Mark Pitman reports on an unexpected football fairytale as Neath win the inaugural Welsh Premier League play-off final. Photo’s courtesy of Mike Greenslade.
The celebrations at The Gnoll on Saturday were down to relief more than achievement as big spending Neath made the first step in justifying their substantial investment by qualifying for the UEFA Europa League. The South Wales club hit the headlines with a number of high-profile signings last summer, but while the attentions of the Welsh Premier League were focused on Lee Trundle and their other former Football League stars, a figure from their humble past, Andy Hill, scored the decisive goals that would take Andy Dyer’s side into Europe for the first time.
Neath were formed as recently as 2005 and achieved promotion to the Welsh Premier League in 2007. The club had previously played in the neighbouring village of Llandarcy, but following a merger between Neath Athletic and Skewen Athletic, a new-era begun and the club made a further and significant stride forward with a move the The Gnoll, the home of Neath Rugby Club. An ambitious project for football success began last year and the arrival of players such as Lee Trundle, Kevin Cooper, Kristian O’Leary and Chris Jones amongst others meant that success for the club would only be a matter of time.
The club is now almost unrecognisable from its recent past but two figures remain and both have played a vital role in the clubs rise. Andy Dyer was the clubs manager when the Neath achieved promotion in 2007 and remains in charge as the club prepare for their European debut. Striker Andy Hill scored the goals that put Neath into the domestic top-flight, and while his opportunities have been limited since the club brought in string of headline names, he has still proved himself to be good value as a substitute this season, and on Saturday he scored two of the most important goals in the clubs history.
With Trundle leading the forward line, Neath were heavily-backed to become Welsh Premier League champions this season, but had to settle for a third-place finish and with it a play-off for the remaining European place. Having defeated Aberystwyth in the semi-final, it was now the turn of Prestatyn Town to visit The Gnoll, with both clubs just one win away from a European debut. Both clubs have enjoyed a similar rise in recent seasons, Prestatyn only gaining promotion to the Welsh Premier League in 2008, but the financial weight carried by Neath made this a David versus Goliath contest in front of just under 1,000 fans.
Neath 3-2 Prestatyn Town – Welsh Premier League play-off final – Saturday 21st May 2011
Both sides had the luxury of naming their strongest starting line-ups for what would would be the biggest match in the history of both clubs. While Prestatyn Town celebrated their centenary, Neath were completing their sixth season as a club since merging with Skewen Athletic, but went into the match as favourites despite playing out three 1-1 draws and a win against Prestatyn during the domestic campaign. With Lee Trundle and Lee Hunt leading the respective forward lines, goals were expected and a crowd boosted by a number of Welsh Premier League rivals and Swansea City fans created an attendance worthy of the event as 988 fans, almost treble the league average, arrived at The Gnoll.
Prestatyn to Neath is a long journey across the length of Wales, but the visitors did themselves proud with their fantastic support. Having sampled the local delights in the town centre, Prestatyn fans arrived in big numbers with big voices and created a great atmosphere for the live S4/C cameras as kick off approached. The stakes were high for both clubs and the tension increased as the two teams took to the field, Neath had the big game experience in their side to handle the occasion, but Prestatyn had shown tremendous team spirit to put themselves in this season defining position as referee Kevin Morgan signalled for the match to start and with it decide who would make their European debut next season.
Within twelve seconds Neath were ahead. Straight from the kick-off, Chad Bond, one of a number of former Swans in the Neath starting line-up, controlled the ball on the edge of the area before making enough space for himself to shoot past Simon Williams in the Prestatyn Town goal. The celebrations of the home side muted the travelling support as Neath claimed a very early advantage with the quickest goal of the season. Prestatyn’s difficult task had already been made a great deal harder as their stunned players lined-up to re-start the match. Experienced striker Steve Rogers was booked for dissent as the frustrations of the visitors became all too apparent, but the away support soon regained their voice and their side responded by settling into the game.
Neath defender Matthew Rees, who one year ago had captained Port Talbot Town as they qualified for Europe for the first time, became increasingly busy as Prestatyn began to enjoy the better possession and tested the Neath back-line with a series of crosses and testing balls into the area. An early challenge had left Rees limping and requiring some heavy strapping on his ankle as his side attempted to hold onto their lead but on 24 minutes experienced striker Lee Hunt found himself with room to shoot and equalised with a superb strike past Lee Idzi in the Neath goal. Hunt had been the targeted for some heavy challenges in the opening half but showed his quality with his well-taken goal and it was Rees who would limp out of the match a few minutes later as he was replaced by former Cardiff City midfielder Kevin Cooper.
With half-time approaching, referee Morgan remained whistle and card happy, and it was Prestatyn who went into the break the more positive of the two having responded to the early set-back with an equaliser while also enjoying the majority of possession. As fans queued at the burger van and at the bar, there was no favourite to win the match in the half-time discussions and extra-time seemed a strong possibility unless someone could provide something special to win the match. With Neath’s experience, quality and players capable of creating that bit of magic, the home side had the potential to change the game in the second half, but they would do it through a very unlikely source.
On 53 minutes Andy Hill, the clubs longest serving player, made his arrival as a substitute as he replaced Craig Hughes upfront. Two minutes later, Hill headed Neath back in front, the advantage was back with the Eagles and Prestatyn would have to once again come from behind if they were to reward their travelling fans. More bookings followed for various offences as referee Morgan enjoyed some television coverage and the Cardiff official would eventually show ten yellow cards in the competitive game.
After responding superbly to conceding the first goal, Prestatyn failed to repeat their early comeback after the second. Neath were determined to hold onto their lead and the visitors were left frustrated as they managed to create only a series of half-chances and the occasional corner. Lacking the determination shown in the opening half, Neath’s lead became a comfortable one, although the fans remained passionate in their support for the visitors. On 84 minutes however a shot from Trundle was parried by Williams into the path of Hill and the veteran Neath striker scored his second to extend their lead.
If Prestatyn were deflated after the second goal, the third surely would have made the result a certainty, but the visitors were not finished as fourth official Paul Thomas signalled that there would be at least four minutes of injury-time. Neath, believing the game to be already won, switched off at the back and allowed substitute Jon Fisher-Cooke enough time on the ball for him to score past Idzi in the Neath goal two minutes into the additional time. Prestatyn continued to push forward from the re-start and a free-kick deep in the Neath half saw goalkeeper Simon Williams join the Prestatyn forwards in the Neath area. A poor delivery was headed clear for a throw-in but there would be no time as Morgan brought the game to a close.
The visitors bench and players protested that no additional time to the four minutes had been added for their goal while others sat with their heads in their hands knowing that their European dream was over for at least another year. The Neath players and management celebrated in clear relief that they had held on and claimed the most important win in the clubs short history in the knowledge that they had delivered European football in return for the significant investment made in their squad. With the protests over the visitors acknowledged their fans in an almost apologetic way while Neath prepared to collect their play-off trophy.
The last trophy that Neath lifted was as Welsh League Division One champions in 2007. Manager Andy Dyer and striker Andy Hill were the key figures that day and again produced for their much-changed club four years on by taking Neath into Europe. Hill’s opportunities for Neath this season have been limited and as the club look to progress and strengthen his chances at the club look likely to continue to diminish. His finest contribution came on Saturday however as he outshone the superstars who have taken his place in the side to deliver a prize that will mean more to Andy Hill than other player in the Neath squad. Justification of their spending will only come from European success, but qualification has now been achieved, and the next chapter in this new Neath era is about to begin.
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