Neath 1-1 Llanelli – Welsh Premier League – 18th January 2011
Our Welsh wizard Mark Pitman visits The Gnoll for a local derby on a cold Tuesday night:-
The Manchester City of the Principality Welsh Premier League welcomed rivals Llanelli to The Gnoll for what would be the second of five successive home games for the noisy neighbours of the top-flights South Wales clubs. Recent signing Matthew Rees, who captained Port Talbot Town in the UEFA Europa League earlier this season, was handed his first start in the all-black colours of the Eagles, but it was the actions of the traditional man in black that would be the subject of controversy at the end of this much-anticipated derby match.
As with most South Wales derbies in the Welsh Premier League, there was a strong Swansea City influence on show for the 500-plus crowd. The alternative option of watching Cardiff City on TV no doubt had some influence on generating the decent Swans-based attendance that Neath had asked for in the match programme, but their optimism was not matched at the turnstile, as only one gate was open as the crowd queued down Gnoll Road as the kick off quickly approached. Another popular theme with derbies in the Welsh Premier League are the sub-plots involving managers, coaches and players who have connections with both clubs and again this match was no different. Former Arsenal, Chelsea and Wales star Peter Nicholas is one of the many backroom staff that occupy the Neath technical area on a matchday, and for this derby he would be up against Llanelli manager Andy Legg, the player he signed while he was manager of Llanelli, and who subsequently replaced him in his job.
Between Nicholas, Legg and Legg’s assistant Steve Jenkins, the trio are veterans of almost 1,500 Football League games and just under 100 International appearances for Wales. Add to the mix a number of ex-professional players on both sides and there is no doubt that the match had all the ingredients to be an entertaining one. It started brightly, and as the ever-increasing crowd eventually worked their way through the turnstile, Llanelli had already squandered an early chance while Neath had exposed the lack of pace in the visitors back-line and had twice come close to opening the scoring. A late challenge from Llanelli striker Rhys Griffiths on Neath defender James Burgin added some derby spice and a significant yellow card to the occasion, and there were signs that the increased profile enjoyed by the league this season, could be about to spark a new era of entertaining football.
The game soon settled down however, mainly through the officious officiating of referee Mark Whitby, and Neath unnecessarily resorted to their usual approach of playing the ball long to Lee Trundle. While the Llanelli defensive dup of Wyn Thomas and captain Stuart Jones are not the quickest, they are intelligent footballers that are also decent in the air. Every long ball forward was read by the pair, leaving Trundle and his strike partner Chad Bond frustrated figures who rued their missed opportunities from earlier in the match with each aimless punt that was loosely aimed at them. Llanelli began to control the game and took the lead on 24 minutes as a cross from the left was slotted in at the back post by midfielder Chris Venables, Llanelli had found a chink in the home defence and almost added a second in similar style minutes later.
A tackle by Llanelli midfielder Chris Holloway on Kristian O’Leary brought an unnecessary yellow card from Whitby, and resulted in O’Leary spending the remainder of the half stalking Holloway, like a vulture circling its prey and waiting for the right opportunity to strike. The half-time break brought more retro-but-not-retro-enough-to-be-considered-cool-retro music from The Gnoll DJ deck and also a substitution for the home side as central defender Liam Hancock was replaced by winger Liam Thomas. The move made sense, as O’Leary was dropped back to the centre of defence and away from Holloway, while substitute Thomas could provide the much needed pace to expose Llanelli at the back.
Unfortunately the long balls for Trundle continued but there was controversy at the other end as Rhys Griffiths appeared to be clearly held back as he attempted to jump for a cross by referee Whitby waved away the appeals. For the whistle-happy man in yellow it initially appeared a simple call but after taking a long look and ignoring the protests of the Llanelli bench play continued with another route-one pass. On-loan winger Craig Williams then came close to adding a second with the best move of the game as he found himself in space after some fine work on the left by Jason Bowen but as he stretched at the back post he could only direct the ball over the terrace wall behind the goal. Llanelli were on top and Neath were becoming increasingly frustrated across the park. Andy Legg’s side were on course for an eighth consecutive competitive win.
But then something significant happened on 76 minutes. Neath introduced substitute Kevin Cooper. A experienced professional who generated almost £2m in transfer fees during his career, Cooper, 35, fits in with the new-money image that Neath portray. While his Football League days are now behind him, he showed in 14 minutes that his Welsh Premier League career has some distance remaining, and that for all Neath’s big name signings he could yet prove to be one of the most important, as his arrival triggered the start of Neath playing to their own strengths and against the weaknesses of Llanelli.
Although he was not instrumental in every move, Cooper kept the ball on the floor and it encouraged players such as Trundle and Chris Jones to use their ability against the suspect pace of the Llanelli defence. Within minutes Trundle was brought down on the edge of the area by Wyn Thomas after a searching run from the right, minutes later a run from Burgin on the left generated a cross that Matthew Rees almost headed home an equaliser from. Llanelli were rattled by the new approach, having comfortably restricted and frustrated the home side, they were now up against it. Neath now had the game plan but did they have the time?
On 86 minutes another cross from the left bounced dangerously in the Llanelli area, a crowded box jockeyed for possession before the ball was eventually cleared, but as both sets of the players made their way further up the field an ominous whistle blew and referee Whitby could be clearly seen to be pointing at the penalty spot as the crowded area dispersed. There were no appeals from Neath, there were reasons why there would be, but the home side now had their chance to equalise. After having a blatant penalty call turned down earlier in the half, Llanelli were now on the wrong end of another travesty of justice, and Trundle made no mistake from the gifted spot-kick.
Earlier in the match Neath had also introduced their own veteran in Andy Hill, a significant figure from their Welsh League days, Hill remains a part of the Eagles squad but his biggest impact on the game was a reckless yet unpunished tackle on Rhys Griffiths as Neath pushed forward against a deflated Llanelli for the winner. The yellow card shown to Griffiths in the opening exchanges would now prove significant as his protests over the tackle saw him dismissed as things continued to fall apart for the Reds. Another whistle from Whitby then followed as he signalled for full-time and for Legg, his coaches and players to form an un-orderly queue to discuss the events of the last few minutes.
Neath have spent big and the pressure is now on them to produce performances and ultimately results worthy of their profile. This display showed neither. Llanelli had enjoyed a similar financial boom in 2006 and the arrival of their Spanish contingent at the time brought a new spark and flair to the league that Neath were expected to at least emulate with their summer signings. Llanelli went onto become Welsh Premier League champions in 2008 and with a number of that title winning squad still at the club they have shown a level of sustainability with this dominant performance against their noisy neighbours. Neath currently have the money, the players and after taking a point from this derby, a great deal of luck. If they are to enjoy the success that a financial influx brought Llanelli however, they need a team, and not just a collection of names and reputations.
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