Welsh Premier League round up – Saints and Citizens suffer in weekend slip-up

Mark Pitman watches both The New Saints and champions Bangor City suffer respective defeats in the Welsh Premier League. Gareth Elms provides the photo’s.

The Welsh Premier League title was decided on the last day of last season as the top two sides played out a convenient fixture at Farrar Road. Bangor City went into the match against The New Saints with the slight advantage after the two sides had built up a comfortable lead over the chasing pack and the final fixture of the campaign would decide the title. Bangor City claimed the necessary result on the day to take their place in the Champions League while The New Saints embarked on a summer of rebuilding ahead of the new Welsh Premier League season.

The newly-sponsored Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League campaign kicked off last weekend at The New Saints but they were held to a 1-1 draw by a significantly-strengthened Bala Town side, while Bangor City were back at Farrar Road and in a memorable fixture, Nev Powell’s side claimed a very creditable 3-2 win over Welsh Cup winners Llanelli. This weekend the two sides were both on the road to the County Borough of Neath Port Talbot, where they would, unsurprisingly, take on Neath and Port Talbot. For all their dominance of the previous campaign however, both would make the long journey home with nothing to show for their efforts, as a new contender for their title ambition emerges.

Port Talbot Town 2-1 The New Saints – Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League – Friday 19th August 2011
The New Saints arrived at Port Talbot Town looking to improve a dismal record at The GenQuip Stadium. In seven previous visits the full-time side had won just once but they arrived in optimistic mood to take on a Port Talbot Town side looking unrecognisable from the two sides previous meeting as no less than seven summer signings were named in the starting line-up for the home side. Port Talbot Town manager Mark Jones compensated for the loss of five important players by signing twice as many replacements and The New Saints would soon learn that when players are playing for places it can have effective results.

The New Saints started positively and forced a goalline clearance inside the opening five minutes as new Port Talbot Town defender Paul Keddle found himself at the right place at the right time to deny the visitors an early lead. Another new signing, Paul Cochlin, proved his worth with a superb tackle and almost proved as influential in attack has he is in defence with an on-target header that was cleared by some desperate defending. The vociferous home support remained buoyed as the game swung from end to end but on 26 minutes Matty Williams opened the scoring for The New Saints with a well-placed finish after finding himself in space.

There was a sense of the inevitable around the ground, but the new-look squad being developed by Mark Jones has brought with it a new-found belief and the side continued to push forward in search of an equaliser. With fan favourite striker Martin Rose injured, an experimental front-line were left with the responsibility of providing the fans with something to sing about but their attempts were often thwarted by the flag of assistant referee Darren Adie. Demoted from the middle, Adie officiated as if he was in a battle of wills with referee Kevin Morgan, seemingly forgetting his role is now one of offering assistance, not hindrance.

With seven minutes of the re-start however Port Talbot Town were level. A poor back-pass to goalkeeper Paul Harrison was charged down by Cortez Belle, a headline signing for Mark Jones side just a fortnight ago, and the giant figure run at Harrison before disposing him and he followed the ball into the net before turning to celebrate with the home support that had congregated behind the goal. Belle has already become a cult figure amongst the ‘1901 Ultras’, and further added to his popularity with his first goal for the club.

Both sides went in search of a winner and it was The New Saints who looked the far more likely to find it. Port Talbot Town goalkeeper Kristian Rogers was called into action to make a string of saves while Keddle again cleared off the line as the visitors began to dominate for long periods of the game. Cochlin made his second important tackle of the match as Port Talbot were restricted to counter-attacks, but as the the second half progressed, the attacks from the home side became more frequent and more constructive

Belle appeared to become more and more involved as full-time approached and after shooting wide with a curling effort he forced Harrison to save with a magnificent volley from the edge of the area. The moment of the match however arrived deep into injury-time. Belle collected and controlled the ball on the right before breezing his way past former Wales and Wrexham defender Steve Evans, beating Evans for size and pace, Belle then proved he could beat him for ability too as he reached the by-line and cheekily back-heeled the ball with Messi-esq technique to the oncoming Dylan Blain who had reached the penalty spot. Blain calmly slotted the ball home to cue uncalm celebrations amongst players an fans behind the goal.

Blain has a history of scoring crucial winning goals against The New Saints as much as The New Saints have an awful history of playing against Port Talbot Town at The GenQuip Stadium. The visitors may have created the better chances, but Port Talbot Town appeared to have the belief that they could actually take maximum points from the fixture, and the first surprise of the new Welsh Premier League season was confirmed when referee Kevin Morgan brought the match to a close.

Neath 2-0 Bangor City – Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League – Sunday, 21st August 2011
Champions Bangor City arrived at Neath looking to exploit the slip-up of The New Saints two days before. Manager Nev Powell had been on a scouting mission the week before to watch Neath comfortably defeat Aberystwyth Town at The Gnoll and obviously appreciates the fact that their excessive summer-spending has made them the side most likely to challenge them for their Welsh Premier League title. This would be one of Bangor’s toughest tests of the season, and the importance of the fixture was not lost on the Citizen’s fans who tuned up at the rugby ground in big numbers for what would be anything but a quiet Sunday afternoon.

Neath welcomed back goalkeeper Lee Kendall after a brief injury and he was welcomed by the travelling Bangor City support as referee mark Whitby blew the first of many whistles to signal the start of the match in front of the biggest Welsh Premier League crowd of the weekend. Both sides work to play to their respective attacking strengths but the pattern of the match was shown in the opening exchanges as tough-tackling Bangor City midfielder Neil Thomas was appointed to man-mark the influential figure of Lee Trundle.

Trundle cast a frustrated figure as Thomas chipped away at him and the former Swansea and Bristol City striker repeatedly lost possession. Neither side had created a clear chance until midway through the half when Neath’s Chris Jones struck an effort from the edge of the area which was superbly saved by goalkeeper Lee Idzi on his return to his former club. Bangor City then created two of the best chances of the half as they took advantage of some poor defending by Neath on the right but Les Davies and Alan Bull both failed to take advantage, much to the obvious frustrations of manager Nev Powell.

Before the end of the first half Trundle was moved to a variety of positions in an attempt to shake off the disciplined Thomas and he found himself in his more traditional attacking position for the second half as he exchanged places with striker Luke Bowen. With chances few and far between for both sides, Craig Hughes was introduced for the home side on the hour as both sides made a string of changes in an attempt to grab a crucial goal. Referee Whitby had a busy afternoon as tensions between the two sides, fuelled by the vocal away support, began to rise, and six Neath players were eventually booked.

It seemed Trundle would fail to make an impression on the game until the 71st minute when he found himself in a couple of yards of space on the edge of the area. With an unfamiliar amount of time on the ball, he turned provider for Kerry Morgan as the diminutive striker scored with a fine finish to hand his side the lead. The goal rocked Bangor City and seven minutes later Trundle again found himself with more time and space than he needs to thread through a perfect ball, and he found substitute Craig Hughes for the experienced forward to slot the ball home.

It would prove to be the last notable incident of the game as Bangor struggled to show any of the drive and determination that had enabled them to create a few half-chances before the opening goal. Neath remained organised at the back as they sat on their two goal lead and eventually claimed a victory that would take them back to top of the Welsh Premier League table with their second successive Sunday home victory.

In fact Neath’s summer-spending, and their early dominance from being the only club in league with two wins after two rounds of games, means that another last day title decider between Bangor City and The New Saints is very unlikely. The New Saints are yet to win a game this season while Bangor City have conceded four in their two matches already. Neath have quickly built a side to compete at the top but this season they have the players, management and a professional set-up to achieve it. Bangor City have struggled on their visit to Neath, The New Saints will struggle there too, but the Eagles seem set to fly high this season.

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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