A Brief History of Welsh Club Football

Bangor City pull off a shock Welsh Cup victory over John Charles’ Cardiff City in 1964 Credit: British Pathe

IN recent years, thanks largely to the success of the national team in reaching major finals, football has come close to rivalling rugby union as the most popular sport in Wales.

At club level, Wales has produced teams of varying fortunes since the early birth of the sport in Victorian times, and in 1876 a Wales national side played their first international match.

The Football Association of Wales (FAW), was established in 1876 to oversee the Wales national team and govern the sport in Wales, later creating and running the Welsh football league system.

Welsh professional club teams traditionally played in the same leagues as their English counterparts, structured into regional divisions. This often resulted in teams from north and south Wales not facing each other as the transport links between the two regions were poor.

In 1992 the Cymru Premier was formed to create a national league. Five Welsh clubs refused to join, but despite this the teams that come top of the Cymru Premier have a greater chance of qualifying to play in European competition, as the top three clubs are drawn into the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League. They also have the opportunity to compete in the Welsh Cup, the most prestigious cup competition in Welsh football.

Until 2016, the Wales national team rarely qualified for the major international tournaments with its only appearance in the World Cup occurring in 1958. However, they reached the semi-finals of UEFA Euro 2016 and qualified for UEFA Euro 2020.

This has led to some world-renowned players from Wales not being seen at the biggest international tournaments, even though many of them have made a name for themselves at club level. Such Welsh players of note include Trevor Ford, Cliff Jones, John Charles, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Neville Southall, Ryan Giggs, Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, while in Wales Ivor Allchurch, Fred Keenor and Jack Kelsey are cherished.

Although achieving legendary status as Welsh footballers, John Charles, Mark Hughes and Ian Rush were among those who never graced a World Cup or European Championship finals with Wales

As of 2022/3 Swansea City and Cardiff City play in the EFL Championship, while Newport County compete in League 2. Wrexham and Merthyr Town play their football in feeder leagues. These five teams have all played in the English football league system since their founding, and all declined the offer to move into the League of Wales, now known as the Cymru Premier, when it was founded in 1992.

However, the Welsh teams Bangor City, Barry Town, Caernarfon Town, Colwyn Bay, Newtown and Rhyl did move into the Welsh league system from the English league system. Welsh teams participating in the English football league system can enter the English FA Cup competition, but not the Welsh Cup.

From 1996 to 2011, the FAW only allowed teams in the Welsh league system to enter the Welsh Cup, which carries automatic promotion to the UEFA Europa League qualifying rounds (previously the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, which was discontinued in 1999) for the winner. This rule excluded the six Welsh clubs who played in the English football league system: Cardiff City, Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Town, Newport County, Swansea City and Wrexham.

Prior to 1996, Welsh teams playing in the English league system were invited to participate along with some English teams located near the Welsh border such as Shrewsbury, Hereford and Chester. However, in the event of an English club winning the Welsh Cup, they were not allowed to progress to the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Instead, the best placed Welsh club in the competition would take the European place.

As this rule excluded the biggest Welsh clubs from the Welsh Cup, the FAW launched the FAW Premier Cup in the 1997–98 season to include the top Welsh Premier League teams and the top Welsh teams in the English league system.

The FAW Premier Cup was discontinued after the 2007–08 season. In 2011, the Football Association of Wales invited the six Welsh clubs playing in the English league system to rejoin the Welsh Cup for the 2011–12 season with Newport County, Wrexham and Merthyr Town accepting. The invitation was not extended to the 2012–13 season.

Between the 1961–62 and 1984–85 seasons, the final was played as a two-leg match, originally on a points basis rather than aggregate score. In the 1985–86 season, it reverted to a single game, to be decided by extra time and penalties as necessary.

Wrexham and Cardiff City, who met in a two-legged final in 1971, have won the Welsh Cup 45 times between them

Shrewsbury Town hold the record for the most times a non-Welsh team has won the Cup, six from nine final appearances, a record that will remain unbroken because English teams have not been allowed to compete in the competition since 1995. The last English winner of the Welsh Cup was Hereford United in 1990.

Wrexham, whose last appearance in the final was 1995, have the most Welsh Cup final wins, 23, one more than Cardiff City and 13 more than Swansea City.

Women’s football is thriving in Wales, although the national team, founded in 1973, has yet to qualify for a World Cup or European Championship finals.

It is still largely regarded as a minority sport in Wales but has grown due to the hosting of football games at the 2012 Olympic games.

The top level of domestic football is the Welsh Premier Women’s Football League, below which are several regional leagues. Founded in 2009, the winner of the league each season qualifies for the UEFA Women’s Champions League. The FAW Women’s Cup is the premier national cup competition which was founded in 1992 and a Premier League Cup was started in 2014.

Cardiff Met, Swansea City, Abergavenny, Cyncoed, Cardiff City, Port Talbot, Cascade YC Women, Briton Ferry Llansawel and Aberystwyth Town are among the leading women’s sides in Wales.