TNS owner Mike Harris hypes up quality of Welsh top flight
Mike Harris, owner of The New Saints, believes football fans in Wales are missing out on the raw talent gracing the domestic game.
The businessman feels supporters of the game must 'wake up' to the standard of the Cymru Premier, where players who cross the border to excel in the English Football League hone their talent.
Saints have, in recent years, led the way in footballers making the grade. Defender Connell Rawlinson has impressed at Port Vale and Notts County. Shrewsbury-born hotshot Scott Quigley was top scorer with National League leaders Barrow this season.
TNS know all too well of the ever-developing quality of top flight football in Wales. Serial winners for most of Harris' 23-year ownership, their eight-year stranglehold on the top flight title slipped in the coronavirus-hit 2019/20 season, with up-and-coming Connah's Quay Nomads landing a first-ever crown, albeit by virtue of points per game after the season was cancelled.
Some of the Saints' previous title successes were at a canter, but they have been steadily pushed further by the chasing pack.
Harris has overseen several uber-successful sides. Every one of his managers has won a league title. First at the Recreation Ground in Llansantffraid – the border village where the club was born just over 60 years ago – and then since the important move to the multi-purpose Park Hall venue in Oswestry.
He is better placed than most to comment on the 'exceptional' quality possessed by the Welsh outfits, quality that is only watched by, on average, 296 fans each game.
"Strikers are noted by their money. If you're fit and put the ball in the back of the net then most clubs between the Premier League and League Two will have got their wallet out for a couple of grand a week," Harris said while assessing the league's top hitmen to North Wales football podcast 'It's Still Nil Nil'.
"Look at Scott Quigley, an evolving player at our club and is the top goalscorer in the National League.
"That's what I think the public in Wales needs to wake up to. Not just in our club but in many other teams, they are right there and I do feel sorry for them.
"They don't quite get the same recognition because of the country they're playing in, they're always encouraged to get in the lower league English football, and when they go there they make their mark.
"I think the public in Wales are missing out on an exceptionally good product. The players who have gone from our club to do well, Connell Rawlinson has done extremely well."
It is not just in top talent that TNS have led the way. The academy launched with North Shropshire College in 2000 was ahead of its time and is still improving. The now-common 3G pitches were not commonplace in 2007, when Saints moved to Oswestry.
Former midfielder Christopher Sergeant became academy director last year. That kind of pathway is plentiful at Park Hall. Fellow ex-midfield stalwart Scott Ruscoe was head of youth and assistant boss to Craig Harrison before taking on first-team managerial duties in 2017.
"As a football club we've always tended to be very loyal and retain them as long as we can, and when they go past their playing careers we look to find them alternative work in our football family," added Harris. "You can see that progression within our management and academy. It goes beyond what they do on the pitch that year.
"From our academy we've produced good players for ourselves or who have moved on elsewhere. We now have full-time coaches, that enhanced it last year."
Harris, who has confirmed he is seeking legal advice on the FA Wales' method used to award Connah's Quay the title, has transformed the club's turnover from around £40,000 to almost £2million in two decades, thanks not just to European competition, but sponsorship and other revenue streams.
His dream is to make the club respected and feared in European competition. Winning the domestic title brings Champions League football where, last season, Ruscoe's men went up against Danish giants FC Copenhagen whose budget, according to Harris, is more than 40-times the Saints'. TNS will make do with Europa League qualifying action next season.
"If you want to compete in Europe you've got to first make sure you can gain entry and there's no God-given right to get there in any league. There's always new challenges and challengers," Harris added.
"It's moving all the time, players are evolving all the time, it's a very careful balance between loyalty and moving on."
That balance will be an important one for Ruscoe this summer. Many long-serving squad members are out of contract. Star midfielder Aeron Edwards, 32, left for rivals and champions the Nomads after 11 years a TNS star. But Harris says the manager has an exciting refresh planned.
"The club's always looking to improve," he added. "There are obviously going to be some changes, Scott's got a very exciting list of targets who will come in, freshen it up and bring the average age down a little bit."