Changes better than a rest for Jones and Boyle

Mark Pitman reports from Port Talbot Town and Neath as both managers make a stand following surprise defeats to return to winning-ways. Gareth Elms was on hand for photo’s.

The Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League is a competitive one indeed, so much so in fact that after the third round of fixtures last weekend, not one of the twelve clubs could boast a perfect record. The big surprises of last weeks fixtures occurred at Carmarthen Town and newcomers Afan Lido as established club Port Talbot Town and title-favourites Neath were respectively beaten by their supposedly inferior opponents. This weekend the two defeated sides had the luxury of respective home games to return to form and managers Mark Jones of Port Talbot and his Neath counterpart, Terry Boyle, made their feelings about their defeats known in their team selections.

This weekend’s action would prove surprisingly memorable if only for the fact that there were no draws in any of the six fixtures. Close games in the domestic top-flight are common place and a share of the points has become one of the most popular choices with punters looking for a safe bet in the expanding market of the Welsh Premier League. This weekend would prove to be the exception however, as champions Bangor City, The New Saints, Prestatyn Town and league leaders Bala Town joined both Port Talbot Town and Neath in picking up maximum points from their fixtures. Significantly, the weekend’s football action began in Cardiff on Friday night, as Wales earned a rare and unexpected victory over Montenegro and their success seemed to inspire a change in the tide of results in the national league.

Port Talbot Town 3-1 Newtown – Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League – Saturday, 3rd September 2011
Mark Jones was openly critical of his sides performance in their defeat against his former club last weekend and surprised the committed band of ever-expanding ‘1901 Ultras’ before kick off by announcing four changes to his starting line-up for the visit of new-look Newtown. Kristian Rogers returned in goal as expected but outfield summer-signings Sacha Walters and Lewis Harlin joined David Brookes in the starting eleven. More surprising however were the three names left out as top-scorer Martin Rose and winger Lee John were both named on the bench and no-nonsense midfielder Gareth Phillips remained seated and suited in the stand. It was a clear indication from Jones that nobody was guaranteed a place in his side and the victory only emphasised that competition for places in his side is as strong as ever before.

New Newtown manager Bernard McNally is a newcomer to the Welsh Premier League. A veteran of the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico with Northern Ireland, McNally has assembled a group of largely unknown players in the domestic league having scoured the lower reaches of the English non-league system to put together a team that can achieve the clubs ambition of staying in the top-flight. Tipped by many as clear favourites for relegation, Newtown impressed more than the result suggests and were beaten by the psychological substitutions of the home side and a controversial penalty decision that would eventually prove to be the difference between the two teams.

Chances were few and far between in the opening exchanges as both sides adapted to unfamiliar line-ups. The presence of Cortez Belle enabled the home side to ask the early questions but Newtown goalkeeper Nick Thomas was more than prepared but the opening goal would come against the run of play as on-loan Wrexham defender Max Penk played a ball through to Kevin Davies and the striker scored past Rogers on 29 minutes. The goal rattled the home side and boosted the confidence of the young Newtown team and they pushed for a second before referee Mark Petch made his most controversial decision of the afternoon.

David Brookes had began to weave his way through the visitors defence as half-time approached but was tripped on his way to goal. Although the foul first appeared to be outside the area, Brookes momentum took him inside and forced Petch to make a significant call as he pointed to the penalty spot. Cortez Belle claimed the ball, with regular penalty-taker Martin Rose taking-up an unfamiliar position on the substitutes bench, and drilled the ball past Thomas to bring his side level at the break. Protests from the visitors followed as their attentions turned away from the game but they returned for the second half keen to restore their advantage.

Sacha Walters came close to putting the home side in front midway through a generally uninspiring second-half while at the other end Kristian Rogers had to be at his best to deny the visitors on one of what had now become a rare attacking move. The passionate home crowd were then offered something to sign about when terrace hero Martin Rose made his appearance from the bench and his introduction, together with that of Lee John minutes before, offered a timely-boost to the team and to the quality of the game. On 76 minutes the two players combined to put Port Talbot Town in front as Rose capitalised on a cross from John and with minutes remaining the points were made safe when third substitute Chris Hartland, another summer-signing for the club, set-up Rose with his first touch for the striker to score his second of the match.

Jones’ surprise team selection had been justified with the result but the difference proved to be the impact of Lee John and Martin Rose. The disappointment of the defeat against Carmarthen Town the week before however had now been erased and the competitiveness and quality available in the squad had been proved. Newtown and Bernard McNally will also take positives despite the defeat as they learn to quickly adapt to the Welsh Premier League, and although their task remains a difficult one, it would be wrong for their next opponents to underestimate them on this performance.

Neath 3-0 Airbus UK Broughton – Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League – Sunday, 4th September 2011
Team changes had proved pivotal to Port Talbot quickly regaining form and this approach was shared by Neath manager Terry Boyle has he prepared for the more-difficult proposition of taking on Airbus UK Broughton at The Gnoll the following day. Player-for-player, Neath have without doubt the strongest squad in the Welsh Premier League this season and in leaving out summer-signings Adie Harris and Luke Bowen, Boyle was able to call-up former Swansea City and Wales midfielder Matty Collins and experienced Welsh Premier League striker Craig Hughes for what had become a must-win game for the title-favourites after their surprise defeat to Afan Lido last weekend.

Andy Dyer claimed revenge last weekend as he guided his Afan Lido side to victory against the club that had sacked him just a few months before, and Boyle and backroom staff must have had a feeling of deja-vu when they looked to the Airbus UK dugout to see manager Craig Harrison standing there. The former Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace defender commanded his technical area with a similar trademark mane of hair to that of his Lido counterpart and his side lined-up with a similar approach with a deep midfield supporting a packed defence against Neath’s wealth of attacking talent.

Neath unsurprisingly pushed the early pace as Airbus defended in numbers but they showed enough talent on the counter-attack to justify that their approach was not solely designed to keep the score down. Experienced defender Tommy Holmes was proving himself to be an influential signing for the North Wales side while young Craig Whitfield caused the occasional problem for the Neath defence as he linked-up with striker Ian Sheridan when the side were able to frustrate the home team and claim possession. Neath did however take the lead on 21 minutes when a shot from long-range by Kerry Morgan was saved by goalkeeper Niki-Lee Bulmer but Craig Hughes was on hand to slot home to the rebound despite appeals for offside.

Like the match at Port Talbot Town, the game turned just before half-time when Airbus UK defender Gavin Cadwallader had to leave the field to receive treatment. The visitors game had been based on a solid and well-organised defence but the temporary exit of one central defender left them exposed and Neath midfielder Paul Fowler found himself with enough space in the middle to place the ball past Bulmer for his sides second goal. Cadwallader was replaced by his brother Mark minutes later but the impact of his brief exit had already turned the contest strongly in favour of the home side as referee Brian James signalled for half-time.

Within seconds of the re-start however the contest was effectively over. If Airbus had been punished for the second goal from having a defender off the pitch, they were punished for having another on the pitch for the third goal, as the otherwise impressive Danny Taylor turned a cross into his own net. A frustrated Harrison substituted the effective Whitfield soon after the third goal in a move that suggested it would be better to protect his young midfielder from a heavy defeat and keep him fit for upcoming midweek fixture against champions Bangor City.

Further changes followed for both sides in a scrappy second-half and it was the visitors who came closest to scoring what would have been a deserved consolation through Ian Sheridan when his injury-time effort was cleared off the line. Although Neath had enjoyed the better possession against their largely defensive visitors, Airbus had created enough chances to suggest the game could have been a lot more difficult for Boyle’s side if they had scored an early goal. The circumstance of losing their central defender before the second goal and their own full-back adding the third did not help their cause however, and Neath will gladly claim the convincing scoreline after last weeks surprise defeat.

One notable omission from this report on Neath however has been Lee Trundle. The captain and talisman of the Eagle’s financial revolution, Trundle cast an ineffective figure against Airbus with a performance that would have appeared more familiar to Bristol City fans than the Swansea City fans present. Possession was cheaply lost by the former £1m striker and as his frustrations grew his impact on the game suffered. On 73 minutes he was replaced by Toby Jones and promptly made his way down the tunnel as his side comfortably held onto their three-goal lead without him.

Trundle’s role within the side remains an important one, Sunday was not his first quiet game but other less than effective performances have been lined with a moment of magic that has more often than not proved to be the difference between Neath and their respective opponents. By comparison, Port Talbot Town manager Mark Jones has shown this weekend that surprise changes can bring the right reaction, and after this weekend Trundle should be relieved that Jones is not picking the Neath side next week.

Mark Pitman
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