Treble-chasing TNS have a four-point advantage; defending champions Bangor City left to rue home form going into the final stretch of the league season.
Only a late collapse will prevent TNS from clinching their sixth league title as the Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League draws to a close.
WITH the race for the league championship coming to a climax, The Saints are looking to become the first side to win the treble since Rhyl dominated the domestically in 2003/4, with a Welsh Cup semi-final showdown against Bala Town on Saturday, before taking a 3-2 League Cup semi-final first-leg lead to Newtown, three days later.
In a championship where there were three genuine contenders for the title, TNS have maintained a steady run of form at the crucial stage of the season. Spearheaded by Alex Darlington and Greg Draper, who have fired the Oswestry based side into a ten-game winning streak, not even the absence of 19 goal-man Draper – away qualifying for the Olympic Games with New Zealand – has disrupted TNS’ relentless run.
Having confidently observed all their rivals stall in recent weeks, The Saints’ were able to recover from their own lean spell came in November. An unconvincing performance against Neath and a home defeat to Bangor City, was followed up an unlikely defeat in South Wales, as plucky Afan Lido caused one of the shock results of the season, handing TNS a 3-2 defeat. Days later the sudden departure of Mike Davies from his role as director of football adding weight to claims that all was not well at the club.
TNS took stock before settling on Airbus UK’s Craig Harrison to carry the side forward. And if Mike Davies’ exit had been a little awkward, Craig Harrison’s transition to occupy the role was anything but, with 12 wins from thirteen under Harrison ensuring the Saints are firing all fronts at the business end of the season.
TNS’ strongest challenge for the league title comes from defending champions Bangor City, who had led the table for much of the campaign. With three fixtures remaining, including the strategically placed, final-day meeting (at Park Hall) with The New Saints, Bangor will still staunchly believe that they very much remain in the title race, particularly in the knowledge that The New Saints host Llanelli and must travel to Colin Caton’s constantly improving Bala, before the end of season finale.
City’s final run-in is no easier however. A trip to also-rans Neath precedes their final home game of the season against Bala Town, where Bangor will be hoping their form at their new Nantporth home will prove more prosperous, with the club’s new surroundings playing an unwanted role in their fall from the top of the table.
The paint was barely dry at the brand new Nantporth Stadium when tearful Bangor City said thanks and farewell to the rickety but charming Farrar Road and collected the keys for their new base on the banks of the Menai Strait at the turn of the year. But since the move, their previously uncompromising home record has so far deserted the Citizens. Going into the New Year unbeaten at home with nine wins and two draws, Bangor’s form at Nantporth has initially yielded a poor return of one win in four matches, including successive 3-1defeats to Neath and TNS, which saw them knocked off the top of the table.
The main challenge from South came from ambitious Neath, whose unprecedented investment at Welsh Premier League level is yet to pay dividends for a second season.
For much of the campaign, Neath flirted with the idea of becoming genuine contenders for the title, whilst off the field, the club skirted around frequent mutterings of discontent and financial worries. The appointment of popular former Swansea City stalwart, Kristian O’Leary as manager saw the Eagles sustain consistency but the Gnoll side simply ran out of steam. A home to defeat to TNS and 2-2 draw at Bala Town leaves Neath eight points off the summit, with O’Leary tellingly acknowledging that their challenge is over.
Whilst there are no guarantees as to where the title will end up, even at this late stage of the season, the only certainty is that Bangor City will push ever inch to thoroughly test The New Saints’ resolve, in a championship which is becoming harder to win each passing year.