IF you’re looking for a clear distinction of the differences between England and Wales then the place of football in each nation provides an illustrative example. 

While Wales and England’s national teams, both containing millionaire professionals, will meet as equals at the World Cup finals, in Qatar, later this year the footballing eco-systems of the neighbouring countries are worlds apart. 

The English Premier League is an international behemoth with current broadcasting rights worth £10 billion while most clubs in the JD Cymru Premier operate on budgets of around £3,000 a week during the season. 

Oddly, however, both leagues celebrated their 30th anniversaries this weekend. But while the English Premier League is estimated to contribute more than £7 billion a year to the UK economy defending champions TNS are the only full time club of the 12 in the Welsh top flight. 

The inaugural seasons kicked off on the third Saturday in August of 1992, though in reality the Premier League was simply a revamp of England’s first division forced by its leading clubs that wanted to generate greater revenue and keep more for themselves. 

In contrast the Konica Minolta League of Wales was the first time in the country’s history that clubs from all parts would form a single national league. The motivation for the Football Association of Wales was to protect the national side’s status from those who may question what sort of a country is without a national league? 

Inside the Cymru Premier as newcomers Pontypridd United help the national league celebrate its 30th birthday.Flint Town United, in the lime green, take on Pontypridd United at the USW Sport Park. Picture: Jamie Ferguson/Pontypridd United

Pontypridd United, which coincidentally rebranded as Pontypridd Town in 1992 following a merger with another local team before tweaking the name again this summer, are the latest club to join the Cymru Premier. 

Last season a fierce rivalry on the pitch, and on social-media, with Llantwit Major ended with Ponty’ finishing second but claiming the place in the national league as the champions were denied for administrative reasons. 

Almost the archetypal working class south Wales valleys rugby town, Pontypridd had a proud place in the heart of the game which is often portrayed as the national sport and whose domestic competitions had dominated the Welsh sporting calendar for generations. 

But the rugby side has now reached a ceiling in the Welsh Premiership, the top tier of the domestic club game. Either due to the inability of administrators to find a model of professional rugby that works for Wales’ traditional clubs or perhaps, more likely, the realities of professional sport mean it is locked out of the elite level and its former glories on a Welsh and European stage. 

READ MORE: Welsh club rugby needs a more competitive structure

But where rugby has closed the door, could Welsh football offer a proud town a chance to regain sporting glories?  

Pontypridd Rugby Club’s Sardis Road home stands beside the town’s train station – that was also built with a scale of grandeur the town has since lost- and its large grandstand can be seen from the platform. 

That confused Charlie Roberts who had followed his local side Flint Town United all the way south for their first game of the new season, away to the league newcomers. 

“I didn’t really know where Pontypridd is, but I put it in my phone where the ground was and it wasn’t far from the train station but that turned out to be the rugby ground and I then had to get a bus here.” 

Inside the Cymru Premier as newcomers Pontypridd United help the national league celebrate its 30th birthday.Flint Town United fan Charlie Roberts.

The 21-year-old had set out from his home town at midday for the 5.45pm kick off (to accommodate S4C’s live coverage), taking a train to Chester and then Shrewsbury and on to Cardiff before catching a final train for the 20 minute journey to Ponty’.  

Charlie, who anticipated he would get back to Chester at around midnight, wasn’t the only away fan to have followed their team, founder members of the league and since 2020 enjoying a second stint in the top flight following relegation in 1998. However overall attendances have been a concern throughout the league’s 30 years, with an average of just 352 during the 2021/22 campaign. 

But for Charlie, who is looking forward to Flint’s upcoming fixtures at Penybont and Cardiff – the two southern grounds being the only ones in the league he has yet to visit - the Cymru Premier provides an enjoyable level of football at an affordable price. 

“All my friends are Manchester United or Liverpool fans and would rather go the pub to watch them. I think they would go to the grounds but they’ve been priced out of it. 

“I’ve got a Rail Card so travelling today has cost me £45 and I’ve got food, if I was to go to Old Trafford it would probably cost me at least that, without the cost of the travel as well. 

“There’s a pride in following your local team and the national league, and the price compared to Liverpool, or Cardiff in the Championship, is better,” said Charlie who appreciated Ponty’s half price admission meaning his ticket cost just £3.50. 

A more curious spectator, was James Pucknell, whose son Evan, plays for the Pontypridd under 9s academy team who were on ball boy duty for the game. 

“He’s football mad and will watch football wherever,” said the dad who had earlier on Saturday attended Cardiff City’s 1-0 victory over Birmingham City in an early kickoff. 

Inside the Cymru Premier as newcomers Pontypridd United help the national league celebrate its 30th birthday.Pontypridd United launch a counter attack against Flint in the Cymru Premier. Picture: Jamie Ferguson/Pontypridd United

Last season James and Evan attended Bridgend side Penybont’s games including the Welsh Cup Final, at the Cardiff City Stadium, where the youngster met goalkeeper Ashley Morris who was Ponty’s captain on Saturday. 

“He was very nice with the kids, it doesn’t take much of an effort but it makes such a difference to the kids,” said James of the league veteran. 

Is it the same when watching Cardiff City? 

“You just don’t get close enough to the players,” says James who also enjoys being close to the action. “In this league you are pitch side and you can hear what the players are saying to each other, and the tackles.” 

As if to prove a point, at the corner, from which Flint proceed to score the only goal of the game, just before half-time the crowd behind the goal can hear the referee warn players for jostling for positions in the box: “Any little touch I’m giving it. It’s very busy in there, I don’t like busy.” 

 

The father and son aren’t the only Cardiff City fans in attendance, with plenty of Bluebirds replica shirts among the crowd. 

A young father and his daughter stand out in the newly erected stand behind the goal, as seemingly the only people sporting Ponty’s traditional black and white. 

But on closer inspection Paul Tuff and six-year-old daughter Ffion are wearing the famous stripes of Newcastle United. 

The 31-year-old has come to see his local side having been aware of their recent success due to their emergence as an option to play in the Football Manager computer stimulation game. 

But he doesn’t think rugby will be dislodged as the town’s sporting passion: “Pontypridd RFC is still, even now, the hub of the town. Everyone still talks about them and everyone wears the kit and they must get a few hundred there every week.” 

Inside the Cymru Premier as newcomers Pontypridd United help the national league celebrate its 30th birthday.Dad Paul Tuff and daughter Ffion, six, came to support Pontypridd Town on their Cymru Premier debut but are also fans of Newcastle United.

The Sardis Road terraces are also a more intense experience, though Paul thinks Ffion may be better suited to the more sedate atmosphere at the football. 

“In the sheds they start, right from the off, on the referee's back and she asks why are they all shouting at him?  

“So this is good for me and Ffion to come to a game together, it’s good for getting kids to watch.” 

It isn’t only rugby, England’s Premier League and Welsh football’s giants, who along with rivals Swansea and Wrexham weren’t expected to surrender their places – then in the lower half of the English Football League – to join the League of Wales, that Cymru Premier clubs are competing with for feet on terraces. 

Inside the Cymru Premier as newcomers Pontypridd United help the national league celebrate its 30th birthday.A packed terrace for a Pontypridd v Cardiff rugby game. Picture: Huw Evans Agency

Just 14 miles north along the A470 are Merthyr Town, one of the ‘irate eight’ which had objected to joining the national league. 

A promotion away from the Football League at the time the club has suffered a number of financial meltdowns in the intervening years and have sunk to the seventh tier of English football but could still attract a crowd of 560 for their first game of the season, compared to the 326 that attended the USW Sports Park. 

You won’t find the University of South Wales’ impressive sports campus in Pontypridd but three miles down the road, off the Trefforest Industial Estate close to where the village’s most famous son Tom Jones used to make cardboard before hits. 

The club had played at the more picturesque Ynysangharad Park, in the center of town, since its merger with Ynysbwl in the early 90s, but was unable to develop it – which even resulted in playing half a season in Cardiff and a breakaway amateur club forming in town. 

Inside the Cymru Premier as newcomers Pontypridd United help the national league celebrate its 30th birthday.A graffiti tribute to Tom Jones which appeared in Treforest, where the singer was born, in 2019. Picture: Huw Evans Picture Agency

The partnership with the university has allowed the club, which also includes a top flight women’s team and age grade sides, to use its facilities and to develop the ground to meet Cymru Premier criteria. That proved crucial when Llantwit Major, that play at a more basic ground, won the Cymru South league title. 

For the Football Assocation of Wales a minimum of 500 seats, clean toilets and the all important rule that grounds have three flag poles available, outweigh points gained on the field when determining promotion. 

That Llantwit, who earned a reputation for a vibrant, younger fan base, were unable to meet the requirements, while Ponty' did has caused much debate in south Wales football circles. 

But Rhys Wynne, a self-described “groundhopper” and a native of Denbigh who tours various grounds from his home in Cardiff – has sympathy with both Llantwit and the FAW and league administrators. 

“I can understand Llantwit’s frustration but I think you have to have a certain minimum standard.” 

That Ponty’ have been able to meet the requirements plays into another perception of the league that, similar to England’s Premier League, it is dominated by wealthier clubs, though in Wales this is seen as at the expense of better supported sides. 

Inside the Cymru Premier as newcomers Pontypridd United help the national league celebrate its 30th birthday.Groundhopper Rhys Wynne enjoys the action in the JD Cymru Premier game between Pontypridd United and Flint Town United.

“Ponty’ have had a lot of money spent on them to come up,” thinks Rhys: “There’s a lot of that in this league Bala, Connah’s Quay and TNS are usually the top three and are well supported financially but are probably the clubs with the smallest fan bases.” 

The TV cameras at the USW Sport Park are pointed at the side of the ground without a stand which has disappointed Rhys who thinks “football with a crowd” looks better on TV but he is an advocate of the league and what it stands for. 

“I’m a Welsh nationalist but I’m also into local stuff. So local food, local beer and local football. You’re money is not seeping out and going to Sky TV or Premier League clubs.” 

Greeting those at the gate of the USW Sport Park is club stalwart Lyndon Francis, whose main ambition for the season is to welcome more fans. 

He has been involved with the club since it formed in 1991 but threw himself into the committee in 2004 when he walked away from rugby. 

That summer the Celtic Warriors, the team formed from the Pontypridd and Bridgend clubs, as one of five professional Welsh regional sides had folded, with many still bitter and feeling the team was either unwanted or seen as easily expendable. 

“When the Warriors stopped I started to watch this,” says Lyndon who agrees that Pontypridd RFC remains the hub of the town and he believes the oval ball has the backing of the local establishment: “It is a rugby town.” 

Lyndon can recite the history of the original Pontypridd Dragons, formed by colliers drawn to the the town’s pits who didn’t want to watch rugby. The club held their own in the Southern League, competing against clubs such as QPR, before the demise of the coal industry locally in the 1920s led to the club folding. 

He also, not unfairly, points out Llantwit are by no means the only side to have been disappointed by the Cymru Premier’s ground and licensing criteria.  

Inside the Cymru Premier as newcomers Pontypridd United help the national league celebrate its 30th birthday.A young fan shields his eyes from the sun to watch the action during Pontypridd's Cymru Premier debut.

But those are old arguments now as Lyndon is determined to savour life at Welsh football’s top table and hopefully build local support 

“It means a lot to me. It’s something I never thought I’d see in my life and I’m coming up to 70 years of age, I never thought we might one day be playing in the top division,” is Lyndon’s reflection at the end of Ponty’s first 90 minutes of JD Cymru Premier football.  

He’s not worried about a one nil defeat and he’s confident in the new signing and returning players who were unavailable on Saturday but most of all he is encouraged by a membership across all ages and sexes of more than 500 players, mostly in the children’s teams. 

READ MORE:

At Ynysangharad Park Lyndon can remember when the gate receipts wouldn’t even cover the referee's fee now he sess a promising future: “Yes there’s a lot in Cardiff City shirts but we’ve got a lot of kids in our club and they will maybe bring their mates who watch Cardiff City.” 

The start of the football season is always a time of optimism, which will end in inevitable despair and disappointment for some, but for now the JD Cymru Premier is providing another Welsh club with reasons to be cheerful. 

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