That the English Premier League show arrive at a showdown like this. Today is the final day of the season in the Welsh Premier League, and the two teams at the top of the table, Bangor City and The New Saints, are playing each other for the league title. Going into the match, TNS are a point clear of Bangor, meaning that a draw will lift them the championship, but a home win will take the Welsh championship to Bangor for the first time in over a decade and a half. With the league championship comes a more prosaic reward than honour, as well. A place in next year’s Champions League – albeit in the qualifying round – awaits the winners, while the runners-up go into the Europa League. For clubs running on the sort of budget that WPL clubs run, this is likely to mean a significant amount of money.
It is one of the quirks of Welsh league football that Bangor City have contrived to go fifteen years without a league championship. The club had an honorable history within the English pyramid until the early 1990s, including four seasons in what we now call the Blue Square Premier and and appearance in the FA Trophy final in 1984, where they only lost to Northwich Victoria in a replay, after drawing the first match at Wembley. A sense of the size of the club can still be seen from their crowds, which remain considerably higher than anybody else’s in the league. Their average home crowd this season before this match has been 736, whichc compares with a league-wide average of 339. They have only lost three matches in the league this season, but one of those was away to TNS in March. When the Football Association of Wales restructured the league to twelve clubs for the start of this season, it is just possible that this sort of grandstand finish that they had in mind.
The end of the season brings a unique atmosphere to football matches. Quite aside from the nervous energy that can be heard, manifesting itself from the crowd, the pleasant conditions and dry, slightly bumpy pitch gives the game a hyper-real, almost cartoonish quality. The players struggle to get proper control of a ball that leaps up every time it hits the ground. It feels, though, as if Bangor are reacting better to the conditions and the pressure and the match settles into a tempo of waves of Bangor attacks, although the ball seems to get stuck under their strikers feet once it reaches the penalty area. TNS are cagey, as if they believe that their best hope of winning the league will be to play out for a goalless draw and try to hit Bangor on the occasional break. One angled shot across the face of goal that fizzes narrowly wide is as much as they have to show for the opening forty-five minutes, yet, at half-time, they still hold the advantage.
After an encouraging opening ten minutes, Bangor City are struggling to find an opening. It feels as their best chance of unpicking the lock of the TNS defence will be to try and play their way through it. Instead, however, they go direct and this has its costs. Long, diagonal balls into the penalty area are too easily gathered by the TNS goalkeeper and, moreover, it feels as if this route is not going to reap them any great rewards. Fifteen minutes in the second half, a nicely-threaded through-ball almost lets one of their strikers, but his mis-controls and the ball runs comfortably through to the goalkeeper. Midway through the second half, though, comes the breakthrough. A corner from the right-hand side is flicked on at the the near post and midfielder Craig Garside gets ahead of his marker and manages to turn a ball that seems to be escaping behind him past the TNS goalkeeper and into the bottom corner of the net.
With this goal, of course, the whole timbre of the match flips on its head. This afternoon has been a straightforward shoot-out from the start, but it is now TNS (full name, The New Saints of Oswestry Town & Llansantffraid) who now need a goal to take the title back to Oswestry and/or Llansantffraid. The goal, however, has settled Bangor and the home side keep pushing for a second goal, with one particularly good chance coming with ten minutes left to play, but a rushed shot flies a couple of feet over the TNS crossbar after some decent approach play. TNS continue to threaten – Matthew Berkeley cuts in from the left but wraps his foot around the ball and sends it wide of the post and, with four minutes to play a looping header across goal has to be cleared off the line by a TNS defender.
The final minutes of the match are as much of a test of nerve most footballers could hope to experience, but as TNS finally start to show some of the urgency that may have served them well earlier in the match it feels as if the Bangor defence can cope comfortably with somewhat desperate and one-dimensional long balls being launched into their penalty area. Even with five minutes of stoppage time to play, TNS don’t offer a genuinely serious threat to the Bangor goal, and with the final whistle comes a genuine and heartfelt celebration, a pitch invasion to mob a group of players that have managed what so many others have failed quite to manage over the last decade and a half or so. TNS have played it tactically wrong this afternoon, and have paid arguably the ultimate price for it. For the first time since 1995, Bangor City are the champions of Wales.
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