Now that each of the 12 clubs has played 22 matches, the Welsh Premier League (WPL) has reached the stage when, for the first time since it was founded in 1992, the league splits into two groups. The top six will now play each other home and away to decide the championship and two of the four European qualification places; the bottom six will do the same to determine which two clubs will be relegated. The remaining two European places go to the Welsh Cup winners (the quarter-final line-up is Connah’s Quay Nomads v UWIC Inter Cardiff, Llanelli v Prestatyn Town, Port Talbot Town v Bangor City, The New Saints v Cardiff Grange Harlequins) and the winners of a play-off competition between the clubs finishing 3rd to 7th (meaning there is still an incentive for those in the ‘relegation group’ to qualify for Europe). Points already accumulated are added to, with the proviso that no club in the bottom six can finish higher than 7th. Here’s an overview of the state of the 12 WPL clubs going into this intriguing second phase of the season:
• BANGOR CITY With a six point lead over TNS, WPL founder members and ever-presents Bangor City must be favourites to clinch their 3rd title and their first since 1995. Manager Neville Powell has worked wonders at Farrar Road since arriving in 2007 following 14 years in charge at Connah’s Quay Nomads. He kept Nomads in the WPL on a shoestring budget during those years, a period which made him the 2nd longest-serving manager at a single WPL club, only beaten by record-holder Mickey Evans’ 16 seasons in charge of Caersws. Powell’s four seasons managing Bangor and the relegation of Caersws (where Evans is back as boss for a 2nd spell) mean that he now holds the record as the longest-serving WPL manager in total. He set another record last season when Bangor won the Welsh Cup for the 3rd consecutive time, a feat only achieved five times previously in the competition’s 133 years (twice by Wrexham, once each by Barry Town, Druids and Cardiff City) and never before by one manager, and this season Bangor began sensationally by rewriting the WPL record for consecutive wins from the start of the season – 15, five more than the previous record set by TNS. A further record tumbled in January when Bangor sold top scorer Jamie Reed to York City for a club record fee (undisclosed, probably around £25k). Reed still heads the WPL goalscoring charts with 17 goals, and Bangor’s problem will be to replace his clinical finishing. Powell’s battle-hardened, experienced squad contains three stand-out Welsh players: skilful midfielder Chris Jones, neat defender Michael Johnston and barnstorming forward Les Davies.
• THE NEW SAINTS Running into good form at the right time, full-timers and current champions TNS are confident they can overhaul Bangor and win the WPL for a 6th time. Boss Mike Davies, the youngest manager in the league, has the players to do it, despite the loss of captain and Wales international defender Steve Evans, sacked in November after being arrested for a public order offence. It’s TNS’s attacking verve that will worry Bangor; they are the league’s top scorers with a phenomenal 68 goals from 22 games, their four main strikers having bagged 45 between them (Welshmen Mattie Williams and Alex Darlington, Irishman Richie Partridge and Scotsman Chris Sharp). If TNS can improve on their results so far against Bangor (a home draw and an away defeat) in their two upcoming fixtures against City, they can nick the championship again.
• NEATH Five points further back in 3rd place, Neath have some catching up to do – but their large squad, featuring the cream of Welsh semi-pro talent plus the repertoire of tricks of marquee signing Lee Trundle, can’t yet be entirely ruled out of contention. The main aim of manager Andrew Dyer and his ambitious committee will be to qualify for Europe for the first time in the club’s history, which would be some achievement for a club only formed in 2005 (as Neath Athletic, the “Athletic” was dropped in 2008) after a merger between two close neighbours with similar low profiles in the Welsh pyramid: Neath (founded 1922 as works team National Oil Refineries, became BP Llandarcy in 1954, Neath in 1999; ground Llandarcy Park) and Skewen Athletic (founded 1932 as Garthmoor, became Neath Athletic in 1950, Skewen Athletic in 1968; ground Tennant Park). The well-run merged club has benefitted from sustained investment and ground-sharing The Gnoll with Neath RFC to become a WPL force in just their 4th season at this level. Attendances at The Gnoll average 601 so far, only Bangor’s 754 being higher – Trundle’s tricks keep the turnstiles clicking, and many in this archetypal Welsh rugby town also turn up to enjoy the smooth skills of Welshmen Chad Bond, Chris Jones and Kristian O’Leary.
• LLANELLI 4th place Llanelli are 20 points behind Bangor, so have no chance of their 2nd WPL title, but every chance of qualifying for Europe for a 6th successive time. Andy Legg’s squad brims with good Welsh players like Stuart Jones, Jordan Follows and Chris Venables, but his star man is striker Rhys Griffiths. He became the 2nd player to score 200 WPL goals when he converted a penalty in the 2-0 win over Bangor at Stebonheath Park in January, his current total (204 from 283 games) leaving only Marc Lloyd Williams ahead of him in the all-time scorers list (‘Jiws’ is still playing in the WPL, for Newtown this season, and his tally of 319 goals from 468 games will be extremely difficult for 30 year-old Griffiths to catch). Griffiths has won the WPL ‘golden boot’ award as league top scorer for the past five seasons, a league record, and also holds both the Llanelli and the Port Talbot Town club records for most goals in a season and Llanelli’s for most aggregate goals. Why he has not been given a chance to play for Wales is a mystery, especially given his familiarity with the international game (he has made 14 appearances in European competitions, scoring 4 goals) and Wales’ dearth of proven goal-scorers.
• PRESTATYN TOWN This season’s surprise package have exceeded all expectations by taking 5th place at the split in only their 3rd season in the WPL. With a place in the Welsh Cup quarter-finals too, the Seasiders’ centenary is coinciding with their best ever results, including a tremendous 4-2 win over Bangor at Bastion Gardens. One of many clubs galvanised by the long-overdue formation of a Welsh football pyramid in 1992, Prestatyn have climbed steadily up the ladder, winning promotion from level 4 north-east (Clwyd League) in 1999, level 3 north (Welsh Alliance) in 2005 and then level 2 north (Cymru Alliance) in 2008. Player-manager Neil Gibson is proving to be a shrewd tactician, Chris Davies and Jack Lewis are two of the best young Welsh defenders in the league, and battle-hardened strikers Lee Hunt and Steve ‘jolly’ Rogers, both with over a century of WPL goals accumulated in their travels around various clubs, have the experience to keep Prestatyn bubbling: the dream of European football is not out of the question.
• PORT TALBOT TOWN Port Talbot just squeezed into the top six by a one point margin, so they will have a tough time playing 10 matches against the top five. Manager Mark Jones, a Welsh baseball international and leading authority on the unique Cardiff sport, will need all his cunning to glean many points and the club will probably view the upcoming Welsh Cup tie against Bangor as their best chance of a second foray into Europe. Now in their 11th consecutive WPL season, the Steelmen have taken huge strides on and off the field to become a fixture in the upper reaches of the league. Jones’ knowledge of the Welsh pyramid and network of contacts enables him to recruit promising young players from lower leagues and work the loan system to Port Talbot’s advantage. He needs to unearth someone to take the pressure off star player Luke Bowen and fix the main problem this season – lack of goals.
• ABERYSTWYTH TOWN Condemned to a relegation struggle after falling just short of Port Talbot, Aber will have to be very careful in the fiercely competitive games to come. They are one of only three clubs (the others are Bangor and Newtown) to have played in every single WPL season since it was formed, so relegation would be unthinkable for the Black & Greens. Yet it’s a definite possibility: manager Alan Morgan has a small squad over-reliant on WPL hardy perennials like Aneurin ‘freddy’ Thomas (361 WPL games and counting for Aber, the club record, and 468 WPL games in aggregate), Ricky Evans (315 WPL games so far, for no less than nine different clubs) and Gareth Hughes (343 WPL games in spells at Rhayader, Newtown and now Aberystwyth). The loss of playmaker Luke Sherbon to Australian football does not bode well.
• AIRBUS UK BROUGHTON Every season since Airbus were promoted to the WPL in 2004 I have been predicting their relegation, and every season they fail to oblige. Once again they have done well to finish 8th in the first phase, and Craig Harrison’s big squad (with more non-Welsh players than any other WPL club) should have enough quality to stay out of the bottom two. This is a most unusual football club: the only one to be located within an airfield (their ground is actually called The Airfield and it has unique retractable floodlights to allow planes to land at the adjacent runway); the only one with the acronym ‘UK’ in its name; and the club which has had the most changes of name in the shortest period of time without mergers or relocations (eight since formed as the Vickers-Armstrong works team in 1946, the latest in 2007 when the name of nearest town Broughton was added). It’s easy to be put off by their still close association with the unlovely giant aerospace consortium, their tiny crowds (average so far 197, the lowest in the league) and their reliance on the goals of Andy Moran, a WPL hate figure since his prolific 2003/04 season with double winners Rhyl was exposed as fraudulent when he tested positive for a banned substance (Moran is still Rhyl’s record WPL scorer with 99 goals and was regularly knocking them in for Airbus until a broken ankle against Newtown last month put him out for the rest of the season). But Harrison, a Geordie whose own career was ended by injury when playing for Crystal Palace, has got to be admired for the resilience and organisation he has instilled in the Flintshire side.
• CARMARTHEN TOWN Now in their 15th consecutive WPL campaign, during which period they have qualified for Europe four times, the Old Gold have been struggling lately to keep up with their high-flying west Wales neighbours Llanelli, Neath and Port Talbot. Manager Tomi Morgan, involved in the WPL as a player then a manager since its inception and in charge for a second spell at Richmond Park, has the only all-Welsh squad in the league, with a number of promising youngsters on the fringe of the first team. Morgan has the nous to guide the club through a transition period as they come to terms with the intense competition of the restructured league.
• BALA TOWN The market town of Bala in the mountains of Gwynedd is the smallest place, with a population of just 2,000, with a side in the WPL (and the 3rd smallest ever after Llansantffraid, home of TNS before they moved to Oswestry, and Anglesey village Cemaes Bay). This is only Bala’s 2nd WPL campaign, following four promotions since beginning their rise from level 5 (north-east) in 1995. They did well to survive in their debut season last year, when a drastic cull cut the league from 18 to 12 clubs, and this season is proving equally demanding. Colin Caton, who has overseen two of their promotions since becoming manager in 2003, scours the non-league scene in northern England for players – a practice that defeats the whole point of the league and in any case cannot be sustainable in the long run. With the nearest WPL club 30 miles away (TNS), Bala’s ambitious committee are now investing in a youth structure to develop players from their large, untapped catchment area.
• NEWTOWN Newtown’s proud record as WPL ever-presents has occasionally been in jeopardy before so there will be no panic at Latham Park – especially with the laid back and perceptive Andy Cale, twice a title winner with TNS, in charge. Currently the oldest club in the league (founded 1875), Newtown are two points from safety at the split stage. The main problem has been a lack of goals, they are the league’s lowest scorers, and a fragile defence that cracks too easily under pressure. Cale’s transfer window signings of young unknowns from his England/Wales border stamping grounds might do the trick, but it is touch and go for the Robins.
• HAVERFORDWEST COUNTY Also two points from safety, Haverfordwest have underachieved so far considering the ability in their mainly Welsh squad. In Jack Christopher, the club’s record WPL scorer with 66 goals from 137 games, and Danny Thomas, who still holds Carmarthen’s WPL scoring record with 56 goals from 148 games, County should have the firepower to glean enough points in the games to come. This is a baptism of fire for manager Gavin Chesterfield, who was recruited from Barry Town, the ex-giants of the Welsh pyramid still languishing at level 2, when Derek Brazil was sacked in November. He is attempting to rectify the Bluebirds’ main shortcoming, a lack of pace in midfield and defence, with short-term signings via his south Wales networks.
Sticking my neck out, these are my predictions:
CHAMPIONS: TNS – The most technically accomplished side have the advantage of the experience of last season’s close title race, plus the artificial Park Hall pitch and the league’s most creative player, winger Craig Jones.
EUROPEAN PLACES: Bangor City and Neath
WELSH CUP: Llanelli
RELEGATION: Aberystwyth Town and Newtown
PROMOTION: North – Connah’s Quay Nomads; South – Bridgend Town