Jimmy Weeks takes a look at the identity crisis that has swept many Welsh clubs in recent times thanks to the influence of outside sponsors.
A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but could you still love your club if they were rechristened after an IT business?
It’s fair to suggest that the average football fan doesn’t possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the Welsh domestic leagues. While the country’s top representatives in the English system may be enjoying a fruitful period, the same cannot be said for the clubs who ply their trade on home soil. Gates are low, money is in short supply and coverage outside Wales is, understandably, minimal.
But one feature few will have missed is the spate of Welsh clubs selling their naming rights to sponsors. Perhaps best known are the one-time Llansantffraid FC, whose star was in the ascendancy following a League of Wales Cup win in 1995 and a Welsh Cup triumph a year later. Then, during the summer of 1996, local IT firm Total Network Solutions ploughed £250,000 into the club and received naming rights in exchange.
Initially playing as Total Network Solutions Llansantffraid FC, the club dropped their old name altogether in 1997 to become Total Network Solutions FC (generally shortened to TNS). That earned them the dubious distinction of becoming the UK’s first football team to hand over its full name to a sponsor.
The deal lasted until the conclusion of the 2005-06 season when the firm was bought out by BT, ending a near-decade partnership that had seen TNS collect three Welsh Premier titles, a Welsh Cup and a League of Wales Cup.
Thanks to Jeff Stelling’s antics on Sky’s Soccer Saturday they even achieved cult status among fans beyond the Severn Bridge, with a TNS win often prompting the ebullient presenter to declare, tongue firmly in cheek: “they’ll be dancing in the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight!”
To its credit, the TNS experiment laid the foundations for long-term success. When the agreement lapsed the club became The New Saints – allowing them to retain the TNS acronym – and they have since established themselves as the Welsh Premier’s top club with four more league titles.
Unfortunately there was no such happy ending for their fellow Powys side Welshpool, who were backed by Technogroup between 2009 and 2011. With the combination being something of a mouthful the club were often referred to as Techno Welshpool, making it seem as though they were sponsored by a genre of dance music. Cue jokes about potential rivalries with Electroclash Rhyl, or Dubstep Llanelli.
When the deal was struck Welshpool were a Premier League team, but a disastrous 2009-10 campaign saw them relegated to the second tier. Things went from bad to worse the next season when the club was deducted 15 points for fielding ineligible players, then a further three for failing to fulfill a fixture. That sent them into the Mid Wales Football League, and Technogroup ended their association.
The story took a strange twist later in 2011 when Stelling poked fun at the team following a 10-1 hammering by Waterloo Rovers. Manager David Jones contacted the show to explain the club’s perilous finances, and a contrite Sky agreed to make amends by sending pundit Chris Kamara to play a league game for the side.
The publicity certainly helped raise much-needed funds, but 54-year-old Kamara could offer little on-pitch assistance, and Welshpool went down to a 6-1 defeat.
Money worries also played a role in Connah’s Quay Nomads’ name change in 2008, when the Flintshire team was taken over by and renamed after ‘gap’. However if the playing staff were expecting big discounts at a trendy high-street clothing store they were in for a letdown: gap personnel are a Wrexham-based recruitment company.
But the deal has brought stability to the club, who have become solid Welsh Premier performers in recent years. Unfortunately the 2013-14 campaign isn’t matching that, with gap Conah’s Quay currently one from bottom in the division.
Flintshire can lay claim to another memorably named side in Airbus UK Broughton. Every aspect of the club is closely linked to aviation: their badge is dominated by an aeroplane, they play at ‘The Airfield’, and their nickname is ‘The Wingmakers’.
But this isn’t sponsorship run amok. The club grew up as the works team of aircraft manufacturer Airbus, whose wing-making factory has been based near the village since the 1930s, and have played under several names reflecting the association. Between 1991 and 2000 they were known as British Aerospace, before switching to Airbus UK at the turn of the millennium. They added Broughton in 2007.
The Inter name generally evokes images of the black and blue of Internazionale, but Wales could once boast its own version in the shape of Inter Cardiff FC. During the ‘90s they played as Inter Cable Tel in deference to their sponsors, and for a time ranked among the Welsh Premier’s top teams, finishing as league runners up on four occasions, twice as Inter Cable Tel.
Their moment in the sun came in 1997 when they were drawn against Celtic in the UEFA Cup first qualifying round. The Welsh side went down 8-0 over two legs, a respectable scoreline against a squad of seasoned pros. Incidentally, the tournament was eventually won by their Italian namesakes.
Now playing in the Welsh Second Division as Cardiff Metropolitan University FC, their traditional blue kits make them an affordable alternative to Vincent Tan’s red brigade at Cardiff City Stadium.
Finally, the Wrexham-based Cefn Druids FC have changed names several times in recent years. In 1998 they became Flexsys Cefn Druids after linking up with an IT company. When that lapsed in 2003 they joined forces with the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education to become NEWI Cefn Druids, then Elements Cefn Druids FC in 2009. When this ended 12 months later the club reverted back to plain old Cefn Druids AFC.
It’s easy to laugh at these names or decry the corporate world’s presence in grassroots football, but in more than one case selling the team’s naming rights to a sponsor has allowed the club to remain in business. With the recent rise of Swansea and Cardiff to the Premier League, domestic Welsh clubs are feeling the pinch more than ever, so we should forgive the strange names and be glad that small, community football clubs are being kept alive. Anything that helps that cause must be a good thing.
By Jimmy Weeks