A blog on the achievements of Neil Gibson at Prestatyn Town following his departure.
Prestatyn Town are searching for a new manager with just 10 games left to save their JD Welsh Premier League status following the resignation of Neil Gibson earlier this week. After 14-years of service at Bastion Gardens, Gibson has made the switch to ambitious rivals Connah’s Quay Nomads where he will work as the assistant to Andy Morrison.
The average club in the Welsh pyramid system can expect to enjoy success and failure over the course of a 10-year cycle. Are there exceptions to the rule at both ends of the scale, but the dependence on individuals and sponsors to balance the books rather than through a steady income at the turnstiles means that the domestic game has an ever-changing club landscape.
One such club are Prestatyn Town, and when reflecting on their period of success, it will always be synonymous with Neil Gibson. Overseeing two promotions to the top-flight, Gibson made history when the club lifted the Welsh Cup for the the first time in 2013, and then went one step further in the UEFA Europa League by taking his club through the opening round.
Following their promotion from the Cymru Alliance a decade ago, Prestatyn Town made consistent progress in the Welsh Premier League during each and every season. Retaining the best of the local players and strengthening each summer with more established names, the club retained their spirit and identity, but also added quality as they became an increasingly attractive option for players in the top-flight.
In 2011, the club reached the inaugural Welsh Premier League play-off final, but missed out on a lucrative place in the Europa League with a dramatic 3-2 defeat to Neath at the Gnoll. It was a cruel blow for club, but there is a trend of teams suffering such disappointing experiences before enjoying success, and this would prove to be the case for Gibson and his Prestatyn Town side.
The club regrouped, and having been within touching distance of qualifying for Europe, it was clear that this chapter in the history of the club was not over. Gibson continued to fine-tune his side, but it was in the summer of 2012 that he made two of his most significant signings, and with it create the attacking triangle that would bring Prestatyn Town their finest hour.
Football League veterans Andy Parkinson and Jason Price both arrived at Bastion Gardens as chairman Phil Merrick and the board backed Gibson to make another push for European football. With former Wales U21 international Gibson playing behind the two and supported by a solid defence, it was clear that Prestatyn were now better equipped than ever before.
Taking on Bangor City in the 2013 Welsh Cup final at Wrexham, Nev Powell’s team were considered favourites having won the trophy in three of the four previous seasons. However, goalkeeper Jon Hill-Dunt produced one of the finest displays of his career on the biggest stage, and it was his heroics more than anything else that earned Prestatyn a 3-1 win in extra-time.
Price opened the scoring within the opening two minutes of the match, and after Parkinson had put the side back ahead in extra-time, it was Price again who finished the game off. Assembling the perfect blend of experience with local talent created an incredible team spirit, and with the coaching staff of Chris Hughes and Martin Jones behind him, Gibson had taken Prestatyn Town into Europe.
— JD Welsh Premier League (@WPL_Official) January 24, 2018
Price departed, but journeyman striker Lee Hunt headlined the summer arrivals as the club prepared to compete in the Europa League, while the defence received a welcome boost with the return of local favourite Jack Lewis. A 2-1 defeat to Latvian outfit Liepajas Metalurgs in the opening leg at Rhyl suggested their European campaign may not last beyond the return leg, but more history was about to be made.
A spirited performance in the defeat had certainly given Prestatyn Town something to build on, but they slipped behind after 17 minutes in the return match. However, a red card for the Latvians midway through the second half offered hope, and when Ross Stephens’ equalised on 77 minutes, another goal would be enough to take the match to extra-time.
Gibson’s influence on Prestatyn Town up until this very moment of that match cannot be underestimated. From the time he arrived at the club, consistent progress had followed, and the continued signings and fine-tuning of his squad had been with the aim of qualifying for Europe. Welsh Cup success added extra romance to the story, and his contribution in every aspect of what was happening at the club was clear.
As injury-time approached, player-manager Gibson himself scored the winning goal on the night that would make it 3-3 on aggregate and take the match to extra-time. The timing of the goal against the 10-men of the home side proved psychologically huge. The match went to penalties, Gibson converted from the spot, the Latvians missed the decisive kick, and Prestatyn Town won the shoot-out 4-3.
With little time to celebrate, Gibson quickly had to prepare his side for the challenge of Croatian side HNK Rijeka in the next round, but it proved to be a step too far. With a multi-million pound playing budget at their disposal, Rijeka claimed a comfortable 8-0 aggregate victory, and Prestatyn Town’s European adventure came to an end. It was an incredible, memorable and lucrative time in their history.
— Connah's Quay Nomads (@the_nomads) January 25, 2018
But the cycle of success was coming to an end, and as changes off the field affected matters on it, the club narrowly avoided relegation that same season through a lack of eligible promotion candidates, but found themselves back in the Cymru Alliance by 2015. It was a period that represented the fine line between success and failure in the Welsh domestic game.
Coach Chris Hughes had left to take charge of Newtown not long after the Europa League campaign. Over the course of the next two years he had taken his new team to the Welsh Cup final and had qualified for the Europa League, winning the opening round against Maltese outfit Valletta. But while Hughes continued to embrace the rewards of success in the Welsh Premier League, his former club were rebuilding after a period of decline.
Prestatyn Town returned to the Welsh Premier League in 2017, and while Gibson remained manager, he was overseeing a much younger side that lacked the same level of talent and experience to what had brought so much success previously. It was a situation he accepted, and having achieved so much the first time around, there was no doubt he was excited about returning to the top-flight.
A dominant season in the Cymru Alliance brought an inevitable optimism for Prestatyn Town, but the Welsh Premier League continued to improve in their absence, and the side now find themselves in the bottom two as they head into the final 10 games of the campaign. In recent weeks, Gibson has cut a frustrated figure as decisions fail to go his way, but he has remained supportive and protective of his players.
But what Gibson couldn’t do was recreate the success his side had achieved before, and having experienced it once, there was always going to be a heartfelt belief that it could happen again. Gibson remained loyal to the club and his young team, but having accepted that this is now a different era for the club, the league and himself, it was time to end this particular chapter of his career and move on.
Connah’s Quay Nomads are a club defining the new Welsh Premier League era. A thriving academy system with a pathway to full-time professional football, manager Andy Morrison has an appreciation of what part Gibson can play in taking the club to the next level, and how vital his experience of success will be to them. However, Prestatyn Town will remain special to Gibson, and it is a feeling that will always be mutual.