With one of the longer names in British football, The New Saints of Oswestry Town & Llansantffraid Football Club or The New Saints to you and I, are football club based in the picturesque Welsh Marches that stretch the border of England and Wales.
The New Saints were formed in 2003 as a result of a merger between Total Network Solutions (previously Llansantffraid F.C.) of Wales and Oswestry Town of England who were struggling with financial difficulties at the time. After some initial complications the new club was allowed to play at Oswestry Town’s home ground with the traditional green and white of Llansantffraid F.C. as the home colours and the former’s blue and white being used for the away kit. Although the team plays its home games in Oswestry, a few miles across the border in England, UEFA recognises them as a Welsh club as a result of Oswestry Town’s prominent role in setting up the Welsh F.A. in 1876 and their participation in the Welsh Cup on a regular basis since its inception. The successful merger ended the history of one of football’s oldest football clubs, with Oswestry Town thought to have been established in 1860.
Nowadays, the team play their football in the Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League and have dominated in recent years, winning the last three editions and looking on course for their fourth title in a row – at the time of writing they were one of only four teams in Europe’s top domestic divisions to remain undefeated at this stage of the season (the others being Stjarnan, Dinamo Zagreb, Hibernians and Dynamo Kyiv). To some, perhaps the club are more famous due to Jeff Stelling of Sky Sports. When the day’s football results are in, and if the team has played and won at home, the presenter invariably says “They’ll be dancing in the streets of The New Saints tonight”, which has become a favourite anecdote with football fans across the UK.
As a result of their League performances, the club has competed in Europe every year since the turn of the millennium and famously offered Liverpool, who were the newly crowned European Champions a one-legged tie for their place in the first qualifying round after The Reds were initially denied a place in the following season's competition due to a poor Premier League position. In the end it wasn’t necessary as UEFA stepped in to allow entry into the competition and remarkably, the two were drawn against each other, with Liverpool winning the tie 6-0 on aggregate after Steven Gerrard helped himself to five goals over the two legs.
To date, The New Saints’ most successful European campaign came in the 2010/11 Champions League where they navigated the second qualifying round versus Bohemians 4-1 over two legs. Unfortunately for The Saints, in the next round they came up against the formidable Belgian Champions Anderlecht which included Romelu Lukaku and were beaten 6-1 on aggregate with the striker picking up a brace in the home leg.
Looking back at the domestic situation and at the risk of sounding disrespectful, is the Welsh League becoming too easy for the men from Park Hall? Is it time to apply to the English system alongside the likes of Wrexham, Newport County, Cardiff City and of course Swansea City of the Premier League for a new challenge? The team has already won the league a record eight times and have blown the rest of the pack away over the past three seasons with the best attacking/defensive records in each of those title winning seasons. For instance, last season they scored 86 and conceded just 20 goals in a 32 game season – an average of 2.68 goals scored per league game. The domestic cups are also a similar story with the club winning the Welsh Cup last year and this year has seen them lift the League Cup after a dominant 3-0 win versus Bala Town. In the league, none of their rivals seem to be up to the challenge of stopping them – 2012/13 saw them lift the title by 22 points, 2013/14 by 14 points and this campaign is looking like history will repeat itself after scoring 70 goals in just 24 games to be 13 points clear of Bala Town.
The real question is can The New Saints afford to switch to the English league system, even if it was plausible to do so? Probably not…
While the team is playing in the Welsh system, it is (barring a disaster) guaranteed a least a Europa League spot and in winning the league, the Champions League qualifying rounds. Even in going out in the Champions League Second qualifying round, which they almost always do, it would mean a windfall of close to £280,000 in prize money for their participation in the competition. That huge amount of income along with another potential figure of around £65,000 for winning all domestic competitions, means it would be very hard to turn their back on the Welsh system and take such a huge loss of earnings year on year. Only a successful F.A. Cup run along the lines of Cambridge United this season or a huge sponsorship deal could compensate the loss, although the Cup run would be unlikely given the higher quality of opponents that they would face in England.
Also at a time when the top English sides are becoming richer and even more so with the announcement of the record £5.136bn Premier League sponsorship deal for three seasons from 2016/17, it is very unlikely that significant amounts of this money would filter down the system should The Saints decide to jump ship and play in the English system. Realistically all that leaves is to continue as normal whilst trying to develop the club and Academy to be strong enough to challenge European clubs and reach the Holy Grail of the Champions League group stages at some point in the future. It will be a near impossible feat to achieve, as attracting the right players to the club would be difficult and the jump up in quality is huge.
That said, the club is currently doing an excellent job in and around the Oswestry area with the club being involved in many Community Projects and working with local schools and colleges in terms of youth coaching. Focussing on making their academy more attractive to the young talent of the area may be one way of improving the squad, albeit on a temporary basis before the graduates go on to bigger and better things. The area has produced Joe Hart who started out at Shrewsbury Town just 16 miles from Oswestry and Boaz Myhill at Aston Villa, who are both established internationals for England and Wales respectively.
One thing that does hinder the club in terms of attracting quality youth is its geographical location. Being on the border of the North West and Midlands, the best youth of the area tend to be picked up by bigger clubs in the English system – Wolverhampton is only 50 minutes away. Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham just an hour away. Closer to home, Wrexham, Shrewsbury and Telford are just a stone’s throw away which means the competition for youth players is very real in the area and youngsters are naturally attracted towards the larger clubs in the area.
It is certainly an interesting point in the history or the club and it would be interesting to hear your opinions on their future.
Rich is on Twitter @RichKakuo.
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