Jones the meat seeks carve-up

FA CUP COUNTDOWN: Phil Shaw talks to the Welsh butcher hoping to cook Blackpool's goose
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The Independent Online
What with mad cow disease and superstore meat counters, these are lean times for a small-town butcher like Bryn Jones. Nor does the gravy train stop too often at Colwyn Bay, the little North Wales club he manages, though all that could change if they reach the third round of the FA Cup.

Jones's loyal customers - who include Kevin Ratcliffe's wife and Gary Speed's father, no less - ask whether the UniBond League part-timers can bring home the bacon from Blackpool on Saturday. Some 81 places separate the sides, not to mention a vast disparity in tradition, potential and resources, but Colwyn Bay have revealed a resilient streak on and off the pitch in recent years that should serve them well.

During 14 seasons as manager, Jones - who spent three years with Everton during the heyday of Ball, Harvey and Kendall - has led them from the Welsh League (North) to the Premier Division of what is known in its unsponsored state as the Northern Premier League. With four promotions, Colwyn Bay have gone from glorified park football at Bethesda and Blaenau Ffestiniog to highly competitive fixtures before four-figure gatherings at Barrow and Boston.

For that reason, Jones and his board of directors refused to be press- ganged into a new League of Wales when the Football Association of Wales announced that membership would be compulsory four years ago. One of eight dissenting clubs at the time, Colwyn Bay were told that unless they joined they would not be allowed to play in the Principality. Rather than bow to such pressure, they decamped to England for two years, first at Northwich then at Ellesmere Port, and began legal action.

Victory at the High Court in London brought Colwyn Bay home last season, but the battle is far from over. Only one other club, Newport AFC, have not given up the fight, and Fifa, the game's global governing body, is now insisting that both sign up to the Welsh system by 1997. Despite being awarded costs, they have yet to receive a penny, and Jones points out that their struggle has diverted funds from team-building and ground development.

"We'd arguably have made more money and run the club easier in the new league," Jones said. "But the standard of football is poor and the competition isn't established. Who's to say it'll last? We'd have been going into the unknown from a level we took a long time to reach. The players didn't want to know, either - they wanted to extend themselves."

One of the supposed incentives for toeing the line, that of being able to follow Inter Cardiff, Afan Lido and Bangor City into Europe, is treated with a contempt most in his profession reserve for vegetarians. "Let's face it, you get two games against some Latvian team at best. I reckon we're better off as we are. We'd rather play in the FA Cup, and this way we also get a good game every week."

There were moments during their exile, however, when he wondered whether Colwyn Bay were paying too high a price for their principles. "We thought we might pick up some local support at Northwich, but we didn't. It's a big ground, without much atmosphere anyway. With hardly anyone there and us having a bad season, it was a real struggle."

Before the upheaval, support averaged 700. At Ellesmere Port they had one "crowd" of 92. Now that they are back at Llanelian Road, gates are back up to around the 400 mark, the majority of whom, according to Jones, are aged over 60. "It's a nice resort to retire to," he explained, "though we've a hard core of young fans too."

These levels of Bay-watching seem unremarkable until you consider the spartan facilities (apart from the kiosk stocked with the manager's steak pies). "We've got the worst ground in our league, without a doubt," he admitted. "There's hardly a seat worth the name and if we drew on Saturday, the replay would have to be at Chester or Wrexham. But we were really going forward until the Welsh FA pulled the rug from under us."

Without money to spend on players, Jones has to work hard on tactics and organisation with a small squad recruited mainly from the coastal community. Continuity is the key. "A lot of places in non-League football tend to be teams rather than clubs, with the personnel changing from year to year," he said. "We've tried to build things up steadily, just adding the odd player as we go along.

"To be honest, we're not good enough to go higher at the moment. But in five years' time, if we're left alone, we might be."

Higher, in Colwyn Bay's case, means the Vauxhall Conference. Their five victims on the run that takes them to Bloomfield Road include one Conference club, Stalybridge, as well as Hyde, who had crushed them 8-0 in the Cup a year earlier. They have survived being drawn away in every round, although a sorry precedent nags at Jones's mind as he wields his cleaver.

"In my opinion, Marine are the best-run club in our league, and they're above us in the table. Yet in the first round they lost 11-2 to Shrewsbury, who are well below Blackpool in the Second Division. So obviously we mustn't let them get an early goal."

Though he took a butcher's at Blackpool recently and was unimpressed, Jones the meat will not be tempted into claiming that his hotch-potch of car workers, architects, painters, bricklayers and unemployed will make mincemeat of them. Besides, Colwyn Bay's real beef is with the FA of Wales.