Thursday, July 13, 2006

The New Saints

Last night, TNS achieved their best-ever away result in Europe as they were beaten 1-0 by MyPa-47 in Finland .The Saints were unable to steal a crucial away goal
but the tie is still very much alive for next Wednesday's second leg at
Newtown's Latham Park.

The New Saints. T.N.S. ...The... New... Saints. Geddit ?

Now I've got a lot of time for Mike Harris, the TNS Puppeteer. He has long been a lone progressive voice amongst the conservative Chairmen of the other Welsh Premier clubs. He tried to take them with him into a World of promotions, marketing, development, and profile-raising. It didn't work, so he has ploughed his own furrow.

There have been twin-club arrangements with Chelsea, contract offers to Paul Gascoine, Ian Rush and probably Maradona. When Liverpool won the Champions League but did not qualify for Europe, Mike Harris kindly offered them a play-off to take the Welsh place. TNS' European game against Man City was played at the Millennium Stadium, miles away from the club's home at Llansantffraid. TNS turned professional and now loom large over the Welsh Premier League.

In 1996, Llansantffraid shocked Welsh football with a stunning Welsh Cup win over Barry Town at the National Stadium. Not bad for a village side with a population of 246, including 3 cats and a parrot.

Mike Harris noted the publicity generated and in 1997 he offered a sponsorship deal which involved renaming the club as "Total Network Solutions", the name of his Oswestry-based company. There is a long history of naming football clubs after companies, such as PSV Eindhoven, and Airbus UK.

There was a campaign to get Welsh Premier results announced on British Television. When Jeff Stelling first cracked his joke about "dancing in the streets of TNS", Harris knew that his sponsorship gamble had paid off.

As his company grew, they attracted the interest of bigger players, and last year, they were bought out by BT, necessitating a name change. By now, TNS had merged with Oswestry (more of that later...) so Harris decided to auction the club's name, on Ebay of course. More fantastic publicity followed, though a winning bid seemingly arrived too late, as the auction ended amongst accusations of false bids and dodgy deals.

With no winner, they decided on The New Saints. I can hardly type it, it upsets me so much. I couldn't put my figure on it, but I think it's the "T" that does it. You can't capitalise "The". Is the British Broadcasting Corporation known as "TBBC" ?

Nonetheless, The New Saints are here for now, and they are flying the flag for Welsh football.
Except that they aren't...

I spoke to Mike Harris a few years ago and asked him about his pride in representing Wales abroad. "We don't represent Wales", he told me , "We represent Britain."

OK, Fair Enough. It's your ball. But then came the "merger" (read takeover) of Oswestry Town, an English club playing in the Welsh pyramid for historical reasons.

What are Harris's real intentions ? As a proud Britisher, could it be that he sees a backdoor into the English pyramid via Oswestry ? If so, why do it this way ? Why not buy Market Drayton Town and move up from the West Midlands Regional League Premier Division.

It doesn't make sense. Mike Harris has obviously enjoyed his time with TNS. It has served its purpose as a marketing tool, but he is still there, which contradicts those who accused him of being an opportunist with little interest in the game.

It remains to be seen what becomes of The New Saints, but I hope they do well. Where will they be in ten years ? Who knows, but I expect to see the re-formation of Oswestry and Llansantffraid under their original guises at some point.

Will the New Saints grow too big for Welsh football? I hope not. I hope that the rest of Welsh football can cath up, but it looks unlikely.

If we do lose Mike Harris to the English set up, then we have ourselves to blame. Here is a man with drive, commitment and imagination who could bring an upturn to the whole Welsh Premier. Give him the keys, I say, and let him drive.

No comments: