The New Saints: Is this Welsh football’s most unpopular club?

If you went to The New Saints’ Park Hall ground, you’d have no idea it was the home to a world-record holder.

The compact stadium in the English border town of Oswestry may not look anything special, with stands on only two sides – one a semi-permanent get-up in front of the club house – but it plays host to a club that took a long-standing record from Johan Cruyff’s Ajax back in 2016.

TNS (formerly known as Total Network Solutions) chalked up an eye-watering 27 consecutive wins to oust Cruyff’s Dutch superstars as the holder of the longest winning streak in top-flight football.

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They’ve also won the JD Cymru Premier a record 13 times – nine in the past 11 years – and have flown Wales’ flag against the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Legia Warsaw in European competition.

But despite the trophies and records they’ve gathered readily in recent years, one thing is still missing: fans.

Despite TNS’s unprecedented success, the fanbase is nowhere near as big as you’d expect for a side that has been so dominant in recent times, with an average attendance of just under 300 – only the league’s fifth-highest average last season before Covid-19 shut everything down.

Instead of drawing in fans with their success, TNS have become the pantomime villains of Welsh football.

“Every time we go up to Park Hall, there’s no support,” says Barry season-ticket holder Rhys Deans. “I remember when we beat them there 1-0 a few years back the small number of fans they have tried singing ‘stand up if you’ve won the league’. Barry have won seven league titles.”

Rivals will be rivals, but there’s clearly an animosity towards TNS – and it’s not just because they keep winning. Some of the ire can be traced back to TNS owner and chairman Mike Harris. But to fully understand why, it’s important to look backwards first.

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In 1997, Harris bought Llansantffraid, a small club in the village of Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain in Powys, with a population of less than 1,500 people. Harris promptly got to work, changing the club’s name to Total Network Solutions after his computer networking business.

When Oswestry Town was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2003, Harris bought them as well and merged the club with their Welsh neighbours. After a successful period that included three league titles and a Welsh Cup, Total Network Solutions – the company not the club – were sold to BT in 2006 and the club were renamed The New Saints.

Harris’s investment meant the side moved to Oswestry’s former home Park Hall, which went through a £3 million overhaul, leaving behind the club’s Llansantffraid heritage. This alongside all players being given full-time contracts and more money being invested into the club made TNS the dominant force it is today.

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Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t popular and Harris became a divisive figure. Moving the club to England and remaining in the Welsh pyramid annoyed a lot of Welsh football fans, as did his aggressive investment in the side.

Llansantffraid Village was set up in 2008 by volunteers of the original football club in Llansantffraid who wanted to preserve football in their village and currently play in the Mid Wales Football League East Division, three tiers below the Cymru Premier.

There have also been incidents throughout Harris’s tenure as TNS owner that have not endeared him to opposition fans. Last season when the league was abandoned and decided on a points-per-game system, he took the FAW to court as TNS finished second behind Connah’s Quay and he wanted the Cymru Premier to use the standings before the league’s split, four games before it was curtailed to decide the winner. He lost.

Harris was also investigated by the FAW for homophobia in August 2019 after he referred to Connah’s Quay as “Connah’s Queers” on his Twitter account. In all, it makes TNS a difficult club to warm to.

“For Mike Harris to take the league title last season to the courts was embarrassing,” says Rhys. “He defines what’s wrong with Welsh football. If it doesn’t go his way, he’ll throw his toys out of the pram. He’s threatened people with lawsuits before on Twitter over calling him out on homophobia.

“Caernarfon alongside Barry and Port Talbot have solid fanbases, Harris tried to use a megaphone once on his own to try and out-sing us. I think that sums him and TNS up. I remember when they won the league title at [Barry’s home stadium] Jenner Park and him and his cronies went on the pitch afterwards, that really pissed me off.”

Harris, who didn’t respond when asked to speak to The Set Pieces, has overseen a monopolisation of the Welsh top flight in the past decade. If it hadn’t been for that contested decision to award Connah’s Quay last year’s title, TNS would have been celebrating their ninth title in a row. Many of these have been a procession, including a 27-point margin in 2017.

A period of sustained success always makes the perennial winner an obvious target the opposition fans. But as the gap has widened, so has the connection with the people TNS would hope to be attracting in the turnstiles each week.

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Despite that, any suggestions that TNS might throw in the towel and try to climb the English pyramid aren’t necessarily welcomed. There’s a feeling that a Cymru Premier without TNS would suffer.

Of course, a club winning the league by 27 points isn’t healthy but neither is having a league where everyone is just mediocre. Everyone in the North American Soccer League hated the New York Cosmos because they had more money and won everything, but without a benchmark for clubs to aspire to, MLS hasn’t grown as quickly as hoped.

TNS are a challenge for sides to play in the Cymru Premier because they are one of the only full-time clubs in the league and using the theory of trickle-down economics, if TNS are successful then the rest of the league should benefit too.

That’s not a universally held opinion though, especially among the fans of clubs caught out by being lured into overspending in an attempt to compete with TNS.

“Aberystwyth have never been relegated from the top flight since the league started in 1992 and are bottom,” says Seasiders fan Callum Howen, who is also the founder of the This is Welsh Football website.

“It looks like we’re going to go down because we don’t have the money to compete with TNS. They definitely bring money and the exposure into a league that doesn’t have much, although it does make the title race a little bit boring with them winning it every season, which is why it was so nice to see Connah’s Quay win it last year.

“The league does get boring though and it doesn’t really give the smaller clubs with less resources a chance. It’s a shame really, as I believe the Cymru Premier has a lot of potential, but it also shows that money is everything in football nowadays.”

Popular or not, TNS’s dominance of Welsh football appears to be here to stay. And they’ll be hoping more success will eventually bring more fans and more money to Park Hall. After all, it is home to the world-record holders.

The New Saints: Is this Welsh football’s most unpopular club?
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