Welsh Premier back with a bang as Saints suffer

Welsh Premier League

A review of the opening weekend of the new JD Welsh Premier League season.

The domestic top-flight received a timely boost ahead of the new season with the welcome news of a three-year sponsorship deal with JD Sports. Increasing their support of the domestic game, the JD Welsh Premier League joins the JD Welsh Cup in their competition portfolio, and the nationally recognised brand featured heavily across the increased media coverage of the opening weekend. The launch of the new season at the National Eisteddfod took place just a couple days before the action kicked-off on Friday night, and while every club went into the campaign optimistic, few would have predicted how events would immediately unfold.

The New Saints head into the new campaign with the familiar title of champions, but suffered a shock 5-2 defeat at Bangor City. Meanwhile, Connah’s Quay Nomads and Bala Town emphasised their title ambitions with respective 4-0 and 3-0 victories, and Barry Town United earned a point on their return to the top-flight in the live Sgorio match. Carmarthen Town will be concerned by the manner of their defeat to Llandudno, but Cardiff Met carried on from their impressive debut season with a 3-0 win over Cefn Druids. To explain it all, here’s a few observations from the opening weekend of fixtures.

Transitional Saints struggle despite managerial continuity
The New Saints have dominated domestic proceedings for the best part of the last decade, and their success has been achieved mainly under the guidance of former manager Craig Harrison and coach Carl Darlington. Both departed for new challenges in the summer, but continuity was expected as Scott Ruscoe and Steve Evans were elevated from their coaching positions with little need for sweeping changes. However, it is difficult to imagine Harrison’s team conceding five goals, and there will be a big inquest at Park Hall this week in the aftermath of such a heavy defeat.

The live S4/C Sgorio cameras will be at Park Hall next Saturday for the visit of Bala Town, and there will be a voyeuristic interest in how The New Saints react. It will be another tough test for Ruscoe and his side, and having lost out on completing the domestic treble last season with defeat to Bala Town in the JD Welsh Cup final, Colin Caton’s side will be full of confidence as they look to build on their opening day victory. This is now a massive game for The New Saints, and Ruscoe will need his players to show all the character and resolve that has seen them dominate the domestic game for so long.

The challengers are definitely up for the challenge
Connah’s Quay Nomads, Bangor City and Bala Town. These are three teams marked as possible title rivals to The New Saints this season, and with the champions making enforced changes to their management team, all three teams appear set to make the most of the opportunity to catch the champions in a period of transition. Connah’s Quay have taken another significant step forward in their project by adding full-time professional players to their current squad, and with Andy Morrison already making a name for himself as a manager with impressive performances and relative success in Europe, there is every reason to believe that their ambitions can be realised very soon.

Bangor City have also strengthened under the guidance of Kevin Nicholson and Gary Taylor-Fletcher, and the more success they enjoy the more people will be attracted back to Nantporth. Bangor City are a huge club in the domestic game and there is a lot more to come from them. Meanwhile, Bala Town have firmly established themselves as one of the leading clubs in the Welsh Premier League, and their consistent progress and success means that they are on-course to become realistic title challengers this season.

Opening weekend attendance boost
Almost 3,000 fans passed through the turnstiles at the six JD Welsh Premier League games played on the opening weekend, with Barry Town United celebrating their return to the top-flight with a crowd of over 900 at Jenner Park. Close to 600 supporters watched the destruction of The New Saints at Bangor City, and while they have been bigger crowds in the past, it is still encouraging that the increase in live football on television has not turned people away from the domestic game. Bangor City, Prestatyn Town and Bala Town were all up against the opening game of the English Premier League season between Arsenal and Leicester City on Friday night, Llandudno and Cefn Druids partly clashed with Liverpool on Saturday, Barry Town with Manchester United on Sunday.

Carmarthen in need of home comforts
A 3-0 reverse at Llandudno was the worse possible start to the season for Carmarthen Town, and with work continuing at their Richmond Park home to install a new 3G surface, they will continue to play away until the end of September. Starting any campaign with six away games inevitably leads to problems, and when they do finally return they will have a new surface to adapt to. However, with only three grass pitches now remaining in the Welsh Premier League, they will at least know what to expect when they do return. Manager Mark Aizlewood has recently committed himself to the club by agreeing a new deal, but this could prove to be a tough season if their disrupted start has a negative effect.

Meanwhile, the students of Cardiff Met carried on their fine form with a 3-0 win at Cefn Druids, and having made a big impression last season, there is every reason to believe that they could become the premier South Wales side this season. Largely underestimated in their debut campaign, the management team of Christian Edwards and Wayne Allinson bring a wealth of professional football experience to the side, and they set high standards for their players in everything they do. Reaching the play-off final last season was a tremendous achievement, and has no doubt given them a taste for more.

Barry are back with the attacking values of before
There has always been a long-standing debate over who was the best team ever to play in the Welsh Premier League. Barry Town enjoyed domestic domination and European success during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but their trophy haul has been eclipsed by The New Saints in recent years. During their greatest years, Barry Town were noted for their attacking qualities, and watching their match against Aberystwyth Town on Sunday suggested that these values remain at the club today. Kayne McLaggan showed his ability at Merthyr Town last season and will be a key signing for Gavin Chesterfield’s side, while the work-rate of the side will provide the perfect support.

Chesterfield will be under no illusions about the size of the task facing his side, and the fact that he has kept faith with a number of players that have taken the club through the Welsh football pyramid in recent seasons is testament to the team spirit that exists within. They will have plenty of support from their committed fan base throughout the campaign, and the team look well-drilled and organised enough as a collective unit to upset a few teams along the way. Holding on to some players may be another challenge facing them by the time the winter transfer window comes around, but if there is any chance of Barry Town United achieving success, this squad will want to be a part of it.