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.

Europa League Newtown offer WPL blueprint

Newtown brought down the curtain on the 2014/15 Welsh Premier League season on Sunday as they lifted the Play-Off trophy aloft at Park Avenue. After successfully overcoming top-seed’s Aberystwyth Town in the final, the Robins’ return to Europe is one of the league’s success stories in recent years.

It’s taken 17 years but anybody associated with Newtown AFC will tell you that the return of continental football to Latham Park this summer will be worth the wait.

Matthew Hearsey’s curling finish past Mike Lewis minutes before half-time would prove to be the goal that rubber-stamped the mid-Wales side’s place into next season’s Europa League qualifying rounds. But it was Geoff Kellaway’s needless dismissal late in the second-half which all but ended Aberystwyth’s hopes of forcing their way back into the game.

And while Aberystwyth were left wounded to nurse the cruel blow of an unenviable play-off final defeat, the realisation of European qualification and the rewards that go with it began to sink in amongst the visiting Newtown contingent.

Newtown’s last involvement in European football on Welsh soil resulted in a hard-fought goalless draw with Wisla Krakow at Latham Park. A less-credible 7-0 defeat followed in the return leg and although you also fear for Newtown’s chances against European opposition this time around, the club deserve immense credit just for the manner in which they’ve qualified.

Indeed, Newtown’s respective success this season stands up against the achievements of any other WPL club, and the manner in which that they’ve achieved it is refreshing and a boost to the league itself.

In many ways, Newtown’s model of success can be considered as a blueprint for other sides striving for prosperity. Over the summer rival clubs from the WPL and below will no doubt be looking to replicate their achievements and Newtown have given us a timely reminder that sustainability and success can go hand-in-hand.

The club have been resourceful in assembling a competitive squad with a strong nucleus of locally-based players which has been built by Chris Hughes and his predecessor Bernard McNally. What’s more, is that this has been achieved on one of the lower-end budgets within the WPL.

Hughes is an up-and-coming young manager in the league, who served time as assistant to Neil Gibson in a four-year spell at Prestatyn Town, as well as roles at Buckley Town, Rhyl and Caersws. Upon arriving at Newtown in November 2013, Hughes inherited a well-balanced squad from McNally but has ensured that the squad have improved gradually over time with the additions of the likes of a much-needed goalscorer in Jason Oswell and gutsy, young midfielder Matty Owen. It is clear that the squad are benefiting from longevity and stability, going against the trends of modern-day competitive football.

The average age of side that won the Play-Off final was just 24 and collectively, you feel there is still more to come from the group with the right coaching and development.

Off the pitch (in a sense!) the introduction of a 3G playing surface at the start of this season has given the club greater pull within its community and an untapped income stream which can help offset the running of the club.

Given the steady foundations that Newtown have quietly gone about building in recent years, the unforecast €200,000 windfall from reaching Europe will give the Robins another nudge in the right direction. Newtown’s progress over the summer months and new season will be followed with interest by many clubs striving for success within similar boundaries.

WPL Play-Off Final: Six key players to watch!

First blog in ages sorry with the usual lame work commitments excuse! You can tweet me your Play-Off Final views and predictions via @1matthewburgess

After nine months of action, the 2014/15 Welsh Premier League season draws to a conclusion this weekend with the Europa League Play-Off Final as Aberystwyth Town and Newtown contest for the league’s final European qualification spot and the cool €200,000 prize fund that goes with it.

The game will be televised live from Park Avenue on Sgorio at Sunday, 1pm – I’ve picked some of the key players from each side who I expect can make a big impact in what is perhaps the biggest game of the Welsh domestic season.

#10 Chris VENABLES, Aberystwyth Town
Labelled as the best player in the league by Chris Hughes in the build-up to this game this week, few would disagree with the Newtown manager’s assessment of Aberystwyth’s star-man, as Chris Venables continues to thrive playing as the central attacking midfielder in Aber’s tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 formation. He comfortably topped the WPL scoring charts having posted 28 goals this season and will shortly be picking up the Golden Boot for a second successive year. Newtown will have to try and keep Venables under wraps if they are to win.

#4 Matty OWEN, Newtown
In young Matty Owen, Newtown have one of the best new talents in the league on their books. He’s caught my eye on numerous occasions in what’s been a polished debut season from the midfielder. Owen is assured in possession and has good delivery from set-pieces, and despite still being only 20-years-old, his steady form has made him an increasingly important figure within the Robins’ squad.  A cool, all-action performance from the former Wrexham and Cefn Druids man would certainly help Newtown’s cause.

#5 Stuart JONES, Aberystwyth Town
Something of a Euro veteran from his time at Llanelli, Stuart Jones will be handed the responsibility of stewarding a defence which, much to the disappointment of manager Ian Hughes, has been shipping goals in the latter stages of the season. The fact that Jones has not had a regular partner for much of that time will have been a contributing factor as Stephen Wright, Sion James and veteran Wyn Thomas have all featured alongside the Aber captain in the centre of the Seasiders’ defence. Newtown lacked spark in their exhausting semi-final against Port Talbot, but will believe they can ask some serious questions of an Aberystwyth defence which has conceded 14 goals in their last six games.

#6 Shane SUTTON, Newtown
The Newtown skipper is regarded as one of the best central defenders in the WPL and is expected to return to the side after a late red card in the Welsh Cup final left him unavailable for last weekend’s semi-final. He will be expected to partner Kieran Mills-Evans in the heart of the Newtown defence and his leadership qualities will be much needed if Newtown are to hold firm against Aberystwyth’s potent attack.

#7 Geoff KELLAWAY, Aberystwyth Town
Big games need big performances and Kellaway is that man for Aberystwyth Town. I feel that he struggles with consistency at times but the bigger occasions tend to bring the best out of the winger, who likes to commit defenders and attack down either flank. In centre-forward Mark Jones and Chris Venables, Aber possess players who are clinical in the box –  Ian Hughes will be hoping Kellaway is the man to carve the Newtown defence open. Kellaway can potentially be a match-winner here.

#9 Luke BOUNDFORD, Newtown
Like Sutton, Boundford is another member of the Newtown side who Chris Hughes can rely upon to lead by example. Featuring on the right but equally adept at playing as the central striker, Boundford turned in a typical performance in the semi-final where is endless running was rewarded by a well-taken late winning goal. With Aberystwyth’s defence looking vulnerable of late, Boundford has the ability to be a threat from the first minute to the last and provide service to their 18-goal striker Jason Oswell.

See you at Park Avenue!

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.