The Dai Becks of the Valleys

David Beckham. Lee Trundle. Separated at birth? Welcome to IBWM, Mark Pitman.

Lee Trundle completed a £1m transfer from Swansea City to Bristol City in the summer of 2007. At the same time David Beckham was embarking on his first season in Major League Soccer as the leagues biggest-ever signing. While Beckham now cuts an established figure in LA ahead of the new season, Trundle is preparing for the second part of his debut campaign in the Welsh Premier League following a Beckham-style arrival in the summer that put the much-criticised national league in the spotlight.

For two national leagues either side of the Atlantic this is an important time of the year. Both of these leagues struggle for media attention in nations that do not generally accept football or soccer as the national game but both are striving to make continued progress and build on the encouraging foundations that have developed and strengthened since their respective births in the 1990’s. For Major League Soccer in the United States read the Welsh Premier League in Wales. Both are young and emerging competitions but this year share even more in common than ever before as they enter a very important time in their respective calendars.

Nothing brings more media attention to a national league than a high-profile signing. More importantly, bringing in a player of undeniable quality at a time in his career when he is still able to play at a much higher standard earns the league respect from all corners. One of these particular enigmas of a generation had been courted by Premier League clubs in his early years before breaking onto the professional scene in style with his unparalleled technical ability and flair, becoming instantly recognisable early in his professional career and hitting the headlines on the front and back pages with an image rights deal, clothing line and a pop-star partner. The darling of the terraces at the club where he enjoyed his finest hours on the field, kids copied his every hairstyle as much as they copied his every flick and trick in the playground while the press and television drooled over his marketability. A national figure who loved the spotlight throughout his career, the press questioned his motives and ambitions when he joined a lesser national league to become the highest-profile and highest-paid player in its history despite still being in his early thirties. A family man at heart despite the living in the media spotlight, this creative genius had turned down offers to stay at the level of football that he had become accustomed to and had decided on a new challenge.

The same could be said for David Beckham. But the above is all about Lee Trundle.

The acquisition of David Beckham was designed to inspire a generation and promote the soccer product to a cynical public engrossed in the actions of their own national sports. The world’s game of football remains a second rate sport in the United States but is slowly but surely gaining respect and attention. The women’s game in the country is incredibly popular and soccer has developed into a well-participated sport at junior and youth level. While professionals in the senior men’s game do not command the salaries expected by their European counterparts, high-profile arrivals such as Beckham and recently Thierry Henry have played a major part in boosting the product as much as the World Cup did in 1994. The arrival of Lee Trundle at Neath FC last summer was for a different purpose, despite the battle for supremacy between football and rugby in Wales, but as Trundle arrived at Neath with his own personal motives, the Welsh Premier League would benefit as much as Major League Soccer did a few years before when it embraced the Beckham-effect.

Trundle’s arrival came at the perfect time for the Welsh Premier League. The 2010-2011 season would be the most significant since the league was formed in 1992 as the domestic top-flight was reduced to twelve clubs from its previous eighteen competitors and Trundle featured in a positive media re-launch that included increased live television coverage. On the field both champions The New Saints and current league leaders Bangor City enjoyed relative success in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League respectively but the attention from the outside was directed solely at the arrival of the former Swansea City hero known affectionately as ‘Magic Daps’. The Welsh Premier League had played no part in Neath pulling off the biggest transfer in the history of the league, but they rightly made the most of his arrival with the aim of increasing the profile and media respect of the much-maligned league through the cheeky lad from Huyton in Liverpool.

The Gnoll ground at Neath may not be the Home Depot Centre of LA, but Trundle was sold by the ambition of the club and their new wealthy backers as he headlined a string of impressive signings. Trundle joins a number of former Swansea City professionals on the books of the club, but it was the location of the club that persuaded the striker to make a return to the Welsh Premier League after a ten-year absence as much as the lucrative three-year contract on offer. Trundle earned his chance in the professional game after catching the eye of Wrexham manager Brian Flynn while playing for Rhyl and welcomed the opportunity to return to the surroundings of semi-professional football in Wales having been denied a new contract at his beloved Swansea City. Remaining in close proximity of his adopted-home, Trundle was appreciative of the fact that his move to Neath allowed him the opportunity to stay in the area and with it have the chance to continue to play in front of the same fans that had made his time at Swansea City so special.

While Lee Trundle is widely regarded as a unique player, Neath are also regarded as a unique club. Built from a series of recent mergers between smaller clubs in and around the surrounding areas, Neath moved from their previous base in the Neath-outskirts of Llandarcy to ground-share with Neath Rugby Club at their Gnoll home. A predominantly rugby-loving town, the influence of its rugby club to the community should not be underestimated. It is part of the heritage and tradition of the area and The Gnoll has been a sporting place of worship for locals for many years. Despite a move to regional rugby affecting the quality and profile of the club, there remains a strong and established support base from the long-running traditions of families in the local community. Neath FC has now joined in with that culture. With both clubs operating from the same base, initial promotional campaigns for the current season have been joint ventures to offer the local community a complete sporting package.

For the first time the football club now has credibility with the Neath public and made their move to The Gnoll far more than a run-of-the-mill ground-share agreement. It has made a relatively new club like Neath FC an established entity with a strong platform to build from.

Like Beckham, Trundle is as important to Neath off the field as much as he is on it. A marketing dream, the striker has featured heavily in all of the clubs promotional campaigns and is as much a figurehead for the whole of the Welsh Premier League as he is for his club. Although he is still in his first season back in the Welsh Premier League, Trundle has struggled in patches to return to the form that earned him his professional break, but through the occasional flashes of genius, his undoubted natural ability and a handful of penalties, Trundle is currently challenging at the top of the scoring charts as he targets a new ambition in his football career.

After moving to the MLS, David Beckham expressed his desire to continue to represent England, Trundle never did make the breakthrough into International football despite expressing his desire to represent his Grandfather’s native Ireland and neither did the £1m marksman make his bow in the English Premier League. Beckham enjoyed success with both during his high-profile career in addition to success on the European stage, and that is where Trundle has ambitions of his own to fulfil and now has the ambition and opportunity to fulfil them with Neath.

Each season three clubs from the Welsh Premier League join the Welsh Cup winners in qualifying for UEFA competition. Often starting at the bottom end of both the Champions League and Europa League, success has been limited but performances have improved as the league has become stronger and there is more consistency in clubs progressing past the first round of qualifying games. Neath are the only South Wales club in the league yet to make their European bow, but new money and the new talent it has enabled them to appoint has made it only a matter of time. The side are currently in third place and must finish in the top two to take their place on the European stage, although the introduction of a play-off system as favoured in the Dutch Eredivisie offers a second chance for teams who do not make one of the two automatic spots.

With Neath confirming a place in the top six ahead of the mid-season split, the ambitious club are serious European contenders and Trundle has played a key part. Although targeted by the opposition, the attention he attracts enables the clubs other former pro’s the freedom to attack despite the number of changes made in the summer leaving some performances below the level expected for the investment made. The side continue to develop at a steady pace however and recent consistency in results has eased the pressure for success that such serious financial commitment demands. Crowds have improved significantly for Neath this season, buoyed by the interest of the Swansea City faithful with a lasting memory of Trundle’s glory days at their old Vetch Field and Liberty Stadium, and the club is now geared towards achieving their aim of European qualification.

And it is therefore likely that Lee Trundle’s remaining football ambitions, a player that moved to the Championship with Bristol City for £1m less than four years ago, will be fulfilled in some little-known European outpost. While it may seem a fall from grace to many, Trundle suffered a miserable time at Ashton Gate and would later fall completely out of love with the Football League when he was denied a second permanent spell at Swansea City.

In a bizarre twist of fate and fortune however, the enigmatic entertainer is now back in front of the South Wales fans that took him to their heart through the best days of his career and now has the opportunity to make his European debut in front of them. While Trundle may not inspire a nation with his performances for Neath, the club and the Welsh Premier League have gained support, respect and credibility from his arrival, and this can only improve further with the popular showman now set to have the European stage to shine on in the near future.

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