Following The New Saint’s 10-0 victory over Rhyl FC on Sunday, questions that have for long time surrounded the club and Welsh football have risen once again.
They ask about the fairness of having a full time team in a semi-professional league, which has given the champions a love or loathe status amongst football fans far and wide.
Here, we take a look at how The New Saints grew to the all dominant force they are today, and whether they’d be better off in or out of the Welsh Premier League.
When telecommunications guru Mike Harris became involved with Llansantffraid Town in 1997/98, football in Wales would never be the same again. Renewed financial strength and a name change to ‘Total Network Solutions’ via a sponsorship deal saw the club claim their first League of Wales title in 2000, when they defeated Barry Town on the final day of the season to secure the championship and European football.
More European success followed including a glamour tie with Manchester City, and the club soon found themselves too big for their facilities and began a search for a home fit for a full-time professional football club.
Then, the controversy came. A proposed merger between the then struggling Oswestry Town and Llansantffraid was passed despite claims that not all shareholders of Oswestry Town were even aware of the meeting regarding the plans. The newly merged club was to play at a new stadium in Oswestry, which once again angered some who believed a club playing in Wales should be on Welsh soil.
Another major change to the club was rung in 2006, when following the sale of Mike Harris’ Total Network Solutions to British Telecom, the club changed its name to The New Saints, taking inspiration from the Saints of Oswestry and Llansantffraid, Oswald and Ffraid.
A year later, the vision of a new stadium became a reality and then some, with Park Hall’s £3m development giving the Saints one of the few 3G pitches in the league at the time along with The Venue, which features a gym, ten-pin bowling and a children’s play area with a view to becoming a community-hub for all in the area.
Fast forward nine years, and things have certainly gone well for Mike Harris and his men. Since opening their new ground, they have lifted the league title there for seven of the nine seasons they’ve played at Park Hall so far. The success goes further than this, with five consecutive league titles now claimed along with back to back treble wins with the Welsh and Word cups.
In the meantime, their fellow league clubs have been forced to sit back and watch The New Saints dominate, with fans even more frustrated with the same old record being played in the league from August to April.
Although in its early stages, this season’s league table does not show any sign of a change to this trend, already placing TNS at the top and with a 16+ goal difference, meaning they have scored 41% of all league goals this season.
Of course, you can’t blame The New Saints for their success, as like every other football team, they want to win and have done so in style. Their appointment of Craig Harrison in 2011 is surely one of the best moves ever seen in Welsh football, with the club embracing his dignified, technical passing game which has meant TNS don’t just win games, but win them with some great football. Consistent Champions League appearances have helped keep the club financially sustainable and a high quality academy has also been developed.
And yet, many are quick to point out all this success is practically guaranteed as the only full time professional club in the league – and some go a step further in saying a team like TNS belong in the English pyramid system.
To address this question, the myths have to be dispelled, as some of the criticism against TNS just doesn’t stand up in the cold light of day. As champions, they will always get negative feedback from those affiliated with other clubs and the wider fan base, but this is common in any league around the world.
Fans will regularly criticise their stadium as more of a leisure centre than a football stadium, with little atmosphere owing to a relatively small fan base – but issues with attendances and atmosphere are relevant across the league, with perhaps Bangor City now the only team in the league who can guarantee the two.
They have been called outcasts of their community with some fans of both the original Llansantffraid and Oswestry clubs choosing to shun them – but clear steps have been made to engage and support local football are being made with events alongside the newly formed FC Oswestry Town and veterans’ leagues being held at the club.
Then comes the controversy of The New Saints English-Welsh heritage, which has put the Welsh Premier League title officially in England. This is indeed a bizarre situation, but the fact is TNS are not alone with teams all around the world playing across the border for a plethora of reasons – with TNS’ quite simple in that they are a border team with both English and Welsh heritage, and rightful league members.
In asking The New Saints to leave the Welsh pyramid, they are asked to give up their right to the Champions League, which could take longer than a decade to recover in the English system – and throw all they have contributed to the league away . Kicking The New Saints out of the league may be the quickest option, but it would not be just or correct.
Although the same team winning the title each year isn’t great for entertainment, it is worth remembering that just six clubs have won the league from 1992 – TNS and Barry winning it 17 times between them.
There is real hope that the league will become more competitive, with the likes of Bala Town, gap Connah’s Quay and Bangor City all ambitious outfits hoping to loosen The New Saint’s grip on all three domestic titles. Glimmers of this have been seen, with the Nomads beating TNS twice in the league last season whilst Newtown became the first team to defeat them at home in 56 attempts.
It was surprising to see little enthusiasm given towards Bala Town, who went just six points off The New Saints at one point last season.
Recent news from Nantporth has revealed hopes that Bangor City FC will be able to go full time, which will further boost hopes that the Citizens will be able to challenge at the top with the experienced Andy Legg at the helm.
The New Saints have set bars in Welsh football which can be seen as for better and worse. Their quality has forced the league to bring themselves to the Saint’s level of football both on and off the pitch, as they are a fantastic model of what a professional football club should be at this level.
Their significant investment has however, through no direct fault of their own, meant it is unlikely that a club without considerable financial backing will ever win the league again.
The New Saints are here to stay – and that’s not a bad thing. With just three games played this season, there is plenty of time for things to change and with guaranteed drama on the way – sticking with the Welsh Premier will not be a bad move for Welsh football fans who might just end up dancing in the streets of somewhere other than TNS.