Trading places – stagnant south sparks unusual transfer trend

Afan Lido’s relegation and Haverfordwest County’s failed promotion attempt from the Welsh League cement growing fears of stagnation in South Wales, with just two clubs representing the south in the Welsh Premier League next season. With Neath FC consigned to the history books, Llanelli Town reforming in the lower levels, the pool of WPL players has diminished in the south, as has the number of available options to players looking to move clubs. So far, six players have switched between Carmarthen Town and Port Talbot Town since the end of the season and the figure is expected to rise.

Having seen Liam McCreesh, Carl Evans, Keyon Reffel and Luke Bowen follow first-team coach Craig Hughes out of the door at Richmond Park and reunite at Port Talbot, Carmarthen have in turn now picked up two players from the Steelmen as the club announced a hat-trick of new signings on Friday.

Having agreed terms earlier in the week, winger David Brooks and midfielder Lewis Harling switch the blue of Port Talbot for the Old Gold of Carmarthen, while Chris Hartland, formerly of Port Talbot and Afan Lido (more on them further down), becomes their third signing after ending a brief spell with Prestatyn Town.

It’s hard to judge which of the sides has come out the better from this flurry of early transfer activity and I am led to believe there will be further player movement between the two clubs in due course, as this trend of interchanging seems set to continue. It would be unfair of me to reveal names as I do not want to gazump clubs from unveiling news via their own official platforms.

Port Talbot’s off-season recruitment strategy is an obvious one – to add a core of local players to their ranks, add to the character within the club and improve the local appeal of the side, which has previously been criticised for a perceived lack of local identity.

Evans, McCreesh and Bowen are all former Port players of a good WPL standard, while Reffel is certainly an interesting addition. I think he went under the radar a little last season and the attacking midfielder didn’t quite get the recognition he deserved after a solid campaign which saw him impress at Lido before a January transfer to Carmarthen, where he continued to impress amongst a better group of players.

Carmarthen’s, or rather Mark Aizlewood‘s, strength seems to be getting the best out of his players, he’s shown time and time again that he is able to mould young players into consistent performers and average players into good ones. If he can repeat this formula with his latest trio of signings, then Carmarthen will have three excellent players on their hands. However for all his experience, I expected Aizlewood’s management abilities will be tested to the maximum with his latest arrivals.

David Brooks is simply unplayable on his day. A naturally-gifted mazy dribbler of the ball, possessing a superb first-touch and cool eye in front of goal, the 25-year-old should be one of the biggest stars of the Welsh Premier League and under Aizlewood’s wing he still has every chance – should he want it.

What undermines Brooks’ tremendous ability is his inconsistency and desire. The season before last, under the guidance of wily manager-turned-Sgorio pundit Mark Jones, his 16 WPL goals single-handedly fired Port Talbot within touching distance of the European football. Last term he managed just a single goal and quickly faded as Port Talbot’s season fell away, looking a shadow of the player he is capable of being. Aizlewood is another seasoned WPL manager and with the right management Brooks could quite easily light up Richmond Park and become a major asset to Carmarthen next season. I would certainly like to see him back to his best, terrorizing full-backs across the league.

In Harling, Carmarthen have got a tenacious midfielder but he is at his best when he is able to get hold of the ball and drive forward through the middle. I personally thought he was disappointing last season but that can be said about the entire Port Talbot side, who underachieved and lost their way and I expect a fresh start to bring the best out Harling, who matured a lot as a player during his spell at Port Talbot having been plucked out of the Welsh League by Mark Jones.

Chris Hartland, a familiar name to those who follow Sgorio’s goal of the month competitions, is another who could thrive under Aizlewood after performing in fits and starts. He struggled for regular football and consistency at Port Talbot before making the move to Afan Lido, where after a number of spectacular goals, he caught the attention of struggling Prestatyn which always seemed an unlikely match for the Newport-based player.

Finally, I was surprised to learn of the news that Paul Evans and first-team coach/player Gareth Phillips have departed relegated Afan Lido.

Lido’s plight last season was well-documented with the club operating on an uncompetitive budget and a squad that was assembled of unproven and inexperienced players became further ravaged by selection worries in the second-half of the season.

Scorelines were often unflattering as they were unfavourable as Lido were forced to swallow defeat after defeat, but I found Paul Evans’ conduct and aspiration to be of credit to the club. Despite clearly being unable to compete with other WPL squads, no matter what patched-up side Evans fielded, there was never any doubt that the players were playing for him and they remained as competitive as they possibly could, even when well beaten and when the outcome of the game was beyond doubt.

I don’t think there are many managers who could’ve done a better job in such circumstances and I really hope it is not the last we will see of Paul Evans and Gareth Phillips in the Welsh Premier League, as both still have a lot to offer given the right opportunity – wherever that will come from in stagnant South Wales.

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