March to Glory: A Guide to the Cymru Premier – Part 2

Introduction

To see the first part of this series about the Cymru Premier, click HERE

To see the third part of this series about the Cymru Premier’s teams, click HERE

Welcome to the second part of my guide to the Cymru Premier, Wales’ top-flight football league. In the first part of the series, the origins and history of the league was discussed, as well as descriptions of former champions of the League of Wales / Welsh Premier League. The link to that can be found above.

In this second part of the series, the Welsh football pyramid will be discussed further and how the Cymru Premier is affected at the apex of the pyramid. In addition, the format of the league will be further explained, with its two phases and European playoffs. Finally the results from the 2018-19 season shall be talked about further, to see how the league  progressed last season (as well as in other competitions).

 

The Cymru Premier

Position Within the Welsh Pyramid

For the 2019-20 season, this is the current layout of the Welsh football pyramid:

  • Tier 1:
    • Cymru Premier [National]
  • Tier 2:
    • Cymru North [North & Mid Wales]
    • Cymru South [South Wales]
  • Tier 3:
    • Welsh Alliance Division 1 [North-western Wales]
    • Welsh National League Premier Division [North-eastern Wales]
    • Mid Wales League Division 1 [Central Wales]
    • Welsh League Division 1 [South Wales]
  • Tier 4:
    • Welsh Alliance Division 2 [North-western Wales]
    • Welsh National League Division 1 [North-eastern Wales]
    • Mid Wales League Division 2 [Central Wales]
    • Welsh League Division 2 [South Wales]
  • Tier 5 and below:
    • Various regional leagues (e.g. North Wast Wales League, Gwynedd League etc.)
Pyramid 2019-2020
The Welsh football pyramid as of the 2019-20 season. Note this image was created before the re-brand of the leagues. [IMAGE: FAW Website]

A better view of how the Welsh pyramid works can be found HERE and HERE.

 

As mentioned in the previous part of this series, the Cymru Premier is the only truly national league in the Welsh football league system, and is run directly by the Football Association of Wales (FAW). It is ran with 12 teams in its league, who play each other home and away in the first phase, before being split into two ‘conferences’ in the second phase. The format is described in more detail in the following section.

Cymru Leagues Logo

The Cymru North and South are regional leagues which are also directly controlled by the FAW (as part of the Cymru Leagues pyramid), which replaced the Cymru Alliance and Welsh League Division 1 at the second tier this season. For this season, all teams from north or central Wales will be in the Cymru North, whilst all southern Welsh teams will be in the Cymru South. However as the seasons progress, central Welsh clubs may move between the two leagues to even up the number of teams in each league, depending on which teams are relegated from the Cymru Premier.

For the 2019-20 season, the Cymru South will have 16 teams competing in it this season, whilst the Cymru North will have 17 teams. This was to accommodate Colwyn Bay moving across to the Welsh system and being placed in the second tier by the FAW. The winners of both leagues will gain automatic promotion to the Cymru Premier, providing they fulfil the Cymru Premier license criteria. If not, then the promotion place goes to the runners-up within the league. Should neither the champions nor runners-up be applicable for promotion, then no team will be promoted from the league for that season.

As for relegation, three teams will be relegated from the Cymru South, who will then drop into the FAW League One South next season. They will be replaced by top three finishing teams in the Welsh League Division One this season.

It is slightly different in the Cymru North this season as four teams will be relegated from the northern league. This is to allow the Cymru North to return back to its original plan of having 16 teams for the 2020-21 season because only three sides will earn promotion from the feeder Tier 3 leagues (the league winners or runners-up of the Welsh Alliance Division 1, Welsh National League (Wrexham Area) Premier Division & Mid Wales League Division 1), it will then return to just having three relegation spots like its southern equivalent for the following season.

The third and fourth tiers have regional leagues, which cover a section of the country. The whole of South Wales still has just the single leagues that cover the entire region – remnants of the Welsh Football League format that originally had three divisions for South Wales. The Welsh Alliance covers the teams from the north-west of Wales, generally from Gwynedd, Anglesey, Conwy and western Denbighshire, whereas the Welsh National League (Wrexham Area) covers Wrexham, Flintshire and the Dee Valley (eastern Denbighshire and Bala area). Finally the Mid Wales League covers nearly all the teams who play in Ceredigion, the large county of Powys and southern Gwynedd.

There is a plan in place for the FAW to take direct control of the tier three leagues as of the 2020-21 season, which will result in teams being moved between the four regional leagues. As of yet, the boundaries for the four ‘Cymru Regional’ leagues have not been defined but it is estimated they will initially follow in the same areas as the current third tier leagues.

Pyramid 2020-2021
The proposed Welsh football pyramid from 2020 onward, with the FAW taking control of the third tier leagues. Again, this image was created before the re-brand. [IMAGE: FAW Website]

Below the fourth tier, smaller regional leagues exist which feed into the fourth tier leagues. The amount of lower leagues can vary depending on the area. For example, for new clubs from Flintshire or Wrexham, they would start at the fifth tier in the North East Wales League, whilst new teams from Newport or Cardiff would have to start as low as in the eleventh tier.

 

Current Cymru Premier Format – Phase 1

As mentioned previously, the 2019-20 season is the first season with the top flight being branded as the Cymru Premier. However despite the change in name and logo, the format of the league remains the same as before, with its 12 team league format.

Phase 1 of the Cymru Premier season runs from the start of the season in August through to Matchday 22, which usually occurs in mid-January. This has become an important date in the Welsh football calendar as all six league fixtures are played at the same time, and creates good viewing and excitement for supporters. During the first phase, each team in the league plays each other twice, once at home and once away, making a total of twenty-two games having been played by the end of the first phase.

 

Phase 2 – The League Split

After the conclusion of Phase 1, the Cymru Premier then splits in two conferences, with the top six teams forming the Championship Conference, and the bottom six teams forming the Playoff Conference. All the points that were accumulated by the teams during the first phase are brought forward into the second phase.

Phase 2 of the league then runs from the start of February through to the final match-day at the end of April. Each side plays the other five teams within their conference twice more, both home and away, to bring the total league games played at the end of the season to thirty-two games.

The side who finishes top of the Championship Conference after the thirty-two game season is declared the Cymru Premier champions, and will qualify for the following season’s UEFA Champions League first qualifying round. In addition, they also earn a place in the following season’s Scottish Challenge Cup, which invites two Welsh teams every year. The second-placed team in the Championship Conference qualify automatically for the UEFA Europa League preliminary qualifying round, whilst the remaining teams in the conference qualify for the end of season European Playoffs phase (mentioned below). The runners-up will also earn a spot in the Scottish Challenge Cup if they or the league champions win the Cymru Leagues Cup.

The bottom two sides in the Playoff Conference are relegated at the end of the season, to the Cymru North or Cymru South, dependant on their location within Wales. They will be replaced by the champions of the respective second tier leagues for the following season (providing they earn the required FAW licence, otherwise the runners-up will take their promotion place). Meanwhile the side who finishes top of the Playoff Conference, thus achieving seventh place in the league table, then advances to the European Playoffs phase also.

NOTE: The sides in the Playoff Conference can finish no higher than seventh in the final standings even if they finish with more points than teams in the Championship Conference.

 

Phase 3 – European Playoffs

The five teams who finished between third and sixth in the Championship Conference, and the seventh placed team from the Playoff Conference then contest the end of season European Playoffs, with the winner earning themselves a spot in the following season’s Europa League preliminary round.

Normally the sixth-placed side will host the seventh-placed side in the quarter-final match, with the winner of that match then travelling to the third-placed side for the first semi-final, whilst the fourth-placed side host the fifth in the other semi-final. The winners of the semi-finals then meet at the ground of the highest ranked side (in the league standings) in the play-off final, with the winner qualifying for the UEFA Europa League preliminary round. All the games are just one-legged affairs although extra time and penalties are applied if required.

In the event that one of the five teams had already qualified for Europe by winning the Welsh Cup, then the remaining four sides will contest the play-offs directly from the semi-final stage. Should the Welsh Cup be won by one of the top two sides, then the third-placed side in the league will automatically take up the UEFA Europa League preliminary spot, and the second placed team going into the first qualifying round of the Europa League. The remaining four sides will then contest the play-offs directly from the semi-final stage, without the need of a quarter-final match.

 

2018-19 Season

Welsh Premier League

2018-19 Welsh Premier League Table - Top Half
The Championship Conference of the 2018-19 Championship Conference [IMAGE: Wikipedia]

For the eighth season in a row, The New Saints lifted the ‘double dragon’ trophy at the end of Phase 2 of the Welsh Premier League season. However unlike in previous seasons, they were challenged hard for the title by Connah’s Quay Nomads and a resurgent Barry Town United. Ultimately a combination of TNS’ end-of-season form, not to mention Connah’s Quay’s pile-up of cup games towards the back end of the season, which saw them drop points in the league, ensured the trophy stayed in Shropshire for another season. The New Saints would make it a double-winning season (for the sixth time), by winning their seventh Welsh Cup. The Oswestry-based side beat the defending cup holders, and nearest league rivals, Connah’s Quay Nomads, 3-0 in the final at The Rock. A Ryan Brobbel brace, and another Greg Draper goal confirming the cup for TNS.

Connah’s Quay would finish twelve points behind TNS at the end of the 32-game season, and disappointingly finish the season trophy-less, despite reaching the finals of both the Welsh Cup and Scottish Challenge Cup (which will be mentioned further below). However, it did mean the Nomads were guaranteed qualification to the first qualifying round of the Europa League. The cup final also benefited third-placed side, Barry Town United, as they earned themselves qualification to the preliminary round to the Europa League. A fairy-tale story for the side who were playing fourth-tier football just five seasons previously!

Newly promoted side, Caernarfon Town, surprised everyone by finishing in an excellent fourth position, ten points behind Barry, and equal on points with ‘grandees’ Newtown on 46 points. Surprisingly, considering their recent history, Bala Town finished bottom of the Championship Conference in sixth position, just two points behind the Cofis and Robins.

Wales Map 2018-19
The locations of the 2018-19 Welsh Premier League clubs within Wales (and England).

It would be a season to remember for Cardiff Met University as they finished top of the Playoff Conference, achieving another European playoff qualification. The Archers also won their first major trophy by winning the Welsh League Cup, a season after finishing finalists. This time they claimed the trophy by beating cupset specialists, the second-tier Cambrian & Clydach Vale (who had shockingly beat TNS in the semi-finals in one of the biggest cup shocks in recent Welsh football history), 2-0 in the all-South Welsh final.

2018-19 Welsh Premier League Table - Bottom Half
The Playoff Conference of the 2018-19 Welsh Premier League. [IMAGE: Wikipedia]

At the opposite end of the table, Llanelli Town’s return to the WPL was only a brief visit and lasted just a season, as they returned back to the second-tier, having conceded 101 goals from their 32 league games. They were shockingly joined by Llandudno, who finished 17 points adrift from safety in the end. Despite having a strong looking squad on paper, and a very talented manager in Iwan Williams, the Seasiders just couldn’t string any form together at any time throughout the season, and ended their three year tenure in the WPL.

The league’s top goalscorer was TNS’ Greg Draper for the second season in a row. The New Zealand striker bettered his goal tally of 2017-18 by scoring 27 goals in 29 games for the league champions.

 

European Playoffs

The playoffs saw Caernarfon Town take on Cardiff Met at The Oval, whilst Newtown faced Bala Town at Latham Park – the higher placed teams enjoying the home advantage in the ties. However in both of the single legged ties, playing at home provided no advantage for either Caernarfon nor Newtown, as both Cardiff Met and Bala Town managed away victories, winning 3-2 and 2-1 respectively.

This meant the playoff final was against Bala Town versus Cardiff Met, at Bala’s Maes Tegid ground. The Lakesiders were hoping to qualify for Europe for the sixth time in seven seasons, whilst Cardiff Met were aiming to qualify for the first time, but would be competing in their third consecutive European play-off final. First half goals from Bala’s Henry Jones and Met’s Elliot Evans ensured the game finished the 90 minutes at 1-1. A further 30 minutes of extra time was unable to split apart the two teams, and so the tie had to be decided by spot-kicks. In the end, the pressure of penalty shootout got the home side more, who failed to convert their first three spot kicks. In the end, Cardiff Met finally managed to make it ‘third time lucky’ and qualify for the Europa League by winning 3-1 in what was a rather poor penalty shootout.

Semi Finals:

  • Newtown [5th] 1 – 2 Bala Town [6th]
    • Kenton; Smith, Jones
  • Caernarfon Town [4th] 2 – 3 Cardiff Met University [7th]
    • Thomas, Craig (pen); Baker, Roscrow, McCarthy

Final:

  • Bala Town 1 – 1 (1 – 3 on pens) Cardiff Met University
    • Jones; Evans

 

European Competitions

For the 2018-19 European season, Wales were positioned 50th out of 55 countries in the UEFA Association Ranking table (positioned between Malta and the Faroe Islands), resulting in the Welsh Premier League earning one spot in the UEFA Champions League and three places in the Europa League. Once again, it was left to The New Saints to help improve the WPL’s coefficient ranking as the remaining Welsh teams all got knocked out in their first appearances in Europe.

In the Europa League preliminary round, Bala Town was disappointingly knocked out by San Marino side, Tre Fiori. Having lost 0-3 in San Marino, it was too big a deficit to make up, with the Lakesiders only achieving a 1-0 win in the second leg. Whilst Cefn Druids put up a more creditable fight against Lithuanian side Trakai. A 1-1 draw at home gave the Ancients some hope for their trip to Lithuania, but they would agonisingly lose the second leg 0-1 to exit the competition.

In the first qualifying round of the Europa League, Connah’s Quay Nomads would suffer home and away defeats to Belarussian side, Shakhtyor Soligorsk to exit the competition 1-5 on aggregate.

The New Saints were hoping to go far in the Champions League qualifying rounds, but a shocking 0-5 heavy defeat in the first leg, away to North Macedonian champions Shkëndija threatened to end their campaign early. Despite a herculean effort in the second leg at Park Hall, the Saints were unable to find a fifth goal to level the aggregate score but managed to win 4-0.

This meant they dropped into the qualifying rounds of the Europa League, where they faced Gibraltarian champions, Lincoln Red Imps, in the second qualifying round. The tie was a tight affair, with TNS on the verge of being eliminated as Lincoln were leading 1-0 in the second leg and would have gone through on away goals. However an 82nd minute goal from Dean Ebbe ensured they held onto a 1-1 draw, and overcome their opponents 3-2 on aggregate. The Saints then faced Danish Superliga side FC Midtjylland in the third qualifying round. Despite a spirited performance in both legs against their more illustrious opponents, they courageously exited the competition 1-5 on aggregate after losing 0-2 at home, and 1-3 in Denmark.

(All scores are on aggregate)

The New Saints

  • CL1QR: Shkëndija [MKD] 4 – 5
  • EL2QR: Lincoln Red Imps [GIB] 3 – 2
  • EL3QR: FC Midtjylland [DEN] 1 – 5

Connah’s Quay Nomads

  • EL1QR: Shakhtyor Soligorsk [BLS] 1 – 5

Bala Town

  • ELPreR: Tre Fiori [SMR] 1 – 3

Cefn Druids

  • ELPreR: Trakai [LTU] 1 – 2

 

Scottish Challenge Cup

Irn Bru Cup LogoIt is only recently that the Scottish Challenge Cup (known as the Irn-Bru Cup that season, although now called the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Challenge Cup (which some wags have nicknamed the UWafer Cup)) have invited teams from Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the English National League to take part in its competition. Wales originally agreed that the top two teams in the Welsh Premier League would take part in the Scottish Challenge Cup for the following season.

[NOTE: This has now been changed where the Cymru Premier winners and the Cymru Leagues Cup winners obtain the spots, to give more importance to the League Cup.]

In the 2018-19 competition, The New Saints qualified for a spot due to being 2017-18 champions, whereas Connah’s Quay Nomads were awarded the second spot despite only finishing third that season. It was Bangor City who finished as runners-up, and should have been competing in the cup competition. However due to Bangor failing to earn themselves a WPL licence for the 2018-19 season and being demoted to the second-tier, it resulted in the FAW awarding Nomads the cup spot.

2017-18 Welsh Premier League Table - Top Half
The Championship Conference of the 2017-18 WPL season where Bangor City finished as runners-up but were demoted to the second tier.

The New Saints were hopeful of going far into the competition after reaching the semi-finals of the Irn-Bru Cup in the previous season. Only two second half goals from Dumbarton, stopped the Saints from reaching the 2018 final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Therefore it was quite a shock for them when they lost on penalties at home to Queen’s Park in the second round of the competition. Even more galling considering they conceded an 89th minute equaliser to force the tie into extra time.

The Nomads would have a lot tougher start to their campaign, going away to then Scottish Championship side Falkirk. They would achieve a shock 1-0 victory through a Michael Wilde goal, to progress to the next round. There they beat Northern Irish side, Coleraine 2-0 at the Deeside Stadium before returning back up to Scotland to face TNS’ conquerors in the quarter-finals. Despite some mind games and controversial comments from Queen’s Park before and after the match, the Nomads would earn a 2-1 victory at Hampden Park. Two late goals from George Horan and Wilde earning Connah’s Quay a semi-final berth.

In the semi-finals, they faced Edinburgh City, who were in very good form in Scottish League 2. In a tight and nervy affair, in awful weather conditions at the Deeside Stadium, the home side managed to progress to the final after winning the penalty shootout in sudden death, 5-4 to become the first non-Scottish side to reach the final of Scottish Challenge Cup. There they faced Scottish Championship leaders, and eventual promotion winners, Ross County. The final was controversial held at Inverness’ Caledonian Stadium – controversial because it was not midway between the two sides, and only a 30 minute drive for Ross County fans.

Caledonian Stadium
The Caledonian Stadium, home of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and location for the 2019 Scottish Challenge Cup final.

The match started well for Connah’s Quay with Michael Bakare scoring in the 22nd minute to give the Nomads a well-deserved lead, and they were the more dominant team in the first half but unable to extend their lead. Sadly a combination of Ross County’s improved conditioning, and Nomads’ very long season taking its toll in the second half, ensured the Staggies scored three goals in the final quarter of an hour to keep the trophy in Scotland for another year.

The New Saints

  • R2: Queen’s Park (h) 2 – 2, 2 – 4 pens.

Connah’s Quay Nomads

  • R2: Falkirk (a) 1 – 0
  • R3: Coleraine (h) 2 – 0
  • QF: Queen’s Park (a) 2 – 1
  • SF: Edinburgh City (h) 1 – 1, 5 – 4 pens.
  • F: Ross County (n) 1 – 3

 

That concludes the second part of this guide to the Cymru Premier. In the third part, I shall give brief descriptions about the twelve teams who are competing in this season’s Cymru Premier competition, as well as the current situation within Welsh football in the 2019-20 season.

If there you have any feedback, comments or suggestions on the guide so far, let me know either below in the comments box, tweet me @The94thMin or email me at the94thminute@gmail.com!

Diolch!

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