Next stop the WPL? Llanelli bring themselves back from the brink
Barry Town United have rightfully picked up plenty of the plaudits in recent weeks since their rise into the Welsh Premier League, but they are by no means the only fallen giant in Welsh football to have regained their footing.
Llanelli, who were exiled from the Welsh League alongside the Jenner Park outfit in 2013, have enjoyed a similarly meteoric rise, and many will feel that a clash with Barry in the top flight is close to one day becoming a reality again.
Having already confirmed their place in Welsh League Division One, the Reds emphatically picked up the Division Two title on Wednesday night with a 3-0 win over AFC Llwydcoed, preserving a hugely impressive unbeaten season in the process.
It’s the culmination of four years of hard work, during which the club has suffered some dark times, but for chairman David Craddock, the experience has helped the club develop a stronger community-based philosophy that has flourished under the stewardship of coach Andy Hill.
“The rise has not really been a surprise,” Craddock said. “We’ve always had the players in our locality that could ascend up the Welsh League structure.
“Within our squad of 19, we have eight Llanelli players with the rest of them from outlying areas. This is something we’ve always wanted to achieve. We want to be a team of local players.
“I think this is a most important feature that I want to maintain. If that’s a philosophy that stops us going into the Welsh Premier Division then it’s still a decision I feel we have to stand by.”
Not that going local has hampered the club’s progress. Indeed, the manner of the team’s relentless march to Welsh football’s second tier means they will already be considered among the favourites to challenge at the upper echelons of Division One, particularly after hammering Caerau Ely 5-1 in the Welsh Football League Cup semi-final recently.
— Llanelli Town AFC (@LlanelliTownAFC) April 26, 2017
“I think then [after beating Caerau Ely] the players at the club realised that actually Welsh League Division One will be a step up but we’ve got the players needed to play at that level comfortably.
“So yes I think everybody thinks there is a possibility we will do quite well next year, without meaning to be too brash or overstated.”
Few would argue with that assessment, particularly after the January arrivals of Kurtis March and Joe Clarke from Aberystwyth, both of whom saw the club as the ideal way of reconnecting with the local area, injecting a formidable level of Welsh Premier League experience in the process.
“Joe joined us because of his extended family,” Craddock continued. “He couldn’t travel to a majority of the games in the Welsh Premier League, as a most of them are in North Wales.
“So he thought that it wouldn’t be fair to his young family to spend so much time away from them.
“Joe then spoke to a couple of the boys that he knows in our team and he was told that the set-up was good and I think Kurtis, who is also involved at Swansea City, then spoke to Joe because obviously they were team-mates.”
— Craig Rhys Francis (@1896_Reds) April 26, 2017
Of course, it’s hard to talk about Llanelli’s success and not recognise the contributions of another man with a strong Swansea connection.
It was perhaps fitting that the Reds should clinch a roundly deserved league title courtesy of yet another Lee Trundle hat-trick – his eighth in a season that has seen him net an astonishing 46 goals in 26 games.
The 40-year-old has undoubtedly been the catalyst for bumper crowds across the division too, but as Craddock explains, the benefits of his presence are working both ways.
“Lee’s had an enormous impact both on and off the pitch. If you’d asked me if it was possible to raise the profile of Lee Trundle higher than it was already then I would’ve said no. But in all honesty, I think we’ve helped his profile and he’s certainly helped ours. He’s a joy to watch playing and his enthusiasm in training is boundless.
“However, I always stress that we’ve got 11 players out on the park, although Lee is certainly integral in our play and he’s great to work with and everyone enjoys having him around.”
How much longer the veteran Merseysider will be at Stebonheath remains to be seen, but with or without Trundle, there are certainly some exciting times ahead. Even if the promised land of the WPL proves to be out of reach next term, it is surely only a matter of time before they sit at Welsh football’s top table again.
IMAGE CREDIT: Llanelli Town