Do TNS and Craig Harrison get the credit they deserve?

Congratulations to The New Saints’ on a fourth-straight league championship and an unprecedented ninth title…

The manner of The New Saints’ title-sealing performance over Bala Town on the weekend mirrored that of their latest successful Welsh Premier League campaign.

Cool, controlled and clinical – there was little doubt as to where the points were heading on Saturday afternoon and the same could’ve been said in August when there was equally as little doubt as to who the league champions would be this season.

Scour the European leagues and you will struggle to find a more one-sided title race than what the WPL has witnessed this season. Even Celtic have had to withstand some form of challenge from Aberdeen, who even with the remotest of chances of winning the Scottish Premiership, have admirably gone almost the distance in keeping a hold of Celtic’s coattails.

Back in Wales, with the WPL title comfortably sewn up, the Saints will now aim to finish the season unbeaten and capture the Welsh Cup, a feat that would see them achieve a clean-sweep of trophies in 2014/15. Yet it feels they have done so without breaking sweat.

TNS’s current grip on Welsh domestic football is one of sheer dominance but do they get the credit they deserve?

It’s undeniable that TNS have a sizeable advantage over their competitors – their status as the league’s only fully professional club gives them a sizeable head-start against opposition players who typically play alongside their full-time occupations.

The club’s professional status affords them far more time for training and preparation than any other WPL side, and you would expect that they also possess the largest playing budget but that in itself doesn’t guarantee success and certainly not to the extent that TNS have enjoyed in recent years.

Before their demise, Neath briefly joined TNS in the professional ranks assembling a squad with a well-documented high wage bill and reputable names to match. That in itself wasn’t enough to guarantee success and even in their heyday, Neath were seen off by a Saints squad which was somewhat weaker than compared to their current side.

For the neutral and their rival clubs, TNS’s dominance can cast a depressing shadow. There’s no sign on the horizon to even suggest of a challenge to their Welsh Premier dynasty and given the strength of the foundations that TNS have build themselves on, it’ll take a considerable challenge indeed.

And that’s where TNS and Craig Harrison deserve credit and recognition.

Under Harrison they have improved themselves without fail season-upon-season. The core of the squad has remains but it is continually upgraded gradually without disruption and without losing any of their oppressive momentum.  Some may question the club’s European record but I believe the TNS squad is stronger year on year and Champions League progression – the Holy Grail for the club and Welsh football – cannot be too far away now.

Not once, in the most comfortable of seasons, have TNS lacked motivation or desire – even in matches in which they predictably ease to victory. Throughout any level of football, how many times does a supposedly superior side lack the mental balance to give them a true advantage? Craig Harrison and his coaching staff should be applauded for installing the focus and professional application that TNS deliver week in, week out as they avoid complacency, and the standards expected from Harrison’s squad are now becoming as predictable as the results they deliver.

You can guarantee Craig Harrison will be demanding the same from his side for their (now-meaningless) last five WPL games as he did from their first five games of the season.  The term ‘integrity’ has become something of a buzz word throughout the Welsh Premier League this season, but how TNS conduct themselves under Harrison is commendable.

TNS don’t have the constraints that others clubs face but that in turn presents them with their own unique challenges. However you look at it, their high standards begin from home.

All to play for in the WPL Play-Off Conference

With just six games remaining this season, expect a tense finish in the lower-half of the table with a play-off spot and survival to play for…

A draw is all The New Saints require from Saturday’s televised encounter against Bala Town to tie up proceedings and claim a fourth consecutive league title. True, they’ve led the pack from start to finish and given their resources, why shouldn’t they? But as they lay claim to an unprecedented ninth Welsh Premier League title they can rightfully command respect. More on that for another week.

I’ll be watching to see how the Saints fare but it’s the bottom-six where the tension lies this weekend. Prestatyn seem to have already fallen and when Connah’s Quay visit Bastion Gardens, their intentions will be to take another step towards safety with it shaping up to be a straight fight between Cefn Druids and Bangor City to avoid the second relegation spot.

Cefn Druids are a strange team who, from what I’ve seen of them post-January, appear pretty good going forward but just seem unable to hold out under pressure. While they sit two points above Bangor in the safety of 10th-place, wins are a real rarity for the Ancients and time is slipping away.

Druids, its seems, are in something of a vicious circle in terms of their confidence and at this stage of the season, you have to start worrying about whether they can turn their slump around – if they can’t, then they’re destined to go down, given Bangor’s revival.

Bangor in fact, can climb above Cefn Druids and out of the relegation zone for the first time this season – if they can overcome rivals Rhyl, in what is probably the biggest derby in the WPL.

Bangor’s chances of survival seemed remote just a few months ago but they are on a solid run and have a momentum but every inch of their newfound confidence and character will be tested against a Rhyl side, who’re rallying well under Greg Strong.

The Lilywhites had been one of the biggest disappointments in the early stages of the season but they’ve put their poor form behind them and have been on excellent form of late, having quietly gone about their business picking up points on a run which has seen them lose just three games in their last 16 outings. The outcome of their inspired turnaround leaves the club with a strong chance of piping Carmarthen to finishing 7th and snatching the preliminary play-off spot, something few would’ve expected at Christmas.

Guide to what happens to WPL format if Welsh Cup winner has already qualified for Europe

A change of ruling to the Welsh Cup means that the runners-up will  no longer qualify for Europe should the cup winner’s already have secured a European spot via their league position.

Coupled with a league format that isn’t completely straightforward, this new change in ruling well may create additional confusion. I’ll try and explain the possible outcomes and hopefully they’ll make sense before the end of April!

So in the simplest of circumstances, Welsh domestic football’s four European spots are allocated to TNS the Welsh Premier League champions, the WPL runner’s-up, the play-off winner and the Welsh Cup winners.

In previous year’s, if the Welsh Cup winner had already qualified for Europe, the losing finalist would then qualify instead, as in the cases of Aberystwyth Town last season and Cefn Druids back in 2012. Now however, that European place is transferred to the WPL creating an extra qualification spot via the league.

Does this mean that the third-placed club will automatically qualify for Europe and not enter the play-off? What if the third-placed club wins the Welsh Cup, does the play-off round then include the side that finishes in 8th? There are many variables here which have an impact on the league’s format and its clubs.

It’s worth noting that the play-off round takes place after the Welsh Cup final. Let’s take a look at the possible scenarios.

If the Welsh Cup winner comes from outside the top seven:
The league format remains unchanged meaning the top-two sides automatically qualify for Europe with places 3rd to 7th entering the play-off round.

What if the Welsh Cup winner is a play-off team:
That team would no longer go into play-off and would be replaced by the side finishing 8th, with the play-off draw still seeded by league positions, i.e. highest place in play-off versus 8th.

If either the WPL champions or second-place win the Welsh Cup:
This is the tricky one… The European place would drop down to the team finishing third in the league. This team would not enter the play-off BUT no additional play-off place would be awarded to the team finishing 8th. This would leave a straightforward, four-way play-off draw: 4th vs 7th, 5 vs 6th).

The reason why the team finishing 8th in the WPL does not qualify for the play-off in this instance but does if a play-off team is wins the Welsh Cup, is purely because the Welsh Premier League official rulebook does not make any reference to this scenario. I suspect that a rule regarding this matter will be inserted to address this inconsistency before next season.

Hopefully it makes sense, get in touch with any comments or questions via the usual ways.

Bangor must kick on as mini-revival continues

There isn’t a bigger game in the Welsh Premier League this weekend than Bangor City’s clash against Cefn Druids on Friday night.

Two of the four sides in this year’s relegation battle go into this game with contrasting fortunes.

I’ve written about Bangor City’s plight plenty of times this season but in credit to them, there are now clear signs of fight coming from City at the so-called business end of the season.

Last weekend Bangor avoided what I thought was the biggest potential banana skin in the Welsh Cup fourth round, as chances went begging at both ends before Bangor ran out comfortable 3-0 winners against Cymru Alliance mid-tablers Conwy Borough.

That solid home win and clean sheet sealed Bangor’s place in the quarter-final, setting up a home draw against Newtown in the process, which will have added to the growing confidence within the squad.

Indeed, Bangor have suffered just one defeat in their last five outings and it seems that the losing habit which undermined much of their season is finally beginning to wane.

City impressively fought back twice, scoring in the last minute, en-route to claiming a credible 3-3 draw against Carmarthen at Richmond Park. And prior to that, another last minute goal forced a 2-2 draw against Cefn Druids.

Having reinforced his side in the transfer window, under-fire manager Nev Powell will have been delighted to have seen new signings Callum Morris and Liam Caddick both make their mark of late as they’ve weighed in with some key goals. Their impact has alleviated some of the goal scoring responsibility that somewhat burdened Les Davies earlier on in the season and the welcome addition of Lee Healey has also helped the Citizen’s front-line gain a new lease of life.

With City in the ascendancy, Cefn Druids meanwhile appear to have ran out of stream completely. A rotten run of form has yielded just two points from their last seven WPL games but a win for the visitors at Nantporth would force Bangor sink deeper into the relegation battle.

Cefn Druids have a considerable advantage over Bangor in the league, sitting immediately above them with an eight-point advantage – a defeat would leave Bangor needing to cut an 11-point deficit on Druids with eight games remaining.

Time however, is beginning to run out for all involved including Connah’s Quay – another of Bangor’s relegation rivals. They sit level on points with Druids and will too have a significant say in how the conference pans out. But the sight of Cefn Druids recording a win at Nantporth and pulling away towards safety will dent Bangor’s armour at a time when they are showing signs of recovering from their abysmal start to the season.

A look at January’s Sgorio/WPL Goal of the Month contenders…

If you’ve not yet seen them, January’s serving of the best goals from the Welsh Premier once again makes for impressive viewing…

#1 Matty McGinn (AIR): McGinn, playing as a makeshift left-back for Andy Preece remains a goal threat as his outrageous dipping half-volley against Connah’s Quay shows.

#2 Luke Bowen (PTT): After being named Player of the Month for January, Bowen carried his form into the New Year as he worked his way into space past Bangor City’s Chris Roberts before applying a neat finish into the top-hand corner.

#3 Neil Mitchell (NEW): A strong contender for Goal of the Season, let alone Goal of the Month. The Robins forward kept alive his side’s top-six hopes with a fierce 20-yard screamer. One of those, where the ball was destined for the back of the net the moment it left his boot. Real quality.

#4 Rob Hughes (RHL): Ignore the haircut, Hughes makes no mistake with a curling left-back free-kick. He may have found himself in and out of the Rhyl side this season but there’s no doubting his talent.

#5 Jason Oswell (NEW): Oswell neatly swivels and fires past the hapless Terry McCormick from the edge of area as the former Rhyl and Airbus man enjoys a breakout season in the WPL.

#6 Ross Stephens (ABR): Not a bad way to introduce to his new Aberystwyth teammates as he marks his debut with a thumping left-footed strike from outside of the box in the mid-Wales derby.

You can see them for yourself below, but my picks in reverse order are:
Third: Goal #2 Luke Bowen
Second: Goal #1 Matty McGinn
Winner: Goal #3 Neil Mitchell
EDIT: The January’s winner was indeed Goal #3. I’m sure we’ll see Neil Mitchell’s strike as a contender for Goal of the Season.

Can 3G free up the Welsh Premier League?

The unveiling of the latest batch of Welsh Premier League clubs to benefit from the UEFA ‘Hat-trick’ funding via the FAW means that the majority of clubs in the league next season could be competing on artificial turf. Like it or not, 3G is here and it’s here to stay…

Aberystwyth’s Park Avenue and Carmarthen’s Richmond Park will both be equipped with 3G next season after it was announced on Tuesday that four more WPL clubs will benefit from funding.

Joining them will be Cefn Druids, who are yet to determine whether a 3G surface will be installed at The Rock or at a local school, and Connah’s Quay, who have already confirmed that their new pitch will be a school-based facility.

Airbus UK and Newtown are in their first season of having 3G while TNS first set the trend seven years ago.

And should all the above steer clear of relegation and Cymru Alliance runaway leaders Llandudno achieve promotion, the Welsh Premier League could have seven clubs playing on 3G. That list doesn’t even include Port Talbot who have a clear interest in adopting an artificial surface while you suspect other WPL clubs also harbour similar ambitions.

Much like anything related to the Welsh Premier League – i.e. format, seasonal calendar, promotion criteria – the general opinion on 3G pitches is divided.

In an ideal world, yes, every club in the league would be playing on a pristine surface akin to Bangor City’s pitch at Nantporth. But reality paints a very different and often muddy(!) picture.

The clear selling point of 3G surfaces is that it drives two things which underpin the clubs ability to improve their sustainability – community engagement and revenue.

Admittedly, it will take a certain length of time for the clubs to reap the rewards of utilising the benefits of 3G and in my view, the true success of 3G can only be measured in the improvement of standard in the WPL and results in European competition.

The ideal scenario would be that 3G empowers teams to raise standards closer to that of The New Saints’ and create a more competitive league and better product.

The dominance of The New Saints should be considered as one of the biggest threats to the Welsh Premier League and how I wish for the league to have 12-clubs of the Saints’ standard.

Following Bayern Munich’s Bundesliga defeat on the weekend, TNS are now the only top-flight club in Europe to remain unbeaten. The culture of acceptance of their superiority amongst the rest of the league is not a healthy one but where is a challenge, albeit a sustainable challenge, going to come from?

You do wonder whether TNS have hit a ceiling as to how far they can progress within the WPL and the situation that the league finds itself in is not dissimilar to that of the SPL, which is suffering from Celtic’s complete domination. At least in Scotland, there is the potential for Rangers to rebuild and regroup. As things stand right now in Welsh domestic football, any such challenge would be reliant on a benefactor being prepared to back a club at a loss, and that hasn’t worked out well in the past, has it?!

Sticking with The New Saints, Sam Finley has been provided with the opportunity to showcase his talents in the English pyramid.

One of the best talents in the WPL in recent seasons, Finley links up again with Carl Darlington at Wrexham. Finley’s had some bad luck with injuries this season but you suspect he should be able to hold his own at Wrexham in the knowledge that he could  attract attention from clubs within the Football League.

My understanding is that there isn’t a long-term arrangement in place between TNS and Wrexham, and that he moved to the Racecourse only after the Saints were unable to agree on a deal with a number of interested clubs on deadline day.

I don’t believe joining Wrexham, who’re 12-points off the Conference play-off spots, is necessarily a step up for Finley but rather a stepping stone to put himself in the marketplace.

It seems that Finley has played his last game in the WPL but given their superiority over the rest of the league, it’s unlikely his absence will cause Craig Harrison too many headaches domestically at least.

The fourth round of the Welsh Cup comes around this weekend. Caersws host Newtown in the TV game on Sunday (12.45) in what should be a feisty mid-Wales derby. Caersws, like Newtown, have been struggled for consistency for much of the season but you get the feeling that this tie has the makings of tasty cup tie.

Meanwhile the banana skins have been laid out for a trio of WPL clubs. Bangor City will be attempting to avoid a slip-up at home to Conwy Borough, Airbus UK will also be carrying similar fears when they make the trip to Cardiff to face Welsh League pacesetters Cardiff Met and Aberystwyth travel to Holywell Town, who remain undefeated in the Welsh Alliance (Level Three).

Another tie worth keeping an eye on is the all-WPL clash between Connah’s Quay and Bala Town.

Thanks for reading, enjoy the football! Comments welcome as per usual via site/Twitter.