Euro glory beckons as Prestatyn show spirit of ’99

Mark Pitman reports on a dramatic ending from Bastion Gardens as Prestatyn Town move to within one win of European football. www.welsh-premier.com were on hand for photos.

For Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in 1999, read Lee Hunt and David Hayes in 2011. The former duo may have won the Champions League for Manchester United in dramatic fashion, but the latter did the same for Prestatyn Town on Sunday in the Welsh Premier League play-off semi-final. The games may seem a million miles apart, but both were among the most important in the history of the two respective clubs, and the goals from Hunt and Hayes mean that Prestatyn Town are now one win away from making their own impact on the European football stage.

The Welsh Premier League has been the subject of some drastic cosmetic surgery this season as the traditional eighteen clubs were reduced to twelve, a mid-season split separated the top and bottom six clubs and the last UEFA Europa League place would be decided not by league placings but by an end of season play-off. The format has confused many, but after nine months of football, five teams entered the inaugural play-off competition last week. Airbus UK Broughton were the first club to be eliminated, and on Saturday it was the turn of Port Talbot Town and Aberystwyth Town to forget a return to European football for another season at least.

Aberystwyth Town had booked their place in the play-off semi-final with victory over Airbus UK Broughton and now had to navigate the much harder challenge of big spending Neath at the Gnoll on Sunday. At the same time Prestatyn Town began their play-off campaign with a home semi-final against Port Talbot Town. Hyped by Prestatyn Town Director of Football Neil Gibson in the pre-match build-up as the biggest match in the clubs history, the same did not really apply to the visitors, who one year ago had qualified for the Europa League through a top three finish and had also reached the Welsh Cup Final.

Prestatyn Town did not arrive on the Welsh Premier League scene until 2008. A family-friendly club with a strong community spirit, they have so far retained the togetherness on and off the field that played such an important part in their promotion as Cymru Alliance champions and still retain a number of players who played an important role in that rise. The pre-match hype was intended to generate a crowd for the semi-final match against Port Talbot Town but the 383 present on Sunday was a disappointment despite being above their Welsh Premier League average.

Port Talbot Town also did their bit to improve numbers through the turnstiles as their hardcore bunch of travelling fans and accompanying instruments and flags were joined by a few fans of Welsh Premier champions Bangor City to offer their support for their South Wales comrades against their North Wales rivals. Prestatyn had drafted in stewards from near-neighbours Rhyl for the occasion, and while they took offence to the Port Talbot and Bangor City fans creating an atmosphere, they soon relented on their pleas for seated silence and retreated back to police a quieter part of the ground.

Prestatyn Town 2-1 Port Talbot Town – Welsh Premier League Play-Off Semi-Final – Sunday, 15th May 2011
While Port Talbot Town went into the match on the back of a victory obtained on the last day of the league season against eventual Welsh Cup winners Llanelli, the win was their first since January. Prestatyn by comparison had earned home advantage, for what was being hyped as the biggest game in the clubs history, by finishing above Port Talbot Town in the Welsh Premier League table and their psychological edge was added to by the fact that Prestatyn were undefeated against Port Talbot Town in their four previous fixtures throughout the season.

Port Talbot Town manager Mark Jones made enforced changes to his side but any concerns the touchline-suspended boss had about his side quickly proved unnecessary as the visitors dominated for long periods in the opening half as they retained possession with ease and restricted the home side from creating anything more than a half-chance. Craig Jones, Lloyd Grist, Casey Thomas and Luke Bowen all went close for the visitors but it was defender Lee Surman, who scored twice in the win against Llanelli, who made the difference before the break as he headed Port Talbot Town ahead after 29 minutes. Prestatyn remained restricted to long-range efforts as the visitors on-loan Swansea City goalkeeper David Cornell was rarely troubled and the Port Talbot Town fans began to make plans for a local derby final as news filtered through that Neath were two goals ahead in the other semi-final.

Prestatyn looked a shadow of the side that had claimed impressive victories during the course of the season but more importantly a shadow of the side that Port Talbot Town had failed to beat in four previous attempts. Either as a result of the pressure tagged onto the side from the pre-match hype or from the importance of the occasion, the home side offered little in reply to Port Talbot Town who led comfortably at the break. The home fans were left frustrated as their dream of bringing European football to the town appeared all but over as the two sets of players made their way into the dressing rooms but, with only one goal separating the two sides and the strong wind now in favour of the home team, things were about to change.

Port Talbot Town again forced the early possession as the visiting supporters and their adopted Bangor counterparts made their way behind the Prestatyn goal. Their one goal advantage was almost doubled by on-loan Swansea City winger Casey Thomas but his effort went wide of the target early on but the home side slowly but surely settled into the game and the occasion and began to enjoy some quality time with the ball. As the home side pushed forward the game opened up and after striker Lee Hunt had missed a great chance for Prestatyn, Lloyd Grist came close from a free-kick at the other end to make it an entertaining spectacle for the North Wales crowd.

With the clock ticking down on Prestatyn Town’s season, the home side made a significant effort to find the equaliser and pushed forward in numbers. Two penalty appeals were turned down by referee Lee Evans as a large crowd congregated behind the Port Talbot Town goal but on 84 minutes the inevitable occurred when Paul O’Neill was brought down in the area and referee Evans pointed to the spot. The Port Talbot Town fans instantly pressed the mute button while the initial celebrations of the home side that followed the decision turned to nervous anticipation as Lee Hunt stepped up for the spot kick that would define their season.

Hunt is no stranger to the big occasions or to the high-pressure situations that occur within them. Between 2002 and 2010, Hunt played for Bangor City, then Rhyl, then back to Bangor City, then back to Rhyl, then back to Bangor City. On each occasion he would come up against his former club to the extent that remembering to use the right dressing room became as much of a challenge as the game itself. Hunt also has a history of scoring against Port Talbot Town on the big stage, his most recent being in last years Welsh Cup Final as he helped Bangor City take a place in the UEFA Europa League. He now had the chance to move Prestatyn Town a step closer to that goal.

Goalkeeper David Cornell stood big but Hunt drilled his shot low and hard into the back of the net. Neath were now leading 2-1 against Aberystwyth at The Gnoll but plans of a South Wales play-off final derby, a dream not isolated to the Welsh Premier League in the build-up to the game, were now firmly on hold as the Port Talbot Town fans prepared for extra-time. On 88 minutes the plans were scrapped completely as David Hayes found himself in space at the back post to scramble home a cross from Neil Gibson and hand Prestatyn Town the lead. Port Talbot made a last-ditch effort as Cornell came up for a set-piece in injury-time, but it was too little too late as referee Lee Evans brought the game to a close.

As the home side celebrated with the fans at the clubhouse end, Port Talbot Town and their fans were left stunned and dejected as the cold sea air swept over Bastion Gardens. Prestatyn would now take on Neath at The Gnoll in Saturday’s play-off final while Port Talbot Town can only prepare for a summer break with no European distractions to take up their time. Only six minutes earlier attentions had firmly been on next weeks final but they can now only turn to next season. Prestatyn Town however have the chance to make club history as they find themselves just one win away from qualifying for Europe for the first time. The task will be a difficult one, but their spirit to come back from being behind to score twice so late on means that they have every chance in a one-off match of causing a surprise result, and Neath will not look forward to taking on a side with such a strong team spirit.

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

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