By Peter Dawson
Against a general background of expanding professional Association Football across industrial South Wales in the period running up to the First World War, the Southern Football League made a conscious effort to expand into the area – possibly because the Football League was so dominant in the North and Midlands of England, and was expanding into London and the South – Woolwich Arsenal, Bristol City, Chelsea Clapton (Now Leyton) Orient, Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham were already members of the older League.
Whatever the thinking behind it, we know that in 1909-10 Division 2 of the Southern League was formed, including Ton Pentre, Merthyr Town, and Aberdare. The division into two sections only lasted one season and in 1910-11 Division 2 contained 12 clubs with Treharris and Cardiff City joining; the following season it expanded to 14 including Cwm Albion, Mardy and Pontypridd. Cwm Albion didn’t last the season, apparently due to a coal strike. When Swansea Town joined as a newly formed club in 1912 the Southern League was the obvious league to join, and Mid-Rhondda, Newport County and Llanelly were also elected. In this season 10 out of 13 clubs in Div 2 were from South Wales, with Merthyr Town by now in Division 1. Southend United, Croydon Common and LutonTown were the only English clubs – and they received a guarantee from the League for their away games in Wales – in fact in June of 1912 a dispute arose between the League and Luton over whether the guarantee should be £10 or £15.
It’s interesting to note that all the Southern League First Division clubs in the 1912-13 season are currently Football League or Premier League sides, as are 3 of the top 5 clubs in Div 2 – Croydon Common were not reformed after WW1, and Luton lost their League status only recently. Swansea, Cardiff and Southend are the three. Below that is a long list of Welsh clubs now playing at lower levels or completely vanished.
The Reserve side played in the Welsh League. This had been founded in 1904 as the Rhymney Valley League, expanded into the Glamorgan League in 1909 and had only been renamed the Welsh League in 1912. There was also a South Wales League which seems to have been quite well established, perhaps based more around Cardiff, but is hard to trace now – the current South Wales Amateur League is a different organisation founded after WW2. Despite its name the Welsh League has never been an all-Wales competition and was always seen as a junior league by the new full-time professional clubs of the period; the Welsh FA Cup however was entered by clubs from across Wales and at the time was a prestigious competition. Clubs from the North played in various different Leagues across North and Mid-Wales. Although the FAW did not object to professionalism, its relationship with the South Wales and Monmouthshire FA was often fractious, with disputes about international team selection and the venues for matches.
To sum up, SwanseaTown joined the Southern League in 1912 because:
- It was a full time professional league offering a good standard of entertainment for what was always seen as a spectator sport.
- The Southern League were expanding and actively canvassing for members in the area.
- There was no obvious all-Wales League to join.
- The Football League had less need for new clubs and even its Second Division was by now regarded as a higher standard – so players presumably expected to be paid more.
- Travel to the other clubs was mostly local – those further afield were near London which has had strong links to South Wales since the building of the railway.
- The many local derby games would attract supporters, including those prepared to travel to away games.
The end result of all this is that Swansea Town/City, along with Cardiff City and Newport County as well as a number of Valleys clubs, always looked to England rather than Wales for League competition – the odd paradox being that one of the main reasons for doing so was in order to play other teams from South Wales.