The top division in Welsh football is the Cymru Premier and is controlled by the Football Association of Wales, the FAW for short. The Welsh National league was only created in 1991 for the 1992/93 season as the League of Wales, though there were regional leagues and the Welsh Cup which was run by the FAW.
The League of Wales was formed in order for Wales to remain a member of FIFA independently from the other UK nations. Interestingly five clubs based in Wales – Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County, Wrexham and Merthyr Town – all play in the English League system. The Cymru Premier is made up of twelve teams with promotion and relegation between it and the Cymru North and Cymru South divisions. The most successful side is the New Saints (TNS) who have won 13 league title to date.
|Aberystwyth Town||Aberystwyth||Park Avenue||5000|
|Bala Town||Bala||Maes Tegid||3000|
|Barry Town United||Barry||Jenner Park Stadium||3500|
|Caernarfon Town||Caernarfon||The Oval||3000|
|Cardiff Metropolitan University||Cyncoed||Cyncoed Campus||1620|
|Cefn Druids||Rhosymedre||The Rock||3000|
|Connah’s Quay Nomads||Connah’s Quay||Deeside Stadium||1500|
|Flint Town United||Flint||Cae-y-Castell||1000|
|Haverfordwest County||Haverfordwest||Bridge Meadow Stadium||2100|
|The New Saints||England Oswestry||Park Hall||2034|
About the Cymru Premier
- Number of Teams – 12
- Number of Relegation Places – 2
- Average Player Salary – Around £6,000 a year
- Average Attendance – Around 350 fans
With only 12 teams in the Cymru Premier, the standard approach of scheduling a home and away fixture between each team would see each club only play 22 matches during a season. As an alternative, you could make each team play each other twice home and away, meaning 44 games each, which would not be excessive in some countries.
However, with these options deemed both too little and too large, the powers that be in Wales have decided to adopt more of a Scottish approach to league football. This involves dividing the table into two halves after a certain point, creating a formal second round of league games.
Championship Conference & Play-Off Conference
What happens exactly is that once all teams have played each other both home and way (22 matches) the top six sides head into the ‘Championship Conference’ and the bottom six head to the ‘Play-off Conference’. Now effectively part of a mini-league featuring just six teams, all of the sides within the new mini-league will play one another home and away, creating an additional 10 matches for each side.
All previous points collected earlier on in the season are brought forward to this second round so it is performance across the entire season that matters. Having played the extra 10 matches, against either the top or bottom six teams, the season is then settled. The side that finishes top lifts the title and will also secure the best European qualification spot. For the remaining European places, the situation can change depending on the season.
Barrier Between Two-Mini Leagues
One thing to note at this stage is that once the league breaks off into two, no bottom six team can overtake a top six team in the table, even if they collect more points. You should imagine there is an impenetrable barrier between the two mini-leagues once they are separated. This is to maintain some fairness as the team in seventh place faces 10 much easier final fixtures than the team in sixth. While perfectly understandable, it can lead to a strange looking table at times. In the 2018/19 season, Cardiff Metropolitan University finished seventh with 51 points, which was five points more than fourth placed Caernarfon Town.
It is possible for the number of European football places supplied to the Welsh league to differ over time as they are related to UEFA coefficients. In many years Wales have enjoyed four spots, but this was reduced to three for the 2021/22 season following a series of poor performances in Europe. In fact, in March 2022, Wales had the 6th worst UEFA coefficient, below the likes of Liechtenstein and Malta. This coefficient ranking slump resulted in one less spot for Welsh teams and the league was forced to readjust accordingly.
What would normally happen is that the last European qualification place goes to the winner of a European playoff involving teams that finished between fourth and seventh. The way this worked, and may well again work in future, is that seventh plays fourth and fifth takes on sixth in a one-legged clash. The team that finished higher up the table gets to play the match on their own turf but as we saw in 2021, home advantage does not guarantee a positive result. The winners of each semi-final will then play a deciding, winner-takes-all match to determine who ends up securing the final European qualification spot.
In 2020/21, this final spot was a place in the Europa Conference League play-offs. The other three spaces went to the sides that sat at the upper end of the table. League champions Connah’s Quay went to through to the Champions League qualification round, while The New Saints and Bala Town headed to the Europa Conference League first round. The absence of one spot for the 2021/22 season though meant changing the European play-off prize from a shot at Europe and to a place in the SPFL Trust Trophy instead. Perhaps confusingly, this is a Scottish cup competition that primarily features teams from the Scottish Championship, League One and League Two.
The remaining three places remained unchanged though so a Welsh side can enter a European competition, at some stage, the subsequent season if they finish in the top two or win the Welsh Cup. If the Welsh Cup champions finish within the top two then the side finishing third in the Cmyru Premier will be awarded the vacant spot.
Cymru North & South
The two sides that occupy the bottom two places of the Welsh top flight come the end of the season will automatically face relegation. Where exactly they will head though will depend on their geographical location as it could be they wind up in the Cymru North or Cymru South. Although it is possible that one may feature stronger teams, structurally they are the same. As many Welsh clubs will attest, both are very difficult leagues to escape from as they feature 16 teams but there is just one promotion spot, reserved for the league champions.
What is more, sometimes winning the title is not enough to secure promotion, as Swansea University found out in 2020. The club were unable to secure a Tier 1 licence, a compulsory requirement for any Cymru Premier side, so it was second-place Haverfordwest County who went up instead. As it happened, the very same season also saw Prestatyn Tow prevented from celebrating promotion from Cymru North despite topping the league. In this case the issue was that their TV gantry was not up to standard and their planning application to improve it was not approved until it was too late!
The Cymru Premier may well live next door to the English Premier League but in terms of following and finances, the two may as well be planets apart, or probably galaxies. While the English top flight leads the continent when it comes to salaries, the Welsh top division offers some of the lowest wages in Europe. In fact, in 2020, only San Marino had a lower aggregate wage bill per club. Paying an average salary way more than four times under the national average, many clubs in the Welsh top flight hold semi-professional rather than professional status. Even the very top players in the league will not earn huge bucks, merely a very normal living.
Although wages may be low, the Welsh league is one of the most sustainable on the continent too. With a wage/turnover ratio of just over 50%, this is considered to be extremely healthy and something that will see the vast majority of Welsh clubs steer clear of financial problems. They did, like many clubs across the globe though, require support during the pandemic that began in 2020. All 44 clubs involved in the Cymru leagues were given a share of £750,000 from FIFA to ensure they could safely survive the revenue lost during the pandemic.
Why Do Some Welsh Teams Playing in the English Leagues?
Given that all Scottish clubs play in the Scottish leagues and all English clubs play in the English leagues (all major ones, at any rate), you may well be confused why the same does not apply for Wales. Although the majority of Welsh teams do play in the country they are from, there are five active exceptions to the rule: Cardiff City, Merthyr Town, Newport County, Swansea City and Wrexham. Both Swansea and Cardiff have enjoyed the dizzying heights of the Premier League but this is simply not a possibility for any of the teams based in the Welsh footballing structure.
The answer is really quite a simple one in that when these five teams were formed, no Welsh football league existed. Rather than leave them league-less, they were welcomed into the English system. After all, it is not as though any of them are located a particularly long way from many English sides so their admittance posed no real logistical challenges. Do not think that these sides rushed through their foundation just so they could gain English league acceptance either. All five were founded earlier than 1912, so they are all come with a rich history.
It is not just these five Welsh clubs that started off in the English footballing pyramid though, some teams started off across the border but later returned to Wales. Cymru North side Bangor FC moved from the Northern Premier League to the League of Wales in 1992 (the inaugural season of the newly established Welsh top division). Newton AFC also made the switch that same year, having been one league below Bangor FC in the English pyramid (Norther Premier League Division One).
Colwyn Bay, who won the Northern Premier League Division One for the 1991/92 season, initially decided to stay put but years later had a change of heart. Seeking to ease growing financial concerns, the club’s request to switch was approved in 2019. They did not have the privilege of going straight into the Welsh top flight though and were instead sent to the second tier (north). Although they have effectively capped how far they can grow by swapping leagues, as there is virtually no possibility of switching back in future, they are now more likely to survive as a club.
History of the Cymru Premier
The ‘Cymru Premier’ name has only existed since 2019 but the foundations of the league can be traced back to 1992 when it was originally called the League of Wales. At the time this brand new competition saw 20 teams from across the county take part in what was the first national league ever established in Wales.
Cymru Alliance & Welsh Football League Division One
Below the League of Wales there were two feeder leagues in the form of the Cymru Alliance (north and central teams) and the Welsh Football League Division One (south Wales). Both these had existed prior to 1992 and were previously joint top of the Welsh footballing pyramid.
To begin with there were two relegation spots but there were plans to reduce the number of teams to 18 for the 1998/99 season and subsequently, four teams were sent down the year prior. This ended up being one more than needed in the end as Ebbw Vale were expelled due to financial problems, temporarily leaving just 17 teams in the Welsh top flight. For the 2002/03 season the top flight was renamed the Welsh Premier League, although it was simply a continuation of the League of Wales.
League Trimmed from 18 Teams to 12
It was in 2009/10 that we saw a major change to the structure, as the league needed trimming down from 18 teams to 12. This was not a gradual change either so in order to cut a massive six teams, a third of the league, it started off with a huge eight relegation places as the two promotion spots from the feeder divisions remained unchanged. In reality what happened was that only the bottom five went down as both sides that clinched promotion were denied licences. Additionally, Rhyl, who had finished sixth, also had problems getting a domestic licence so they were forced to take one of the relegation spots.
Now featuring just 12 teams, the league adopted its current format of splitting into two mini-leagues once each team had played each other both home and away. The league then faced more rebranding in 2019-20 as it became the Cymru Premier (known as the JD Cymru Premier for sponsorship reasons).