Here’s part two of my 2015/16 Welsh Premier League season preview…
Last season: Welsh League div one runners-up, Welsh Cup R3, League Cup R2
Manager: Wayne Jones
Key players in: F Craig Moses, D Ryan Batley (ABR), M Kieran Howard, GK Scott James (CAR)
Key players out: –
Player to watch: M Declan Carroll
The return of Haverfordwest to the WPL helps re-address the concerning issue of geographical imbalance amongst the 12 clubs, but the Pembrokeshire outfit will be returning to a very different league to the one they left in 2011, when they found themselves cut from the league when it was reduced from 18 teams.
A series of failed promotion attempts followed before County hung on to second place in the Welsh League to secure their return. On paper, they have a squad lacking Welsh Premier experience but the club have tried to address that by bringing in attacking left-back Ryan Batley from Aberystwyth as well Keiran Howard and Craig Moses, players who’ve featured previously in the WPL with Afan Lido and Llanelli.
Haverfordwest, like Llandudno, will quickly learn that bar The New Saints, there is very little between the remaining sides and that each week, home and away, they will need to step up and be at very their best to have any chance of being competitive. The worry for County is that they could struggle to both score goals and keep them out. Manager Wayne Jones will be hoping to get a creative spark down the left-flank from Batley and Steffan Williams – another player with WPL experience – and Jones has given himself options up-front with a clutch of strikers including Craig Moses, Jordan Follows, Jack Christopher and John Roberts.
A recent pre-season win against Aberystwyth will have given the side a timely boost as they head into a daunting league opener against TNS. County will have to box clever and adapt quickly if they are to achieve their aim of survival.
Last season: Cymru Alliance champions, Welsh Cup R3, League Cup R3
Manager: Alan Morgan
Key players in: D Michael Johnston (BAN), D Mike Williams, F Marc Williams, D Jonny Spittle (AIR), F Alan Bull (CON)
Key players out: –
Player to watch: D Mike Williams
Llandudno stormed to last season’s Cymru Alliance title to secure their first ever promotion to the WPL and they have made ambitious strides during the off-season in an attempt to ensure that their stay isn’t a short one.
The club announced a major sponsorship deal earlier in the summer which saw them renamed as MBi Llandudno and although they have added WPL experience to the side, they remain very much as an unknown quantity. Former Bangor City stalwart Michael Johnston is the most familiar WPL name to arrive at Maesdu Park but it’s the capture of Mike Davies which could make the biggest impact. The ex-Wrexham left-back has come out of retirement to play for Alan Morgan’s side and has been tipped to make a big impact should he maintain fitness.
Llandudno will face a very similar challenge to Haverfordwest County in that they will need to adapt quickly to ease the burden of returning straight back to the Cymru Alliance and the experience of ex-Aberystwyth manager Alan Morgan could prove key. Morgan has drafted in former Welsh Under-21 striker Marc Williams (brother of teammate Mike) to bring goals to the side, while also recruiting a number of younger players with connections to Tranmere Rovers, which makes Llandudno a difficult side to rate.
Last season: WPL Play-Off winners, Welsh Cup runners up, League Cup R1
Manager: Chris Hughes
Key players in: –
Key players out: D Max Penk
Player to watch: F Jason Oswell
After a memorable European campaign, Newtown head into the new season a far more respected team than they did 12 months ago. It’s not that Newtown were previously disrespected by their fellow clubs, but after an excellent campaign which saw the underdogs reach the Welsh Cup final, win the Play-Off as underdogs and go on to put in some highly credible results in the Europa League, the Robins will be considered as good as any of the chasing sides, and rightly so.
The club’s success has been built on developing a small but close-knit squad into a system which makes them both hard to beat and pleasing on the eye when going forward. The likes of Kieran Mills-Evans, Zac Evans, Tom Goodwin and Matty Owen have thrived in their respective roles giving Newtown a solid defensive base, while tireless forwards Luke Boundford and Jason Oswell have risen in stock and become a thorn in the side of many WPL defences.
There has been very little happening at Latham Park in terms of transfer activity even though their European achievements will have made additional funds available. That should not be seen as a negative however as the club recruit carefully, introducing local-based players into a very settled squad. The signing of striker Marc Griffiths, signed from Caersws, is typical of Newtown’s approach, though he will certainly have his work cut out in breaking into their front three.
The challenge facing Newtown now is that while they thrive on that underdog tag, their achievements make them even more of a side to be feared and their opponents will react accordingly. Chris Hughes’ side have shown that they are not just a good up-and-coming side – they already are a good side and one which, if they can maintain their rapid progress and steer clear of injuries, could even finish as high as second in my view.
PORT TALBOT TOWN
Last season: WPL 5th, Welsh Cup R3, League Cup S/F
Manager: Andy Dyer
Key players in: D Cortez Belle (CAR), M Kaid Mohamed, M Paul Fowler (CAR), D Dave Vincent, M Kurtis March, M Leanne Jeanne
Key players out: M Keiran Lewis (CAR), D Daniel Sheehan (CAR), F Rhys Griffiths (ABR), D Lee Surman (ABR)
Player to watch: M Kaid Mohamed
A hectic off-season down at the GenQuip Stadium sees underrated manager Andy Dyer put his own stamp on the Port Talbot squad with a number of comings and goings. Despite the familiar face of Cortez Belle, Dyer’s new squad look quite different to the one that last season struggled for consistency on the pitch and continuity off it. With a strong vocal backing Dyer has brought in players who could certainly give the club’s supporters something to shout about and Kaid Mohamed, Leanne Jeanne and Kurtis March all have the potential to light up the league.
Dyer’s management skills will be tested as he aims to bring turn Jeanne’s undoubted talent into consistent performances, with the winger in good physical condition and keen to put a chequered past behind him, while young Kurtis March has the potential to blossom in the WPL following his release from Swansea City. But it is Mohamed, who could really turn the Steelmen into a force this season. Returning to the WPL, where he started his career, the 31-year-old will bring pace and goals to Port Talbot and should thrive having made 17 (6) appearances in League Two for Northampton Town last season – he has the pedigree to single-handedly turn Port Talbot into a real force this year.
The challenge for this new Port Talbot squad will be to adapt quickly enough to push for a top-six spot. If they can do that, then they could be a team to watch out for.
Last season: WPL 8th, Welsh Cup S/F, League Cup R2
Manager: Gareth Owen
Key players in: D Ibou Touray, GK Terry McCormick, F Conner Bell,M Dean Keates
Key players out: F Ashley Ruane (CON), GK Alex Ramsay, D Chris Rimmer, D Ryan Astles, D Matty Woodward (BAN)
Player to watch:
An underwhelming campaign last term saw manager Greg Strong part company with the club on mutual terms to be replaced by former Wrexham player and club favourite Gareth Owen. Owen’s brief will be to push Rhyl up into the top-six and he’s reshuffled his pack over the summer in order to achieve that.
The loss of forward Ashley Ruane to Connah’s Quay is a blow but much of Rhyl’s success this time around will depend on whether they can keep powerful striker Aaron Bowen fit and motivated. Bowen gave the side a real lift when he emerged last season but injuries saw him lose that momentum at the back end of the season. Rob Hughes is another potential match winner for Rhyl and if he can maintain his best form, their hopes of reaching the top-six will improve significantly. Owen has drafted in Wrexham veteran Dean Keates to hold the side together in midfield, along with a number of North-West-based players who’re unproven in the WPL as of yet.
Veteran defensive duo Greg Stones and Jamie Brewerton will be physical and uncompromising but having brought in Phil Clarke and Ibou Touray as full-backs, Rhyl’s back four will need to develop an understanding.
Owen’s arrival should certainly give the Lillywhites a push in the right direction but it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to clinch a top-six spot.
THE NEW SAINTS
Last season: WPL champions, Welsh Cup winners, League Cup winners
Manager: Craig Harrison
Key players in: –
Key players out: M Sam Finley, M Ryan Fraughan
Player to watch: F Jamie Reed
After a clean sweep of titles last season, TNS’s dominance of Welsh domestic football remains unthreatened and Craig Harrison will be expected to deliver a fourth-straight WPL title.
Midfielder Sam Finley is the only member of the squad to depart over the summer and it was with disappointment when I read that he had departed the club to join Conference North outfit AFC Fylde, as I believe he could establish himself at a higher level.
With no arrivals of note as of yet, TNS’s last major signing came last January when they signed Jamie Reed – a player with a proven track record for goals in the WPL. But Reed struggled to make an impact last term as he found his chances limited, falling behind Michael Wilde and Greg Draper – with Wilde, in particular, raising his game. This season, it’ll be interesting to see if Craig Harrison will look to introduce changes from within his current squad. Harrison has enjoyed tremendous success with his 4-2-3-1 system but could he now look to move away from that and hand striker Reed a bigger role? I believe that TNS will add to their squad in the form of a central defender or creative midfielder but could we see them freshen things up this term?
Once again, the biggest threat to TNS’s reign as kings of the WPL will be complacency and any lack of motivation but Harrison continues to ensure his squad are hungry to match the club’s expectations for success with aplomb.