The National Arena Swimming League History

The First 50 Years
​by Roger Guttridge

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Like any great oak tree, Britain’s biggest and most popular swimming league began as a relatively modest acorn.

In 1964, Ilford Swimming Club floated the idea of launching something a little more ambitious than the Essex ‘local league’, which had been formed with five clubs 12 years earlier. The new plan was to create a league that drew teams from a much wider area than Essex. The Southern Counties ASA executive declined to organise such a venture, as they were already ‘overloaded with work’, but encouraged the clubs to go ahead on their own.

Action from the 2008 Cup Final at Ponds Forge, Sheffield. Photo: SWpix.com

The ball fell back into the Ilford SC court and the club considered a league format with four, five or even six rounds. The thinking was that the more rounds there were, the more accurate the final league table would be. However, a three-round format was chosen in order to ensure that the interest and enthusiasm of those taking part was maintained from start to finish. ‘Short and snappy was the key, and in due course that was shown to be right and workable,’ recalled the late Paul Matthissen , the man charged with developing a scheme that would produce a satisfactory final table after only three rounds of galas. ‘Another objective – to have a good mix of clubs as the rounds progressed – appeared to be achievable, even more so when a division consisted of 24 clubs rather than 15 or 20.


National Swimming League founding secretary Paul Matthissen with the ASA Certificate, presented following his retirement in recognition of his ‘lifetime of service’ to swimming

Many of the rules of today’s six leagues have their origins in discussions at that time. The relationship between gala points and league points was among the issues considered. Today, all but one of the six leagues use league points to decide placings, falling back on gala points to decide between teams that are level on league points. The exception is the North West League, where league points have never been used and results are decided on gala points round by round.

‘Both gala points and league points were obviously important but in the first place gala points were favoured, so that during a gala every swimmer could see the points he or she was contributing to the team,’ said Paul. ‘With the knowledge that every extra gala point was important in progressing the club into the next round, team spirit was encouraged. From the outset it was also realised that bonus points in the league table were essential. Although the final league table gives fairly accurately the correct order, the total table points gained might not reflect the comparable strength of some clubs, especially at the sixth and seventh positions, where sixth might finish with 28 points, seventh on 21 points and eighth on 19 points.


Among the other options debated was whether to have a random draw or a seeded draw for the first round. In those days most people favoured random but since then most area leagues have switched to seeded. Promotion and relegation were also envisaged from the start.

A small army of officials is needed to run a National Swimming League gala. Photo: SWpix.com


Another issue to consider was boundary limitation. Should local leagues be restricted to a specific area or would they be able to accept clubs from anywhere? The answer was an emphatic ‘no’ to any limit on boundaries. ‘It was felt that this would encourage integration, enable clubs to compete against teams from further afield and help to produce one large happy family of leagues,’ said Paul. Fifty years later, there is still no geographical restriction on clubs joining a particular league and there are many examples, past and present, of teams making the most of this. City of Norwich and Brighton-based Shiverers have both competed in the London League, for example, and Team Ipswich and Colchester still do.

For many years there was nothing to prevent clubs competing in more than one league, and many did. This was easier when different leagues ran their galas at different times of the year – either October, November and December or January, February and March – or on different weekends in those quarters. Fixed dates in October, November and December for all leagues were introduced in 1995 to fall in line with GB and ASA calendar planning. It now became impossible for a club to enter the same team in more than one league although in theory it could – and still can – enter A and B teams in different leagues. The change was said at the time to have ‘disappointed a considerable minority of clubs’ that could no longer choose between October to December and January to March league seasons or indeed to compete in both.

From the outset it was decided that the league competition would be aimed at the ‘average club’. This in turn was behind the basic format of today’s 50-event programme, which allows swimmers to compete in multiple events. The opportunity for swimmers to ‘swim up’ in older age groups is designed to help smaller or weaker clubs who may have a shortage of senior athletes. The limit of two events in a swimmer’s own age group (now three in the open age group, which includes the individual medley) is designed to prevent a scenario in which an outstanding boy or girl dominates that age group. A shorter distance for events in the youngest age group (9-11 years) was added to help weaker clubs. In the early years that also applied to the 13 and under age group but that was changed in the 1980s.

A sample programme from the early days, when there were only 44 events compared to the present 50

A surviving programme from the early days indicates that there were only 44 events then compared to the present 50. Events added since are the gala-opening women’s and men’s individual medleys and girls’ and boys’ medley relays for the two youngest age groups. That early programme also reminds us that many pools were 33.3 metres or 100 yards long in those days. Open and under 16 races were swum over three lengths, under 14 races over two lengths and under 12 events as one length. Relays were four times one length for the under 12s and four by two lengths for the rest.

Mergers, squad systems and the advent of swimming scholarships make it difficult to define the ‘average club’ today but the local leagues continue to attract a wide range of members. ‘There is no such thing as an average club now but your little club can still participate by competing in a lower division,’ says the present NASL secretary Ian Mackenzie.


​The appointment of a ‘host club’ to organise and promote each gala is another tradition that has survived since the early days. The original thought was that host clubs would help to engender ‘friendly rivalry’ and bring about ‘maximum co-operation and efficiency’. Taking the hosting responsibilities to someone else’s pool may be considered normal now but was an innovation in 1970.


In 1989, discussions were opened with the aim of rationalising the ASA domestic calendar and avoiding clashes of major events, including the Speedo Swimming Leagues, as they were now known. At that stage no major changes were considered necessary but in 1993 ASA Director of Swimming Paul Bush and Wales ASA’s Bryn Williams and Dave Haller presented the league secretaries with ‘more drastic proposals’. These included the standardisation of dates for all the leagues to compete on the same three weekends in October, November and December. This was eventually adopted in 1995. What the secretaries did not agree to was a proposal to remove the open age group altogether to enable swimmers aged 16 and 17 to concentrate on the Grand Prix Circuit, ASA Club Team Championships and national championships. The open age group continues to this day.

Eighth place pennant for the London League’s Division Two in 2016
A pennant from the National Swimming League’s early days

The London League

Swimmers use a raft and wreath to celebrate the London League’s 21st anniversary final at Crystal Palace in September 1985. The ‘WSC’ on the hats suggests that the swimmers are from Walthamstow SC, who hosted many galas

A nationwide league set-up that now boasts about 300 teams across most of England and Wales began with 15 clubs in the Greater London area. In September 1964, they responded to a circular inviting them to take part in an ‘experimental league-type competition’. Three neutral pools were chosen and three galas swum in each at three-weekly intervals in January, February and March 1965. Today’s treasurers, who find themselves writing three- and four-figure cheques for pool hire, will be interested to learn the cost of hiring a London pool for three hours on a Saturday evening in the 1960s: 3 guineas (£3.15)


Watford were the first champions of the inaugural league, sometimes referred to as the ‘parent league’. The final league table read:

  1. Watford, 
  2. Tottenham,
  3. Heston,
  4. Cheam Ladies/Sutton & Cheam,
  5. Hornchurch,
  6. Southwark,
  7. Ilford,
  8. Tunbridge Wells,
  9. Woolwich,
  10. Fulham/Penguins,
  11. Edmonton,
  12. Southall,
  13. Seven Kings,
  14. Chelsea,
  15. Cathall.
London League stalwarts Hatfield celebrate their Cup Final victory at Sheffield in 2006. Photo: SWpix.com

As word of the League’s success spread, more and more clubs applied to join and the competition grew rapidly and spread its wings geographically. Twenty clubs contested the second season in 1966, and in 1967 there were 30 competing in two divisions of 15 teams. Several other cities were now represented by teams that included City of Southampton, Reading, Bristol Central, Granta Cambridge and, from Birmingham, Camp Hill Edwardians. By 1969, the league had grown to 48 teams with six clubs promoted and six relegated – although that number was later cut to four. Southampton were the champions from 1966 to 1970. In 1971 they tied with Woolwich for first place before winning the title outright again every year from 1972 to 1977. Southampton also won the first five National Cup Finals.

As other leagues were launched around the country, the parent league – officially known in the early years as ‘The Swimming League’ or TSL – returned to its Greater London origins, although even today the London League’s membership includes clubs from Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. In 2018, The London League had 53 teams competing in three divisions

The South League

Guildford City beat Plymouth Leander to the national title by one point in the 2016 Cup Final. Photo: SWpix.com

As interest in the parent league continued to grow, officials had to decide whether to start a third division or to launch a completely new ‘sister league’ to cater for clubs in other parts of what was then the Southern Counties ASA district. They settled on the latter, not least because some of the interested clubs could not afford transport costs to the Greater London area. In 1969, 11 clubs took part in the TSL South’s first season. They included Portsmouth Northsea and Guildford City, both of whom would go on, many years later, to join the select list of just 14 clubs who have became National Swimming League champions. The other nine TSL South founders were Barracuda, Eastleigh, Lambeth, Crawley, Addington, Bromley Town, Bognor Regis, Amphibians/Croydon Ladies and Aldershot.​


By 1971, the Southern League had 20 clubs – including some who had migrated from the parent league – with two more on the waiting list. In 1972 this rose to 24 with seven waiting, and it was then decided to create Divisions One and Two with 18 and 12 teams respectively. By 1977, the League had grown to 48 teams in two divisions but there was still no sign of the expansion slowing. By the 1990s, the League had more than 90 teams in three divisions. For some years those teams included the Isle of Wight SC and clubs from the Channel Islands, whose swimmers were provided with bed and breakfast by mainland clubs for each of the three rounds.

The Arena League South remains the biggest of the six current leagues with 82 teams competing in five divisions, including two ‘western’ and two ‘eastern’ divisions. In 2018 and 2019 it also supplied six teams to the national finals – a record number for any league. They included founder members Guildford City and Bromley Town

The East Midlands League

The late 1960s also saw the beginnings of the present-day East Midlands League, although it originally had a very different name and a different set of rules to the parent league. It was launched in 1966 by Derek Spratt, coach of Luton & Vauxhall SC and a former member of Ilford SC. It was aimed at clubs based fairly close to the M1 and Derek called it the Motorway League. Its first season was in the early months of 1967 and Warley were the first champions. The finishing order for that first year was:

  1. Warley,
  2. Camp Hill Edwardians,
  3. Nottingham,
  4. Luton & Vauxhall,
  5. Stevenage,
  6. Granta Cambridge,
  7. Harlow,
  8. Leicester Penguins,
  9. Norwich Swan,
  10. Oxford City,
  11. Northampton Britannic,
  12. Ipswich
A local newspaper report on Norwich Penguins’ 1985 success. Their team included Olympians Paul Easter and Helen Slatter and the Cup Final marked Olympic medallist Martyn Woodroffe’s last day as Head Coach before moving to Warrington​
Norwich Penguins celebrate their first and only Cup Final win in 1985

Membership of the Motorway League peaked at 36 teams but dropped back to 18 in 1971. With Coventry SC’s Jim Clamp succeeding Derek to become the long-serving secretary, changes to the rules were agreed in order to bring the Motorway League in line with the parent league or ‘Swimming League’. The changes had the required effect and by 1973 the League had two divisions and a new name: The Swimming League – East Midlands. The name change reflected the desire to create a ‘complete national relationship’ between the various ‘sister’ leagues that were now appearing. By the early 1990s, membership of the East Midlands had grown to 96 teams competing in four divisions. That number has since slipped back to 28 teams in two divisions, though many that might be considered ‘East Midlands’ by some definitions now opt to swim in the West Midlands or London Leagues.

The Western League

Sheila Bryant, pictured in 2012 with Solo Sports’ Richard Townsend, has attended every Cup Final. Photo: SWpix.com

The Swimming League – Western was initiated through the enthusiasm of Bristol Central SC, who floated the idea in their home area after enjoying their first taste of league competition as members of the parent league in 1967. Fifteen teams from Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and Herefordshire took part in the West’s inaugural season towards the end of 1967. Two Welsh teams joined them the following year for what was believed to be the first major inter-club competition featuring both English and Welsh clubs. Among those involved in the Western League’s early days was Sheila Bryant, who later became secretary for more than 25 years and, uniquely, has attended every one of the 49 Cup Finals to date.​

It was one of the Welsh teams, City of Cardiff, who finally ended City of Southampton’s dominance by winning the sixth Cup Final at Coventry in 1975. The Welsh capital also hosted the Queen’s Silver Jubilee final at Cardiff’s old Empire Pool in 1977 – the first final to be held outside England. As teams from Cornwall, Devon and Dorset joined in, membership passed the 80 mark and the Western League at one time had four divisions. Many clubs face long journeys to compete (the distance from the westernmost Cornish club Carn Brea to the most westerly South Wales club Llanelli is 255 miles, although efforts are made to avoid the longest journeys whenever possible). The West now has 55 teams spread across the whole of South West England and South Wales, competing in three divisions. It is also one of the strongest leagues, regularly supplying four qualifiers for the national finals as well as providing the cup final winners 11 times in the last 15 years (Plymouth Leander nine, Millfield two) and the B final winners six times in 12 years (City of Cardiff four, Plymouth Leander one, Mount Kelly one).


Plymouth Leander celebrate the first of their eight NSL Cup Final wins in 2008. Photo: SWpix.com

The North West League

Stockport Metro receive their winners cheque from Mr A McLachlan, Managing Director of sponsors Bovril, and ASA President Yvonne Price from Hertfordshire following their first of their three Cup Final wins in 1986. Photo: Swimming Times

The North West League was established in May 1970 and ran its first season of competition from January to March 1971. Everton SC werethe first champions with COSACSS from Stoke-on-Trent winning the title over the following four years. The league grew rapidly and in 1973 two divisions were formed, named Major and Minor. These became Divisions One and Two in 1981 with 24 and 30 teams respectively. Still expansion continued and soon the league had three divisions – Premier and Division One with 18 teams each and Division Two with 36.

North West League secretary and founder Brian Boyle remembers the day that official Peter Rawlinson forgot his starting pistol ahead of a Cup Final at Blackpool’s famous Derby Baths. Peter, who happened to be Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside, headed straight to the Liverpool Police armoury, signed out a Colt 45 and used it to start the races. As the first race got underway, the noise shattered a 20ft by 6ft window pane on one side of the pool.


The West Midlands League

The West Midlands League was founded in July 1970 and wasted no time in staging its first season, which began in October of that year with 18 clubs. Over the next few years, it grew at an even faster rate than the other leagues, reaching 30 teams in 1971, 66 in 1977 and 84 in 1979, by which time there were already four divisions.

Nottingham club Radford following their Cup Final win in 1987

By the 1990s there were 108 teams but this was ‘generally considered too many to be organised efficiently on a voluntary basis’. That number also made it the biggest league in the country. Today it remains the second biggest with 72 teams competing in three divisions

City of Coventry were the first West Midlands League champions and went on to win the title seven more times over the next 10 years. They went on to win the national title in 1976, 1977 and 1979. COSACSS won in 1972 and 1973, making them North West and West Midlands champions at the same time – a distinction made possible by the January-March and October-December seasons of those two leagues. COSACSS also won in 1978, 1979 and 1980 while Camp Hill Edwardians chipped in with the 1976 title.


City of Coventry won the Cup Final or Inter-League Final three times in the 1970s and have appeared in the finals many times since. This picture features the parade of teams at Ponds Forge in 2005. Photo: SWpix.com

The  North East League

The North East League has been an enigma almost from the start. It was launched in 1970 and in the early days was limited to clubs within what was then the North East ASA district. It later opened itself up, accepting clubs from far and wide, including Scotland, the Midlands and the west coast of England as well as the east coast. A Minor Division was added in 1978 and renamed Division Two in 1980, with promotion and relegation.

Membership of the North East League peaked at 36 clubs but for various reasons the number could not be sustained. Looking back on this in 1994, Paul Matthissen wrote: ‘The reasons included the increase in the cost of travel and a reluctance to compete against the all-powerful Leeds club, who are strong enough to field A, B and C teams. In 1989 the compulsory introduction of ASA registration for all the Speedo League’s swimmers, with a mandatory fee, added to the problem. Initially this was £2 and in 1993-94 it is £6 per swimmer, which is a dis-incentive to smaller clubs, the majority of whose swimmers do not aspire to compete in ASA competition, which also requires the registration fee.’

Such has been the dominance of Leeds Central and its all-conquering successor squad City of Leeds that you can literally count on one hand the number of times that the North East League title has gone to other clubs. Hull Olympic STC (1971), Sheffield Oak Street SC (1977), Borough of Kirklees (1988), Kingston-upon-Hull (2001-02) and City of Sheffield (2015) have each won one title. 


City of Leeds captains Karen Nisbet and James Hickman lead the celebrations after their club’s 17th Cup Final win at Ponds Forge in 2003. Photo: SWpix.com

By the beginning of the 21st century, the situation in the North East had reached a critical level. For the 2001-02 season, the League was down to seven teams and two of those were from City of Leeds. A recruitment drive by League officials led to a brief resurgence the following year with 14 teams competing in two divisions. But there was a further problem. For various reasons, including the small number of competing teams, the North East League omitted the October-December rounds and instead decided its champions and runners-up in a one-off ‘final’ in January. The first and second teams then qualified for the national A and B finals. Many in other parts of the country considered this unfair on the other six leagues, whose clubs, without exception,had to swim three times in October, November and December.

The crunch came in 2006, when the secretaries of the other six leagues voted to exclude the North East representatives from the national finals unless they adopted the three-round October to December format and had a minimum of 15 competing teams. By this time the North East League had dropped back to 10 teams with only four in their top gala and the other six in a B gala. The requirements went unmet and the 2006 Cup and B Finals went ahead (ironically at Ponds Forge in the North East Region) without any North East League representation for the first time in 36 years


The exclusion of North East clubs from the 2006 Cup and B Finals meant that the eighth place pennants were never awarded

It remained mothballed until 2010, when a new-look North East League came back to life with Ian Mackenzie as its secretary and eight competing teams including City of Leeds A and B and City of Sheffield A and B. The following April Leeds returned to the Cup Final after a five-year absence while Sheffield headed for the B final. ​Membership grew to 12 teams in 2011 and 2012 with rounds one and two run as North and South divisions and two third-round galas of six teams each. But hopes of further growth were short-lived. After peaking at 13 teams from 12 clubs in 2014, membership dropped back to six teams from five clubs in 2015 and 2016.

The North East League was back on life-support once again and in 2017 City of Leeds and City of Sheffield finally decided to abandon their strenuous efforts to keep it alive. ‘There were only five or six teams in it. The more northerly clubs haven’t shown much interest. That’s their prerogative but we were just running within Yorkshire,’ said Leeds head coach Richard Denigan. ‘With so few clubs, it meant three weekends of racing against the same people. On top of everything else that was going on, we took the decision not to do it. When we mentioned it to everybody else, they weren’t bothered.’


The Cup Final

History was made on September 20, 1970, when the National Sports Centre, Crystal Palace, hosted not only the first National Inter-League Final in its 50m pool but what was believed to be the first major swimming event in the UK to be held on a Sunday. The champions and runners-up of the South, Western, Motorway and London Leagues competed for the Bovril Trophy in an event organised by the parent league in association with Ilford SC and RTW (Royal Tunbridge Wells) Monson SC. City of Southampton won by 10 points from Leeds Central.

The full result was: 1 City of Southampton 280, 2 Leeds Central 270, 3 Cheam Ladies and Sutton & Cheam 225, 4 Orion 204, 5 Gloucester City 178, 6 Croydon Ladies/Amphibians 167, 7 Soundwell 166, 8 Aldershot 162.

Programme cover for the inaugural Cup Final or ‘Inter-League Gala’ at Crystal Palace in 1970
Founding secretary Paul Matthissen’s letter informing clubs of his plans for the inaugural Cup Final or ‘Inter-League Gala’ at Crystal Palace in September 1970

The inaugural final proved hugely popular with more than 1,200 spectators paying 5 shillings (25p) a head (children half-price) to watch and ‘raising the roof throughout the afternoon’. The West Midlands, North West and North East Leagues had been formed too late to enter but were represented by their secretaries. ASA President Mr E. W. Keighley headed the guest list and paid tribute to the excellent atmosphere, organisation and presentation and the ‘great enthusiasm’ of everyone involved. He added that it was ‘wonderful’ to see 10- and 11-year olds competing alongside internationals in their clubs’ teams. ‘This new idea of league swimming had been like a blood transfusion to club swimming,’ he said.

The programme for the 1975 Cup Final at Coventry featured a team picture of City of Coventry and individual photos of some of the star swimmers who were expected to feature

Surviving financial paperwork from the inaugural final show an income of almost £215 from ticket sales plus £49 from the raffle. Expenses included £60 for pool hire and £61 for printing but the final still made a profit of more than £118.

The programme for the 1975 Cup Final at Coventry
Programme cover for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee final at Cardiff’s Empire Pool in 1977

Crystal Palace was also the venue for the 1971 final and has seen 11 finals in total over the years, the most recent in 2002, when it also staged the second B final. After 1971, the final moved around the five available 50m pools for the next three decades, though not in strict rotation.

North West League secretary Brian Boyle (left) and former Western League secretary Sheila Bryant, who have both attended all 50 Cup Finals, are presented to the crowd at the 50th final in Cardiff by National Arena League secretary Ian Mackenzie

As well as Crystal Palace, the final also went to Coventry on 10 occasions, Leeds five times, Cardiff’s Empire Pool four and Blackpool two. In 2001, the final made its debut, along with the B final, at Sheffield, which two years later became the competition’s first ‘permanent’ venue. The finals might well still be at Ponds Forge but for a double booking in 2013.

League secretary Ian Mackenzie and his wife, Sheila, the London League secretary, immediately embarked on a search for a new venue for 2013. 

Given that the pool had to be 50m long with 10 lanes, adequate spectator facilities and availability at the required time, there weren’t many candidates. They plumped for the Cardiff International Pool, which was to prove so popular with officials, coaches and teams alike that it was agreed that it should succeed Ponds Forge as the ‘permanent’ venue.

Including the four at the Empire Pool, the 2019 final was the 12th held in the Welsh capital across 42 years, bringing it level with the 11 hosted by both Crystal Palace and Sheffield.

Finals Weekend

An additional innovation in 2013 was a switch to a two-day format with the B Final held on the Saturday afternoon and the Cup Final at the same time the following day. Previously both had been held on the same day with the B final starting around 8.30am and the cup final in the afternoon. This, combined with Sheffield’s geographical location, had required a costly overnight stay for many clubs from more distant parts of the country. A two-day event in Cardiff has enabled all clubs to travel on the day, thus saving time and money, at least for the clubs. 

Although not currently involved, City of Leeds remain the most decorated team in Cup Final history with 18 titles between 1980 and 2004, including five in a row from 1980 to 1984 and seven consecutively from 1993 to 1999.

The programme for the 25th anniversary Cup Final at Leeds in 1994 shows that admission prices had now risen to £2.50 for adults and £1.25 for children under 16
City of Coventry won their third NSL title in their home pool in 1979

The only club to thwart a 14-final Leeds monopoly between 1988 and 2001 was Portsmouth Northsea thanks to their three titles in 1989, 1992 and 2000. Plymouth Leander are gradually closing the gap on Leeds with nine Cup Final wins in the 12 years from 2008 to 2019. City of Southampton’s dominance in the first five years puts them third overall. Portsmouth are among three clubs that have won three finals, the others being City of Coventry in 1976, 1977 and 1979 and Stockport Metro with well spaced wins in 1986, 2007 and 2011. Millfield won in 2005 and 2017. City of Cardiff are the only Welsh club ever to win the title – in 1975. Other single winners are Beckenham (1978), Norwich Penguins (1985), Radford (1987), Kingston-upon-Hull (2002), Hatfield (2006) and Guildford City, who beat Plymouth Leander by a single point in one of the most thrilling finals in 2016.


Millfield celebrate their second Cup Final win in 2017. Photo: SWpix.com

Growth and Innovation

A montage of club logos presented to Paul Matthissen in 1999 following his retirement as the League’s long-serving secretary

Ian Mackenzie’s election in 1999 to succeed Paul Matthissen as secretary of the then National Speedo Swimming Leaguesignalled the start of a rapid growth spurt for the League finals, although these changes were not without their teething troubles. Ian admits that the 1999 event was a ‘shambles’. ‘Paul was there but took a back seat and I had the wrath of everybody,’ he says. ‘So many things went wrong. The warm-up lanes were not the same as those for the gala. The results service was manual because no one had organised a computer-based package. So the result wasn’t known until an hour-and-a-half after the end of the gala!’
The only way was up. The 2000 final was probably the closest and arguably the most exciting in the League’s history with Portsmouth Northsea’s win in the final relay bringing them level on gala points with City of Leeds and giving them overall victory on countback of first places.


Portsmouth Northsea’s senior and junior captains receive their trophy and pennant from Speedo’s Barbara Maskew and ASA President Mike Beard after winning the 2000 Cup Final by a single point

At this point, the final day featured only eight teams – the champions of each of the seven leagues across England and Wales plus, for two or three years, the winners of a one-off gala in Scotland. In 2001 participation doubled overnight as the eight runners-up were invited to take part in the inaugural B Final at Sheffield. Kingston-upon-Hull were the first B Final winners, paving the way for a Yorkshire double as City of Leeds won their 16th Cup Final later in the day. It was the start of a three-year period of dominance for Yorkshire. In 2002 Hull made the Cup Final for the first time in 23 years after beating Leeds in the North East final. They then beat Portsmouth Northsea at Crystal Palace to win it while Leeds won the B Final. Leeds were back on top at Sheffield in 2003 with Hull winning their second B Final in three years. Crystal Palace 2002 was also the last appearance of Scottish teams, Aberdeen and Tayside making the long journey to south London to finish eighth in the Cup Final and B Final respectively.


Kingston-upon-Hull celebrate their Cup Final victory at Crystal Palace in 2002, when Yorkshire rivals City of Leeds won the B final. Photo: SWpix.com

The next major change came in 2008 following a decision to make use of all 10 lanes for both the Cup and B Finals. ‘I wanted to get more people involved in the League at a high level,’ says Ian Mackenzie. The North East League had been temporarily mothballed by this time but the champions of the six remaining leagues were guaranteed a place in the Cup Final and the six runners-up a place in either the Cup or B Final. Beyond that, the plan was to run the times of the top six teams in each of the 50 events in the six area league finals through a computer to produce a virtual gala result. This result would decide which four teams would join the six champions in the Cup Final and which 10 clubs would go into the B Final.

Oh, the best laid plans of mice, men and National League secretaries! When Ian Mackenzie came to compare the times from the six leagues, he got a shock. Unbeknown to him, the various leagues were not all using the same programme for their finals. The East Midlands League ran their final with 4x25m individual medleys rather than the 4x50m IMs used by everyone else. The North West League had 50m rather than 100m events for the 13 and under age group and 4x50m rather than 6x50m women’s and men’s freestyle relays at the end.

Ian spent two weeks trying to find a solution. Using gala points to decide places was one option considered but this would have created even more anomalies. In the end Ian concluded that the fairest way was to award FINA points for each event and add them up. Even this produced a few startling anomalies, and when the final results were announced, the League Secretary was ‘advised to emigrate’! The greatest anomalies were in the West. The Western League supplied five of the 20 qualifying teams for the Cup and B Finals, including first-timers Bournemouth Dolphins and Taunton Deane. But a sixth Western team, Swindon Dolphin, were not among them, despite finishing third in the final and fourth in the table. They missed out by 0.1 per cent, paying dearly for a relay disqualification, which cost them almost 800 FINA points. Coach Andi Manley said a place in the finals would have been a ‘dream come true’ and they felt ‘robbed’. Swindon Dolphin have never qualified for the finals since.

Despite these teething troubles, the decision to use all 10 lanes for the Cup and B Finals proved to be a masterstroke. The first 20-team finals day at Sheffield on April 22, 2007, was an unqualified success, with more swimmers in the pool, more spectators in the gallery, closer competition and more noise, colour and atmosphere than ever. The competing teams included four who were making their debuts in the finals while the swimmers on show included numerous past and future internationals. In fact the 20 team-sheets between them featured 14 swimmers who would go on to represent Great Britain at the Olympic Games, including four of the five who would win medals for Britain in Beijing the following year – Rebecca Adlington (Nottingham Leander), Keri-anne Payne (Stockport Metro), David Davies (City of Cardiff) and Cassie Patten (Plymouth Leander). Other past or future Olympians involved in that memorable 2007 finals day included James Goddard (Stockport Metro), Euan Dale (Millfield), Fran Halsall and Michael Rock (City of Liverpool), Lizzie Simmonds and Sophie Allen (Lincoln Vulcans), Antony James and Calum Jarvis (Plymouth Leander) and Tom Haffield and Ieuan Lloyd (City of Cardiff).

The B final, the virtual gala and the 10-team finals have each taken the National Arena Swimming League into new waters, adding interest, excitement and an extra dimension to the nation’s biggest and most popular inter-club competition. They have also enabled many clubs to take part who would not otherwise have had that opportunity. Every finals weekend since 2007 has seen clubs make their debuts at this level. The response of Bromley head coach Dave Court, after learning by email that his club had qualified for their first B Final in 2018, summed up the reactions of many coaches and swimmers when receiving this news. ‘Probably that best email I’ve received as a coach,’ he replied. ‘We will be there if I have to drive them myself.’ They were there, he did not drive and they finished sixth in the B final.


City of Cardiff win the first of their four B final titles in 2008. Photo: SWpix.com

The list of clubs who have won the B Final is rapidly gaining ground on the number of Cup Final winners. No less than 13 different clubs have been victorious in the first 19 years with only four winning more than once – City of Cardiff (four titles), Kingston-upon-Hull (two), Stockport Metro (two) and City of Sheffield (two). Almost 100 different clubs have taken part in League finals and/or B finals since 1970. 


Sponsorship

Bovril Ltd became the first company to offer any kind of sponsorship when they donated the Inter-League Trophy for the first Cup Final in 1970. They revived their interest in 1984, providing direct financial support, including cash prizes for the eight ​cup finalists.

Millfield captain Malcolm McAffie receives a cheque from Bovril Managing Director Mr A. McLachlan following the 1984 Cup Final at Cardiff’s Empire Pool. Photo: Swimming Times
L-R: City of Leeds, winners Norwich Penguins and Harrow and Wealdstone beneath the Bovril banner at the 1985 Cup Final at Crystal Palace

By 1987, these prizes had risen to a total of £1,000. Bovril’s support continued until 1988, after which Lucozade began a spell as the Inter-League Trophy sponsors, a role that continued for several years. There was also a brief arrangement with Sportscare (Promotions) Ltd in 1983, when they printed more than 40,000 area league programmes and the Cup Final programmes.

The name of sponsors Lucozade Sport appeared on the back of commemorative medals presented to swimmers who took part in the 25th Cup Final at Leeds in 1994​

For most of its history, however, the National Swimming League has been most strongly associated with its two major sponsors, the swimwear companies Speedo and Arena. Speedo’s 25-year involvement began in 1976, when Speedo (Europe) Ltd gave ‘financial assistance and other material help’. Speedo extended their support in 1979, when they signed a four-year agreement that included direct assistance for the seven area leagues. The terms also required that the Speedo name be incorporated into the titles of the National Swimming League competitions and that they be regarded as the ‘major sponsor’, although they made no objection to additional support from other sponsors as long as they did not conflict with Speedo’s interests.

For a generation of swimmers, coaches, officials and parents, the League and Speedo were synonymous. When Speedo’s sponsorship finally came to an end, it took many people three of four years to shed the ingrained habit of referring to ‘the Speedo League’.

Programme for the first Speedo-sponsored final at Blackpool in 1976
Programme for the unsponsored 2009 finals

The last National Speedo League Cup Final and B Final took place in 2008. On that occasion it was announced that Speedo had decided to scale back their support from £22,000 in 2007 to £10,000 in 2008. The greatest impact was that the 20 teams in the Cup and B Finals missed out on the £500 that each traditionally received.


The League hired a marketing company to search for another sponsor but without success. For a year the League soldiered on without sponsorship. Then Ian Mackenzie was contacted by Richard Townsend of Solo Sports, the UK distributors for Arena, and they discussed the League’s sponsorship needs. Two months later Ian received a message asking him to fly out to the FINA World Championships in Rome for a meeting. He returned with a three-year sponsorship deal that ensured the League could continue. The first national finals under National Arena Swimming League name took place in April 2010.


‘Arena was The National Swimming League’s lifeline,’ said Ian. ‘The League immediately became known as The National Arena Swimming League.  Not only did Arena’s sponsorship include funding for the six leagues that existed at that time but also funding for the national finals.  Additionally, Arena ensured that the finals had complete branding and new trophies, keepers, bannerettes and prizes – all of which raised the standard of the events.

Programme cover for the first Arena-sponsored finals in 2010

The North East League was also resurrected due to the surge of interest that came with the new sponsors. Arena recognised the growing interest by increasing the sponsorship funding above the agreed contact for the remaining term of the contract. Arena is an Italian-based company but their official UK distributor Solo Sports Brands Ltd are our sponsor and look after our day-to-day needs and financial support. The company’s team are very hands-on and supportive to the League.’

The Arena sponsorship was subsequently renewed, with an enhanced package, through to 2015 and again through to 2020. ‘The Arena and Solo Sports sponsorship is totally vital to the League,’ said Ian. ‘Splitting the two finals has benefited the clubs but also increased the costs to the League. It has only been possible due to the generosity of Arena. The finals weekend alone costs £20,000 and that’s without the cost of all the clubs getting there. The local leagues also get financial support and they in turn support their representatives in the national finals.’


The Arena League Spirit

Millfield supporters enjoy the carnival atmosphere of a National Swimming League final Photo: SWpix.com

The NASL’s greatest strengths include its ability to generate team spirit – which in turn tends to generate improved performances. ‘It’s one of the few competitions where the 10-year-olds get to swim with their senior team-mates,’ said Ian Mackenzie. ‘As a competition, it’s important to the swimming community and is recognised by the Swim England Talent team because the athletes are swimming for their clubs rather than themselves. In the last few years we have managed to get the leagues licensed, which means swimmers’ times are put on to the rankings. Most youngsters are team players so many of them do PBs on the day. The licensing has raised the level of the rounds not only in the pool but in the officiating, as all officials need to be licensed and the meet requires an electronic results service. All Premier Divisions now swim the same programme, so that is now a national programme.’


The League also presents a rare opportunity for younger swimmers to compete alongside their senior team-mates, including internationals. Every year team-sheets in both the local leagues and the national finals include a sprinkling of Olympians.

Rebecca Adlington swims the women’s 100m backstroke for Nottingham Leander at the 2008 Cup Final. Three months later she was Olympic champion in the 400m and 800m freestyle. Photo: SWpix.com
Olympic 100m breaststroke gold medallists Ruta Meilutyte and Adam Peaty at the 2015 Cup Final in Cardiff. Photo: SWpix.com

Adam Peaty and Rebecca Adlington are among scores of Olympic swimmers who have represented their clubs in the League. Two competed when they were reigning Olympic champions – Adrian Moorhouse for City of Leeds in the years following his 100m breaststroke gold medal at Seoul 1988 and fellow 100m breaststroker Ruta Meilutyte for Plymouth Leander after her success as a 15-year-old at London 2012.

Previous Cup Final Winners

1970 City of Southampton SC (at Crystal Palace)
1971 City of Southampton SC (at Crystal Palace)
1972 City of Southampton SC (at Coventry)
1973 City of Southampton SC (at Leeds)
1974 City of Southampton SC (at Crystal Palace)
1975 City of Cardiff SC (at Coventry)
1976 City of Coventry (at Blackpool)
1977 City of Coventry (at Cardiff)
1978 Beckenham SC (at Crystal Palace)
1979 City of Coventry (at Coventry)
1980 City of Leeds SC (at Leeds)
1981 City of Leeds SC (at Crystal Palace)
1982 City of Leeds SC (at Coventry)
1983 City of Leeds SC (at Blackpool)
1984 City of Leeds SC (at Cardiff)
1985 Norwich Penguins SC (at Crystal Palace)
1986 Stockport Metropolitan SC (at Coventry)
1987 Radford SC (at Leeds)
1988 City of Leeds SC (at Crystal Palace)
1989 Portsmouth Northsea (at Coventry)
1990 City of Leeds SC (at Leeds)
1991 City of Leeds SC (at Cardiff)
1992 Portsmouth Northsea (at Crystal Palace)
1993 City of Leeds SC (at Coventry)
1994 City of Leeds SC (at Leeds)
1995 City of Leeds SC (at Crystal Palace)
1996 City of Leeds SC (at Coventry)
1997 City of Leeds SC (at Coventry)
1998 City of Leeds SC (at Cardiff)
1999 City of Leeds SC (at Crystal Palace)
2000 Portsmouth Northsea (at Coventry)
2001 City of Leeds SC (at Sheffield)
2002 Kingston-upon-Hull (at Crystal Palace)
2003 City of Leeds SC (at Sheffield)
2004 City of Leeds SC (at Sheffield)
2005 Millfield (at Sheffield)
2006 Hatfield SC (at Sheffield)
2007 Stockport Metro SC (at Sheffield)
2008 Plymouth Leander SC (at Sheffield)
2009 Plymouth Leander SC (at Sheffield)
2010 Plymouth Leander SC (at Sheffield)
2011 Stockport Metro SC (at Sheffield)
2012 Plymouth Leander SC (at Sheffield)
2013 Plymouth Leander SC (at Cardiff)
2014 Plymouth Leander SC (at Cardiff)
2015 Plymouth Leander SC (at Cardiff)
2016 Guildford City SC (at Cardiff)
2017 Millfield (at Cardiff)
2018 Plymouth Leander SC (at Cardiff )
2019 Plymouth Leander SC (at Cardiff )

Previous B-Final Winners

2001 Kingston-upon-Hull SC (at Sheffield)
2002 City of Leeds SC (at Crystal Palace)
2003 Kingston-upon-Hull SC (at Sheffield)
2004 Leatherhead SC (at Sheffield)
2005 Guildford City SC (at Sheffield)
2006 Plymouth Leander SC (at Sheffield)
2007 City of Liverpool SC (at Sheffield)
2008 City of Cardiff SC (at Sheffield)
2009 City of Cardiff SC (at Sheffield)
2010 City of Cardiff SC (at Sheffield)
2011 City of Derby SC (at Sheffield)
2012 Stockport Metro SC (at Sheffield)
2013 Preston SC (at Cardiff)
2014 City of Sheffield SC (at Cardiff)
2015 City of Sheffield SC (at Cardiff)
2016 Stockport Metro SC (at Cardiff)
2017 Ealing SC (at Cardiff)
2018 City of Cardiff (at Cardiff)
2019 Mount Kelly (at Cardiff )

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