WorldChris HuntComment

They'll be dancing in the streets of...TNS?

WorldChris HuntComment

That's right, TNS. Jeff Stelling may have made them famous, but what else do you know about the club behind the catchphrase? Welcome to IBWM, Chris Hunt.

... And finally the Welsh Premier League results.' Traditionally these results hold less interest for the average football fan than Stenhousemuir's hard-fought stalemate with East Fife in the Scottish Second Division. But those of the Soccer Saturday cult have come to take a huge interest in whether a previously little-known team from Mid-Wales have collected their almost weekly three points. Llansantffraid F.C. have found national and international fame thanks to a combination of league dominance and the quick thinking and wit of Soccer Saturday host Jeff Stelling. But what lies beneath is a story of franchise, finance and fierce cross-border debate. Amidst the success, the towns of Llansantffraid and Oswestry in England first became united and then divided again by Total Network Solutions FC, with dancing in the streets the last thing on their minds.

Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain is a small village in Powys, Mid-Wales, close to the border with England. The club only recently celebrated its 50th anniversary having been originally founded in 1959 as Llansantffraid F.C., a team to represent the village. Although the date of their official formation is 1959, the club had existed for some time prior to official ratification. From humble beginnings in the Montgomeryshire Amateur Football League (at the time the fourth level of the Welsh football league system), they quickly rose up the Welsh league pyramid and eventually secured promotion to the Welsh Premier League in the 1992/93 season.

It marked a sensational ascent in a season when they also won the Welsh Intermediate Cup to win a famous double. The club has never looked back, remaining in Wales' top division ever since.

Having sustained top flight status, the focus was to move forward and bring silverware and more glory to the club. In 1996 they achieved this goal in the form of Welsh Cup win, defeating Barry Town on penalties after a thrilling 3-3 draw in the Final. This was a highly significant achievement, for not only was it the first time in 96 years that a team from Mid-Wales had won the competition, but it was to facilitate events which would change the course of the club's – and Welsh league football's – history.

Winners of the Welsh Cup at the time won entry to the now defunct European Cup Winners' Cup and this debut foray into European competition provided Llansantffraid with a huge footballing, commercial and financial windfall. Total Network Solutions, a company providing IT services to small and medium-sized enterprises from nearby Oswestry in England, arranged a £250,000 sponsorship deal for the club. Unconvinced by shirt sponsorship, the company negotiated that as part of the deal the club would incorporate the name of the company into the club's name, thus Total Network Solutions FC of the Welsh Premier League was born. The visionary was Mike Harris, owner of the company TNS, who saw the success of Llansantffraid and a huge marketing opportunity. He invested and then courted BSkyB and the BBC, encouraging them to offer more exposure to the League of Wales and of course his business. This marketing ploy would have a huge impact on the club and domestic Welsh football.

There was some understandable scepticism about the all too eager dropping of the Llansantffraid name but the Welsh footballing links in Oswestry are strong, despite debate and rhetoric over Oswestry being the other side of the border. It has been claimed that Oswestry Town FC was a founder member of the Football Association of Wales, but that is misleading as the FAW was formed by individuals and not by clubs, though an individual from Oswestry was at the centre of the formation of Wales' governing body. The Oswestry club actually provided seven members of the Welsh team which faced England in an 1879 friendly (a match refereed by one Segar Bastard). Though these facts don't make the club or town Welsh in itself, the history and intimate relations between Oswestry and Welsh football provide strong links and associations with Wales. The two towns are only three miles apart and the investment did make sense, for supporters would rather have a club to support under a different name than no club at all.

In comparison with modern investment from Sheikhs and oligarchs, an investment from a local business, albeit a neighbouring town, seemed like a very good decision. The concept and spirit of the club would remain the same for the supporters and the investment ensured a sustained and long-term foundation of success.

Back on the football pitch that first European adventure would prove fruitless, losing to Polish outfit Ruch Chorzow 1-6 on aggregate in the first qualifying round of the Cup Winners' Cup. It would be four years until TNS got another crack at European competition, when they would reach the Champions League first qualifying round versus Estonian team F.C. Levadia Tallinn. Again their journey into Europe was unsuccessful, crashing out 2-6 on aggregate. Later in the decade TNS played Liverpool in the 2005/06 qualifying rounds. With the Merseysiders not eligible for a place in the competition via their league position, despite having won the previous season's competition after that famous night in Istanbul, TNS put their berth in the first qualifying round on the line in exchange for two glamour ties with the Reds. Steven Gerrard notched five goals over the two games and eliminated TNS, but the financial benefit and national exposure of such a tie was worth another early exit from European competition both for TNS the club and TNS the business.

Despite plucky performances against Liverpool and previously against Manchester City in the Uefa Cup qualifying rounds of 2003/04, Total Network Solutions remain most famous for an off the cuff quip by Soccer Saturday host Jeff Stelling. Given the oddity of being called Total Network Solutions F.C. and their dominance of Welsh football they were always going to draw the attention of the Soccer Saturday audience and panel. Usually being the last team read out on the results round up, the name sticks in the minds of those watching and it was one particular Saturday of TNS dominance that Mr. Stelling uttered the now immortal phrase, 'They'll be dancing in the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight,' following another TNS victory.

In his book Jellyman's Thrown A Wobbly, which gives a hilarious and telling insight into the workings of the hit show, Stelling explains the origin of the phrase. It was originally used in the 1960s by Scottish commentator Keith Leitcher who commented, 'they'll be dancing in the streets of Raith Rovers tonight,' after one victory for the Kirkcaldy outfit. Having noticed the unique name of TNS during one Saturday show and admitting that he was wondering 'what the hell is this?!' we witnessed a classic piece of Jeff's sharp wit that makes Soccer Saturday such an unmissable show.

His utterance catapulted the team, and of course the business, to national fame overnight. The phrase became a staple of the show much like Chris Kamara's 'unbelievable Jeff' or Kenny 'the good doctor' Duescher. It even has a special place in the Jeff Stelling drinking game.

There is of course no town called 'Total Network Solutions', but more serious is that there was soon not even to be just one town which Total Network Solutions the team would call home and represent. In 2003, after the acquisition of the company Total Network Solutions by British Telecom, owner Mike Harris renamed the mid-Wales team again.

The club merged with the financially troubled Oswestry Town F.C., and renamed as The New Saints of Oswestry Town & Llansantffraid Football Club. 'The New Saints' allowed the club to keep the TNS acronym and the commercial exposure provided by Stelling and Soccer Saturday. Significant though is that Oswestry Town is mentioned before Llansantffraid in the name and this would prove an omen for the change in emphasis and culture of the club. With the major backer and chairman living in Oswestry and the club now merged with Oswestry Town, the club relocated and left their traditional Recreation Ground home in Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain for the new Park Hall Stadium in Oswestry. A franchise, in some supporters' eyes, was born.

The majority of original supporters of Llansantffriad F.C. have since stopped supporting the club, and have reformed the village team, much like disgruntled Wimbledon supporters who felt cheated when their league place was handed over to Milton Keynes. The ill feeling continued and accusations of Franchise F.C. have never been far away as The New Saints continue to represent Llansantffriad in their name and on the pitch in domestic Welsh competition, despite now essentially being a solely English entity. Playing on a plastic pitch and having only a 1,000 seater stand for a stadium, only avoiding 'temporary' status by virtue of a few bolts securing it to the ground, fuels the feeling amongst traditional fans that this is an artificial club.

Of course this is a debate which rumbles on and one shouldn't take the 'English team playing in Wales' argument as valid at all. Just down the road there are of course six Welsh teams playing in the English league pyramid as well as notable continental cases such as Monaco playing in the French league system. But despite the ill feeling it cannot be denied that Mike Harris' project has helped Welsh football.

The exposure gained by the Total Network Solutions era and Jeff Stelling's quip has been invaluable, as has Harris' investment in Welsh football. Bringing Welsh football into the modern era, acquiring technically gifted footballers and lobbying for more coverage and exposure of the League of Wales by the national media has only helped to raise the standard of the domestic Welsh game. Investing huge amounts of time, effort and money into the game has been a huge boost for Welsh League football.

It's telling that in their most recent European adventure TNS got further than they ever have done before, reaching the third qualifying round of the Champions League in September 2010. Victories over Latvian VK Ventspils and Irish side Bohemians put them on the brink of the Champions League group stage, only to be denied by an excellent Anderlecht team. Increased quality of the team as well as tougher domestic competition surely helped them progress and it can again only raise the quality and exposure of the domestic competition.

Llansaintffraid Village F.C. are currently in their fourth season since reformation and managed a respectable top half finish in the new two tier Spar Mid-Wales League. There is an ethos of local players playing for the local team, with a continuity of management and club stability seen as the key for eventually replicating the ascent of the original club. The club also stresses that it is now nothing to do with the New Saints F.C., which highlights the gripe still felt.

The New Saints have continued their success, having never finished outside the top 3 of the Premier League in their four seasons as The New Saints, a run including two league and cup doubles. They currently trail Bangor City in the hunt to retain their title and it could all be set for a massive title decider at Bangor as the current top two face each other in the final match of the season. If it goes the way of The New Saints of Oswestry Town and Llansantffraid, they'll certainly be dancing in the streets, but only of Oswestry.

To read more from Chris, visit his blog, Bale Droed.

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