More than eight months since the final whistle was blown prematurely on the inaugural Cymru North season, the second tier of Welsh domestic football is finally poised to resume.
Sixteen North Walian clubs – including Holyhead Hotspur, Llangefni Town and Bangor City – have been left waiting for a return to league action since March.
But now, it’s been confirmed they can go ahead with the 2020-21 campaign. A start date – and a potential new format – is due to be decided by the FAW when league officials meet next week.
The 2019-20 season was curtailed by the COVID pandemic – and it wasn’t until May when it was officially declared over with Prestatyn Town crowned as champions.
Porthmadog were relegated to the revamped third tier, the Ardal League, while Holyhead were promoted as champions of the now-defunct Lock Stock Welsh Alliance.
Since then, the FAW has been working with the Welsh Government and Sport Wales on a return to play plan for domestic leagues.
The main sticking point has been the issue of ‘elite status’ – which allowed Cymru Premier clubs such as Caernarfon and Bala to start their seasons, more or less as planned, in September.
The 32 clubs which make up the Cymru North and Cymru South leagues have faced stringent inspections to make sure their grounds comply with social distancing measures.
When the season gets underway, all players, technical staff, club officials, match officials and administrators will have to undergo daily medical assessments and temperature tests.
As things stand, matches are set to be played behind closed doors, but the FAW is lobbying ministers in Cardiff Bay to bring crowds back – particularly in the wake of a partial return for fans in some areas of England.
Crucially, in response to the ongoing ban, all 44 clubs in the Cymru Leagues setup will share a £750,000 Lottery grant, agreed last week with help from the UK Government.
Over £1.1 million was announced last month by FIFA to offset Welsh club costs in the top tiers of men’s and women’s football – although FAW chief executive Jonathan Ford admits even these grants won’t be enough for the domestic leagues.
But while the Cymru North can finally look ahead to a competitive future, the waiting game goes on for clubs in Tier 3 and below.
Anger has grown in the past few months – and it’s only more recently that clubs at all levels, including grassroots, have been allowed to play local friendly matches.
The FAW said it was fully aware of that frustration for leagues still being held back from restarting, but they stressed ”it is important to recognise that the Association is not responsible for the national COVID-19 policies and guidelines.”
At best, the Ardal Leagues – which replaces the Welsh Alliance in the North West – can expect a decision on a restart in January.
All of its teams, including Porthmadog, Nantlle Vale and Y Felinheli, are eligible to be granted elite status by Sport Wales. But before they can be considered, a review will be carried out on how the Cymru North can proceed with its return.
Talks are still ongoing between the Welsh Government and the FAW about finding ”a way forward” for clubs in Tier 4 of the men’s pyramid, the second tier of women’s football and below.