The Welsh Premier League ‘Super Twelve’ – Time to stick or twist?

ATFC MarchFOR AS LONG as there have been football matches, there have also been those who have sought to administer, regulate and institutionalise. Indeed, political interference in football can be traced as far back as the 14th century, when Edward III, disgruntled at the fact that far too many of his subjects were spending their free time chasing an inflated pig’s bladder across an open field as opposed to honing their archery skills, issued a decree to ban the sport across his kingdom. Football has come a long way since those humble beginnings, however its ability to attract headlines away from the field of play remains undiminished. The column inches devoted to the upcoming FIFA elections, and especially Luis Figo’s proposal to expand the World Cup to 48 teams, is a perfect illustration of this, while the ongoing saga surrounding Qatar’s contentious bid to host the tournament in 2022 has involved more Machiavellian manoeuvrings and shady dealings than the average episode of House of Cards. Like it or not, the ‘beautiful game’ has well and truly become the ‘bureaucrat’s game’.

In recent years, the Welsh Premier League, perhaps to a greater extent than any football league in Europe, has felt the full force of such administrative wrangling, as clubs and supporters alike have had to come to terms with the radical decision to restructure the division into the so-called ‘Super 12’ format, implemented at the start of the 2010/11 season. The brainchild of former league secretary John Deakin, this proposal has not only led to the reduction of the number of top-flight Welsh clubs from 18 to 12, but also the introduction of a mid-season ‘split’, whereby the bottom six and top six clubs break off into two separate ‘mini-leagues’ from January onwards. While the format has drawn its fair share of detractors, it seems that, for the time being, it is here to stay and therefore, as we approach the end of the fifth season since the start of the ‘Super 12’ era, now is perhaps the opportune moment to evaluate the relative success of this contentious move.

While football fans generally take a dim view of men in suits meddling with the routine of their beloved game, from an objective perspective it is hard to condemn the FAW’s initial decision to overhaul the old structures of the league, regardless of the deficiencies of its eventual replacement. With the performances of Welsh clubs in Europe showing no sign of improvement (thus contributing towards the league’s low coefficient rating in the UEFA standings), and average attendances figures remaining pitifully low, it was clear by the mid-2000s that sweeping reforms were required to enhance the appeal and prestige of Wales’ ailing domestic league. Within an economic context, the rationale behind the reduction in the number of top-flight teams was sound: a smaller league would mean a greater share of the sponsorship money being distributed to each member club, which in turn would allow for greater investment in training facilities and enhance the ability of the league to attract top-level talent. A more compact league would also, by default, result in each club being afforded enhanced levels of media exposure, which was quickly identified as an essential objective in the FAW’s strategy to broaden the league’s profile amongst the general public. To reinforce this new settlement, FAW domestic licences were also introduced into the league system, which set a number of compulsory criteria for membership within the Premier Division as a means of bolstering the administrative efficiency of each club.

For the match-going fan, a major selling point of the proposals was the fact that a league season would now contain a larger number of local derbies, while the mid-season ‘split’ was designed to maximise levels of interest in the league as a whole, rather than being confined to the top and bottom clubs. The dreaded prospect of mid-table dead rubbers was thus banished forever. Less established clubs were also, through the end of season play off system, granted an opportunity to participate in European competition that would have otherwise been beyond their reach during a conventional football season. In this respect, the FAW deserve to be commended for their egalitarian approach, rather than simply attempting to appease the elite clubs.

The initial response to the new format seemed to vindicate the FAW’s bold strategy. The first season under the ‘Super 12’ design saw a near 25% increase in average attendances, which represented an all-time high for the league since its inception in 1992. Similarly, media coverage of the league, which was lamentably sparse throughout its early years, has steadily increased since 2010, with at least one live game being shown every weekend on free to air television, and a comprehensive weekly highlights package being delivered via S4C’s Sgorio programme. In terms of the actual football on display, there were also early signs that the more compact format of the league had enhanced its competitiveness and strength in depth. The league titles during the 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons were both decided on the final day, drawing substantial crowds in the process, while the play-off system for the final Europa League space has also been well attended in recent years (1,442 supporters turned up to see Bangor defeat Rhyl in last year’s play-off final), as well as providing the likes of Bala Town their first taste of European competition. As recently as October of last year, Martin Rose, Port Talbot Town’s top goal-scorer for this season, was quoted as saying that the new format had ‘definitely’ improved the standard of the league, and was delivering a more exciting product for the fans as a result.

From a broader perspective however, it becomes difficult to echo Rose’s optimism. By surveying the state of the league in its totality, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the ‘Super 12’ format, far from addressing the fundamental issues that have hindered the development of Welsh domestic football since 1992, has merely papered over the yawning cracks. Firstly, the average attendance figures that have been recorded since the 2010/11 season have not made for pleasant reading for the league’s administrators. Not only have they failed to match the record-breaking numbers of the first ‘Super 12’ season, but within two years they had actually dipped back down to almost exactly the same figure that had been recorded for the last season under the old 18-team format. While attendances have since recovered from this nadir, they show no sign of displaying the kind of exponential growth that the FAW must have envisioned when the ‘Super 12’ system was first introduced. It seems that public interest in the league has stagnated after the short-term boost of the 2010/11 season, and perhaps the most critical factor in this respect is the overly repetitive nature of the league’s fixture schedule. Fewer league clubs means a greater number of matches between the same opposition, with some teams facing each other six times during the course of the season, not including cup matches. For even the most ardent fan, the sense of tedium at having to watch the same set of opponents on such a regular basis is becoming increasingly hard to ignore.

Additionally, despite the closeness of the title races during the first two seasons of the ‘Super 12’ era, all the signs have so far shown a league whose competitiveness is decreasing, as the dominance of The New Saints continues unabated. The Oswestry-based club has won the league title for three consecutive years, and by a substantial margin during the past two campaigns (22 points and 14 points respectively). Currently unbeaten in the league and fifteen points clear of their nearest rivals, it is unlikely that the Saints’ supremacy will be challenged in the near future, which means that the Welsh Premier League is in danger of becoming more lopsided than the SPL. Meanwhile, the domestic licence system, which was introduced precisely as a means of bolstering the ability of each club to compete at the highest level, has so far failed to yield the desired results. The fact that Rhyl, the league champions of the 2008/9 season, and who had registered the highest average attendances for seven consecutive years, were relegated in 2010 due to their inability to obtain a licence undermined the new system almost immediately.

Even those clubs who were lucky enough to secure a domestic licence have not been effectively sheltered against administrative mismanagement and financial instability. The fates of Llanelli and Neath, two clubs who invested heavily as a means of competing with The New Saints but have since been dissolved, is a stark reminder that the precariousness of a football club’s existence in the Welsh Premier League has not been properly addressed. However, perhaps the most damning indictment of the ‘Super 12’ era comes in the form of the league’s standing in Europe. Before the implementation of the FAW’s restructuring strategy, the Welsh Premier League was ranked 46th out of the 53 European football leagues. Five years on, it now languishes in 48th place, below the likes of the Faroese and Maltese leagues.

Of course, while it is easy to be cynical about the current state of the league, it’s far harder to offer any constructive solutions. In truth, there are no readily available remedies. The fact that Wales’ biggest clubs continue to ply their trade in a far more prestigious and commercially lucrative league system over the border will always be a considerable impediment to the development of the Welsh Premier League. The most regularly articulated alternative to the current system is to revert to a summer league, a format that has generated a moderate degree of success in the Republic of Ireland. With most Welsh clubs voicing their disapproval towards such a proposal however, it is unlikely that we will see league football being played in Wales during the summer months any time soon. Perhaps the best hope for the FAW therefore is to collaborate more closely with supporters the next time they feel it necessary to introduce such sweeping changes to the league system. Only by listening to the quintessential lifeblood of Welsh domestic football will the men in suits uncover a suitable strategy for the future.