New season preview! Part One: Aberystwyth – gap Connah’s Quay

ABERYSTWYTH TOWN
Last season: WPL Play-Off runners-up, Welsh Cup Q/F, League Cup R2
Manager: Ian Hughes
Key players in: D Lee Surman, F Rhys Griffiths (both PTT), F Darren Thomas
Key players out: F Mark Jones (CAR), D Ryan Batley (HAV)
Player to watch: M Chris Venables

Aber will look back at last season as a missed opportunity to qualify for Europe after being beaten at home by Newtown in the play-off final. WPL Player of the Season Chris Venables will once again be expected lead the way as the Aber number 10 looks to continue his outrageous scoring exploits. Venables will be joined by some familiar faces this season as Ian Hughes has brought in two of Venables’ former Llanelli teammates in Lee Surman and Rhys Griffiths. Hughes will be hoping Surman will shore up an Aberystwyth defence that looked vulnerable at times and give him a fixed central defensive pairing, after being unable to find a consistent defensive partner for skipper Stuart Jones last season. Griffiths meanwhile brings experience and an unquestionable goal scoring record and will be aiming to fill the void left by the somewhat surprising departure of centre-forward Mark Jones. Pushing Rhys Griffiths will be lively striker Darren Thomas, who steps up to the WPL after impressing in the Cymru Alliance at Caernarfon Town.

With the core of the side having been together for a few seasons now, Aber haven’t perhaps made as many changes as I expected over the summer and I suspect Ian Hughes will be looking to spring a few tactical surprises to keep his side fresh and challenging in the ever-competitive top-six. They do however possess bags of proven quality and have the best individual player in the league in Venables, and are as good as anyone in the WPL on their day.

AIRBUS UK BROUGHTON
Last season: WPL 3rd, Welsh Cup S/F, League Cup R2
Manager: Andy Preece
Key players in: F Tony Gray, M Ryan Fraughan (TNS)
Key players out: M Glenn Rule
Player to watch: F Tony Gray

After finishing as runner’s up to TNS for two successive years, Andy Preece has refrained from a major overhaul after finishing third, 19 points behind the league champions last season in what was a frustrating campaign. I don’t think Airbus were particularly poorer than in recent years but they became a victim of the increased competitiveness of chasing clubs as the likes of themselves, Bala Town and Aberystwyth all regularly pinched points off each other whilst TNS relentlessly marched on.

The departure of versatile midfielder Glenn Rule to Stockport County was an unexpected loss for the Wingmakers but their aim this season has been to add more firepower to the squad and their main summer signing Tony Gray appears ready to fit that bill. The 31-year-old is a newcomer to the WPL but is coming off a 20-goal season at former club Telford United, spurning a number of offers to join Airbus and the Wingmakers will be hoping that Gray’s arrival will give them a more ruthless edge in the final third and convert some of those 10 defeats last season into WPL points.

With no other real departures, Airbus continue to have one of the larger squads in the league and competition for places, especially in midfield (Riley, Wignall, Field, Wade, Williams, Barrow, Owen, Johnson and Fraughan), remains high. They certainly have the bodies to challenge on all fronts this season and if they can find some consistency then they shouldn’t fall so far short of TNS this time around.

BALA TOWN
Last season: WPL 2nd, Welsh Cup R4, League Cup runners-up
Manager: Colin Caton
Key players in: D David Thompson, D Anthony Stephens
Key players out: –
Player to watch: F Mark Connolly

A heartbreaking last-second Europa League exit aside, it’s been a very quiet summer at Maes Tegid as Bala look to follow up their best ever season after finishing second.

Bala are one of a few clubs in the league where continuity is embraced and this has proved central to their success as Colin Caton prepares for his 13th season in charge. Welsh football’s longest serving manager has a squad who’re well organised, hard-working and possess plenty of individual quality which makes them a real force. Bala are a familiar looking side that invariably move away from their tried and tested 4-2-3-1. Mark Jones, one of the most gifted players in the WPL, thrives in the central playmaker role and is supported by graft and quality in Ian Sheridan and Keiran Smith. Versatile Mark Connolly brings plenty of flair to the attack and is a fine set-piece specialist, and veteran WPL striker Lee Hunt is always a threat. It’s in defence where Bala have tinkered slightly with their squad by signing two left-backs. Rhyl’s David Thompson has already impressed in the short time since joining while former Wrexham defender Anthony Stephens brings further competition to the squad.

It’s going to be tough for Bala to repeat their highest ever league finish but they remain among the very best side’s and will have their sights set on European qualification once again.

BANGOR CITY
Last season: WPL 10th, Welsh Cup Q/F, League Cup R2
Manager: Nev Powell
Key players in: M Ashley Young, F Rio Ahmadi, F Joe Williams, D Matty Woodward (RHY)
Key players out: D Michael Johnson, F Les Davies, M Callum Morris, F Lee Healey
Player to watch: GK Connor Roberts

The 2014/15 season was one that Bangor City will quickly want to forget. A winless start saw them become embroiled in a relegation battle before under-pressure Nev Powell was required to draw on all his experience to reinforce his squad in the January transfer window and finally pick up some form. A club of Bangor’s size and stature should not be struggling and the lingering threat of their demise is a worry for Welsh domestic football as the dark clouds continue to hang over their Nantporth home.

The big WPL transfer news this summer was the exit of Bangor’s talismanic centre-forward Les Davies. Unplayable when at his best, the powerhouse was the absolute fans favourite at Nantporth and Farrar Road before that, and his decision to join gap Connah’s Quay will hit the club hard on and off the pitch.

Nev Powell has had to turn to the unknown to solve his side’s striking worries this season and is gambling on young Wrexham loanee Joe Williams and Rio Amhadi to try and smooth over the loss of Big Les. Amhadi has an encouraging scoring record at lower-league level while Ashley Young (no, not that one) has already shown promise in pre-season sitting in front of a Bangor defence that was all too easily exposed last season. The arrival of keeper Connor Roberts midway through helped install confidence in that struggling Bangor rearguard and I believe that the club have done well to keep hold of him after performing well in his few months in the side.

The increase in competition for those top-six places will in all probability make it another tough season for Bangor but with a new strike partnership, is Nev Powell about to pull an ace from out of his sleeve?

CARMARTHEN TOWN
Last season: WPL 9th, Welsh Cup Q/F, League Cup R2
Manager: Mark Aizlewood
Key players in: F Mark Jones (ABR), D Daniel Sheehan (PTT), D CARL EVANS (PTT), Keiran Lewis (PTT)
Key players out: D Cortez Belle (PTT), M Paul Fowler (PTT), GK Scott James (HAV)
Player to watch: F Mark Jones

Carmarthen suffered last season as Newtown and Port Talbot pipped them to a top-six place by the league split as the second stage of their season quickly went flat. Other than a re-laid pitch and an action-packed Welsh Cup quarter-final against Rhyl, in which they were narrowly beaten, there was little for supporters of the Old Gold to get excited about.

This summer there have been some encouraging signs coming from Carmarthen and the squad has been refreshed by some familiar WPL faces and a number of younger players plucked out of the Welsh League. Topping the list is the arrival of Aberystwyth striker Mark Jones who will give the club an improved threat in front of goal. With the excellent Luke Cummings at right-back, Carmarthen have also brought in another attacking-minded full-back with the signing of Daniel Sheehan from Port Talbot Town, who will presumably play on the left. Another to make the switch from Port Talbot is Keiran Lewis, a neat young player who should add some creativity to Carmarthen’s midfield. One of the league’s most recognisable faces Cortez Belle ended his time at Carmarthen by briefly joining Connah’s Quay late in the season – he, along with club stalwart Paul Fowler won’t be returning for the forthcoming campaign. They’ve both joined Port Talbot as the clubs go about their annual player swap.

It’s been suggested in pre-season that Aizlewood has moved away from his typical direct style to encourage a passing game – if his squad can adapt and their new faces can provide some much-needed spark then Mark Aizlewood could steer this Carmarthen side back into top-six waters.

gap CONNAH’S QUAY
Last season: WPL 7th, Welsh Cup Q/F, League Cup R1
Manager: Allan Bickerstaff
Key players in: F Les Davies (BAN), F Ashley Ruane (RHY), M Callum Morris, F Nick Rushton, GK, John Danby, D Sean Smith (BAL), D Paul Linwood
Key players out: F Dave Forbes, GK Terry McCormick
Player to watch: F Les Davies

No other team has undergone as much of a transformation this summer as gap Connah’s Quay who, with strong financial backing, have set their sights on the top-half of the WPL.

The signing of Les Davies might have announced the club’s ambition of rubbing shoulders with sides near the top of the table but their rebuilding actually began back in last season’s January transfer window with the arrivals of defender George Horan and midfielders Danny Harrison and Jay Crowther. Players have continued to arrive during the off-season and compliment the squad as Les Davies is joined also by Bangor teammate Callum Morris, exciting forward Ashley Ruane and former Newtown and Wrexham striker Nick Rushton amongst others.

The Nomads already have promising full-back in Jack Riley in their ranks and Sean Miller was voted as WPL Young Player of the Season – only when I recently went through their squad, I realised just how strong they could be this season and I certainly don’t expect them to miss out on the top-six this year. The task for Allan Bickerstaff – a manager who led Rhyl to the WPL title in 2009 – is to get this talented mix of players to perform consistently week in, week out and compete with the top-band of clubs. It’ll be interesting to see how the club react if their ambitions aren’t being met this season but I say with some confidence that Connah’s Quay will be the most improved squad this season. Could it be that the Nomads are in the early stages of mounting a challenge to TNS’s dominance?

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