Hughes header a history repeating derby deja-vu

Ask any Port Talbot Town fan for their most memorable derby goal in recent years and the majority of the Burns Road End regulars will fondly talk of the events that occurred at local rivals Afan Lido on the 26th December 2003. The two sides were juggling for supremacy in the town at the time as Afan Lido adjusted to the promotion of Port Talbot Town to the Welsh Premier League just a couple of seasons before as one of the fiercest games between the two clubs took place on a wet Boxing Day afternoon at the Lido.

Man of the moment Craig Hughes

The game had all the traditional dramas of games between the two sides with the referee being the busiest man on the field as local pride took over the implementation of any tactical plan. A local event for the people of the town, both clubs benefited from a ten-fold increase in attendance when the two rivals came together, and the game of 2003 did not disappoint. For the record, Port Talbot Town won 2-1 with a late winning header from Craig Hughes as he sprung above the opposition defence to capitalise on a superb cross from the right. Then on the 16th April 2011, something all too familiar happened all over again.

The derby between Port Talbot Town and Afan Lido drifted off the Welsh Premier League fixture calendar a few seasons ago when Lido were relegated back to the South Wales feeder league. Now pushing for a return to the top-flight despite failing their initial FAW domestic licence application, there is an optimism around the former UEFA Cup qualifiers that they are well on course for promotion, and should they succeed then the return traditional town derby will be welcomed by both clubs. Since Lido’s relegation, Port Talbot Town have had to develop new South Wales rivalries. Llanelli initially filled the gap before the evolution of Neath but neither opposition generated the same derby spirit. This season however, Neath have become the noisy neighbours of the Welsh Premier League with their extensive spending programme and star names, but their case to become the local league rivals of Port Talbot Town was strengthened when captain Matthew Rees switched allegiances to Neath in January.

Port Talbot Town 1-2 Neath – Principality Welsh Premier League – Saturday, 16th April 2011

The two sides have already met numerous times this season as a result of the new Welsh Premier League fixture format, but with the two clubs now meeting at the business end of the season with the live S4/C television camera’s in attendance, there was an extra tension surrounding this latest meeting and for the football derby enthusiast it did not disappoint.

Neath named a number of former Port Talbot Town players in the squad for their visit to The GenQuip Stadium together with their marquee names of former Swansea City duo Lee Trundle and Kristian O’Leary. With the match being covered live a large production crew were the first to feel the derby atmosphere although midday prompted a mass exodus and with it some serious investment into the local Chinese takeaway. Neath arrived two hours before kick off and loitered around as Port Talbot Town arrived in stages along with a steady influx of interested locals, but nowhere near enough to show that the town really has its local football team in its heart.

An official crowd of 269, which could have been significantly increased if the S4/C production crew had come through the turnstiles, welcomed the two sides onto the field and it was Neath who took the early lead as Paul Fowler struck a superb volley to put his side ahead after just eleven minutes. The goal was an important one for Andy Dyer’s Eagles as the side had suffered a four-goal defeat to Llanelli in their last match which had left their European ambitions in the balance. It was a goal worthy of the live TV cameras, but Port Talbot Town were not beaten, and with almost 80 minutes left they slowly but surely came back into the game.

As the game evolved its derby elements became more and more apparent. Referee Paul Thomas soon become as busy as any player on the field as minor niggles were followed by heavy tackles, and every player soon had an opinion on every decision that Thomas would eventually make. On 34 minutes a cross from impressive Port Talbot Town midfielder Craig Jones was headed home by striker Luke Bowen much to the delight of the animated home fans and their increasing catalogue of terrace songs. The scores were level although both sides had also squandered chances but on 40 minutes a notable incident brought the game to a brief halt.

Craig Hughes is a well-known figure in the Welsh Premier League. A product of the Rhondda, Hughes found his way to Neath via spells at Cwmbran Town, Rhayader Town, Port Talbot Town, Carmarthen Town and Newport County. Problems off the field had also resulted in Hughes missing a significant amount of football and his story is a far more chequered one than the majority of the ghost written biographies on the shelves of Waterstones. With his dark days behind him, Hughes was now back at one of his former clubs looking to make the most of a rare start, and his impact was felt by Port Talbot Town goalkeeper David Cornell. As the on-loan Swansea City keeper went to claim the ball against the challenge of Hughes, the striker, better known as Guppy, left his foot at a convenient height to catch Cornell’s hand. Hughes was booked for his actions and the caution should have proved more significant that it eventually did.

Influential Port Talbot Town defender Lee Surman was forced off at half-time after pulling up with an injury and he was replaced by the versatile Nathan Cotterrall. Lloyd Grist slotted into the central defensive position from his traditional home of left-back and it would prove to be his downfall. A challenge on the enigmatic Trundle on 58 minutes saw Grist booked, four minutes later a similar challenge on the same opponent brought the same result and Grist headed for the tunnel, reducing Port Talbot Town to ten-men and forcing the third defensive change in less than twenty minutes as Leigh De-Vulgt moved in the middle. The scores were level but Neath had the momentum. But things could, and should, have been very different.

Midway through the second half a ball over the top offered Craig Hughes an opportunity to run towards goal but despite strong appeals for offside, assistant referee Gareth Hegarty remained an uninterested spectator, and Hughes was met by the advancing David Cornell. The goalkeeper was favourite for the ball and slid to the ground to collect, Hughes subsequently arrived with the ball firmly in Cornell’s grasp but made a desperate lunge and stamped on the young goalkeeper in the process. Referee Paul Thomas had a choice of a showing Hughes his second yellow card or even a straight red. He showed neither as Cornell lay on the ground receiving treatment.

Hughes had escaped punishment and sheepishly jogged back to the halfway line. Protests from the ten-men of the home side raged after Grist had been dismissed less than ten minutes before for what was in comparison two minor offences. Cornell eventually returned to his feet and the game re-started, the incident had not changed the fact that the two sides remained tied at one-all, but the decision to keep Hughes on the field would soon prove to be the difference between the two sides with a move and goal that would have a poignant effect on the blue-tinted memories of every Port Talbot Town fan.

On 79 minutes Neath forward Chris Jones skipped past a poorly-timed challenge by Matthew Thompson on the right before taking a touch and delivering a perfect cross for Hughes to rise above the makeshift Port Talbot Town defence and head past Cornell for the winner. Soon after the goal Hughes was replaced by another former Port Talbot Town player in Stephen Pockett and Neath withstood a period of pressure from the home side to claim a valuable victory in their push for an automatic European place, a reward that their substantial investment that was looked at as a requirement more than a bonus at the start of the season. Hughes, lucky to still be on the field, had scored the winner with a goal that could spark a new generation of derby memories.

Like Neath at the present time, Port Talbot Town were hungry to make an impression on the Welsh Premier League in 2003 and derby victories offer far more value than any other three points when clubs are looking to substantiate local dominance. On the 26th December 2003, Port Talbot Town earned a significant derby victory with a goal that has been remembered ever since, on the 16th April 2011, Neath made their own derby history in a remarkably similar way. In 2003 and in 2011, Port Talbot Town and Neath won their respective local derbies 2-1 away from home, but not only was the winning goal scored by the same player at roughly the same time in the game, the two winning goals were identical. In 2003, Port Talbot Town stalwart Robert Cockings picked up the ball in front of the main stand at Afan Lido, took a touch and crossed a perfect ball for Craig Hughes to rise above the home defence and head home. In 2011, Chris Jones picked up the ball on the right in front of the main stand at Port Talbot Town, took a touch and delivered the same ball for Hughes to once again rise to and head past the goalkeeper. Both goals were almost identical, but so was the significance.

Last season Port Talbot Town defeated Neath four times in all competitions on their way to qualifying for Europe for the first time. The defeats hurt Neath as they began their project to become a leading club in the Welsh Premier League and the importance of the derby victory through Hughes goal at Port Talbot Town in this latest derby victory is a poignant one. But the similarities continue, the season before Hughes headed home the derby winner for Port Talbot Town in 2003, Afan Lido completed the double over Port Talbot Town.

Neath have invested heavily in their squad and results are a pre-requisite. Port Talbot succeeded in their target of a top six place before the mid-season split but for all their efforts against the top sides in the league they are yet to win a game having drawn five and lost two of their opening seven games. Both are still in a strong position to challenge for a European place and the remaining results will decide if the two sides are to meet yet again in the play-offs to confirm who will take the last UEFA Europa League spot. Until then, the derby memory of a winning header from Craig ‘Guppy’ Hughes now takes pride of place at the Gnoll and not the GenQuip, and shows that lightening can really strike twice.

Mark Pitman

Visit www.markpitman1.com for links to all blogs, news stories, features, reports and opinion as the big Welsh football news stories break. You can also follow Mark Pitman at www.facebook.com/1markpitman and www.twitter.com/markpitman1

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s