Airfield launches a new-era of optimism

Mark Pitman takes a look at a much-changed Port Talbot Town squad as they open the new Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League season at Airbus UK Broughton.

Port Talbot Town last played a competitive game in May and it would prove to their most disappointing of the season as they suffered a 2-1 defeat at Prestatyn in the Welsh Premier League play-off semi-final. A win would have left Mark Jones’ side a derby win away from Europe and with minutes remaining the South Wales club were a goal ahead. Prestatyn scored twice in the last few minutes to edge their way into the final however, and the defeat proved significant for the summer and pre-season campaign that would lay ahead for Jones both on and off the field.

Paul Cochlin, Cortez Belle, Matthew Crowell, Dylan Blain, Kristian Rogers and Paul Keddle were not even Port Talbot Town players in May, but less than three months later, the six summer signings were starting for the club on the opening day of the season at Airbus UK Broughton. Another new signing in Chris Hartland was named on the bench, some others didn’t even make the cut, but the fans had travelled in numbers to offer their vocal and instrumental support for the start of what is a new-era with a very new-look side.

Port Talbot Town began the summer by losing four important players to their Welsh Premier League rivals as captain Liam McCreesh returned to his Afan Lido roots while striker Luke Bowen was lured by the attraction of a switch to full-time football with the clubs other local rivals Neath. Defensive duo Lee Surman and Lloyd Grist headed West as Llanelli, like Neath, offered the opportunity to again play European football and manager Mark Jones was left with a big project to replace such influential figures. Observers questioned if the club would even be able to retain their place in the domestic top-flight.

There had been natural concern amongst the fans and a mediocre pre-season had done little to alleviate those fears. Airbus UK are difficult opponents in what is now a difficult and competitive league and the fixture was rightly seen as a tough test for a Port Talbot Town squad that had enjoyed little time to gel during their pre-season programme. Goalkeeper Kristian Rogers would find himself up against his former club while new signing Matty Crowell would find himself back in North Wales, only this time playing a few miles up the road from where he enjoyed his Football League days with Wrexham.

Airbus UK Broughton are a progressive club and have invested in their facilities at the Airfield as much as they have on their squad. Strong links with the company have eased the financial burden of running a competitive Welsh Premier League team and in manager Craig Harrison, a former English Premier League player with Middlesbrough, the club have an experienced bench as he is joined in the dugout by former Wrexham midfielder Gareth Owen. The playing surface for this opening weekend match was also as good as any in the country as referee Lee Evans signalled for the new season to start.

Airbus UK Broughton 1-1 Port Talbot Town – Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League – Saturday, 13th August 2011
The Port Talbot Town away support are as good in numbers as they are in noise and they did not disappoint for this opening match of the season. From the first minute to the last a full range of positive energy emitted itself from the stand behind the far goal with the accompanying trumpet and drum offering more noise than the airfield runway situated directly behind. In fact the runway is so close to the pitch that the stand was built off-centre and the floodlights are retractable to accommodate it, making it one of the more unique football grounds in Britain with the stadium built on the grounds of the Airbus factory itself.

The travelling support were offered a decent fare of football in an open and competitive game. Crowell was instrumental for the visitors and seems likely to prove an important addition in this transitional season for the club. The strength of Cortez Belle alongside fan favourite Martin Rose in attack offered a new dimension in Port Talbot’s play while Paul Cochlin and Kye Edwards looked a solid partnership in defence in what was their first competitive game together. Crowell was denied by Airbus UK goalkeeper Niki Lee-Bulmer on two occasions either side of hitting the post while home striker Ian Sheridan had a strong appeal for a penalty waved away by Evans in an eventful first-half.

The extortionate price of a half-time burger was suitable countered by the discounted lager available in the works social club adjacent to the pitch as the visiting fans fuelled themselves up for the second half. For all the good work of the club however, there seemed little local interest for this opening match of the season, with a total attendance of 185 boosted by the number of Port Talbot Town fans who had made the long journey across Wales.

An injury to Martin Rose early into the second period initially muffled the sound of the away end but a goal from summer-signing Paul Cochlin sparked the celebrations as the visitors took the lead on 64 minutes. Dylan Blain, returning for a second-spell with the club from Newtown, had tested Lee-Bulmer before Cochlin headed his side in front as Port Talbot carried on their form from the opening half, but the home side levelled minutes later through Mike Hayes scoring from a scrambled attempt to clear a corner.

Both sides sensed maximum points could be gained from the fixture and the open and competitive nature of the game continued. Port Talbot Town enjoyed the better of the possession but it was Kristian Rogers in the visitors goal that would decide the eventual full-time score as he tipped an effort from Airbus striker Ian Sheridan over the bar in the last few minutes of the match. Referee Lee Evans brought the match to a close to signal the start of some mutual player / fan respect behind the goal, while the home side left the field along with the rest of those in attendance leaving the ground.

After an eventful summer for Port Talbot Town, manager Mark Jones would have settled for a point before the match, but his post-match comment of being “pleased to be disappointed” summed up the performance of his new-look side. His opposite number Craig Harrison will also take positives from the fixture and on another day his side may well have taken maximum points. Over the course of 90 minutes however the best performance of the match came from the visiting support, and should their much-changed side can continue to improve as they gel together as the season progresses, they will certainly have a lot more to sing about.

Mark Pitman
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