Mark Pitman brings us a double helping of Tales from the Valleys this week.
This Welsh football double-header over the course of the weekend had all the ingredients to produce two memorable encounters. The action would kick off on Friday night with a MacWhirter Welsh Football League Division One match between third-placed Afan Lido and current league leaders Bryntirion Athletic. The home side are making strides forward with the aim to return to the Welsh Premier League while Bryntirion top the table thanks to an undefeated run of results stretching back to September.
Following this would be the much-anticipated Sunday afternoon Welsh Premier League derby between Neath and Port Talbot Town at The Gnoll. Previous encounters had been memorable contests and a great deal was expected from this latest fixture as Neath stake their claim for an automatic European place and Port Talbot Town show their place in the top six was based on merit and not through the failure of others. Local pride also brought an added edge to the fixture but with both games promising so much there was only ever to be one realistic outcome, they would both be complete rubbish.
Afan Lido 1-0 Bryntirion Athletic – MacWhirter Welsh League Division One – 11th March 2011
The biggest crowd of the season arrived at The Martsons Stadium to take in this headlining Welsh League match, the attendance of 246 was boosted by the usual groundhoppers taking advantage of the Friday night fixture, while the interested football public of Port Talbot turned up to witness Afan Lido’s credentials as they look to make a return to the Welsh Premier League. Providing the opposition were Bryntirion Athletic, this season’s surprise package, who currently top the table.
Afan Lido boast an experienced squad that includes a wealth of Welsh League, Welsh Premier League, European and even Football League appearances. Combined with the influence of youth, the side took the lead within three minutes when the lively and talented Nathan White coolly finished from close range. It would be the one and only goal of this weekend’s 180 minutes of football and while being far from a classic, it would turn out to be the difference between the two sides. Bryntirion soon settled into the game and showed why they are top of the limited division as their towering eleven remained solid and organised despite the early setback and soon had their chance to put themselves level.
After 18 minutes a weak penalty claim by the visitors was surprisingly granted but goalkeeper Chris Curtis had the better of penalty-taker Paul Evans and made a fine save to retain his sides lead. The opportunity proved that Bryntirion were far from beaten, but it would also prove to be the last memorable incident of the game, as both sides resorted to long balls forward after struggling to string two passes together in midfield.
The second half continued in this disappointing vein as the game became progressively scrappier and Lido focused more on keeping what they had rather than look for a second goal. Bryntirion were in the unfamiliar position of being behind and despite manager Francis Ford making changes, his side were unable to find a way past the well-organised Lido defence and failed to capitalise on a series of corners that they forced in the second half. It was a significant victory for Lido and an equally significant defeat for Bryntirion. For the crowd in attendance however, the only thing of real significance was the clear lack of quality shown by either side, in what was generally a very disappointing game.
Neath 0-0 Port Talbot Town – Principality Welsh Premier League – 13th March 2011
With the disappointment of Friday night’s football fare now a distant memory, attentions turned to the Welsh Premier League and the local derby match between Neath and Port Talbot Town. Big-spending Neath were headline regulars following their summer spending spree and high-profile signings while Port Talbot Town started the season as UEFA Europa League competitors and were now out to avenge two defeats suffered against Neath earlier in the season. The added spice of the occasion was spoilt by suspension as former Port Talbot Town captain Matthew Rees was ruled out of the match by a one-match ban, but previous games between the two rivals were memorable fixtures and a big crowd was expected for this Sunday afternoon match.
As over 600 people took their place in the main stand at The Gnoll the two teams entered the field to signal the end of the awful pre-match music served at the famous rugby stadium. Port Talbot Town manager Mark Jones had made two defensive changes through choice as former Swans Lee Surman and Leigh De-Vulgt returned to the starting line-up while Neath counterpart Andy Dyer made two enforced changes to his back four as Ian Hillier joined Rees on the suspension list. With the attentions turned to events on the field, the poor state of the playing surface became apparent, and its quality would soon be matched by the football that the two sides would produce.
Both sides struggled for possession in the early exchanges and the first real chance on goal did not arrive until midway through the half when Port Talbot Town striker Luke Bowen had his long-range effort saved by Neath goalkeeper Lee Idzi. At the other end David Cornell, Port Talbot’s on-loan Swansea City goalkeeper, became far busier than Idzi as the half progressed without being really tested but his defence had to be at their best to defend desperately against the progressing dominance of the home side. Neath enjoyed the better of the game as the half wore on and forced a number of corners after a couple of long-range efforts drifted wide, but were unable to turn their possession into goals before the break.
After fifteen minutes of reflection on what was turning out to be a dismal contest, the two teams returned unchanged for the second half as the disappointed crowd returned to their seats. The lack of action, and lack of trumpet, had also had a negative effect on the usual vociferous efforts of the Port Talbot Town support but they soon emerged as the second half progressed before finishing off with a steady chorus of songs before the final whistle. On the field the game failed to improve from the opening half as chances were again few and far between and the playing surface became progressively worse. David Brookes, a player who impressed against Neath the last time the two sides met, came off the bench with 30 minutes remaining and while he offered a new attacking energy to the side, there remained little else to be excited about.
Luke Bowen again created a half-chance for himself as he easily beat former Swansea City star Kristian O’Leary for pace but could not find a way past Idzi with his eventual effort on goal, while at the other end David Cornell was called into action to make a fine save from another former Swan in Matty Collins. These chances aside, the game was as poor as the playing surface, but there would be a controversial talking point to come with ten minutes remaining and it would round off a bad weekend for Welsh Premier League officials.
With Bangor City manager Nev Powell unhappy with referee Dean John over his injury-time estimates and Carmarthen Town boss Tomi Morgan less than impressed with official Matt Bridges over a controversial dismissal, it was now referee Kevin Morgan’s turn to upset the away team manager as he waved away a strong penalty appeal for Port Talbot Town. Substitute Drew Fahiya controlled the ball on the edge of the area before rounding Lee Idzi, but his shot was blocked on the line by what appeared to be the arm of defender Paul Cochlin. Despite being surrounded by protesting Port Talbot Town players, Morgan signalled for a corner, but play would be unable to resume until both Port Talbot Town manager Mark Jones and Neath coach Peter Nicholas had been sent to the stands for expressing their contrasting takes on the incident in front of fourth official Darren Adie.
Play eventually continued and returned to the drab contest that had been the norm before the penalty incident. Referee Kevin Morgan brought the game to a close and slowly made his way off the field and explained his decision time and time again as he headed to the dressing room. Both sides were left to share the points and both were frustrated as each other as Neath had missed a chance to keep the pressure on second-placed The New Saints while Port Talbot Town had been left wondering what might have been if Kevin Morgan had seen what the other 600-plus in the crowd had just witnessed. The most frustrated figures however were without doubt the unfortunate paying spectators who had spent their Sunday afternoon watching this dire contest.
One goal, a saved penalty and a controversial incident therefore headlined this weekend’s Welsh football. Both the Welsh League and the Welsh Premier League have their critics for various reasons, but those that question the quality of football, the quality of playing surfaces or the quality of the referees will have been justified in their assessments following this double-header that promised so much but eventually produced so little.
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