A blog on Welsh Premier League champions The New Saints and manager Craig Harrison.
Last weekend Craig Harrison deservedly claimed the Manager of the Year award at the annual Welsh Premier League presentation evening after completing another season of domestic dominance with The New Saints. As well as defending both the title and the League Cup, the professional outfit from Oswestry also managed to break the world record held by the great Ajax team of the 1970’s by winning the highest-number of consecutive competitive games.
In addition, the side managed to score more goals than any other team in the league, racked-up a goal difference of 75, and won the title by a 27-point margin. However, the season ended in disappointment, as Bala Town edged past them in the JD Welsh Cup final to win the famous trophy for the first time in their history. The defeat denying The New Saints the first-ever ‘treble-treble’ in the history of the Welsh Premier League.
All pretty impressive stuff, and the reward is another crack at the UEFA Champions League. But while domestic domination is almost guaranteed for The New Saints, challenging in Europe’s premier club competition is significantly more difficult. Despite that, The New Saints are now respected opposition in the early qualifying rounds, and have gained a number of credible results from a string of consistently improved performances having become established competitors on the European stage.
But while progression through the opening qualifying round has become the norm for The New Saints in recent seasons, rarely do European campaigns stretch beyond June, and the focus quickly switches back to another season of taking care of domestic business for another trip to the continent the following summer. It remains a circle of consistent success, but their respective domestic and European campaigns inevitably contrast in the extreme.
An invite to the Scottish IRN-BRU Cup provided a welcome break from the domestic monotony this season, and regular excursions north of the border mirrored an extended European campaign. The side impressed by reaching the semi-finals, and boosted the reputation and profile of the Welsh Premier League in the process. In addition, the quality of opposition and change in approach in terms of tactics and travelling offered excellent preparation for their next European campaign.
In fact, the competition probably proved to be the catalyst that helped keep the players focused on the bread and butter of the Welsh Premier League season. Manager Craig Harrison has rarely made summer changes to his winning teams in the past, but prior to the start of last season he brought in a few new additions, all of which had a fresh hunger for success. It proved to be a positive move, and the strengthening of the squad ahead of the next campaign has already began.
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Appointed in December 2011, Craig Harrison has won over a dozen trophies with the club, and this season claimed his sixth consecutive Welsh Premier League title. As manager of The New Saints he has never finished second to anyone at the end of a long league season, but he remains ambitious, and his dedication and professionalism means that there is no complacency attached to any aspect of the club. But while their rivals invest with short and long-term plans to end their domination, The New Saints continue to punch the ceiling repeatedly, despite knowing that they are already on the top floor.
The New Saints set the standard for their rivals, and to finish above them you need to first emulate them, and then better them. Bala Town, Connah’s Quay Nomads and Bangor City are the current teams most likely to challenge as they invest in their ambitions to claim the coveted and lucrative UEFA Champions League place, while the likes of former champions Barry Town are slowly but surely returning to the stage where they enjoyed their greatest moments.
A product of long-term planning and investment, The New Saints are rarely considered a popular choice amongst supporters of the national league, but the majority of this resentment is through jealousy of the way they have seen off title rivals built and destroyed by the ‘boom-and-bust’ culture in recent years. Having set the standard on the field, they are plenty of off the field elements about the club that their rivals can learn from too, and they should be celebrated for how they have represented the Welsh Premier League in Europe.
Inevitably, success has seen Craig Harrison linked with moves into the English pyramid system, and it is questionable how long a month of European football can make the rest of the year worthwhile when the cycle is stuck on repeat. However, from the 2018/19 season, league champions eliminated in the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions League will automatically continue their European campaigns in the UEFA Europa League. Therefore, should The New Saints again claim the Welsh Premier League title next season, additional European fixtures are guaranteed one way or the other.
But will that be enough to feed Harrison’s ambitions? He returned to football with unfinished business having been forced into an untimely early retirement through injury as a player, and he has taken his opportunity. His success has made him an intriguing option when possible managerial replacements are mentioned across the country. Should he eventually move it would be a pioneering step for a Welsh Premier League manager, and he would carry the reputation of the league on his shoulders.
Nigel Adkins won two Welsh Premier League titles as the player-manager of Bangor City over two decades ago, and went on to enjoy a long career in management, taking charge of teams in both the English Football League and Premier League. He was the first and last to do so from the domestic top-flight. Fittingly, it was Adkins who presented Harrison with his award at the presentation evening that also marked the 25th anniversary of the league last weekend, and it would be interesting to know if he offered him a quiet word of advice about his future.
But the immediate focus turns to the UEFA Champions League ahead of the draw for the first qualifying round on the 19th June. The tight schedule between seasons leaves little time to rest, and Harrison and his backroom staff will have already started scouting potential opponents and preparing their players for an early start to pre-season training. How the club have benefited for Europe through their participation in the Scottish Cup will be of interest, but the real test will be to see if they can continue their European campaign into July, and the real question will be if Harrison will still be in position when they start the defence of their league title in August.