INTERNATIONALLY Welsh football remains in the wilderness yet next season the hills and valleys that loom across the Severn Estuary will become a hotbed for the English Premier League.
Cardiff City’s promotion to the top flight of English football for the first time in half a century was confirmed on Tuesday night. With arch-rivals Swansea City already there, Wales will have two representatives in the world’s most lucrative club league for the first time.
It marks a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of both clubs who not so long ago were threatened with extinction.
Swansea’s rise from the brink of going out of business culminated this year when Michael Laudrup’s side won the League Cup final at Wembley, securing European football in the process.
Now, after several heart-breaking near-misses and a High Court winding up order, Cardiff fans can share bragging rights with their rivals a few miles down the M4 motorway.
Factor in Cardiff’s run to the League Cup final last year when they were beaten on penalties by Liverpool and these are heady times for Wales’s leading clubs, even if the domestic league rarely gets a mention outside the country.
Even rugby, a sport deeply etched in the heritage of south Wales, is in danger of being overshadowed despite the recent Six Nations triumph achieved with a scintillating win over England.
The rise of the Welsh clubs could not be better timed. Swansea recently announced record profits of £15.9 million and with the Premier League’s new television kicking in next season, Cardiff’s promotion gives them access to the vast riches the 20 Premier League clubs enjoy.
In January Cardiff posted their accounts for the year ending May, 2012, recording losses of just over £13.6 million, bringing their overall debt to just over £83 million. Cardiff will be guaranteed a minimum of around £60 million next season, their first slice of the recent TV rights package, estimated at £5.5 billion over three years, negotiated by the Premier League.
Even an immediate relegation would be softened by parachute payments totalling £60 million over four years, meaning the financial turmoil that Cardiff City have endured over recent years could be coming to an end.
An average of 22,000 fans have watched Cardiff in their 26,000-seater stadium this season with the prospect of numerous sell-outs when the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, not to mention Swansea, visit next season.
Swansea, too, have laid down plans to extend the Liberty Stadium from its 20,000 capacity, having guaranteed survival for the second consecutive season.
Premier League football is not just good for the prestige of the clubs, but also for the wider economy.
A recent Cardiff University study said Swansea’s first season in the top flight since the 1980s generated £58 million for the Welsh economy and hundreds of new jobs. Cardiff’s will have potentially bigger knock-on effects given the size of the city.
“Cardiff City winning promotion to the Premier League will be fantastic for the profile of Cardiff and Wales,” a Welsh government spokesman said. “Just as happened in Swansea, Cardiff will be exposed to worldwide audiences of billions, while visiting supporters will have a significant impact on the city and Welsh economies.”
The Bluebirds’ return to the top of English football has not come without pain.
Malaysian club owner Vincent Tan took the controversial decision to change the colour of the club shirt from blue to red last year, and re-model the badge to incorporate a red dragon rather than the bluebird of the club’s nickname.
His investment, however, has helped the club into calmer financial waters and the billionaire is already planning the summer signings he hopes will give manager Malky Mackay, the former Scotland and Celtic central defender, the best chance of following Swansea’s example.
“It is wonderful, a fantastic feeling,” he said. “It is not an impossible challenge for us. God willing we would like to stay up there a long time.”
Wales have failed to qualify for a major international tournament since 1958 and their chances of reaching Brazil next year are all but gone, despite Chris Coleman’s side recording back-to-back victories over group rivals Scotland.
Having two clubs in the Premier League, however, bodes well for the development of more Welsh talent like Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs, Cardiff’s Craig Bellamy and Tottenham Hotspur winger Gareth Bale.
The much-travelled Bellamy, who has endured plenty of disappointment with Wales, was looking no further than his hometown club when asked what the future might bring.
“There should hopefully be no limit to what we can achieve from now on,” he said.
“It’s going to allow us as a club to excel and allow us to really grow.”
Mackay in tribute to fans
CARDIFF City manager Malky Mackay has paid tribute to the club’s long-suffering supporters.
Bluebirds fans invaded the pitch on Tuesday night to lift their heroes on their shoulders after they had clinched promotion to the Premier League with a 0-0 draw against Charlton. The City faithful have suffered play-off and cup final heartache on a regular basis in recent years and Mackay says the success is for them.
“I am very proud of the football club,” said the Scot. “It is an occasion the people of this football club have waited an awful long time for. There has been a lot of disappointment in that time and the backroom staff and directors here have been through some tough times. The players and especially the people of Cardiff have been waiting a long time to be back in the top division and we’ve never been in the Premier League. They have backed me and the team in the last 18 months and for that I’ll be forever grateful. I hope this goes a little way to repaying the backing they have given me since I came in.”
Vincent Tan, Cardiff’s Malaysian owner, said: “Malky is a fantastic manager, we work very well [with each other]. We have a great working relationship. I have a lot of respect for him and he has a lot of respect for me. It’s a great mutual relationship.”