain success and no longer compete in the domestic top-flight after well-documented financial problems, while the latter no longer exist due to their unsustainable spending. The Welsh Premier League had a make-over in 2010 as the league was reduced to twelve clubs with a view to concentrating the quality into creating a more marketable product, but while standards have improved and television coverage has reached a peak of one live game and one live streamed game a week, the problems of attendance and the negative perception from both the public and the press remain firmly in place.

While the other Celtic nations have seen their respective domestic leagues affected by various different factors, Wales is no different. The establishment of Swansea City and Cardiff City in the English pyramid provides a strange situation to those looking in from the outside, as Wales’ two highest-profile clubs compete within the pyramid of a different country and association. During the 1990’s, both clubs shared a miserable connection in that both were struggling along in the lower reaches of the Football League in front of a few thousand people who braved their respective dilapidated stadiums. With no money, mounting debts and bleak prospects, they signified all that was wrong with the domestic game in Wales. Move forward less than two decades later, and Cardiff City are now on the verge of joining Swansea City in the richest league in the world. Both clubs now sell-out their respective new stadiums to over 40,000 combined fans every game and their status does not seem set to change anytime soon. Their success is also being emulated at a lower level by Wrexham and Newport County in the Blue Square Premier as both sides compete for a return to the Football League.

While domestic football offered little optimism during the 1990’s, the international game saw Wales move within one win of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup. Years of failure followed before Mark Hughes took charge of the nation he represented with great pride as a player, and Wales again narrowly missed out on qualification for a major tournament for the first time since 1958 as a talented generation once again came so close, yet so far. John Toshack followed Hughes, but while his reign failed to inspire and the public voted with their feet, the former Real Madrid boss did ensure that his successor Gary Speed would inherit a team of talented young players experienced at international level ahead of their time. Speed galvanised the side and brought a modern new dimension to the national team as they prepared for the 2014 World Cup qualification campaign, a campaign that appeared destined for success. Tragically, in November 2011, the dream died.

Chris Coleman is the man now entrusted to provide Wales with long-overdue international success. His tenure, in what he described upon his appointment as ‘an impossible job’ due to the circumstances, has shown limited signs of optimism but recent indicators suggest some evidence of improvement after a significant dip, although the form of Gareth Bale and the availability and motivation of key players will decide the eventual success of Coleman’s reign. The success of Swansea City and Cardiff City has made the fortunes of the national team something of a side-show, when only two decades ago it provided salvation to the problems of the club game, and provides an interesting example of the rotating fortunes of the football cycle. Things are rarely simple for those fans with a passion for club or country in Wales, the latest split at Cardiff City through the controversial colour and badge change a good example of the chaos associated with our nation’s football. It is worth also noting the biggest headlines in the Welsh Premier League in recent seasons have been about off the field problems, and not on the field successes.

How the rise of the big four, or very big two, in the English pyramid system has affected clubs in the Welsh Premier League is debatable. While the ten-fold increase in attendances at both Swansea City and Cardiff City has taken people away from the national league, their profile has enhanced interest in the game, and the well-funded academy systems at Welsh Premier League clubs have no shortage of player interest as youngsters look to emulate their heroes. Rugby has been traditionally associated as the national sport, but this mythology has been firmly tested in recent years and football now dominates the local sporting headlines on a daily basis. However, the rise in the demand to be a part of Swansea and Cardiff’s success has brought an inevitable rise in ticket prices, and the current matchday cost has made the Welsh Premier League a tempting alternative for families wanting to take their children to a live game without changing the household budget. With European qualification on offer through the domestic league and Welsh Cup, the Welsh Premier League also provides an attractive option for youngsters released by professional clubs, and this has resulted in a steady improvement in the general standard of play. This has been complimented by the arrival of a number of Football League veterans in recent seasons following their exit from the professional game. These are just some of the many debatable points associated with this issue.

And so we return to the topic in hand, and the potential offered by an amalgamation of the four Celtic nations. In 1997 the FAW introduced its Premier Cup competition. Funded by the BBC, the competition brought together the best of the Welsh Premier League with the best of the Welsh clubs competing in the English pyramid. The competition brought new interest in the domestic league and provided clubs with significant and welcome prize money, as well as substantially increased crowds for games against Swansea City, Cardiff City and Wrexham. The prizes on offer were purely financial and there was no European place available, but the competition was hugely popular, and provided Welsh Premier League clubs, as well as the clubs in the English pyramid, with a welcome additional source of income. In 2008 the BBC ended its sponsorship, the eleven year stint coinciding with the broadcaster losing, and then regaining, the rights to show Football League highlights.

The notion of a Celtic league has the potential to build upon the format of the FAW Premier Cup, while being played in conjunction with the current domestic national leagues in the same way as the Champions League currently operates. With carefully considered fixture planning and the right level of sponsorship, there is clear potential that the idea can be realised. The discussed joint bid to host Euro 2020 has already shown that the associations are happy to work in conjunction with each other, and the implementation of this initiative, even on an initially small scale of possibly two clubs from each nation, can prove successful with the right support. The dynamics of the competition will require serious thought, and financial backing for clubs will be paramount in ensuring its credibility, but its success could prove to be the salvation of the respective domestic games. While for some, most notably Wales and Welsh Premier League, it may prove to be the league’s best chance of survival.

Mark Pitman is a Welsh football columnist and blogger, regularly featuring on the Wales Online Sports Blog, In Bed with Maradona and The Ball is Round. Mark also provides regular features for a number of official match programmes including Swansea City , Wrexham and clubs in the Welsh Premier League. Visit www.markpitman1.com for a full archive or follow him on twitter @markpitman1 and on facebook/1markpitman.

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