All WPL clubs rated – the season so far.

With most of the clubs at the half-way point in the first-phase of the season, the story of the 2014/15 Welsh Premier League season is beginning to write itself. Events at the bottom of the table have proved more intriguing than life at the top, where Bangor City find themselves adrift at the foot of the table and The New Saints appear to be unchallenged in their defence of the title. I’ve rated each of the 12 WPL clubs in alphabetical order on their season so far, feel free to discuss here or via Twitter!

ABERYSTWYTH TOWN: 5th (5-3-3, 18 points)
It’s been a bit of mixed start for Aber, who after a solid unbeaten start hinted of being the main challengers to TNS’ crown, sharply lost momentum after being handed their first WPL defeat by Newtown. Aber have since lost two of their last three and their results against Bala Town seem to typify the Seasiders’ campaign where they won at home 4-0 before losing the return fixture last weekend by the same scoreline. Ian Hughes will be hoping the capture of ex-Premier League defender Stephen Wright will make the side harder to beat but while Chris Venables continues his quite outstanding form in front of goal, it’s worth noting he has scored all bar nine of Aberystywth’s WPL goals this season. Mark Jones has hit a respectable five goals in 11 appearances but if other players can weigh in a little more on the goalscoring front, Aber should easily push on past their current fifth-place standing. Rating C+

AIRBUS UK BROUGHTON: 3rd (6-2-3, 20 points)
Those who were hoping that Airbus would push TNS harder for the title this season can be disappointed with Wingmakers’ start this season as they already trail by nine points with three defeats giving TNS an early advantage. Although Andy Preece states that his team are nothing more than candidates to finish second in the table, it’s hard to see him being genuinely content in targeting a runner-up spot giving his fiercely competitive nature. With the introduction of young Elis Healing, Matty McGinn and the returning Jordan Barrow, the side does have a new look about it this year but whether it is as strong as last season’s side is open to debate and on the evidence so far, I would suggest not. Central to this is the side’s lack of goals, Chris Budrys has scored just once this term up-front while Andy Jones and Ryan Wade have both been used sparingly due to injuries. If Airbus are to muster a title-challenge then they have to avoid defeat to TNS in this Sunday’s televised fixture and if they can’t find rediscover their winning formula of last year, they might even face a fight for second spot. Rating D

BALA TOWN: 2nd (6-2-3, 20 points)
Despite being unfancied by some to take a top-six place, I always felt that the Lakesiders were due an improved season – I didn’t quite expect this though and Colin Caton and new addition Huw Griffiths must be delighted with their start. An unbeaten five-game start was abruptly ended when they were on the receiving end of a 4-0 defeat to TNS and a subsequent 4-0 loss at Aberystwyth and 2-1 reverse at home to Rhyl suggested that the wheels had come off. Bala responded superbly however by notching three-straight wins and with Caton rotating a front-three from Kieran Smith, Ian Sheridan, Mike Hayes and Mark Connolly the side look a real handful this season going forward. The summer arrival of midfielders James Kelly and Rob Pearson both look like excellent additions and key-man Mark Jones also seems to be rediscovering his form after strangely spending much of the early-part of the season on the bench. Aside from TNS, the top-six is very tight but Bala won’t be complaining with their start! Rating A

BANGOR CITY: 12th (0-2-8, 2 points)
Undoubtedly the story of the season, Bangor’s demise has caught everyone by surprise. Whether you gloat or mourn City’s inexplicably poor start (for the record, I’m neutral), their possible relegation would be a huge loss to the WPL. In contrast to the ruthless trend in football, the club have refreshingly made it clear that Nev Powell has their support and with the club’s public backing, Nev faces the biggest challenge of his managerial career. I found chairman Dilwyn Jones’ recent frank admission that oversight had allowed rival clubs to catch up, quite incredible for a club of Bangor’s size and the club’s faithful supporters should be seeking answers as to how that had been allowed to develop. Nonetheless, the side out on the field are still dramatically underachieving. City have switched from a back-three to a back-four but even the strongest of changing rooms will have found such a run of results testing and confidence must be rock-bottom for the Citizens. An assistant manager and new players are the order of the day – aging marksman Lee Hunt is heavily rumoured to be re-joining in January but such transition should’ve happened last summer, not midway through the season. I don’t believe Bangor will finish up in the bottom-two but they’ve already had more than quite a scare and picking two clubs worse than them at this moment in time is difficult. Rating F

CARMARTHEN TOWN: 4th (6-2-3, 20 points)
The Old Gold won’t win any prizes when it comes to playing attractive football but say what you like about manager Mark Aizlewood, he crucially knows how to assemble winning teams in the WPL and for that he must be applauded. Carmarthen are as uncompromising, resolute and tenacious as ever this season and they look a good bet for a top-six spot come January. Whilst the club were never going to get a like-for-like replacement for Christian Doidge, Aizlewood has down well to pluck Luke Prosser out of the Welsh League and he seems to be adapting well to the WPL, playing just ahead of the underrated Liam Thomas. Brooks, Bassett and Cummings can provide spark down the flanks, Paul Fowler is illustrious as ever as he closes in on the club’s WPL appearance record, while big Cortez Belle remains pivotal at both ends of the field. Few teams will enjoy playing Carmarthen and Aizlewood can take that as a compliment. Rating B+

CEFN DRUIDS: 8th (4-2-5, 14 points)
Cefn Druids cannot be accused of not taking a gamble. They axed all except two of last season’s promotion winning team and appointed John Keegan, a man with no WPL managerial experience, to lead them safety – and against the odds, they’re on track to achieving that. Many feared for the worse when an endless list of players were signed up by Druids in the summer but having now found a settled side, Keegan’s side look up for the challenge of fighting for their place in the top-flight. I’ve been most impressed with the character they’ve shown and Cefn Druids are not an easy team to beat – the fact they’ve won half of their away games so far this season says a lot about the changing room and that will serve them well later in the season. Lively forward Karl Noon, looks like a good acquisition, while TNS loanee Ryan Edwards and Craig Jones (what were Connah’s Quay thinking in releasing him?!) add quality to their five-man midfield. On the looks of it so far, Cefn Druids have been great addition to the WPL and they’ve given themselves an excellent platform to avoid the drop. Rating C+

CONNAH’S QUAY: 10th (2-3-5, 9 points)
The Nomads have not made the start that they’d have been hoping for but there are signs that the club are moving in the right direction, with an eight-game winless streak being ended with successive away wins. Whilst Connah’s Quay have failed to impress for much of their early campaign, their first victory arrived with an excellent 2-1 victory at Newtown and was immediately followed-up by an important 2-0 win against Bangor City to climb out of the bottom-two. Connah’s Quay are an ambitious club, make no bones about it, but based upon suggestions of a competitive budget this season the side have shown little quality so far this season. A good run of results would soon see them eat up the seven-point difference between themselves and the top-six but as things stand, I don’t see enough goals in a side which lacks attacking options. Young midfielder Sean Miller has been the highlight of their season so far but Connah’s Quay look over-reliant on the aging Ricky Evans and Gary O’Toole to cause the top-half of the table too much concern. Rating D

NEWTOWN: 7th (4-3-4, 15 points)
Unfancied Newtown have done well to maintain last season’s form but despite having a compact but talented squad, inconsistency threatens to undermine the Robins’ top-six aspirations. I really like the look of Chris Hughes’ Newtown side which are well-organised and try and play good football. They’ve also had to deal with injuries to experienced players but have kept on with mixed success. Newtown were desperately unfortunate not to come away with a point against TNS last weekend but are very much in touching distance of the top-half of the table. Jason Oswell has arrived from a brief but unsuccessful spell at Airbus and has slotted in up-front remarkably well with nine goals in 11 games, giving Newtown some of the firepower that was lacking at times last season. If they can tighten up their home form, they should be make the cut once again. Rating C+

PORT TALBOT: 6th (5-1-5, 16 points)
Like Newtown, Port Talbot need to overcome inconsistency if they are to claim a top-six place though new manager Jarred Harvey will be encouraged with the progress his side have made so far. Following last season’s disappointing campaign, Harvey along with a host of new signings have given Port Talbot a new lease of life, though can they settle enough to make the top-six cut? The Steelmen have been excellent at home this season but it is on the road where points have been dropped and they must find a way of ironing out their away form. Steve Cann, Corey Thomas and Carl Evans have solidified the side, while Luke Bowen and Keyon Reffell have brought some much-needed spark. Up front, Martin Rose appears sharper than he has done so for the last few seasons and with Rhys Griffiths’ experience and goalscoring instinct, this Port Talbot side are well-equipped to finish top-six. Rating C

PRESTATYN: 11th (2-2-7, 8 points)
Pre-season predictions that Prestatyn would find the going tough this year seem well-founded with the side recording just one victory since their opening day win over Connah’s Quay. Despite that, you sense the club are looking further afield than the immediate season and are blooding in a number of locally-based players. Indeed, the idea seems to be that even if the club are relegated at the end of the season they will have a core of young players which will be allowed to develop and attempt to regain promotion if a stronger, more experienced squad. It’s a modest approach by Prestatyn and without wishing to sound patronising, who can blame them for cutting their cloth accordingly and working towards a long-term objective? There are still plenty of familiar faces in Neil Gibson’s squad but the future seems to be set around the likes of Ryan Dean, Dale Lee, Zyaac Edwards, James Stead and Jordan Davies. Rating C

RHYL: 9th (3-2-6, 11 points)
Rhyl must be one of the more frustrating teams to support this season and I just can’t make my mind up on them. Just when they appear to be turning the corner they slump again and unless Greg Strong can arrest that trend, the Lilywhites aren’t going to be good enough to claim a spot in the top-six. After a poor start , their home victory over rivals Bangor City seemed to be the turning point before they falling to a heavy home defeat to Port Talbot. Powerful centre-forward Aaron Bowen has been a real find by Strong and he looks to be a quality addition to the WPL but other than him and Liam Dawson, Rhyl don’t have a single player who’s scored more than once. They’ve picked up just one win at home so far this term, making the compact Belle-Vue a fortress would be definite step in the right direction. There could be some work to be done in the January window. Rating D

THE NEW SAINTS: 1st (9-2-0, 29 points)
The league’s only unbeaten side appear to be unchallenged and are on-par to pick-up the WPL title for a fourth time in a row. Whether TNS have stepped up the quality again this year or whether the chasing pack have fallen away is debatable, but as far as the growth of the WPL is concerned, with respect, the Saints’ dominance of the league is bordering unhealthy. They have already forged a nine-point lead, which could turn to 12 this weekend, if they can see off Airbus, who are were widely expected to be TNS’ closest challengers. It is of credit to Craig Harrison and Craig Darlington that TNS avert complacency in a competition in which they are so clearly superior and the fact that the TNS players’ greatest competition comes for the fight for places within the squad itself is a worrying sign for the league. That said, TNS can only beat what’s put in front of them and they generally do that with conviction and a style that is a pleasure to watch. The side are pretty much the same as last year and bare no real surprises. I’d love to be able to write about a neck-and-neck title race but (and Craig Harrison won’t like me for saying this) the league is as good as won already and we’re not even into November.  Rating A

Saturday’s Welsh Premier League and Welsh League results and tables

SATURDAY 25 OCTOBER 2014

CORBETT SPORTS WELSH PREMIER LEAGUE
Newtown 2 – 3 The New Saints
Prestatyn Town 1 – 3 Carmarthen Town
Port Talbot Town 3 – 0 Rhyl

NATHANIEL CAR SALES LEAGUE CUP ROUND ONE
Pontardawe Town 2 – 0 Treharris Ath Western

DIVISION ONE
Afan Lido 6 – 0 AFC Porth
Caerau (Ely) 5 – 4 Garden Village
Cambrian & Clydach 3 – 0 Monmouth Town
Goytre P – P Haverfordwest County
Penybont 3 – 2 Aberdare Town
Continue reading

Time for change at Bangor City?

I’ve not posted an entry here for exactly a month, so apologies to those who subscribe to the blog and follow it regularly – here’s a quick-fire midweek post. As always, let me know your views…

My last post was an interview with Rhyl striker Aaron Bowen who had just bagged a hat-trick in his side’s derby victory over Bangor City.

Bowen has since gone on to score five goals in seven Welsh Premier League appearances as Rhyl, though still dogged by inconsistency, have put themselves within touching distance of the top-six.

Bangor City however remain winless and prop up the WPL table with a meagre two points from a possible 24 – simply put, it’s been a disastrous start for City and things clearly aren’t right.

It’s still early enough in the season for Bangor to climb off the foot of the table and still have a relatively good campaign. Even if they miss the top-six, which does seem highly probable now, the club can still secure a European place via seventh-spot, as Bala Town did two seasons ago, and a Welsh Cup run would certainly lift the dark clouds that continue to linger over Nantporth.

For any of that to happen though, something must change. City have not recovered from the exit of assistant manager Marc Limbert and with one half of their management duo needing replacing, the question has to be asked, after seven years service, whether now is the time to make a clean break and replace the other half?

Bangor City without Nev Powell is like Maes Tegid without rain. Vastly experienced in the league, wily and arguably the most successful manager in the history of the football club, any such change would be huge gamble but with or without Nev, it is becoming apparent that changes are needed to breathe new life into the Citizens.

Aaron Bowen interview!

I caught up with the Welsh Premier League’s man of the moment on ‘that’ hat-trick during Rhyl’s stunning derby victory.

Forty-five minutes second-half minutes was all it took for Rhyl’s new number nine to earn a place in Lilywhites’ folklore.

His previous Belle Vue appearance – a home debut back on the opening weekend of the season – was tinged in disappointment when the bustling, 23-year-old Liverpudlian striker received his marching orders after accumulating two yellow cards against Cefn Druids. Yet the name of Aaron Bowen is now the talk of the sunny seaside town after a true Roy of the Rovers-esque display in Sunday’s derby against Bangor City.

Under pressure to earn their first league win of the season, Rhyl found themselves trailing Bangor by two-goals at half-time, staring at yet another defeat.

With Jack Laird and Les Davies giving City the advantage and a legitimate goal from Bowen being disallowed, the odds were stacked in the favour of Bangor ending their very own winless run at the expense of Greg Strong’s Rhyl.

But soon after the restart Bowen was able to open his goal account for the Lillywhites, as he took full advantage of a soft cleared header to send a return header beyond Jack Cudworth in the Bangor goal.

With five minutes remaining, Bowen again demonstrated his strength to force Rhyl back on level terms and with the momentum fixed firmly in the hosts favour, Bowen saved the best for last thumping Ashley Stott’s neat cut-back firmly into the net as Belle-Vue erupted. Not a bad way to win a derby.

“I already knew from playing lower-league that Rhyl versus Bangor was a big game, so I was really up for it and when we got the winner I was delighted. All the lads have really worked hard and it was just great,” Bowen explained.

“[At half-time Greg Strong] said the goals we had given away were really poor but he said there are goals in it for ourselves. We need to tighten up and get tight on them. I felt in the second-half they never really got out of their own half, we got right at them and that’s the way we need to carry on.

“As soon as I scored the first, the whole of the team got a big boost. I thought another two goals would be a bit much but definitely thought we would get the equaliser. Then, when we eventually got the equaliser I thought ‘the winner’s here’ and Strongy said to me to go and get the winner.

“It just fell to me in the box and I just though I’ve got to get it on target and when I watched it back I didn’t realise I’d hit it so hard so I was made up.”

Having featured for Barrow and Warrington Town last season, I watched Aaron Bowen make his WPL debut away to Carmarthen. Though his physicality was obvious, his ability to make an impact on the game was curbed after two early red-cards forced Rhyl forced to abandon their attacking game-plan.

“The manager got sacked at Barrow and the new manager came in and brought all his own players with him, the travelling was also quite far for me as it was two and a half hours from where I live in Liverpool. Warrington then put an offer in for me and I finished the season there,” said Bowen.

“Strongy rung me pre-season and I signed for Rhyl, I spoke to Andy Preece and Airbus as well but Strong rang me a good few times and just the way he came across on the phone with the club’s ambitions swayed me towards coming here and I’m made up I did now.

“For the squad we’ve got we’re massively underachieving at the moment. The lads are all good lads and all quality players – in the first game we went down to nine-men, in the second game we were winning at home and got sent down to nine-men again, then we played TNS away so I think those three games were a bit of a false start for us, but after this we win we should be right up there and hopefully it’ll turn the tables a bit for us.

“After the end of the game we were all buzzing and all the lads have a bit of a group text on What’s App so we’re all quite close and looking forward to Friday now [against Connah’s Quay] and can’t wait.

“I’m enjoying the WPL so far. It’s a very well-run league and it’s quite a good standard – it’s a better standard than I thought it would be.

“I scored, I think it was 15 last season but this season I want to get to the 20 mark, if not more to be honest with you and I think as club we should be right up there in third, fourth and we want to try and get into that European spot.”

You can view highlights of Rhyl’s dramatic win over Bangor City here via Sgorio.

Pressure mounting on winless North-Wales rivals ahead of Sunday’s TV game

A look ahead to this afternoon’s lunchtime kick-off between Rhyl and Bangor City (1.00, S4C).

As I wrote on my last blog, few would’ve expected two of the biggest clubs in the league to be still searching for their first WPL victory when the initial list of Clwb/Sgorio live fixtures was confirmed at the start of the season.

Although we’re only four games into the new season, it’s been a dire start for both sides and you suspect that neither team will want a derby fixture of this magnitude at a time when the form book makes such poor reading.

Both sides have posted a return of just a single point from a possible twelve and following Connah’s Quay’s impressive draw at Aberystwyth on Friday, Rhyl and Bangor now prop up the rest of the table.

It’s been a miserable week for both clubs in the built-up to the derby.

On Wednesday, Rhyl were dumped out of theWord Cup to lower league opposition after Cymru Alliance pacesetters Llandudno edged through 4-2 on penalties after holding the Lilywhites to a 1-1 draw. A day later, it was confirmed at an appeal hearing that Bangor City’s summer signing Sam Hart faces an extended ban for this incident against TNS (see 1 minute, 20 seconds). Hart, one of the few new faces to arrive at Nantporth over the summer, was handed an additional four-game ban after already missing four matches.

This afternoon’s match has more than three points at stake.

A derby victory will serve as a big psychological boost and possibly kick-start the winning side’s season.

A defeat however would well and truly compound a miserable start to the season and add to what must be a growing sense of concern at either club.

PRE-GAME NOTES
– Rhyl have two players returning from suspension as ex-City midfielder Levi Mackin and powerful centre-forward Aaron Bowen return.
– Bangor will definitely be without central defender Leon Clowes who saw red last weekend against Airbus, while Sam Hart also remains unavailable. Could City abandon their 3-5-2 shape without Clowe?
– Bangor forward Jamie Petrie is close to returning to fitness following a lengthy absence.

Are Bangor City this season’s Port Talbot?

This season is shaping up to be the most competitive since the 12-club play-off format was adopted. Every club, whether in public or private, will have ambitions of making the top-six cut but realistically, there are only three spots open to nine teams.

Even after just four rounds of fixtures, I don’t think it’s outrageous to suggest that last season’s top-two The New Saints and Airbus UK look poised to repeat their dominance and that Aberystwyth Town also look like grabbing a top-six spot. I also don’t think it’s too bold to suggest that these will be the top-three come the end of the season – taking a guess at the remaining three sides to finish in the top-half however, is just a complete stab in the dark.

The bottom-three of the table currently features three of the sides who many will have tipped pre-season to be in that final figure. Rhyl, Connah’s Quay and Bangor City are all still searching for that elusive first win. You feel that the Nomads are just needing that first win to help things fall into place but a visit to Park Avenue tomorrow night is probably the last thing they’d have wanted after suffering a heavy defeat to TNS. And few would’ve been expecting the need for a first win to be the backdrop of the game ahead of Sunday’s live TV fixture when Bangor City travel across the North Wales coast to face Rhyl (1.00).

Arguably the two best-supported teams in the WPL, it is something of a shock to see both sides with just a single point alongside their names in the league table. Rhyl, I feel, have never quite got going after a strange opening day defeat at Carmarthen, where down to nine-men for most of the game, they were narrowly beaten in what was an otherwise encouraging team performance. Early suspensions, four red cards in two games, will have made it hard for Greg Strong to extract some early season momentum and form from his side but losing games in a league as competitive as this can become an unwanted habit all-too-easily.

And what of Bangor? In truth, I’m yet to see them properly this season and look forward to doing so on Clwb (can we at least still call it Sgorio?) on Sunday but whether rightly or wrongly, I’m being told that they really are struggling to impress and not looking convincing.

The WPL is a healthier place with a club as big as Bangor City doing well in it but despite a late run of form last season, I can’t say I was overly impressed with the side. Nev Powell will certainly believe he has the players to have them competing at the higher end of the table but I’m not sure whether the squad has been strengthened enough over the summer and worry that the Citizens could be set for campaign similar to that of Port Talbot’s uninspiring season last year.

On paper at least, Port Talbot had a squad to be feared but performances and results were barren and after missing out on the top-six and losing ground in the race for seventh, the season couldn’t end soon enough for the underachieving Steelmen.

Change beckoned at the GenQuip Stadium and the early indications are that they are at least due a better season but it was their South Wales neighbours Carmarthen, who were at the centre of the biggest shock last weekend, being sunk 8 (EIGHT as the vidiprinter would say) -1 by impressive Bala Town.

Carmarthen, for me, have not been as good as their early results had suggested but they are without a question a better side than the one that turned up at Maes Tegid last Sunday. After watching the highlights you can only give credit to Bala – who I really think have the makings of a good side this year –and put the manner of the defeat down as one of those random results that seem to spring up from time to time.

I’m going to be at Richmond Park this Saturday and I’m looking forward to seeing how they respond for the visit of Newtown. Mark Aizlewood possesses a relatively small squad there and I think he will act wisely in his approach and resist from overhauling his side, and instead give the majority of his players the chance to get the performance out of their system and put a right to a few wrongs in front of a home crowd.

The Robins have blown, hot and cold at the start of their season and will need to be wary of the wounded animal!

Enjoy the weekend’s games.