Why Do Some Welsh Teams Play In English Competitions?

Wrexham are a big story right now, but fans of Welsh football divisions might not be all that bothered – you won’t see them visiting TNS or Connah’s Quay Nomads anytime soon.

That’s because the Red Dragons are one of five clubs based in Wales that play in England. Swansea and Cardiff City are members of the English Football League, and have played top-flight football. Newport and Wrexham are in the EFL, but are strictly lower league fodder (for now) whilst Merthyr Town play in the Southern Premier League

This raises the question of how their involvement in English football came about – it is in sharp contrast to Scottish and Northern Irish clubs, which have their own separate leagues. Gretna were part of the English non-league scene once upon a time, and Berwick Rangers play in Scotland despite being (just) in England, but those are purely geographical anomalies. Similarly, Derry City of Northern Ireland play in the League of Ireland, again for reasons that are geographical and political. However, Wales is unique in that its teams participate in a league that crosses borders.

Fundamentally, Swansea, Cardiff City, Newport County, Wrexham, and Merthyr Town had no choice but to join the English Football League since there was no Welsh football league when they were founded. The Bluebirds joined in 1920, and The Swans followed suit in 1921. Wrexham played in the Welsh senior league for two seasons in the 1890s, but opted to join England’s combination for increased competition. Both Newport and Merthyr started in England and despite the establishment of the Welsh Premier League in 1992 (also known as Cymru Premier) these clubs opted to remain within the EFL system.

The split gets even more confusing when you consider that Cardiff City, Swansea, and Newport are all jurisdictions of the English FA, not the Football Association of Wales. However, Wrexham and Merthyr Town remain under the authority of the FAW. Confused? You should be.

In 2008, a further rule change was needed around qualification for Europe. Cardiff City is the only non-English team to have won the FA Cup, achieving this feat in 1927, but their appearance in the 2008 final prompted the English FA to permit Welsh clubs to represent England in UEFA competitions, such as the UEFA Cup. The rule change wasn’t needed, as they ultimately lost to Portsmouth in the final. Five years later, Swansea’s triumph in the League Cup made them the first Welsh team to qualify for a European competition through the English FA route.

Alongside the big two, Wrexham, Newport and even Merthyr have played in Europe and represented Wales by virtue of winning the Welsh Cup. Wrexham, who had to apply for reelection to the Football League in 1984, beat Porto in the Cup Winner’s Cup the following season (4-4 on away goals, days after losing 4-3 to Stockport County). Newport County made the quarter-finals of the same competition in 1981, and even Merthyr had their moment in the sun, beating Atalanta in 1987. Curiously, they became the only English club to compete in Europe at the end of the eighties, as the ban on English teams did not extend to Wales, even if the clubs did play in England.

Sadly, Welsh teams playing in England were finally excluded from the Welsh Cup in 1995, Wrexham were the last of the five to qualify for Europe via this route, going down 1-0 to Petrolul Ploiesti in the 95/96 competition.

A word also on Colwyn Bay – they have flitted between the two divisions, and at one point were forced to play in England at Northwich by the FAW. In 1995, they took out a court injunction to allow them to play in English football but go back to their hometown in Wales. However, after leaving the Welsh pyramid in 1984, they returned in 2019, and in 2023, earned promotion to the Welsh top flight.


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