Neath 2-1 Port Talbot Town – Welsh Premier League – 8th February 2011 by Mark Pitman
The introduction of a mid-season split in the Principality Welsh Premier League this season has been a much-debated and confusingly criticised idea, but this local derby at The Gnoll in front of one of the biggest crowds of the season made the decision more than justified as this Tuesday night encounter on a wet Tuesday in February produced a highly entertaining match. Port Talbot Town went into the game needing at least a point to guarantee a place in the top six for the second half of the season and also to avenge a home defeat against their rivals earlier in the campaign, while Neath, and their collection of superstars, were determined to continue their run of form and increase the pressure on the clubs at the top of the table.
Port Talbot Town manager Mark Jones went into the match without two of his most influential players as captain Liam McCreesh sat out the derby through suspension having been sent off the weekend before while striker Martin Rose, the clubs top scorer for the last few seasons, suffered a re-occurrence of the groin injury that has forced him to miss a number of games already this season. As with most derbies in the Welsh Premier League there was the usual former club twist, this time it was Neath defender Matthew Rees, who earlier in the season had captained Port Talbot Town in their first ever European campaign.
Despite the wind, rain and the alternative option of watching Wales under new manager Gary Speed take on the Republic of Ireland in Dublin, a crowd of 845 were in attendance. The most notable figure in the crowd being Swansea City manager Brendan Rodgers who had a primary interest in Port Talbot Town as two of his clubs players in goalkeeper David Cornell and striker Casey Thomas are currently on-loan at The GenQuip Stadium and both were named in the starting line-up as the two sides took to the field.
The usual entourage of Port Talbot Town fans made their way into their regular section of The Gnoll with the well-recognised trumpeting apparent from the kick off. The away terrace had started brightly with a solid performance, but on the field it was a different story as Neath striker Chris Jones watched his long-range effort sail over the bar before the home side took the lead when defender Paul Cochlin was left unmarked at the back post at a corner and was able to head home with ease. A top six place already seemed a big ask for the visitors, despite them remaining in sixth place whatever the result on the night. A defeat however would allow Aberystwyth Town to overtake them with a victory at bottom of the table Haverfordwest County on Saturday. Port Talbot quickly needed to find a way into the game.
Within six minutes of the re-start the scores were level. On-loan Swansea City striker Casey Thomas must have caught a glance of his parent club manager in the stands and with it a potential new contract as he picked up the ball on the right of midfield and weaved his way through the Neath defence with ease. Thomas was unstoppable as he rode each tackle and on reaching the edge of the area he squared the ball across the box to David Brookes who controlled the ball before drilling a fine shot past goalkeeper Craig Morris to level the score. Port Talbot Town were back in top six contention and Brookes had kick-started what would be his best performance in a Port Talbot shirt.
Match reports, news, blogs and features regarding Neath usually contain many references to Lee Trundle. The former Swansea City star is the highest-profile player in the league, and while he had played a bit-part in Neath’s early dominance of the match, he had now been upstaged by a player who less than a year ago was at the other end of the football spectrum to him. This time last season Lee Trundle was on-loan at Championship side Swansea City looking to earn himself a permanent deal at the club following a failed move to Bristol City. It was a frustrating time for Trundle but a million-miles from Bridgend Street FC, a Cardiff Amateur League side who fielded a young midfielder at the time called David Brookes.
Port Talbot Town manager Mark Jones has his ear to the ground in South Wales football circles and was aware of the potential in the young midfielder as he looked to strengthen his side within budget. Having previously uncovered another midfielder from the Cardiff Amateur League in Paul Fowler, ironically now playing against Jones’s side for Neath, Jones offered Brookes a Welsh Premier League opportunity at Port Talbot Town in the summer and even included him in his UEFA Europa League squad. As the new season began Brookes scored on his debut in a victory over Bala Town, while Lee Tundle suffered a debut defeat for Neath at Bangor City.
As Lee Trundle cast a frustrated figure at one end of The Gnoll field on Tuesday night, at the other end David Brookes was celebrating his equalising goal. Their respective paths into this game were very different but it was the former Amateur League player that was upstaging the former £1m Championship striker. Port Talbot were buoyed by the goal and continued to push forward and Brookes came close to adding a second before the break. As the visitors went looking for another goal however they were once again caught short in defence as veteran striker Andy Hill capitalised on a mistake at the back to put his side back in front.
The Eagles went into half-time in front but it was the Steelmen who had created the better chances and it was that theme that would remain for the rest of the match. Port Talbot Town came out the far more positive of the two sides for the second half and the performance of their supporters went up a gear along with their team. Attacking Neath from both sides of the field, Port Talbot Town played some excellent football in all areas. From the midfield creativity of Matthew Thompson to the calmly-distributing central defender Kye Edwards, Port Talbot Town were in control but were lacking in one vital aspect of their game. For all their possession, dominance and chances on goal, not once was Neath keeper Craig Morris called into action. Chances went high, chances went wide, chances did not hit the target.
Neath had the advantage of the lead throughout this period of dominance by their visitors and held firm. Counter-attacks were few and far between with Trundle’s only impact being the subject of a number of offside decisions. Neath have a reputation for scoring in the last fifteen minutes of games this season however and as the match and much-needed point increasingly appeared to be drifting away from Port Talbot, so the home side began to ask a few questions of their own with the introduction of strikers Chad Bond and Craig Hughes off the bench.
With Bond joining former Swansea City team-mates Chris Jones, Lee Trundle, Kristian O’Leary, James Burgin and Matty Collins, the chant of ‘Swansea retirement home’ from the Port Talbot Town fans became very relevant. As the scoreboard clock continued to bring the game nearer to a close however, their voices lacked the passion or belief that had backed their team during their long periods of second half dominance, and it was clear that those representing the club both on and off the field had conceded that a top six place would now be out of their own hands.
With just two frustrated bookings for the visitors, referee Brian James was a notably unnoticed figure. It was a represented a pleasant change for Welsh Premier regulars who have grown tired of the ineptitude of their league’s officials. It was also a sign of the quality of football that had made for such an entertaining derby match. Although it will not have matched the atmosphere of Sunday’s South Wales derby for Swansea City manager Brendan Rodgers, he left the ground well-aware that his young loanee’s are in the right place to develop in the Welsh Premier League, while league officials will look at the attendance and entertainment on wet Tuesday night in February to justify the mid-season split.
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