A Welsh Premier League Odyssey: Part Four – Llanelli AFC vs Prestatyn Town
If there’s one thing aside from love spoons that Wales is known for, it’s probably the persistent rain. We’ve had a Sunday of untold downpours, to the extent where the game between Neath and Port Talbot had to be called off due to a waterlogged pitch. However, their more resilient rivals managed to brave the liquid bombardment and put a team out to face Prestatyn Town.
Stebonheath Park is home to Llanelli AFC, last year’s Welsh Cup winners. Llanelli returned to the Welsh Premier League in 2004. Their first season back in the top flight proved challenging, but after a few changes in the manager’s seat, the club settled and retained their Premier League status. The seasons that followed saw Llanelli perform consistently well as they were frequently competitors in European competition and often pushing for the title, achieving that once in 2007/8.
Currently player/manager at Llanelli is Andy Legg. Legg is a player with a wealth of experience playing for a host of clubs in the football league. He is also one of only a few players to have crossed the divide between south Wales rivals, Swansea and Cardiff, and come away being admired and respected by both clubs. Legg took the reins at the club in April 2009 and has managed to sustain their winning ways. His record speaks for itself, since Legg took over the team has suffered only eight defeats. For this season, Legg seems to be considering himself a backup player to the first team. The fans I spoke to believe he has resigned himself to being more of a manager and less of a player for they cannot recall seeing Legg out on the pitch since last season.
Prestatyn Town also have a player/manager in Neil Gibson. Unlike Legg, Gibson would surely have put himself in the team today had he not been suspended. It was 2008 when Prestatyn Town first joined the Welsh Premier League. Since then they have gone from strength to strength culminating in a top half finish last season and a probable top half finish this season.
Gibson happens to be Prestatyn’s top scorer so far this season, so it will be a loss not to have him on the field today. Llanelli are in a similar position as they are without their top scorer, Rhys Griffiths. The suspended Griffiths has been the Welsh Premier’s top scorer for the last six seasons, in his time at Llanelli he has so far averaged just over a goal per game. He currently stands at the top of the scorers table in the Welsh Premier, seven goals clear of his nearest rival with eighteen goals.
As Legg has stated in his pre-match conversation with the South Wales Evening Post, Griffiths is “pivotal” to their success, however he does feel that the squad is “good enough” to win a game without him. Gibson takes solace from last season’s game at Stebonheath Park, in which Prestatyn fought back from two – nil down to earn a two all draw. Both teams have an incentive to win this game; Llanelli can go top of the table with a win while Prestatyn will almost guarantee a top half finish if they are to take the points.
I hurriedly seek refuge from the torrential onslaught of rain in the one sheltered stand at Stebonheath Park. While awaiting the players to come out, I get the feeling the Halloween CD was left in the audio system as the crowd are treated to a medley of Ghostbusters, Thriller and something by Peter Gabriel. With a false sense of surprise, the stadium announcer reveals that the game between Neath and Port Talbot has been called off, he then goes on to announce the teams about to take to the pitch.
Last month, Stuart Jones of Llanelli was given the player of the month award. The crowd show their appreciation of this Llanelli stalwart’s efforts as he takes to the pitch. Jones was signed in 2005 and was the first full-time player the club had signed since the 1950’s. Fast approaching his two hundredth appearance for the club, Jones has become part of the thread which binds Llanelli AFC.
Before the match starts, the stadium announcer asks that the crowd observe a minute’s silence to remember the life of Gary Speed. Llanelli have not had a home game since the former Leeds star’s death, so this was their first opportunity to honour a man who was capped eighty five times by his country. Gary Speed’s passing prompted an outburst of emotion from the world of football and he will be sorely missed. The crowd at Llanelli observe the minute’s silence impeccably and once over, a round of applause ensues for the great man.
The whistle is blown for kick off, which seems to be audible to everyone except the Prestatyn players. The first attack of the game sees Lloyd Grist find space and play a ball overhead to Craig Williams. Llanelli’s Grist might have given his team an early chance had he played the ball a little earlier, but alas, the linesman flags for offside. Shortly afterwards, Grist is involved again but this time as the receiver of a hard tackle from Prestatyn’s Chris Davies. Davies’ tackle may have warranted a yellow card, but the ref keeps his cards in his pocket. Craig Williams takes the free kick, but before the ball meets the head of Stuart Jones, the referee blows for a foul in the box. It’s not long until Llanelli make this early domination count though. Prestatyn lose possession in midfield, the ball is collected by Craig Williams who runs the ball to the by-line before crossing in to the box. Jason Bowen manages to get a head to it and puts the ball in the bottom right hand corner of the goal. Llanelli take a one – nil lead after only six minutes.
Prestatyn are struggling to get the ball further than the midfield, succumbing to pressure before they are able to build a meaningful attack. Chad Bond skips past Prestatyn’s captain, Dave Hayes, after gaining possession from another failed attack. The crowd appreciate this display of skill and duly applaud. Against the tide, John Fisher-Cooke looks to level the scores as he’s given room to run on the right wing. Ashley Evans goes in with a challenge on him, the sodden pitch makes the tackle appear to be more reckless than Evans intended as he slides in. Fisher-Cooke does well to avoid the challenge, however, the referee feels the game cannot continue and brings play back for a free kick. Fisher-Cooke is clearly unhappy with the decision and he makes his feelings known. Ross Stephens takes the free kick which fails to find a team mate and Llanelli clear their lines comfortably.
With five minutes to go before half time, Prestatyn manage to break after spending the majority of the half resisting mounting pressure from the home side. They earn a free kick which is once again taken by Ross Stephens. Llanelli’s keeper, Ashley Morris, must’ve marvelled at the magnificence of such a free kick as he came out of his area and watched the ball drop behind him. In the brouhaha around the ball, Paul O’Neill manages to push it over the line and gives Prestatyn an equalising goal they scarcely deserve. The teams play out the remainder of the half on an even keel. Llanelli were unable to convert their first half dominance into goals, perhaps the second half will bring reward?
Cardiff and Swansea fans will be familiar with the former Welsh international, Jason Bowen. It’s probably been the best part of eight years since I last saw Bowen play and the thirty-nine year old is rolling back the years for me. In the first half, he has outrun, outplayed and outdone the opposition in almost every department. He’s exciting to watch and is involved with the most penetrating attacks for Llanelli. If Bowen can maintain his performance into the second half, he will surely drive Llanelli to victory and to the top of the Welsh Premier.
We are granted respite from the constant precipitation as the second half begins. Within minutes Llanelli’s Chad Bond picks Jason Bowen out with a pass that travels diagonally across the pitch. Bowen charges towards goal and unleashes a shot which hits the body of Dave Roberts in the Prestatyn goal. Roberts is unable to hold on to it and Chris Venables collects the loose ball, his shot is scuppered and pushed away to safety. Llanelli are once again the team that are dominating this game, and it isn’t long until they are rewarded. Antonio Corbisiero crosses into the box and finds an unmarked Craig Williams, not one to waste an opportunity, Williams drives the ball into the back of the net with a powerful shot and Llanelli go two – one ahead. Moments later, some poor defending sees Craig Williams once again unmarked inside the box, he scores his second in as many minutes and give his team a three – one advantage.
Bowen once again makes a run that the Prestatyn midfield cannot contain; this seems to be the final straw for Neil Gibson who decides it’s time to make substitutions. Ross Hannan and Carl Murray leave the field to be replaced with Dan Evans and Darren Hughes. This has an impact on the game as Prestatyn have a period of dominance; one such example of this comes about when Lee Surman gives away a free kick just outside the box, earning himself a yellow card in the process. Ross Stephens and Prestatyn captain Dave Hayes stand around the ball awaiting their chance to reduce the deficit. Stephens eventually takes the kick which ricochets off the wall and out for a corner. Prestatyn then go on to earn three successive corner kicks without reward, but this fighting display will surely concern the Llanelli fans hoping for a return to the top of the Welsh Premier League table.
In the eighty ninth minute, Jason Bowen is replaced with James Secker. Bowen walks off the pitch to the applause of the fans who have braved the miserable weather. The applause doesn’t seem worthy of the efforts Bowen has put in today, but I put this down to cold hands, for Bowen has been marvellous and definitely my man of the match.
Prestatyn take advantage of a Llanelli team that have gone to sleep in the dying minutes of this game. The substitute Stephen Harris finds himself in a one on one situation; his shot is blocked but not held by the Llanelli keeper. The ball falls to Ross Stephens who for all his effort today, probably deserves a goal. He duly delivers and Prestatyn set up a tense few moments before the final whistle as the deficit is reduced to one goal.
A frantic few minutes are played out before the final whistle but Llanelli manage to hold on to their lead and finish the game as three – two winners. While the scoreline might suggest a close game, it was only for fleeting moments during the game that Prestatyn were equal to Llanelli’s overwhelming dominance. A decent performance by the home side and a win that takes them to the summit of the Welsh Premier League.
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