Darlington represents a shift in Bangor City recruitment

Players Welsh Premier League

A feature on the wider implications of Alex Darlington’s move to Bangor City.

After a decade of success at JD Welsh Premier League champions The New Saints, Alex Darlington has made the switch to ambitious Bangor City in one of the more interesting moves of the domestic transfer window. There has been a revolving door of recruitment at Nantporth in recent months, but now the Citizens have made a clear statement of intent with their latest arrival.

Bangor City’s ambitions were made clear when Gary Taylor-Fletcher arrived at the club last January, and now working alongside manager Kevin Nicholson, the club have brought in a number of players from outside of the Welsh pyramid system during the course of the last year. Some have stayed and some have left. Some have impressed, some have not.

Heading into the final ten games of the Welsh Premier League season, the side are just two points off an automatic UEFA Europa League place, and will play fifth-tier outfit Penydarren BGC at home in the quarter-final of the JD Welsh Cup. It has been another season of progress for the side after winning the play-off final last season to book themselves a European place.

Former Swansea City and Nottingham Forest striker James Demetriou was a headline signing for Bangor City earlier in the season, and while he has now made way for Darlington, he will remain in the Welsh Premier League having agreed a switch to Barry Town United. A tale of two attacking players, it is their respective experience that represents a shift in Bangor City’s approach to strengthening their squad.

Like Demetriou, recent additions like Joel Bembo-Leta, Anderson Cayola, George Harry, Steven Hewitt, Tom Kennedy, Brayden Shaw, Luke Wall, George Harry and Yves Zama are amongst a string of players that have arrived at Nantporth with no prior experience of playing in the Welsh Premier League. That is not to say that they are not suitably equipped to do so, but their backgrounds contrast greatly to that of their latest headline signing.

Likewise, Nicholson and Taylor-Fletcher are relative newcomers to the domestic top-flight, but having found their feet in the domestic game, they now appear to be taking the first steps towards a change in transfer policy that has served ambitious Welsh Premier League clubs well in the past. A welcome boost to Bangor City, Alex Darlington’s departure is a loss to The New Saints.

It was over a decade ago now that Llanelli became the noisy neighbours of the domestic top-flight. A cash injection turned the club full-time almost overnight, and accompanying a string of Spanish additions to the squad were a selection of the best players from their rivals. Rather than look further afield, Llanelli weakened their opponents to strengthen their own squad, and it made their title challenge that much easier.

Of course, that era didn’t last for the Stebonheath club, but it was a memorable time for both the club and the Welsh Premier League. The carrot of European football requires financial risk, and too many clubs have suffered in their relentless pursuit of the only reward that offers a viable financial return. It is a situation that has created an established ‘boom and bust’ pattern since the league began back in 1992.

There is no doubt that Bangor City are a club with ambition, and the challenge now is to make an impression on the early rounds in Europe once qualification has been achieved. It is a tough task, but bringing in players with experience of the professional game will put them in a good position to do so. However, domestic success requires a slightly different approach.

After a decade of service, Darlington has found his opportunities limited at The New Saints this season, but he remains an exceptionally talented player who has consistently been one of the unsung stars of the league since he arrived at the club as a teenager from Wrexham in 2008. In addition to a string of league titles and trophies, he has also featured for the club in a total of 19 European fixtures.

But while Darlington’s European experience will be invaluable to Bangor City, it is his domestic experience, and experience of success, that could be crucial for his new club in the final ten games of the season. Unlike the other recent arrivals, Darlington understands the league, its clubs and its players, and will hit the ground running when his side take on play-off rivals Cardiff Met on Saturday.

Bangor City remain very much in contention for a Europa League place this season, either through the Welsh Premier League or the Welsh Cup, but they are 14 points behind champions and leaders The New Saints. A situation only made worse by their contrasting goal difference. Retaining the title already appears little more than a formality for Scott Ruscoe’s side, as much as they wouldn’t dare to admit it.

But it is next season that will prove to be the most interesting, and especially how clubs like Bangor City prepare for it. The Welsh Premier League has welcomed a number of new players from the English pyramid and beyond this season with mixed results, and it can prove to be a tougher challenge than some outsiders expect it to be. Meanwhile, others have immediately raised the standard of the league with their quality.

However, it is the signing of Alex Darlington that may offer an insight into what we should expect from the leading clubs next summer, and it may well prove to be more of a case of investing in proven Welsh Premier League success and experience with the added bonus of weakening their immediate rivals. It is not a new formula.

The Welsh Premier League remains an attractive option for young players released from professional clubs looking for a platform to showcase their talent, but it is European football that matters to clubs and that will always be the overriding ambition. How Darlington fares at Bangor City will be closely watched, and he could shape a general shift in transfer policy ahead of the new season.