Although a topic of debate amongst those with an interest in the domestic league, the majority will agree that the Welsh Premier League has made significant progress on and off the field since the inaugural campaign in 1992, and the argument is now only to consider exactly how much progress has actually been made. However, while grounds and playing surfaces have improved beyond recognition, many question if the memorable sides of Bangor City, Barry Town, Rhyl and The New Saints in their respective dominant era’s have yet been matched, but concede that the overall standard has improved enough to make the league more competitive than ever before. Comparisons between past and present are inevitable and yet unprovable across the football world, but the exploits of one particular goalscoring legend this weekend are certainly comparable to those of another key Welsh Premier League figure of the past.
Rhys Coleman Griffiths made his Football League debut on Saturday when he took to the field for League Two Plymouth Argyle as a half-time substitute. An eventful debut lasted just 22-minutes before a recurrence of the injury that delayed his first appearance saw Griffiths return to the bench for treatment, but the former Port Talbot Town and Llanelli striker made enough of an impact with his first Football League goal and a performance that earned high-praise from the regulars at Home Park, despite his replacement scoring the eventual winner in a 3-2 victory over Northampton Town. At the age of 32 and with an incredible haul of 237 Welsh Premier League goals, seven Golden Boot awards and a European hat-trick to his name, Griffiths’ debut strike for the Pilgrims will however prove to be one of his career highlights, and offered an instant response to those who questioned if he had missed his chance to make it in the professional game.
If Griffiths can prove to be a success in the Football League then it can only highlight the improving standard of the national league, but his early achievement is not unique. In 1999, Torquay United made headlines when they agreed a then club-record transfer fee of £70,000 to sign Eifion Williams from Barry Town. Like Griffiths, Williams was a prolific goalscorer for both Barry and Caernarfon Town, and had also impressed in European competition as well as on the domestic stage with a goal in the Champions League against Dinamo Kiev. Just like the ancestry of their distinctive Welsh names, Williams’ form and status in the league was also remarkably similar to that of Griffiths’, and the duo remain two of the most prolific strikers to have ever played in the Welsh Premier. However, the clear difference between the two and their eventual progression was the age in which they made the step-up.
Eifion Williams completed his move to Torquay United after four years in the then-named League of Wales and confessed at the time, “For me, this season was probably my last chance. I’m 24 this year and I’m lucky to have the opportunity to show what I can do”. By the time Williams had turned 32, he retired from the professional game through injury having moved on from Torquay to enjoy a successful period with Hartlepool United before returning to Wales with Wrexham. Williams last registered with little-known Jarrow Roofing of the Northern League Division One, but the age on which he exited the Football League was the same age that Coleman-Griffiths progressed into it. Coleman had failed to make the same impact in the domestic league as the teenage Williams had, but what they achieved upon their Football League arrival was just as effective.
Rhys Coleman Grifffiths scored on his Football League debut for Plymouth Argyle
Rhys Coleman – Griffiths’ debut may have been restricted by injury and his initial selection as substitute, but on a goal-per-minute ratio, his debut is up there with Eifion Williams’ Football League arrival. Williams played the opening 75 minutes of his Torquay United debut in March 1999 as his side took on his future club Hartlepool United, and he repaid the investment made by his new club with an incredible hat-trick to make headlines across the Football League. Welsh legend Neville Southall was in goal for Torquay at Plainmoor that afternoon and was first in with the inevitable plaudits. “He’s desperate to prove himself in the Football League but he doesn’t have to worry about anyone else,” said Southall following the memorable victory. “He only has to prove it to himself. If you look at his career record, he’s always scored goals. I don’t think that’s going to stop. He may have a period when he misses one or two chances, but I think he’s already proven he will score in this league.”
High-praise form a man that has played alongside many great strikers for club and country such as Mark Hughes, Ian Rush, Dean Saunders and Graeme Sharp amongst others. The comments for Williams back in March 1999 were echoed for Coleman
Coleman – Griffiths from another former Wales international last weekend however, as Plymouth Argyle manager Carl Fletcher added to his pre-season quotes about his new striker having watched his memorable debut. “I’m delighted for him,” said Fletcher. “He has given up a good lifestyle to come here. Then he got his injury and he was bitterly disappointed with that. He just wants to go out there and show everyone what he can do. He’s a good player and he scores goals. Sometimes, players have the knack that the ball falls to them all the time. He seems to be one of them, which is great for us. It also helps he’s 6ft 2in and takes no prisoners. (His confidence) is a sign of someone who has been scoring regularly over the years. It doesn’t matter what division it is. He showed the desire to get in the box once he had made the pass. For your hard work, you get that little chance and he put it away lovely.”
Like Williams, Griffiths also limped out of his successful debut, but while he may not have claimed the matchball, he certainly made an impact. The unfamiliar demands of full-time football could yet prove to be Griffiths’ biggest challenge having made the career-late decision to try his hand in the Football League, but his determination and proven quality in-front of goal should more carry him through his first season in League Two. Over the last two decades a number of players have progressed from the Welsh Premier to the Football League and there have been many notable success stories, from Mark Delaney’s rise from Carmarthen Town to Cardiff City, Aston Villa and Wales to Lee Trundle’s emergence at Rhyl before his subsequent success at Wrexham and Swansea City made him a £1m striker with a move to Bristol City. But for all the successes, there remains a stigma that seems to prevent Football League clubs taking a chance on what the Welsh Premier League can produce, and that opinion is not a new one.
“People were probably afraid to gamble because I was playing in the League of Wales,” said Williams having completed his move to Torquay in March 1999. “But the League of Wales is a good standard. Several players have moved into the Football League from there and done well. It shows there are good players in the league, and, hopefully, more teams will come along and take them out.” However, the same comments are still being made by supporters of the league today, and the perception of the league from the public and press at large remains disappointingly negative. Only consistent success stories such as Williams, Griffiths, Delaney, Trundle and others can alter such views, but there is a growing shift in opinion as clubs in the professional game look for bargain buys in currently tough financial times. Griffiths’ debut goal for Plymouth may have been one of personal pride, but it was welcomed by every supporter of the Welsh Premier League, and surely brought back some special memories for Eifion Williams as well.