Bumper Welsh Premier League preview – club-by-club and player predictions

ABERYSYTWYTH TOWN
Last season: 8th
Manager: Tomi Morgan
Key man: Sean Thornton
In: Adam Worton, Matty Collins, Stuart Jones, Jordan Follows, Cledan Davies, Mike Lewis, Glyndwr Hughes, Stuart Jones, Gavin Cadwallader

Out: Steve Cann, Michael Howard, Geoff Kellaway, Andy Parkinson, Craig Williams, Kris Nalborski

Background: An abysmal start to last season saw Alan Morgan dismissed as manager after taking just four wins in 24 league games. Under new boss Tomi Morgan, the Seasiders eventually rediscovered their form, albeit late on the season and avoided a bottom two finish on the final day of the league, to snatch an unlikely wildcard place in the Europa League play-off where they lost to Llanelli in the semi-final.

The surprise capture of Llanelli captain Stuart Jones headed a list of nine new arrivals over the summer months, which also, notably, included club legend Glyndwr Hughes, following a two-year absence. The decision to loan out fit-again midfielder Bari Morgan to Cymru Alliance outfit Penrhyncoch appears a strange one, whilst the club have swapped goalkeepers with Carmarthen Town, with Mike Lewis donning the gloves this year.

Verdict: Stuart Jones will be key as Aber seek to rediscover their resilience and reassert themselves amongst the upper bracket of sides this season. A lack of fire power however could undermine Aber’s attempts to build on last season’s seventh-place finish, with just Jordon Follows and Darren Griffiths the only recognised strikers at time of writing.

AFAN LIDO
Last season: 10th
Manager: Paul Reid
Key man: Gareth Phillips
In: Michael Howard, Paul Evans, Gareth Phillips, Matthew Thompson, Chris Hartland, Lee Hartshorn, Gavin Jefferies, Jordan Marks

Out: Carl Evans, Liam Thomas, Anthony Finselbach, Liam Hancock, Craig Hanford, Leon Jeanne, Daniel Thomas, Carl Payne, Daniel Sheehan

Background: Expected by many to be looking over their shoulder for much of the season, Lido were very much the surprise package of last season. Results progressively improved after a tough start and culminated in the club winning the League Cup against Newtown on penalties. Rumours of discontent within the camp detracted from what Andy Dyer’s spirited squad had achieved on the field and his resulting departure in May, led to the nucleus of the squad following suit, leaving former Port Talbot assistant Paul Reid with the unenviable task of rebuilding the squad in his first managerial role.

Verdict: The challenge that awaits Afan Lido this season is far tougher than that of twelve months ago and the club will have to punch way above their weight if they are to compete. Paul Reid must follow his predecessor’s philosophy of assembling a side high in work-rate, resilience and self-belief if they are to remain competitive. New signing Gareth Phillips’ experience in the middle of the park will underpin this but a bottom-two finish surely awaits.

AIRBUS UK BROUGHTON
Last season: 7th
Manager: Andy Preece
Key man: Jack Lewis
In: Jack Lewis, Toby Jones, Ben Chapman, Ian Kearney, Kyle Armstrong, Chris Budrys, Tom Field, Jordan Johnson, Ian Kearney, Michael Roddy, Ryan Wade

Out: Adam Worton, Gavin Cadwallader, Danny Grannon, Josh Griffiths, Eddie Hope, Danny Desormeaux, Craig Whitfield

Background: The appointment of Andy Preece in January led to a period of transition for the Wingmakers, whose position at the top of the Play-Off conference was never under any real threat for the duration of the second-half of the season. With their form fizzling out towards the end of the campaign, Airbus twice failed to live up to expectations, suffering defeats to lower-league Cefn Druids in the Welsh Cup semi-final and then in the play-offs against Aberystwyth. After months of plotting, Andy Preece quickly raided former club Northwich Victoria post-season to bring in a number of players including ex-Vics captain Ian Kearney.

Airbus’ aspirations clearly lie in the higher echelons of the Welsh Premier but the side are very much an unknown quantity. A strong start good see Airbus become a real force in the top half of the table, a poor start could just as easily tip the balance, resulting in the exact opposite.

Verdict: The hardest of all sides to predict this season, possible dropped points early in the season could prove costly leaving them to contest in the Play-Off conference once again. Equally, a strong start could even see the Wingmakers force their way into the top three.

BALA TOWN
Last season: 5th
Manager: Colin Caton
Key man: Mark Jones
In: Ashley Morris, Tony Davies, Lewis Codling, Kenny Lunt

Out: Chris Mason, Terry McCormick

Background: Bala’s season may have ended on a sour note by losing in the Europa League play-off final to Llanelli but the Gwynedd side will at least take heart in that it was the year in which the Lakesiders became a major force in the league. A deserved draw at The New Saints on the opening day of the season – which was followed by a five-game winning run – set the tempo of a terrific campaign, as Colin Caton’s side made their impact on the league. Lee Hunt once again proved himself to be one of the finest strikers in the league, netting 16 in his debut season at Maes Tegid. And in the January window Bala moved to bolster their forward line, bringing in Ian Sheridan from Airbus. Mark Jones- an attacking midfielder who could step into any team in the Welsh Premier – thrives in Caton’s diamond-shape midfield, whilst Mark Connolly provides a constant threat from outside of the box.

Colin Caton has made minimal changes to his squad over the summer but the acquisitions of Llanelli stopper Ashley Morris and former Everton and Aberystwyth forward Lewis Codling should prove effective to replace the outgoing Terry McCormick and Chris Mason, who join Conway Borough and Guisley respectively, and the arrival of 32-year-old Football League veteran Kenny Lunt will only add to the quality Bala possess in midfield.

Verdict: With two proven goalscorers and a midfield which can carve open up any team in the division and an already strong defence will be improved by Morris’ presence between the posts. Bala will again remain a threat, just how much depends on their consistency – don’t rule out further squad strengthening in January after a relatively quiet summer.

BANGOR CITY
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Nev Powell
Key man: Les Davies
In: Jamie Crowther, Chris Simms, Liam Brownhill

Out: Eddie Jebb, Neil Thomas, Kyle Wilson, Peter Hoy

Background: It took until the final day of the league season to put the Welsh Premier title beyond the reach of defending champions Bangor City, as The New Saints reclaimed the title with a 5-0 win and a five-point margin. Three points taken from a possible 12 against the newly crowned champions ultimately proved decisive in a season in which only Bangor and TNS were the only genuine title contenders. Despite finishing the season empty-handed for the first time in five years, 2011/12 will however be firmly fixed in the memories of Bangor supporters for years to come, as the club said goodbye to their dated but characteristic Farrar Road stadium and hello to their purpose built facility at nearby Nantporth. The club and jovial striker Les Davies were the centre of some unexpected attention during the summer when the 27-year-old was ludicrously shortlisted on UEFA’s best player in Europe award, before, on the field, Bangor lost out to Moldvan side FC Zimbru Chisinau in the Europa Cup first qualifying round, despite an gutsy first-leg display.

Verdict: A minimal number of new faces suggests that Nev Powell still has faith in his side and much will depend on just how much of a fortress can Bangor make their new comfortable Nantporth home. New striker Chris Simm – formerly of Chester City – could make a real impact in the league whilst a new midfielder could still be in the offing despite the arrival of young midfielder Jamie Crowther. Burly defender Peter Hoy’s departure out on loan is a surprising one and one wonders whether Nev Powell will be looking to encourage a less-direct approach from his well-drilled side. I’m not yet convinced the Citizens have made enough ground on TNS over the summer – runners-up again.

CARMARTHEN TOWN
Last season: 11th
Manager: Mark Aizlewood
Key man: Carl Evans
In: Matthew Rees, Carl Evans, Anthony Finselbach, Craig Hanford, Ian Hillier, Steve Cann, Craig Hughes, Leon Jeanne, Liam Thomas

Out: Dan Macdonald, Steffan Williams, Cledan Davies, Geraint Passmore, Mike Lewis , Lee Bevan

Background: Given a reprieve last season after being spared of relegation on the grounds that a suitable (possessing adequate facilities/infrastructure to meet Welsh Premier criteria) MacWhirter Welsh League team failed to finish in a promotion spot, Carmarthen appeared to have taken caution over the summer and have responded by overhauling their squad. Manager Mark Aizlewood returned to the club for a third-spell in January following a disastrous run which saw the West-Walians lose 17 of their opening 21 league fixtures. And despite failing to completely turnaround the club’s fortunes, the former Cardiff City and Welsh international will have a very different remit this season. Five players including lynchpin defender Carl Evans were snapped up from Afan Lido whilst Carmarthen benefited from Neath’s insolvency, signing defenders Ian Hillier and Matthew Rees as well as re-signing former favourite Craig Hughes.

Verdict: Carmarthen could make rapid progress this year and will surely have enough quality throughout their squad to make last season’s relegation scrap a distant memory. The side’s back-bone of Stephen Cann, Carl Evans, Paul Fowler and Craig Hughes is better than most in the Welsh Premier and Mark Aizlewood will be well aware that vast improvement is expected.

CONNAH’S QUAY
Last season: Promoted as Huws Gray Alliance champions
Manager: Mark McGregor
Key man: Gary O’Toole
In: Dean Canning, Chris Rowntree

Out: Ben Alston

Background: A six-point cushion over Rhyl saw Connah’s Quay end their two-year absence from the Welsh Premier as the Nomads claimed the Huws Gray Alliance league title for a second-straight season, after failing to meet promotion criteria the year before. Mark McGregor appears to have kept his successful squad together, including Gary O’Toole who was prolific in the second-tier. Next term O’Toole can expect to be partnered by new arrival Dean Canning but the late and sudden departure of defender Ben Alston will have unsettled preparations.

Verdict: It’s unfortunate for Connah’s Quay that they make the step up to the Welsh Premier League at time when the league appears to more competitive than ever. Mark McGregor will be looking to exploit both their unknown status and their winning mentality but a lack of proven Welsh Premier quality will almost certainly undermine their attempts of finishing outside of the bottom two.

LLANELLI
Last season: 4th
Manager: Andy Legg
Key man: Luke Bowen
In: Luke Bowen, Martin Rose, Geoff Kellaway, Craig Morris

Out: Chris Holloway, Stuart Jones, Jordan Follows, Rhys Griffiths, Craig Richards, Ashley Morris, Martin Giles

Background: Although vying alongside Neath, Bangor City and The New Saints as pre-season title contenders, Llanelli never convinced as true candidates and finished a considerable 15 points behind first-place TNS. Suffering with injuries, a post-Christmas run of six defeats in seven proved a testing period for a tired-looking Andy Legg, who publically slated his side’s sub-standard performances. A busy summer ensued for the Reds management with goal machine Rhys Griffiths finally took the opportunity to test himself in the professional game, joining Plymouth Argyle via a short-lived spell at Port Talbot. In an unexpected move, club captain Stuart Jones made one of the surprise transfers of the summer, by joining Aberystwyth, and Llanelli’s situation worsened as goalkeepers Craig Richards and Ashley Morris also moved to pastures new with Port Talbot and Bala respectively. But Legg has been able to reinforce his side with the forwards Martin Rose (Port Talbot) and Luke Bowen (Neath) and tricky wingman Geoff Kellaway (Aberystwyth).

Verdict: Although Andy Legg has had his hand forced on some of the changes to his squad this summer, a change in personnel will breathe new life into a squad which at times last season looked stale. Rhys Griffiths’ departure will leave huge hole in the forward line but both Martin Rose and Luke Bowen are of good goalscoring pedigree. A repeat top-four finish is again very much achievable but Andy Legg’s men will be pushed all the way.

NEWTOWN
Last season: 12th
Manager: Bernard McNally
Key man: Zac Evans
In: Max Penk, Dave Roberts, Craig Whitfield, Craig Williams

Out: Robbie Millington, Nicky Rushton

Background: With the Welsh Premier League becoming more unforgiving each season, Newtown find themselves disadvantaged by competing within their modest means. Only Neath going into liquidation saved the Robins from certain relegation after spending almost the entire season at the foot of the table. After shipping goals in the first-half of the season, Bernard McNally remained patient with his side and the Robins finally began to show more resilience, with a League Cup final appearance the product of their newfound confidence.

McNally’s squad remains largely unchanged this time around with left-back Max Penk making his loan move from Wrexham a permanent one, although last-season’s top-scorer Nicky Rushton has been recalled by the Blue Square Premier side this season. Former keeper Dave Roberts returns between the sticks this campaign after a spell with Prestatyn, as does wide-man Craig Whitfield, who spent last season at Airbus.

Verdict: As admirable as Newtown’s efforts are, the future of one of the league’s founder members will remain very much in doubt. With several clubs looking a lot stronger on paper than last season, Newtown will find goals hard to come by. It is imperative that Bernard McNally makes Latham Park a difficult place to visit and that they take points off their relegation rivals.

PORT TALBOT TOWN
Last season: 9th
Manager: Mark Jones
Key man: Cortez Belle
In: Daniel Thomas, Liam Hancock, Carl Payne, Craig Richards, Daniel Sheehan, Jeff Wight, Adam Wright, Matty Crowell, Ryan Green

Out: Martin Rose, Kristian Rogers, Matthew Thompson, Rhys Griffiths, Chris Hartland, Gareth Phillips

Background: Port Talbot slipped down the table to their lowest finish since the ‘Super 12’ format last year in an unremarkable campaign for Mark Jones’ side. League and Welsh Cup defeats to Afan Lido in the highly-anticipated Aberavon derby summed up Port Talbot’s season as the Steelmen were left to rue their lack of goals.

With the club keen to avoid a repeat of last season, Port Talbot made changes both on and off the field in what proved to be a busy summer at the GenQuip stadium. With the arrival of Scott Young as assistant manager from AFC Porth, the club moved for Afan Lido quartet Daniel Sheehan, Daniel Thomas, Carl Payne and Liam Hancock, and Rhys Griffiths was snapped up from Llanelli before, just as quickly, turning professional following a successful trial with Plymouth Argyle. Cultured midfielder Matty Crowell will bring creativity to the middle of the park, whilst young goalkeeper Craig Richards and former Hereford and Wales defender Ryan Green will undoubtedly strengthen the Port Talbot defence.

Verdict: A new-look squad will bring with it a new air of belief at the club, who look to build on the progress they have made in recent years. Port Talbot boast strength in depth and can challenge amongst the top six once more.

PRESTATYN TOWN
Last season: 6th
Manager: Neil Gibson
Key man: Jason Price
In: Greg Stones, Andy Parkinson, Jason Price

Out: Dave Roberts

Background: At any other club, any other manager would’ve surely not survived the form Prestatyn showed last year, having failed to win a league game since mid-November. However, Neil Gibson’ status at Bastion Gardens serves as a reminder of what he has achieved and just how far the club have come since their promotion to the top-flight in 2010. And the player/manager is once again holding the reins for the new season as the Seasiders set out to defy the critics.

Prestatyn have had a quiet summer with just three arrivals during the off-season, as Gibson strengthens his squad in defence, midfield and attack. Former Rhyl defender Greg Stones returns to the Welsh game after two years playing over the border, whilst veteran central-midfielder Andy Parkinson was recruited from Aberystwyth. Most eyes however will be on former Swansea City and Doncaster forward Jason Price. The Seasiders will be hoping that the well-travelled 35-year-old will bring both a wealth of experience and goals to their front-line.

Verdict: If the goals dry up, Prestatyn could easily be dragged into a scrap at the wrong end of the table. They should have enough to avoid getting sucked into serious trouble but with the side dramatically slumping last year, Neil Gibson may well be required to pull another rabbit out of the hat.

THE NEW SAINTS
Last season: Winners
Managers: Carl Darlington/Craig Harrison
Key man: Greg Draper
In: Kai Edwards, Ryan Fraughan, Chris Jones, Chris King, Michael Wilde

Out: Marcus Giglio, Barry Hogan, Charlie Proctor, Tom Roberts, Craig Jones

Background: A nervy start to The New Saints’ title assault saw them held by Bala before losing to Port Talbot, however the club went on from strength-to-strength as they laid claim to the league and cup double. Eyebrows were raised when Mike Davies left his role of director of football but the appointment of Airbus chief Craig Harrison was a smooth one, as he and head-coach Carl Darlington steered the Saints to steamroller their way to the end of the season, easing past Bangor on the final day of the league season before seeing off Cefn Druids in equal measure in the Welsh Cup final.

The Saints enjoyed one of Welsh football’s most positive results in Europe in recent times, in their first-leg goalless draw with Helsingborg and appear to have made astute acquisitions to their squad. Left-winger Ryan Fraughan remains at Park Hall, making a permanent move following his successful loan and former Neath duo Kai Edwards and Chris Jones are of proven quality in the Welsh Premier. Craig Jones is the only major absence, having moved to League One side Bury.

Verdict: New Zealander Greg Draper enjoyed a huge debut season in the Welsh Premier and will be looking to beat his 22-goal tally, whilst forgotten-man Matty Williams – another proven goalscorer – is fit again after missing most of last season through injury. Kai Edwards will compliment, what is already a strong defence and Chris Jones’ arrival ensures that his namesake Chris, is adequately replaced. TNS are currently without doubt one of the strongest, if not, the strongest side(s) since the formation of the Welsh Premier League – only a spectacular collapse would see them fail to successfully defend the league title.

WHAT THE PLAYERS SAY…
Rhys Griffiths Plymouth Argyle and seven-time Welsh Premier League golden boot winner
League: TNS; Runners up: Llanelli; Welsh Cup: TNS; Bottom two: Afan Lido and Newtown.

Lee Idzi Bangor City goalkeeper
League: Bangor City; Runners-up: TNS; Welsh Cup: Carmarthen Town; Bottom two: Newtown, Afan Lido and Connah’s Quay to scrap it out!

Dylan Blain Port Talbot Town midfielder
League: TNS; Runners up: Bangor City/Llanelli; Welsh Cup: Port Talbot

Michael Johnston Bangor City defender
League: Bangor City; Runners up: TNS; Welsh Cup: Bangor City; Bottom two: Newtown and Afan Lido.

Jonathan Hill-Dunt Prestatyn Town goalkeeper
League: TNS; Runners-up: Llanelli; Welsh Cup: Prestatyn; Bottom two: Afan Lido and Connah’s Quay

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