Cardiff City supporter Neil Mace lives next door to The Cardiff City Stadium, so the Welsh Premier League isn’t something that had previously occurred to him as a good idea. Last weekend, however, he took the plunge and this is what he found out.
As a Cardiff City fan, the Welsh Premier League has previously escaped my interest. With the Cardiff City Stadium on my doorstep, I’ve not had to travel far to watch a decent level of football being played (allegedly). The league itself is relatively new, formed in the early nineties to counter threats to the Welsh national team. Some of the member nations of FIFA resented Wales’ independent membership as they did the other home nations. They used the fact that Wales’ biggest clubs competed in the English pyramid system as a contradiction of Wales’ independent status.The first time the league rose to prominence in my mind was when TNS had a play-off against Liverpool for a place in the preliminary stages of the Champions League. It had never occurred to me that the seemingly humble Welsh Premier League was a means of qualifying for a European competition. TNS ultimately lost the two legs of this play-off, but the performance they put in surprised me, and although the score line would not flatter them, it wasn’t at all the second-rate football I’d expected. Welsh Premier League teams have never been wholly successful in Europe, the first team to win a Champions League tie was the now relegated Barry Town. In 2001 they managed to beat the champions of Azerbaijan, FC Shamkir, who have only managed to take one scalp in five European ties themselves. The champions of the league are awarded a place in the Champions League (surprisingly), second and third place earns you a qualifying spot in the Europa League.
The two teams I’ve watched this weekend have both qualified for European competition this season; unfortunately both have suffered heavy defeats over two legs. Bangor City were at the wrong end of 13-0 thrashing, whilst Neath lost 6-1 in their inaugural outing in Europe. Bangor have the more illustrious history in the Welsh Premier League and must be favourites going into the match, there have been six meetings between these two clubs in the last two seasons, Neath have only managed a single victory, losing the remaining fixtures. The summer saw Neath appoint Terry Boyle as manager, replacing Peter Nicholas who will now work alongside Boyle in the assistant manager’s position. Boyle played for numerous clubs during his playing days, including Crystal Palace, Cardiff City and Swansea City. Along the way he managed to pick up two caps for Wales. Neath have been in the process of building a team capable of winning championships, this has included a forming a partnership with Swansea City which has allowed them access to some promising players from their youth system, Boyle is that latest piece in this building process.
As somebody used to Championship football, it was refreshing to see the teams run out for the kick off as opposed to the formality of lining up and shaking hands. It was also refreshing to hear Europe’s ‘Final Countdown’ play as the teams ran out, it just doesn’t get enough airplay these days. As the teams take to the field, I try to make a judgement as to what formation they might be playing. Neath look to be utilising an attacking 4-3-3 whilst the away side seem to have taken a formation unheard of outside of Bangor, with the forwards both standing on the right wing. After kick off it soon becomes clear this is part of Bangor’s attacking strategy as the two forwards sprint towards the opposition goal trying to collect an aerial ball which doesn’t quite reach them. The first twenty minutes of the game is a bit of stalemate as both teams fail to assemble a worthwhile attack, the only exception to this is when Lee Trundle collects an errant pass and charges towards goal only to be brought down earning Neath a free kick.
Lee Trundle is by far the highest profile player Neath have on their books and signing him was a massive coup for the club. Having played for Swansea City, Bristol City and Leeds United before joining Neath, he is a player with much experience in the football league. As you might expect from a player who is approaching his 35th birthday though, he seems a little past his best. Trundle still has that ever important first touch, but seems to have lost that second and third touch required for retaining possession, I’ve seen him lose possession more often than not so far in this game. Trundle sets the ball down for the free kick and when the whistle is blown he slides it gently to Chris Jones (of which there are two on the pitch, I’m referring to the one playing for Neath) who lofts the ball into the box. The ball is collected by Kerry Morgan who fires an erratic shot under pressure which only manages to find the garden of a house adjacent to the stadium.
In Chris Jones, Kerry Morgan and Lee Trundle; Neath have a trio of forwards that are more than capable of propelling this team to the summit of the league. In the latter part of the first half they pressed and bullied the champions in the most imposing manner. Kerry Morgan in particular is a player who seems to have an abundance of energy and the ability to terrorise defences with his bursts up the left wing. Morgan joined Neath on a permanent basis at the beginning of the season after being loaned to numerous clubs whilst at Swansea. His history says that he has not been the most prolific forward in front of goal, something he has set out to disprove as he continues to push for the opener. Shots follow from Jones and Morgan. Jones hits a ferocious shot that Bangor keeper Lee Idzi can only push over the cross bar, the resulting corner doesn’t directly lead to a shot but Morgan pounces on a loose ball only to get a fairly tame shot away. Idzi somehow spills the ball in what should’ve been a straightforward stop but saves his blushes by collecting the ball before it ended up in the net.
The first half comes to a close without Bangor looking anywhere near as threatening as their opponents; the champions aren’t yet living up to their title. The only notable attack was when Sion Edwards makes a well timed pass to Chris Jones (of Bangor), only for him to turn the ball just wide of goal. The players go in for half time with the score line sitting at nil-nil. During the half-time break the raffle is drawn, I get my numbers out to discover I have not won, although I’m not too disappointed when I’m told the top prize is £10. I also take the time to read through the match day programme; the one thing that catches my attention is that the stadium will be hosting a festival the following weekend. Gnollfest will have all your favourites, including Terrorvision, The Bluetones and Neil Buchanan’s (yes, the guy from Art Attack) Marseille. I might just find myself back at the Gnoll sooner than expected.
Bangor City have brought a healthy contingent of support with them from North Wales and they are in full voice as the teams march back out, once again to the ‘Final Countdown’. Just as the first half ended, Neath are on the attack again. Chris Jones demonstrates admirable skill to get a shot away that can only be parried, the ball falls to Paul Fowler whose shot is picked up comfortably by the Bangor Keeper. There’s a scary moment for the home support when Neath keeper Lee Kendall’s distribution is brought into question as he kicks straight to Bangor forward Les Davies. Davies takes a touch and lines himself up for a shot, with Neath’s Jack Lewis charging him down he takes the shot promptly only to have it fly far wide of left post, much to the delight of the home crowd. The second half sees the card count start to mount, not that this has been a particularly violent or disruptive game. Match referee Mark Whitby, was not putting up with any arguments as the majority of cards were issued for dissent. The home side found themselves issued with six yellow cards after 65 minutes of play. During the card issuing frenzy comes the day’s first substitute, of which the numbers are displayed by holding two sheets of A4 paper. Neath’s Luke Bowen leaves the field to be replaced by Craig Hughes.
The game presses on with pressure mounting on the visitors. Kerry Morgan is starting to come back into the game after having a quiet second half so far. The first evidence of this was a sweetly played through ball to Lee Trundle which Trundle could only fire wide. Shortly afterwards the two players linked up again, this time Trundle collecting an overhead pass and feinting a shot to dispel the Bangor defence. A soft tap of the ball to his right finds Morgan who has come steaming in from midfield; he takes the ball around the keeper and slots it in from the acutest of angles. Neath go one-nil up and Morgan celebrates by performing a Robert Earnshaw style forward flip. The Bangor fans are at their quietest as the teams align for the restart. Shortly after this Trundle attempts an audacious chip from beyond the halfway line as he spots Lee Idzi off his line, it looks close as the ball drops towards goal but ultimately goes just wide. Bangor finally start to look menacing as they push forward Craig Garside chases down a ball which falls between him and Neath keeper Lee Kendall. Bodies collide and the ball trickles over the by-line for a corner. The corner is taken and cleared up field. It’s not long until Neath manage to break through the Bangor defence again for their second goal of the day. Lee Trundle is involved again this time setting up the substitute Craig Hughes for a close range shot. Neath are two-nil up whilst Bangor seemed to be coming back into the game.
The closing minutes of the game see Neath more likely to get their third than Bangor scoring at all. Kerry Morgan is substituted late on and walks off to a standing ovation. For me he has been the man of the match, his consistency, determination and seemingly perpetual energy has endeared him to the fans and he was a joy to watch. Lee Trundle has also had a good second half after a fairly mediocre start to the game; he was involved with the best attacking moves Neath put together and played a crucial role in both of the goals. The whistle is blown and Neath have secured all three points against the champions, who have looked poor today. Neath now have two wins from two and go straight to the top of the table as the only team to win their opening two fixtures.
Next weekend Neath will try to make it three out of three in an away game against neighbours Afan Lido, who have lost their opening two fixtures. Bangor are at home against Aberystwyth who are above them on goal difference alone. There was a survey completed by the BBC recently about the affordability of matches in the football league, the question being can you have a day out at the football which includes your match day ticket, a pie, a drink and a programme for less than £20? Well, you can do all that in the Welsh Premier League for around £10. This match exceeded my expectations of the WPL and I would encourage anyone who finds themselves in the vicinity of one of the twelve clubs in the league to make an effort to at least see a game this season. As for this weekend… I’ll be at Gnollfest.