TNS, as I anticipated, secured their record-eighth Welsh Premier League title against Airbus but the Saints have chosen not to ease their way through their remaining fixture commitments.
One of the moments of the season for me was seeing TNS captain Paul Harrison hold aloft the Welsh Premier League title on the weekend which marked the 25th-anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy (both Paul’s father and uncle were among the 96 who lost their lives on that ill-fated day).
While football becomes an irrelevance in the shadow of the enormity of such events, the game we love and follow certainly does have a way of conjuring such heartfelt moments and Paul Harrison can draw great pride from his achievements in the colours of The New Saints.
On the field, following TNS’ draw with Airbus, you could’ve expected the champions to ease their way through their outstanding fixtures, with next month’s Welsh Cup final as their only competitive match.
The New Saints however have been of credit to the league in their response to being crowned champions and have looked every inch the side that have now won three back-to-back titles.
As disappointing as Bangor City were in their own collective performance, they were just devastated by The New Saints’ own quality, who were relentless and unforgiving in punishing City’s defensive misdemeanours.
TNS’ 9-1 thrashing off the Citizens does not reflect well on the league, particularly when the team on the receiving end of the defeat were at the time, third in the table, and highlights the superiority that TNS – who even made changes to their usual full-strength side – have over the rest of the league.
There will be no complaints from Saints chiefs Craig Harrison and Carl Darlington however. Their side’s application and will-to-win even at this late stage of the season highlights the professional and focused approach that runs deep throughout the squad.
Some of the heavyweights absent against Bangor were brought back into the side as TNS continued to rotate for the visit to Rhyl three days later. Greg Draper found himself on the bench following his hat-trick against the Citizens (surely he would be the main striker in every other Welsh Premier League team?) at the expense of Michael Wilde, while Sam Finley was also recalled.
Both Wilde and Finley made their mark by scoring either side of half-time, with Finley’s classy top-hand corner finish showing just why he, along with Aberystwyth’s Chris Venables, is the hottest prospect in the Welsh Premier League.
Next month’s Welsh Cup final between TNS and Aberystwyth has the stage set for either Finley or Venables to sign off excellent campaigns – both have been a pleasure to watch this season and have the quality to influence the outcome of the season’s showpiece occasion.
Finley’s stunning strike against Rhyl may well be his last in Welsh football. I do not expect him to be a Welsh Premier League player come the start of next season and believe he is destined to move onto bigger and better things. I only hope that his progression into the Football League showcases the talent that the higher-end players in the WPL possess.
The New Saints have received their fair share of criticism in recent years for their controversial relocation beyond the Welsh border and their artificial playing surface, but it is hard for anyone to argue that they are not worthy league champions and their achievements have been accomplished on merit.
The reputation of the Welsh Premier League as a whole can benefit should TNS manage to replicate the continental success of Irish outfit Shamrock Rovers, which is the now the long-term ambition of the club.
The Irish outfit qualified for the early European rounds from a league not dissimilar in standard to the WPL and reached the group stage of the 2011/12 Europa League, and Craig Harrison has made no secret that that would be the ultimate achievement for his TNS side.
Congratulations to all associated with TNS!