The Welsh Premier League received a huge boost this week when two of its best players departed in the space of as many days. Losing key players is rarely seen as a positive in football, but for the much-criticised domestic top-flight, the progression of Rhys Griffiths and Craig Jones to the Football League is a significant sign that the national league is making progress and is now being taken seriously by those on the outside.
The respective transfers have attracted some interest in the league and the moves are widely regarded as a sign that the standard of the league has improved enough that players are now good enough to progress into the professional game. However, both Griffiths and Jones have been performing to this standard for a number of seasons and the reason for their progression is more due to the change in attitude and respect now enjoyed by the league than an improving standard of football.
Rhys Griffiths made his Welsh Premier League debut in 2001/02 with Cwmbran Town, having recently turned 21-years-old. But the journeyman striker, converted from the defensive role he preferred as a teenager, did not come to prominence until 2005/06, when he won his first Golden Boot - with 28 goals - for Port Talbot Town. A lucrative move to Llanelli was his reward, and Griffiths went on to score 180 goals in 181 appearances for the Reds, winning a further six consecutive Golden Boot awards and putting himself in second place in the list of the all-time record goalscorers in the Welsh Premier League.
A consistent goalscorer in Europe as well as on the domestic front for his club during the last six seasons, it is only now at the age of 32 that Griffiths has made the step-up to the Football League, with League Two side Plymouth Argyle willing to take a chance on him. Griffiths had decided on a return to former club Port Talbot Town this summer, but with his last chance of playing in the Football League on offer, the temptation to round-off his career in the professional game proved too strong.
Although a few years younger that Griffiths at 25, Craig Jones also has a wealth of Welsh Premier League and European football experience from his years with the current champions, The New Saints. Jones completed a move to League One Bury this week after a trial at Leeds United during the previous campaign, completing a move that the midfielder has been linked with previously.
Jones made his Welsh Premier League debut in 2004 with Airbus UK Broughton and made his way to the professional ranks of The New Saints via spells at Aberystwyth Town and Rhyl. Jones featured for The New Saints in the UEFA Champions League earlier this summer and, while League One may not have the same attraction as Europe's premier club competition, the individual benefits are far superior and can be just as beneficial for the Welsh Premier League.
Both Griffiths and Jones have been important players to their respective clubs during the time in the Welsh Premier League over the best part of the last decade. However, their departures have turned them into key marketing tools for the domestic league and their progress will be keenly observed by those with an interest in the development of the national division.
If both players can establish themselves and impress in the Football League during these difficult financial times, rival clubs will quickly become aware that there are rich pickings to be found in the Welsh Premier, and a flurry of interest will follow if Griffiths can maintain his form in front of goal and Jones can continue to trouble full backs with his mazy runs from wide positions.
Contract naivety is an issue that will need to be addressed should this Football League interest arise, and clubs must ensure that they benefit as much as possible from the progression of their prized assets.
But while it is hard to see clubs losing their best players as a positive, providing the financial rewards are in place there are benefits. Every year a large number of young players are released by professional clubs having failed to make the grade. If a steady line of progression can be established in the Welsh Premier however, the league could become a very attractive option to players still harbouring ambitions of making it in the professional game.
Griffiths and Jones are not the first players to progress from the Welsh Premier to the Football League. Over the last 20 years there has been a steady number of players that have earned themselves contracts in the professional game through their performances in the domestic league. Mark Delaney, Steve Evans and Owain Tudor-Jones are three players that have progressed from the league to earn international honours with Wales; others have only made it as far as the top of the non-league pyramid, or have played in the Football League and returned.
The number of players progressing has increasingly and consistently risen. While an improving standard of play and investment into clubs' youth and academy development has played a huge part in this, the awareness, coverage and overall respect for the league cannot be underestimated when assessing the cause of this change in attitude from Football League clubs.
The Welsh Premier League has suffered criticism from both the press and the public since its formation in 1992. But significant strides have been made to improve the overall perception of the league in recent seasons. The reduction to twelve clubs in 2010 has played a crucial part in improving the standard of both stadiums and playing surfaces, and the concentration of talent has improved the standard of play.
Many of the players currently involved also played in the league when it was made up of eighteen clubs, but with fewer clubs now available to them the best talent that the league had to offer in its previous format now makes up the league as we currently know it. These improvements have not been lost on broadcasters S4/C, and a live game is now shown every Saturday afternoon during the course of the season with comment and opinion from former Wales duo John Hartson and Malcolm Allen, together with a highlights show and footage of every match available through the S4/C website.
The improvements are not just restricted to the domestic game either. European results have improved consistently, and a club progressing through the early rounds is no longer treated as a surprise. This summer was disappointing on this front, but by comparison all four clubs representing Wales avoided defeat at home and conceded only one goal between them in the process; the disappointment of not making any actual progress is in itself a sign of progression.
With qualification for Europe being a lucrative prize for clubs, money is being spent to chase the dream, and a number of high-profile former Football League players have been attracted to the league in recent seasons but such risks have consequences. Neath were one club to attract big name players such as Lee Trundle and Kristian O'Leary, but the Eagles paid the price for spending heavily and this summer they were wound up in the High Court and liquidated.
Their story is well-documented, but they were not the first club to suffer through ill-advised ambition; they will probably not be the last. Unlike their counterparts in the Football League, Welsh Premier clubs do not have the numbers through the turnstile to sustain their level if finances take a turn for the worse, and for many the term make-or-break is certainly applicable.
Griffiths and Jones are the latest players to form a part in the financial cycle into which Welsh Premier League clubs need to buy. Their progression, if successful, will attract interest in the league from other Football League clubs. The more players that progress, the more attractive the league becomes to young players released who are looking to prove themselves worthy of a second chance.
The more of these players arriving in the Welsh Premier League, the more likely Football League clubs are to offer them this chance; more money is brought into the Welsh Premier League and its clubs as a result. Continued progression in Europe and increased coverage also has a crucial part to play in maintaining this change in attitude about the league and to reverse the criticism it has faced since its formation. League One Bury and League Two Plymouth Argyle may not attract maximum media attention, and Jones and Griffiths will attract even less, but the duo are now more important to the Welsh Premier League than they have ever been before.
You can read more from Mark Pitman at his website.
Thanks to Stu Fuller for the picture.