Why Do Some Welsh Teams Play in the English Premier League?

Welsh & English football

If you’ve ever tried to explain the differences between Great Britain and the United Kingdom or the relationships between England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to an American you’ll know just how confusing the geopolitics can be to people from outside this complicated little part of the world.

The British sporting landscape does not make things any easier to explain. How do you explain why Eoin Morgan or Simon Jones can play cricket for England? Why the differences between the nations on teams at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games? Why are there separate Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland football teams but just one Irish rugby union team?

Football can be similarly confusing. For example, why do some Welsh football teams play in the English system? Cardiff City and Swansea City have both made their way to the Premier League, the very top level of English football, and won silverware in both England and Wales. They aren’t the only Welsh teams to flourish in the English football ecosystem over the years though. But, how did this happen?

The History Behind It

FAW & FA logos
FAW & FA logos

Support for rugby union in Wales borders on religious. It is wrong to think that rugby is the only sport in the country though. Football has thrived in Wales for almost as long as it has over the border in England, with the Football Association of Wales (FAW) established in 1876, just three years after the FA in England.

In the early years the growth of football was very much contained in north Wales, specifically Wrexham. With much of south Wales dedicated to rugby and transport links between the north and south very poor, the early Welsh football clubs played in English leagues. They found it easier to find opponents and to travel if they went west into England rather than south and remain in Wales.

That tradition continued into the 20th century even as clubs began popping up in south Wales. Swansea City and Newport County were among the southern teams to join the Southern Leagues in 1909, while Wrexham had been playing in the Birmingham and District League for four years.

Welsh Teams Had Been Playing in English Competitions for Years

By 1992, the tradition of Welsh teams playing in English football competitions had been established across several generations. Indeed, Cardiff City made history as the first – and so far only – Welsh club to win the FA Cup when they beat Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley in 1927. Still, the Welsh FA invited all Welsh clubs playing in England to join the newly formed Welsh Premier League for the inaugural 1992-93 season.

While the vast majority of Welsh clubs took the chance to compete in the first league organised under the FAW, the three clubs playing in the English Football League – Cardiff City, Swansea City and Wrexham – decided to stay put. The FAW made no complaint about the decision those teams took and even allowed them to compete in the Welsh Cup for a few seasons.

More controversial was the battle between the FAW and eight Welsh clubs who were playing in the English non-League system. Bangor City, Barry Town, Caernarfon Town, Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport Country, Newton and Rhyl decided their futures would be best served by remaining in the English non-League system rather than the new Welsh set up.

Bangor City, Newton and Rhyl were persuaded to play in the Welsh system for the 1992-93 season but legal battles meant the remaining five were not allowed to play their home matches in Wales. Over time, all but Newport Count and Merthyr Tydfil (now Merthyr Town) returned to the fold in Wales.

Which Welsh Teams Have Played in the English Football League?

As we’ve seen, the history of Welsh teams playing in English football is a little complicated and messy – like much in life, geopolitics and sport. Clubs have come and gone over the years but there are five Welsh clubs who have played multiple seasons in the English Football League.

Cardiff City and Swansea City are the most well known and have both reached the Premier League. The histories (and potentially the futures) of all five of the clubs are worth investigating a little though, so here are their potted histories.

Cardiff City

Cardiff City
Jon Candy / Flickr.com

It took Cardiff City just two years after changing their name from Riverside AFC to play their football in the English system. The Bluebirds joined the Southern Football League in 1910 before joining the English Football League in 1920 where they have remained ever since.

As mentioned earlier, Cardiff’s 1927 FA Cup success was the first time that a Welsh team won a major domestic trophy in England. The 1920s were a great time for Cardiff who finished second in the First Division, reached the final of the FA Cup in 1925 and won the Welsh Cup six times from 1920 to 1930.

Things got much tougher for Cardiff in the 1930s though. They had to reapply for their place in the Football League after a series of relegations but did win the Third Division South upon the resumption of football after World War II. The 1960s saw Cardiff play European football for the first time, while they reached the quarter finals of the Cup Winners Cup in the 1970-71 season.

Cardiff have enjoyed a relatively successful period in more recent times. The Bluebirds have consistently played their football in either the Premier League or the Championship, as well as reaching the final of the 2008 FA Cup and winning the Championship title in 2017-18. Indeed, the Bluebirds have reached the FA Cup final as many times as Nottingham Forest and more times than teams, such as Crystal Palace, Watford, QPR, Stoke, Middlesbrough, Fulham, Hull and Brighton.

Swansea City

Swansea City
Jon Candy / Flickr.com

The rivalry between Swansea City and Cardiff City is among the most intense in English or Welsh football. The Swans were formed after Cardiff but joined the English Football League at the same time in 1920, when the club was known as Swansea Town.

Traditionally, Swansea have found life in the Football League more of a struggle than Cardiff. Their early success was winning the Third Division South title in 1924-25 and 1948-49 but they struggled to maintain their footing at a higher level. That changed in the late 1970s with a run of three promotions in four seasons taking the Swans into the First Division in 1981.

Swansea were excellent in their first season in the top flight. A host of injuries ultimately sapped the quality from John Toshack’s team and stopped them from challenging for the title. That was to prove the pinnacle of the club’s success for many years though as they promptly fell away from the top division and struggled in the lower leagues until their move to the Liberty Stadium in 2005.

Kenny Jackett, Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers all played their part in revitalising Swansea who became the first Welsh team to play in Premier League for in 2011 under the latter’s management. Further success came as the Swans earned a place in history as the first Welsh winners of the League Cup in 2013 thanks to a thumping 5-0 win over Bradford City. A place in the Europa League was their prize the following season and although they slipped into the Championship after the 2017-18 campaign, Swansea remain in a very good place by the standards of their own history.

Newport County

Newport County
Nigel Cooke / Flickr.com

Like their neighbours, Cardiff and Swansea, Newport County were invited by the Football League to become Third Division founder members in 1920. County took their place in the Third Division but found the level of football to be a real challenge. They could not build on their Third Division South title-winning season of 1938-39 due to World War II and were promptly relegated when football resumed.

Things got tougher for Newport County during the 1960s and 70s. Things got so bad that they changed their kit to match Argentina’s in the hope that would somehow help their fading fortunes. A first Welsh Cup victory in 1980 and a run in the Cup Winners’ Cup the following season were a boon to the club but things quickly took a turn for the worse and they went out of business in 1989.

A reformed Newport County found a league to play in but were unable to play at their home of Somerton Park. The club’s fans began calling themselves the Exiles as a result. After scraping about in the non-league system during the 1990s and early 2000s, Newport found some momentum. A move to their new home of Rodney Parade gave everybody at the club a shot in the arm which helped propel them back into the Football League thanks to a playoff final win under the management of Justin Edinburgh in 2013.


Michael Ripley / Flickr.com

In many ways Wrexham is the home of football in Wales. Wrexham AFC is the oldest football club in Wales and the city was the Welsh hotbed of football in the early years of the sport’s codification. Wrexham’s historic importance has not translated into great success but it did play a role in the decision of two Hollywood stars to buy the club in 2020.

Due to the transport issues and lack of support for football mentioned earlier, Wrexham found a home in the Birmingham & District League in the early 20th century before they too became founding members of the Third Division North. Wrexham remained in this division for nearly 40 years before the league structure was reorganised.

Despite having some very good players over the years (including Ian Rush, Barry Horne, Joe Allen and Ben Foster), Wrexham have always struggled to make it out of the lower reaches of the Football League. They have had more success in Wales though, where they are the most successful club in the history of the Welsh Cup with 23 wins.

Wrexham are able to call on the support of a dedicated fanbase even when results are uninspiring. The hope among those fans is that inspiration will be drawn from the ownership of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, who bought the club in November 2020 and set about providing funding for players and infrastructure. At the time of writing the Red Dragons are second in the National League under the intelligent management of former player Phil Parkinson, with hopes high that the club can start climbing up the football pyramid.

Merthyr Town

Merthyr Town
James Boyes / Flickr.com

As we’ve seen, the history of Welsh clubs playing in the English football structure has not always been easy. There is certainly a lot of difficulty in the history of Merthyr Town who held firm in their desire to play their football in England but have twice folded since making that decision.

Like the other four clubs, Merthyr joined the Football League in 1920. They remained in the league for 10 years before being relegated out of it and folding in 1934. A newly formed club called Merthyr Tydfil was formed and began playing matches in 1945.

While Merthyr Tydfil were a constant presence in English non-league football for over 50 years, they developed serious financial issues once again and were liquidated in 2010. Another reformation was required but the club continued to struggle and they have been unable to play any higher than the Southern League Premier Division South, the seventh tier.

English Clubs in Wales

Chester home ground
Chester’s home ground (Ingy the Wingy / Wikipedia.org)

The presence of Welsh clubs in the English football pyramid is something that British football fans have become used to. Less well known is the number of clubs based in England who play within the Welsh footballing structure.

In total there are three English clubs currently playing in the Welsh league – The New Saints, Newcastle AFC and Trefonen FC. Each of them is based in Shropshire, while the home ground of Llanymynech Football Club is in the English side of the village of Llanymynech, which straddles the border.

The New Saints are the most well-known of these clubs. Due to a merger with Oswestry Town – another English club who played their football in the Welsh leagues – The New Saints represent both the Welsh village of Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain and the English town of Oswestry.

They have done so with distinction. The New Saints are the most successful club in the history of Welsh football, winning the Cymru Premier a record 14 times as well as claiming eight Welsh Cups and nine Welsh League Cups. The New Saints have also represented Wales in Europe, although they’ve never made it out of the qualifying stages of the Champions League, Europa League or Conference League.

Technically, Chester are an English club who play their football in Wales. Although they are considered an English club and remain part of the English football pyramid, all of Chester’s stadium and pitch is located on the Welsh side of the border. This famously made the news during the early stages of 2022, when England and Wales had different pandemic-based restrictions that saw the club threatened with a fine. Just another anomaly and complication in the world of British historical relations!