The close of a football season usually brings about some interesting ties. These can come in the form of title deciders or battles to avoid relegation. One such clash that took place on the last day of regular fixtures in the Welsh Premier League was between Port Talbot and Carmarthen Town. Carmarthen need to take points from this game to give themselves a chance of finishing outside the bottom two and thus avoid relegation, but things are never that straightforward in the Welsh Premier League.
Just as last season, the title will be decided in a fixture between The New Saints and Bangor City. Once again, this fixture will be played on the last weekend of regular fixtures, only this time around, TNS have the advantage of being at home. Bangor have had another brilliant season and the part-timers will be looking to retain their title against their full-time opponents from Oswestry.
As a brawl for the title takes place in the north, Port Talbot is host to a scrap for safety as Carmarthen aim to avoid the drop zone. Exactly how far up the table that drop zone extends is yet to be determined, but Carmarthen won’t want to tempt providence. Since Tomi Morgan’s departure from Richmond Park, the club has improved on its early season form. The twenty-two games before the league split saw them take only thirteen points, the nine games since has seen them earn sixteen points, three more could stave off relegation.
Mark Jones’ men had recently secured another season in the top flight by taking a point away at Newtown, a result which condemned the Robins to finish bottom of the table. Jones admitted the season had not met his expectations in the programme notes, identifying that Port Talbot cannot compete with four or five teams in the division that operate on a big budget. However, he does expect them to fare better next season and be up there pushing for a place in Europe.
As Len the trumpet player practices his scales in preparation for the ultimate game of the season, the teams walk out to applause and an almost mute PA system. Cortez Belle casts a menacing shadow over his opponents as he pushes the captain’s armband firmly into position. Today he starts at centre-half, which may come as a relief to the opposition’s defence. Belle has proved himself versatile this season and is a strong figure in either defence or attack.
The first attack of the match sees Port Talbot’s David Brooks thread a ball through to Martin Rose, who tries to take it round Carmarthen’s Nicky Palmer. Palmer is successful in obstructing the forward thinking Rose, but fails to prevent conceding a corner kick. The Steelmen’s captain jumps highest to meet the ball, but Belle can only put his effort just wide of the post.
Carmarthen respond as Nicky Palmer finds a gap to place a perfectly weighted ball in front of the Old Gold’s man up front, Jack Christopher. Christopher, realising he is unmarked, pushes forward and strikes to beat the keeper from close range. No celebration comes though as the linesman had raised his flag not long after the ball was received by Christopher.
An offside decision saved Port Talbot from going behind early, but elsewhere, goals were being conceded. After ten minutes, things were going Carmarthen’s way at Park Avenue as Newtown scored the opening goal to give them the lead against Aberystwyth. Fortune was not favouring Bangor at Park Hall as they found themselves two goals down against The New Saints in the opening stages.
Improved on field performances for Port Talbot in the latter part of this season are mirrored by improved musical performances in the stands. Len the trumpet has clearly been practicing since my last visit as he sounds off an almost recognisable melody. Len is joined by a percussionist with what can only be described as sporadic timing. As the beat stumbles on, Port Talbot find themselves under increasing pressure, particularly from Jonathon Hood. Hood has been the stand out player so far this half and he tries to impress me further as he attempts an audacious shot from about thirty yards out. Hood caught the ball sweetly on the volley, but couldn’t bring the shot down far enough to hit the target as it flies over the crossbar.
Carmarthen soon reap the rewards of consistent pressure. Corey Thomas wallops the ball past Kristian Rogers in the Port Talbot goal to take the away team one – nil up. A weight is visibly lifted from the shoulders of the Carmarthen players as their relegation worries ease.
Port Talbot’s top scorer, Martin Rose, is having a torrid time as he struggles to penetrate a stubborn Carmarthen defence. Rose is seemingly floored in the eighteen yard box after receiving an accurate pass from Lee John. The referee doesn’t give a thought to the possibility of a penalty, much to the dismay of 1901 Ultras (hardened Port Talbot fans) watching from the near-by stand.
At half-time, Rose is given a lecture by his gaffer before he morosely walks off the pitch. Carmarthen have been the most positive team to this point. If they had played like this from the beginning of the campaign, they could’ve been further up the table and in contention for a European play-off place. As it stands though, they are still destined to finish in the bottom two with Aberystwyth leading against Newtown. The title decider at Park Hall may have already been settled at half time as TNS have put three past Bangor City without reply.
Just before the second half begins, we are treated to some half-time entertainment. A long term fan of the reasonably priced pie & chips in the clubhouse removes his top and runs the length of the pitch to take a penalty. Laughter ensues as he scuffs his shot tamely wide of the post. As he walks from the pitch to reclaim his attire, the players realign for the second-half.
After a short period of Carmarthen dominance, Port Talbot start to match them. David Brooks uses a deft touch to find some space and pass to Paul Keddle for a cross into the box. Martin Rose continues his poor form in this match by finding himself out of position for this cross. The ball goes meekly out of play and Mark Jones has seen enough. Rose is taken off along with Chris Hartland and brought into the fray are Leigh DeVulgt and Richard Greaves. Rose’s woeful afternoon is brought to an end, a disappointment for him today, but not a disappointing season as he finishes as top scorer for the club.
Cortez Belle has now been moved up front to take up the role of target man. This almost pays dividends immediately as he skips past the goal scorer Corey Thomas for a shot on goal. Carmarthen’s keeper, Mike Lewis, is equal to the shot as he traps the ball and falls to the floor with it clutched to his chest.
Not wanting to be without a target man of their own, Carmarthen have brought on their January signing, Julian Alsop. The thirty-eight year old came out of retirement earlier this year to play for the Old Gold. The man who was once described as a “gristly old fatty lump of lard” by a former manager is certainly a big enough target for Carmarthen up front.
The introduction of Alsop seems to inspire some confidence in Carmarthen as they make a rare attack. Nicky Palmer manages to control a ball that has fallen towards him from height. Contorting his body, he manages to fend off would be attackers and pass sublimely to Jonathan Hood. The Port Talbot defence mistakenly protest that Hood is offside which gives him the opportunity to shoot. The ball swings in the air and smashes the right post.
The Situation at Park Avenue had improved for Carmarthen as Newtown had scored an equaliser, but Aberystwyth had fought back with a controversial goal. Andy Jones had been adjudged to have put the ball into the back of his own net, although Newtown argued that it hadn’t crossed the line. The goal stood and Aberystwyth were now three – two better off.
The final whistle is blown and Carmarthen get the win they were looking for. Three points secured but it’s not enough to keep them out of the bottom two as Aberystwyth’s controversial third goal turns out to be the winning one. The title has been decided as TNS put five past a lacklustre Bangor. As for relegation, it will be decided not by on-field performances, but by who can secure a domestic licence.
The newly crowned champions, TNS, are one of two teams in the Welsh Premier League not to have gained a domestic licence in the first instance. They along with Neath, appealed, but only TNS were successful in gaining a domestic licence. Neath’s relegation ensures Carmarthen’s safety. Promotion to the Welsh Premier League is earned by a team with a domestic licence that finishes in the top two of either the Huws Gray Alliance (north Wales) or the Macwhirter Welsh League Division One (south Wales). This year there will be no team that gets promoted from the south. Havefordwest came close but were beaten to second place by Taffs Well on goal difference. Gap Connah’s Quay will be promoted from the north.
So, a reprieve for Newtown and Carmarthen as only one team is promoted, finishing in the bottom two is not met with the punishment of relegation for these clubs. Domestic licencing having an impact on promotion and relegation is not a rare occurrence in the WPL, fans of Rhyl will will be well aware of that. Just as Neath this season, Rhyl failed to gain a domestic licence in the 2009/10 season which, coincidentally, also spared Newtown from relegation. Bala Town were last season able to retain their WPL place thanks to the champions of the Huws Gray Alliance failing in their application for a domestic licence.
Whilst it’s a relief for the likes of Newtown and Carmarthen, does their redemption damage the image of the Welsh Premier League? Only three clubs outside of the Welsh Premier League currently hold a domestic licence, as such, it’s quite likely that this situation will occur again and again.