Can Newtown transform themselves from European wannabees to title contenders?

Unfancied Newtown reached the WPL Play-Offs, unfancied Newtown won the WPL Play-Off, unfancied Newtown held their own in Europe. Are unfancied Newtown now TNS’s biggest threat to their title defence?

It’s proven to be a remarkable 12 months for Newtown – after finishing the previous season being edged out in the play-off semi-final by Bangor City, last summer the club were tipped by many as outsiders to reach the top-six and that a bad campaign could even leave them nervously looking over their shoulders in fear of being dragged into a potential relegation scrap.

As we now know, Newtown managed to preserve their top-six status for a second successive season and took solace in their underdog label to see off Port Talbot Town and Aberystwyth Town to qualify for Europe.

The togetherness and team ethic which served them so well domestically aided them in two memorable victories against Valletta of Malta before Danish heavyweights FC Copenhagen proved too strong. A 2-0 away defeat was followed by a 3-1 reverse at Latham Park as Newtown exited the Europa League having gained more than a few friends from their committed displays, with 3,000 spectators passing through the turnstiles across both home fixtures.

The hope off the field is that some from those inflated crowds will return when the new season commences next month but what can the club now achieve on the field?

While Newtown will understandably be keen to downplay any strong sense of expectation and preserve their modest, tight-collective model, Chris Hughes’ squad will have matured from their experiences this summer and they will be returning next season with an even greater sense of understanding and togetherness.

Hughes has made very little changes in terms of personnel and having worked hard over the summer you sense that Newtown will looking to pick up where they left off when they begin their season with a visit to Connah’s Quay.

Having acquitted themselves so well over the summer months, it would not come as a surprise if Newtown were to quickly recover that momentum and start the season strongly and be amongst the front runners in the opening stages of the season. Judging on their performances in Europe, you have to say that they are no weaker than any other of the league’s chasing sides. The question is can Newtown apply some much needed pressure on TNS, or as we’ve seen before, will they join the likes likes of Airbus and Bala Town in dropping points whilst scrapping against themselves?

Should it be a case of the former, Newtown’s Christmas double-header home and away against The New Saints could make for very interesting games indeed and should they be able to muster any sort of title challenge and raise any doubts over the Saints’ domestic dominance, they will find themselves gaining quite a few more friends. 

Michu and the WPL

The story of Michu’s fall from grace at Swansea City is a familiar one for many Welsh Premier Leagues players…

Garry Monk’s frank admission this week regarding the future of Michu will mean the former idol will bring a huge chapter of his career to close and will slip away quietly from the Liberty Stadium.

With his achievements for the club condemned to the history books, the rise and subsequent fall of the 29-year-old is as dramatic as any I can remember in football and exposes the harsh and cruel nature of the game – something which is often overlooked and hidden amongst the bright lights, glitz and glamour of the Sky Sports and Champions League era of football.

Costing £2 million, the signing of Michu from Rayo Vallecano was the Premier League equivalent of chicken feed when he joined in 2012. One fine debut season and 22 goals later saw Michu become one of most sought after names in the league with his transfer value rocketing. He even made his name on the international stage earning his first and only cap in a World Cup qualifier against Belarus, which he will surely reflect upon as being the pinnacle of his career. But injuries were already becoming a problem for the Spaniard and his second season with the Swans stuttered as he saw his appearances and form dip.

When Swansea decided to ship him out to Italy at the end of his second season, Michu’s career continued to nose dive and he sat out a miserable season at Napoli on the sidelines without making any impact in Serie A.
Whilst Michu’s career has dwindled, Garry Monk has further established Swansea City as a credible Premier League outfit and with his future in the hands of negotiations between Huw Jenkins and his agent, there’s no room left at the inn for the Swans’ faded and forgotten star.

Having seen his dreams slip away I can only sympathise with Michu in his current plight and I know that many players in the Welsh Premier League will be able identify with how he his career has slipped, albeit on a far lower scale.

The Welsh Premier consists heavily of players who have fallen out of the professional game at various stages.

Many WPL clubs in north Wales have players who began their careers as apprentices at the likes of Liverpool and Everton, just as teams in the south are littered with those who have suffered the same fate at Swansea and Cardiff.

Now plying their trade in the WPL where they hope to rebuild their careers, many of the league’s players will be able to tell you of Premier League stars who they once roomed and trained with and share their own personal story of the circumstances that cost them the opportunity of making a living in the game – a sudden change in management, injury, homesickness are all factors which come up repeatedly. You often wonder what could have been for some of these players who now turn out across the principality each weekend and just how close current star professional footballers came to going the same way.

A couple of seasons ago I read a contribution by former, hotly-tipped Welsh prospect Ryan Green (now of Merthyr) to Port Talbot Town’s matchday programme. In it, Green, who was just 17 when he made his international debut, listed the best eleven players who he’d played alongside. I wish I had kept a copy of it now but the side he named read like that of a seasoned pro who’d played over 500 Football League games and yet here he was now sitting alongside me on a coach travelling throughout Wales every other Saturday.

Watching the Welsh Premier can be like watching a field of dreams – but ones which are broken with the players striving week in, week out, dreaming of a return to their professional roots. Michu will carry a similar burden when he completes his probable return to Spain this summer and embarks on the next stage of his career which appears to lie in Spain.

After all, the margins of success and failure and moving onto the next level are incredibly thin at all levels of football.

Five reasons why TNS can cause an upset against Videoton

What a seven days for Welsh football… Fantastic success for TNS and Newtown, late heartbreak for Bala Town and a gutsy performance from Airbus out in Croatia. It’s sad to see two of the four European sides go out at the first hurdle but the fact is that the four clubs achieved a 62% win-rate amongst them and the signs from all four ties are extremely encouraging.

There’s little time to rest in these qualifying campaigns and TNS return to action on Tuesday night while Newtown are rewarded with their superb victories against Valletta with a tie away to FC Copenhagen on Thursday!

First up though TNS, who carried their domestic form onto the European stage with a very encouraging 6-2 first qualifying round victory over Faroese champions B36. Michael Wilde’s hat-trick steered the Saints into a second qualifying round tie against Videoton, but the Saints will need to ramp up their performance against the Hungarians where they will be clear underdogs. Here are five reasons why TNS can cause a stir against Videoton!

Wilde hat-trick
TNS exited the Champions League at this stage last year after a 3-0 aggregate defeat to Slovan Bratislava. A slender 1-0 first leg defeat in the Slovakian capital saw TNS return home with the tie very much achievable but what cost the Saints was their lack of firepower. Fast forward 12 months and TNS’s form paints a very different picture with Wilde amongst the goals netting four across both legs including a hat-trick in the return leg at Park Hall. With Wilde looking sharp and confident, TNS should pose more threat in front of goal this summer.

Fitness
Although TNS have had to compete from the first qualifying round this summer, in avoiding elimination against B36 they have been able to benefit from two thorough workouts. Both ties against B36 will have done more the squad in terms of fitness and match sharpness than any of the fixtures in the club’s taylor-made pre-European schedule. Craig Harrison will have a fitter squad at his disposal than this time last summer.

Home leg first
There is no denying that TNS will be the underdogs against Videoton but playing the first-leg at home could prove to be a bonus. Playing their first game in Oswestry will allow the side to focus solely on the first-leg and not have to worry about logistics and going into the unknown. At Park Hall, TNS will be in a familiar environment where they can hopefully find a platform and gain a foothold into the tie to put them in good stead for the away leg.

Super Cup defeat
The Hungarian league, like the WPL, suffers from playing the early stages of their European campaign out of season. Videoton have been in competitive and friendly action however and competed in the Hungarian Super Cup last weekend and then played a midweek friendly on Wednesday. Results so far have not been kind to ‘Vidi’, as they are known, and they were on the receiving end of a 3-0 defeat in the Super Cup to Ferencvarosi. They didn’t fare much better in their following fixture when they were held to a goalless draw. Clearly it is difficult to read too much into these results but it does at least show the Videoton are perhaps showing a little bit of ring rust which will be something TNS would look to exploit.

Familiarity
It’s struck me that all the Welsh clubs competing in Europe this summer have been reluctant to reinforce their squads too heavily and TNS are no exception to that trend. With the exception of Sam Finley, who’s returned to the fold after completing a loan spell at Wrexham, the squad remains the same as it was on the final day of last season. This group of players are close-knit, in a settled changing room and are aware of each other’s strengths and limitations. Recipe for success?

It’s been confirmed that Sgorio will be showing live TV coverage of the first-leg on S4C with the programming starting at 6:45 (K.O. 7pm). TNS have also confirmed ticketing arrangements on their site.

Newtown 2-1 Valletta: Post match thoughts

With Bala Town and Airbus both on the receiving end of defeats, a memorable evening at Latham Park saw Newtown record an incident packed 2-1 over Valletta.

Newtown’s win gives the WPL a 50 per cent win rate so far in European football this summer but few will disagree in saying that the tie is far from concluded.

Newtown can however take heart in a hugely spirited performance and in doing so, they have certainly got some way to go next week to match tonight’s level of performance which gave them a thoroughly deserved win.

Newtown have become a side synonymous with a strong team ethic and a combative style and boy, did Chris Hughes tap into that tonight.

From front to back the side’s work rate helped install confidence in the Robins, right from the goalkeeper to the forwards, and that was the basis of their success against a Maltese side who looked neat in possession but were sporadic in quality in front of Newtown’s rarely tested goal.

There was a risk that Newtown would regret early missed chances from an awkward Valletta defence, and when Luke Boundford took the advantage Newtown were able to take that lead into half time and give themselves a foothold going into the second period.

Newtown looked like they could tire in the second half given the intensity of their performance, which was outstanding given the off-season scheduling of the European ties and credit must be given for Hughes’ preparation for the game.

Even when Valletta disappointingly netted deep into the second half, Newtown remained positive in their shape introducing the attack minded Sean Evans and their bold approach served them well.

Throughout, Valletta never looked truly comfortable at the back and that was clearly evident as Newtown unlocked their back four with a wonderfully built up goal to clinch a deserved win in what was a thrilling game.

Plenty of positives for Newtown to take into next week’s away leg but there is also still plenty for the Robins to be wary about given that Valletta are banking on key players to return.

A great night at Latham Park and great to see supporters of other WPL teams getting behind the Robins!

My verdict: Jones 7, Williams 8, Edwards 7, Mills Evans 8.5, Sutton 7.5, Owen 8, Goodwin 8, Mitchell 7.5, Hearsey 7.5, Oswell 8.5, Boundford 9. Subs: Price 7, Evans 6.5, Cadwallader 6

Europa League trio looking to follow The New Saints’ lead

Opposition from Croatia, Luxembourg and Malta are in the sights of the three Welsh Premier clubs competing in the Europa League first qualifying round this evening – Airbus, Bala and Newtown will all be looking to replicate TNS’s success…

Michael Wilde’s last minute winner last night secured TNS a valuable away win in the Faroe Islands against B36 and the WPL Champions are now well-placed to advance into the second qualifying round. After conceding early on, the Saints quickly found themselves back on level terms through Scott Quigley and with Wilde pouncing in the dying stages, the Saints can take a confidence-boosting win back to Park Hall, where they have a realistic chance of building on that momentum and clinch a second qualifying round tie against Hungarian heavyweights Videoton later this month.

Two of the three European ties tonight take place on Welsh soil and it’s at Nantporth where I believe we will see the trickiest tie of the night where Airbus UK – or AUK Broughton as UEFA fondly refer to them – face Croatian side NK Lokomotiva.

Newtown, the lowest-ranked qualifier’s in the WPL, entertain a Valletta side who have been beset by with problems over player availability but the Robins cannot afford to be distracted by that and Chris Hughes needs to ensure his squad are fully focused on their own game-plan in what should be a very testing evening at Latham Park for Newtown.

I’m going to be at the Newtown-Valletta game and while Newtown may be lacking the quality of some of the other Welsh sides in European competition, they are equipped with a strong sense of togetherness which they will be hoping can make up for any shortfall in quality against the Maltese side.

Bala Town could also be in for a difficult couple of games against FC Differdange. They start the tie in Luxembourg and it’s anyone’s guess as to how they will fare over two legs.

What is interesting is that none of the four clubs have made too many changes in personnel over the summer.

Each have just made the odd addition which implies that the managers are happy with their respective squads and don’t want to upset the apple cart by bringing in any new faces which could change the dynamic of the changing room or risk losing the familiarity that helped each team reach Europe in the first place. I don’t think it would be any coincidence should these teams are all far more proactive in player recruitment after their European campaigns.

As supporters of the Welsh Premier League, we all know just how crucial this time of the year is to the league and clubs in terms of both finances and profile – two of the key factors which are fundamental in helping the league to develop. Let’s hope we can have some positive headlines over the next few weeks and some memorable nights can be entered into the club’s history books!

Let me know your views and comments and how you think the sides will fair in Europe this summer in the comments section or via Twitter @1matthewburgess

As always, thanks for reading!

Summer of change at Rhyl; WPL end of season awards

It’s only been 17 days since the last ball of the Welsh Premier League season was kicked and there are already a raft of changes in personnel on and off the pitch across many of the league’s clubs. While the league is awash with talk of rumours and transfer titbits, and Saturday afternoon’s are until August a far duller event, the spring/summer months are the season of uncertainty for chairmen and managers.

I doubt any club has been as busy in the closing weeks of the season as Rhyl after Greg Strong vacated the managerial hot-seat. It’s rare for a manager to depart a club under lavish praise but that was indeed the case when Strong ended his reign at Belle-Vue on a mutual basis.

Strong’s replacement was always going to be an interesting choice as Rhyl can be considered one of the biggest clubs in the Welsh Premier with a reputable history, good support base and thriving community set-up, that would have no doubt attracted a steady stream of applicants from both Wales and the North-West. The Lilywhites finally opted to turn to a familiar face to take them onto the next stage. Step forward ex-player and former Wrexham and Darlington pro Gareth Owen for what is his second managerial post in the WPL (bonus point if you can name the first!).

The decision to appoint Owen came as something as surprise to me with Huw Griffiths unexpectedly departing his post at Bala Town, but the decision has been warmly received by those close to the club and the changes Owen has already made early into his tenure suggest he’s already addressing the side’s biggest weakness last season – scoring goals.

Rhyl’s tally of 41 WPL goals last term was the second-worst total in the league with Aaron Bowen, who missed a large chunk of the season, Carl Lamb (unconvincing) and Jack Kenny (largely limited to substitute appearances) being the squad’s main attacking options.

Owen has moved quickly with Lamb and Kenny departing the club along with talented winger Liam Dawson while Caersws’ John Owen – a player recently tipped by Newtown’s Jonny Drury to break into the WPL – could be a good addition, particularly if he can strike up a good partnership with the exciting Ashley Ruane, who thrived for Rhyl in the second-half of the season, and another new signing Cefn Druids’ midfielder Derek Taylor.

For a club of Rhyl’s size, finishing outside of the top-six can be considered a disappointment and Owen’s objective over the summer will be to improve the squad and break into that ever-competitive second band of clubs who scrap for points as they trail in TNS’s wake. Gareth Owen is certainly no stranger to the Welsh Premier League and it’ll be interesting to see how he fares on his return.

End of season awards
This weekend brings with it the league’s annual awards dinner as the WPL reveals its 2014/15 Manager, Player and Young Player of the Season.

Treble-winning Craig Harrison (TNS), Euro-bound Chris Hughes (Newtown) and WPL runner-up Colin Caton Huw Griffiths (Bala Town) are the managerial nominees, while Tom Field (Airbus UK), Chris Venables (Aberystwyth Town) and Jason Oswell (Newtown) are in competition for the Player of the Season award and Ryan Astles (Rhyl), Sean Miller (Connah’s Quay) and Matty Owen (Newtown) vye for the Young Player’s mantle.

My picks:
Manager of the Season – Under Craig Harrison TNS have won everything domestically they could get his hands on.

Player of the Season – I fully expect Chris Venables to win the award for a second successive year.

Young Player of the Season – This year’s award is hard to call but I think Matty Owen will just pip Sean Miller to the trophy.

I will hopefully catch up with the winner of each award for my next blog and look forward to seeing some familiar faces from around the WPL over the weekend. Get in touch with your views/comments over on Twitter, thanks for reading.