How does the Cymru Premier compare to English non-league?
Background image: Mark Barnes, CC BY 2.5.
How good is Welsh football, actually? A recent suggestion from former Wales international Malcolm Allen that Wrexham should join the Welsh pyramid sparked debate of the Cymru Premier’s quality. Some proclaimed it stronger than the National League; English football’s fifth tier. Others placed the standard several tiers lower. But it’s a tribally ill-informed topic. In viewing the available evidence, including competitive games between non-league and Cymru Premier teams, transfers and more, it’s a mystery how one cannot conclude that Welsh football lags well behind English non-league.
When analysing the quality of the Cymru Premier, the waters are somewhat muddied by the presence of TNS, the league’s perennial champions. While the likes of Connah’s Quay Nomads and Bala Town may have improved in recent years, TNS are still far and away the best team in the league. It makes sense; they are the best-funded and only full-time outfit in the country.
There’s no denying TNS are good. Not just by Welsh standards, either. Their squad includes a bevy of top players like former Wellington Phoenix and New Zealand striker Greg Draper and ex-Hamilton Accies midfielder Jon Routledge. They’ve shown promise in Europe, beating teams from Kosovo, Gibraltar and Macedonia in recent years.
But judging the league solely based on TNS is misleading. It would be foolish to suggest the Scottish Premiership is the same standard as its English counterpart just because the Old Firm could potentially do a job in the Premiership. Keep in mind the Saints have hit double figures against two opponents this season.
Games between sides from the Welsh and English pyramid are normally a pre-season occurrence, with an influx of trialists and reserve players meaning little of note can be taken from them. But a handful of competitive games have been played between relevant teams. In 2011, Wrexham entered the Welsh Cup only to be knocked out at the first hurdle, losing 2-1 at home to Airbus UK Broughton. Damning perhaps, until one remembers that Wrexham were playing two games at the time - their other fixture a rather more important FA Cup tie against Brentford.
More recently, Wales C, a team made up of the best players the Cymru Premier League has to offer, have played two fixtures against England C, who select a squad from non-league. On both occasions, Wales achieved credible results; a 3-2 defeat at home followed by a 2-2 draw away. These scorelines were held up by some as proof that Welsh domestic football was just as good as the National League. But again, the results are misleading. Wales C is an open age side, including multiple players in their 30s, the England equivalent is age-restricted with the oldest England C players are in their mid-twenties.
The case of Colwyn Bay offers more insight. The North Walian club struggling with financial issues in the eighth tier of the English system, who chose to cut costs by moving into the Welsh pyramid. Midway through their first season in the Cymru North, the second tier of Welsh football, they lie in fifth place, ahead of more established clubs along the lines of Rhyl and Llandudno. Considering the Bay had to jettison a number of their squad after the move, their relatively high standard in the league would seem to put paid to the Cymru Prem/National League equivalency rubbish.
Another way of measuring a league quality is to consider its players; where have they come from? Where are they going? While TNS have the cash to tempt Premiership academy dropouts and seasoned ex-pros, that doesn’t hold true for the entire league.
Let’s look at the midpoint, considering Newtown, who lie in sixth place halfway through the season. The pick of their summer signings was undoubtedly Sean McAllister, a midfielder with a wealth of league experience, including with Sheffield Wednesday and Grimsby Town. But at 32, he is well past his prime and joins from sixth tier side Chester. Most mid to upper-level Cymru Premier teams sign the occasional player like this. But Newtown’s other new signings include Jack Kelly and Niall Flint, both players last seen in England’s eighth-tier and Jack Thorn on loan from, you’ve guessed it, Wrexham! This is largely reflective of similar teams' transfer dealings.
On the flip side, a handful of players from the Welsh Leagues have gone on to make a name for themselves in the professional ranks. Leaving aside TNS products, these include Christian Doigde, formerly of Carmarthen, now with Hibernian, Connah’s Quay youth product Rhys Healey now with Milton Keynes Dons and recent Cardiff Met graduate Adam Roscrow made the step up to League One with AFC Wimbledon. But these are very much the outliers. As with incoming transfers, a huge number of Cymru Premier players departing the league pitch up in the lower tiers of non-league between levels six and nine. A prime example comes from the case of Bangor City, relegated on administrative grounds in 2018 following a second-placed Cymru Premier finish. Departing players included forward Yves Zama who pitched up in the tenth tier with Nelson while star man Luke Wall joined seventh-tier Stalybridge.
Calm down, it's not all bad
Welsh football fans need not make scurrilous arguments about the standard of their league. It is ridiculous to suggest the standard meets the National League; it plainly does not. There is no shame in that. The league has been underfunded, underexposed, and largely reviled for decades. Yet it has its charm, lovely people, passionate players and some fantastic grounds. Not to mention those amazing European occasions. Sure, the FA Cup is great, but what could beat travelling with a handful of mates to Lithuania or Gibraltar for a game that could net your club hundreds of thousands of pounds?
Instead of trying to make Welsh football something it is not, the focus should be on improving the league; not just on the pitch, but off it too. No competition where four-figure gates are a celebrated rarity can ever hope to meaningfully progress. Growing attendances, improving facilities and publicity. Maybe then they’ll be able to rib Wrexham about not being able to cut it in Wales...