Football is often “claimed” by England as their own sport, however football in Wales also has a very rich and interesting history. The game has been played in the country for centuries, although the sport is often overshadowed by rugby, in terms of popularity.
The first football teams to start playing on a formal basis in Wales were those which were based in the north of the country. Having been influenced by teams in the (English) Midlands and the north of England, Wrexham and Ruabon formed teams in the mid-19th Century. Wrexham FC is actually the third oldest professional football team in the world. Formalised versions of the sport soon spread to other areas of Wales, and the Football Association of Wales (FAW) was formed in 1876. During the earliest period of formalised Association Football in Wales, interest was mainly centered on the north of the country, as the south were more focused on Rugby Football instead.
The development of the Football Association of Wales
Soon after the founding of the Football Association of Wales, the organisation began to go from strength to strength. Within 2 years, the Welsh Cup had been created, in which Welsh teams participated in knock-out games for the chance to be crowned victors in the final. The first Welsh national football team match also took place in 1877, which saw Wales taking on Scotland in an away game in Partick, Glasgow. The Welsh team lost 4-0, however their passion for further international games was not diminished. Despite the fact that Wales had its own football association, the majority of teams in the country competed in English leagues at this point.
The north/south divide
During the early years of Welsh football, there continued to be a prominent divide between the north of the country and the south, in terms of interest in the sport. Despite Welsh international football continuing to grow in popularity, an international match was not held in the south until Wales’ 46th international fixture in 1894. To compound the issue, a southern Welsh player was not selected to appear in a professional match for the team until the 67th international fixture. The continued successes of the Welsh national Rugby team in the late 19th Century helped to slow the rise in popularity of Association Football in the southern parts of the county. It wasn’t until the 1909/10 season that teams from the south also began to join English leagues, and begin to compete in the (English) FA Cup.
The Welsh League System
The Football Association of Wales founded the Welsh Premier League in 1992, so that Welsh teams would have the opportunity to compete more frequently in their own country. However, some top Welsh teams continue to compete in leagues which are administered by the English FA. Although local leagues existed in the country before this point, this was the first national football league in Wales. At its inception, the Welsh Premier League featured 18 teams; however this number was lowered to 12 teams per season, as of the 2010-11 season. Teams which are relegated from the Premier League can continue to compete in the second tier of Welsh football, either in the Cymru Alliance (North Wales) or in the Welsh Football League (South Wales). Both of these second tier leagues have their own unique feeder structure, through which teams are able to progress and regress.
How the Welsh Cup developed
The Welsh Cup is still considered to be one of the most important competitions in Welsh football. In most cases, winning this competition allowed that team to compete in the European Cup Winners Cup. Up until 1995, any Welsh team which was competing at a professional (or sometimes semi-professional) level could be invited to join the competition, as long as they regularly competed in a Welsh or English league. On occasions, English teams were also invited to join the competition, as long as they had a close association with Wales, although in the event that they won, they would not be deemed eligible to compete in the European Cup Winners Cup.
Shrewsbury Town went on to win the Welsh Cup 6 times. However, between 1996 and 2011, the Football Association of Wales decided that only clubs which competed within the Welsh League system would be allowed to enter the Welsh Cup. This excluded Cardiff City, Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Town, Newport County, Swansea City and Wrexham. In 2011, it was announced that these teams would be invited back for the following season’s championship, however only 3 of these teams accepted. English teams were not invited back at this point and continue to be excluded from the competition. UEFA confirmed in 2012 that Welsh clubs competing in English leagues would not be eligible to enter the European Cup Winners Cup if they did win the Welsh Cup.