A major first for the domestic women's game in Wales will take place on Sunday, 27 September, with the first live televised fixture in the history of the Orchard Welsh Premier Women's League.
The headline match of the opening weekend takes place at the Leckwith Stadium as Cardiff City take on champions Swansea City and S4C will show live coverage of the match with the programme starting at 3.50pm (Kick-off is at 4pm). It is a landmark moment for the WPWL as it enters its twelfth season, and the optimism surrounding the announcement offers a timely opportunity to reflect on what has already been achieved since 2009.
The league was very different back then, comprising of two regional divisions in the north and south, with a play-off final to determine the eventual champions. With a place in the UEFA Women's Champions League on offer to the league winners, there has always been a huge incentive for clubs to compete and challenge at the top of the domestic women's game in Wales.
Cardiff Met remain the most-successful team in the history of the league. The Archers first lifted the title under the name of UWIC back in 2011/12 when they defeated Wrexham 3-0 in the play-off final. A further five title successes followed, the most recent during the 2018/19 season when the side completed the treble and remained undefeated in all domestic competitions.
Current champions Swansea City have been the main challengers to Cardiff Met over the course of the last decade, and under the guidance of long-serving manager Ian Owen, the Swans claimed the inaugural title back in 2009/10 with a convincing 4-0 win over Caernarfon Town, and repeated the feat the following year with a 3-1 victory over the same opposition.
A third title for Swansea City arrived in 2016/17 as the side made a welcome return to the continent, but suffered three heavy defeats in Europe. It has been a similar story over the years, and while Cardiff Met, Cardiff City and Swansea City have claimed victories in the UWCL, no side has every made it out of their qualifying group.
But there has been steady progress, and last summer Cardiff Met achieved the best results of any Welsh team in the history of the competition. The side defeated Pomurje of host nation Slovenia 1-0 in the opening match, but suffered a narrow 2-1 reverse against Scottish outfit Hibernian. They ended the group with an impressive 5-1 win over FC Nike of Georgia, but it was not enough to qualify for the knock-out stages.
Previously, Swansea City claimed a 2-1 win over Baia Zugdidi of Georgia in 2010/11, and followed it up with a 4-0 win over Progrès Niederkorn of Luxembourg in 2011/12. Meanwhile, Cardiff City, league champions for the one and only time in 2012/13, defeated Konak Belediyespor of Turkey 1-0 in their final UWCL qualifying match that summer.
Cardiff Met have won four and drawn one match in the UWCL since their first 2-1 victory over Atlético Ouriense of Portugal in 2014/15, and attracted the attention of the continent in 2016/17 when they hosted their qualifying group at their Cyncoed Campus. The UWCL final would be held in Cardiff that season, and the trophy was on show as the side claimed a comfortable 4-0 win over NSA Sofia of Bulgaria in the opening game.
But there has been a lot more to the Orchard Welsh Premier Women's League than European football over the course of the last decade, and it has provided a pathway for hundreds of young girls to develop through the junior ranks and represent their club in the national league. There have always been significant challenges, but the dedication and commitment of the players, coaches, volunteers and supporters has driven the league forward through some testing times.
Extensive travel has made it difficult for some clubs to compete in the league since it became one national division in 2012/13, and the recent geographical imbalance between north and south has become a key concern. But there is a brighter future for women's game in Wales, and a stronger and more professional domestic structure will help take the game to the next level, providing a new platform for progress just as the initial formation of the league did back in 2009.
While the 2020/21 season will start behind closed doors, the support of S4C will allow the WPWL to reach a whole new audience this weekend. These are difficult times for clubs up and down the country, but the return of the domestic top-flight offers a hope for a brighter future, and for the WPWL to continue to move from strength to strength over the course of the next decade.
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