Looking at the Welsh Football League Division One table it will be no surprise to most that Llanelli Town sits at the top of the league. Favourites for the title in the eyes of many, Andy Hill’s side have generally lived up to expectations.
Haverfordwest County in second place has been among the front-runners for most of the season too. In third-place are Cambrian & Clydach Vale and if you had predicted the Rhondda-based club would find themselves so high up the table going in the final weekend before Christmas, few would have deemed you credible.
In his second season in charge of the self-styled Cam Army, Craig Hughes (and his management team) have worked wonders to take a side that managed just one home win last season and finished 11th into Division One title dark horses. You can argue Cambrian have benefited from postponements and cup commitments elsewhere, but the league table is what it is and as it stands Hughes’ side are third and up there on merit.
This weekend Cambrian & Clydach host Llanelli Town for what will surely be the biggest game of their season so far. Speaking to Y Clwb Pel-droed ahead of the encounter with the league leaders, Hughes was cautious that there is “loads of footy still to go”, but admitted everyone was enjoying the “decent league position”, describing a “great mood in the camp…full of banter.”
While Hughes believes his side are currently exceeding expectations this season, he was keen to praise the “special group of players” at his disposal. That team spirit and talent is exemplified by the way Cambrian have turned their season around. After losing four of the first five games, Hughes’ side has won eight of the last 11 league matches, accumulating 25 points. That run includes five wins from the last six home games and they haven’t been beaten at the Lakeside Academy/King George New Field since August.
“[We had] a tricky start where a few lads left and new players came in, we took time to bed in. This was our first pre-season as a management team at Cambrian, we joined last season a few days prior to the first league fixture. Pre-season is massive, we worked hard in pre-season so that is a factor. This squad have desire and quality. We are punching above our weight in regards to other clubs’ finances but we have a buzz at this club and that is a testament to a special group of players; they are a great bunch of lads. We can test the best in the league on our day.”
One player who has been in exceptional form this season is forward Liam Reed, who returned to the club after a spell at local rivals Ton Pentre. The pacey and hardworking forward is Cambrian’s top goalscorer and Hughes believes the current atmosphere at the club has helped Reed flourish.
“Liam Reed has 12 league goals from open play, we are delighted for him. He is an absolute diamond of a man on and off the pitch. The lads all love him and so do the management team. Sometimes a player needs a group who are positive and believe in him; as a result, we are both being rewarded.”
A number of other players have returned to Cambrian this season after short spells elsewhere, including Corey Shephard and Josh Maxsimovic. For Hughes, this speaks volumes about the way the club are moving in the right direction.
“There was a lot of activity [with] players leaving and returning. They are a thing of a past. These lads made mistakes and called me to come back. I respect the guts that took and welcomed these fine players back with open arms. Players are ringing the management team to come to Cambrian now, that is a nice position to be in.”
Another feature of the Cambrian first team squad this season is the low average age and Hughes hasn’t been shy in blooding plenty of young players, including a number of 16-year-olds.
“There are lots of talented youngsters at this football club and they will continue to develop and be introduced to the first team. Age is just a number here. If they buy into what we are doing and perform, they will play.”
With a UEFA-accredited academy with scope for the whole Rhondda area, youth development and promoting local young players is embedded into the DNA of the club. Hughes has bought into this at first-team level and explained how the infrastructure is in place to ensure a clear pathway from youth team to senior football.
“Reserves adopt the same mindset. The management team there has a very young squad this season so the youth players play most weeks for them, being introduced to senior surroundings. The youth team management also manages the kids correctly, liaising and monitoring the minutes and speaking to the senior teams regarding the youth lads.”
On the matter of this weekend, Hughes believes his side face a big test. He also had plenty of praise for the Llanelli Town players that have helped rebuild the club.
“Llanelli, my league favourites form day one. A group of players who could be playing in the Welsh Premier League, but they chose to play local at a big club and build something special under my mate Hillo’s guidance. We have no right to beat Llanelli on paper and there is no pressure on us, we are expected to lose by everyone, but in our dressing room we cannot wait to test ourselves against the best in the league. We want the win and if we don’t it won’t be from a lack of effort.”
As with many Welsh League matches, the points up for grabs on the field will be keenly contested, but off the field fixtures often bring together old friends. This will be the case for Hughes and his Llanelli Town counterpart, Andy Hill. In fact, Hughes was keen to point out the fraternity between himself and The Reds’ boss as “Hillo and his family are massive Cardiff City fans”.
Proof, if you ever needed it, that strikers never lose that poacher’s instinct!
(Featured Image: Andrew Evans)