A blog on the title rivals of The New Saints ahead of the new Welsh Premier League season.
Pre-season is well underway for the dozen clubs that make up the Welsh Premier League, but a third of the teams involved have already played competitive fixtures in Europe this summer, and there are early indications that the balance of power in the domestic top-flight could be about to change. The main rivals to champions The New Saints have seen their own European campaigns begin and end within the space of a week, but have shown enough in their respective UEFA Europa League ties to suggest that this could be one of the most competitive campaigns for a number of years.
The New Saints have enjoyed domestic domination in recent seasons, but the departures of manager Craig Harrison and coach Carl Darlington suggest that this could be a time of transition for the full-time outfit, and that there are clubs out there ready to capitalise on it. Scott Ruscoe has taken the reigns, and despite an early scare against the champions of Gibraltar, guided his side to the 2nd qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League before succumbing to a superior HNK Rijeka. Ruscoe may or may not be the person to oversee the Saints title defence, but the full-time outfit will need to be at their best this coming season as their rivals continue to work towards a title challenge.
Connah’s Quay Nomads made headlines with a hugely impressive 1-0 victory over HJK Helsinki in their opening Europa League qualifier, but having given the side from the Finnish capital a fright, the return match proved to be a much tougher proposition. A 3-0 reverse on the night did not surprise too many, and manager Andy Morrison admitted in the pre-match build-up that his side had already lost their element of surprise by their performance in the 1st leg. Regardless, this was a significant display from an ambitious club that continue to grow and improve both on and off the field, and their plans to bring in players on professional contracts suggests that their ambitions stretch much further than the odd European win.
The early indications are that Connah’s Quay Nomads are the team most likely to disrupt the Saints’ domination, but they remain a work in progress. Meanwhile, Bangor City are another club to declare lofty ambitions under their guidance of their new owners, and they will feel aggrieved at being unable to give a better account of themselves on the continent this summer. Their tie against Danish side Lyngby was always going to be a difficult test, but there was credibility in the 1-0 defeat suffered away from home in the opening match. However, captain Gary Roberts departed the club for Southport in the afternoon of the return leg, and an early injury to stand-in captain Paul Connolly further disrupted their plans as the Danes claimed a 3-0 victory to make it 4-0 on aggregate.
— Welsh Premier League (@WPL_Official) July 17, 2017
An early error gave Lyngby the advantage, but it was the capacity crowd as much as the performance that reaffirmed the potential for success at Nantporth, and a strong start to the new season will see the side regularly backed by attendances that other Welsh Premier League clubs can only dream of. Bangor City are an established club that have enjoyed success in both the English and Welsh pyramid systems. Now boasting impressive facilities to compliment the potential that exists at the club, there is every reason to believe that this could be the start of a new era of success for Bangor City. It is inevitable that the club will enjoy domestic success again, and the indications are that this new era may have already begun.
Finally, Bala Town remain one of the friendliest clubs in the Welsh Premier League, and their success is often celebrated far beyond their humble base. Their story over the course of the last decade or so is testament to the commitment and support of a dedicated few, and they are now reaping the rewards. Manager Colin Caton was left frustrated as his side suffered a 2-1 defeat to FC Vaduz in the opening leg of their Europa League tie as his players failed to settle into game immediately, and then squandered chances as they looked to make amends after the break. The hot conditions of Liechtenstein offered another element to contend with in the return match, and a 5-1 aggregate defeat followed.
— Bala Town F.C. (@BalaTownFC) July 20, 2017
However, Bala Town showed last season that they can challenge The New Saints, as their memorable Welsh Cup final victory denied Harrison and his side an unprecedented ‘treble-treble’. Summer fine-tuning has already begun at Maes Tegid, with Caton experienced to know what is required to compete at the top of Welsh Premier League. Les Davies, Evan Horwood and Glenn Rule are amongst the notable additions to Caton’s squad in recent weeks, while the return of Jordan Evans is a clear statement of intent from a club that have emerged as one of the Welsh Premier League’s biggest success stories from their rise through the Welsh football pyramid.
In addition, former champions Barry Town have finally returned to the top-flight, but for now their intentions will be on avoiding the bottom of the table rather than to challenge at the top. Llandudno have impressed in their short time in the league and have already had the taste for European football, while Newtown have consistently punched above their modest budget in recent seasons. Cardiff Met bring an alternative professionalism to the league, and Prestatyn Town manager Neil Gibson is another who knows what the league is all about. These are exciting times in the Welsh Premier League, and while The New Saints will be looking over their shoulder, the rest of us will be looking on with great interest.