A serious season – The YCPD Welsh Premier League review 16/17

The Welsh Premier League 2016/17 campaign began with optimism like never before.

Wales’ stunning success at the Euros was mirrored by its WPL representatives in Europe, with Connah’s Quay advancing to the second round of the Europa League and Llandudno, Bala and The New Saints putting in strong performances. Back on home turf, a new era dawned at Bangor which promised to make the league giant competitive one again, and the league’s newest club, Cardiff Met FC, were on their way to show students can compete at the top.

Above all, one question kept being asked during the summer – can anyone challenge The New Saints? With league standards improving year on year, emerging super powers in the top six and full time football being targeted by some clubs, there was real excitement around the prospect of a rare Welsh Premier title race.

A Welsh Premier world record 

Then, The New Saints responded. Craig Harrison’s side went on an incredible 27 game winning streak, beating Ajax’s official world record of 26 games won consecutively in 1972. The run meant the title was practically wrapped up in December, by which time TNS had brushed aside their biggest rivals in Bala, Connah’s Quay and Bangor.

Although TNS’ started with an unprecedented amount of strength, it is testament to the growing quality of the league that by the end of the season, some of the Saints’ weaknesses had been exposed.

The fight for the top six 

Bala, Connah’s Quay and Bangor all cemented spots in the top six early on in the campaign, but there was a ferocious fight for fourth and fifth. The open nature of the battle for the final top six places was emphasised by Rhyl FC, who surprised everyone by mounting a challenge having been relegation candidates, taking the scalps of Airbus and Bangor City.

Joining Rhyl was the newly promoted Cardiff Met, who overcame a shaky start to win the adulation of many WPL fans. Carmarthen’s dogmatic style threw them into the mix, whilst Aberystwyth sought a way into the elite six to repeat their European exploits of 2015. Llandudno also established themselves as competitors, but struggled to score goals on the way.

After the likes of Rhyl and Aberystwyth fell away, the race narrowed to Cardiff Met, Carmarthen and Llandudno. Now flying after their start to life in the WPL, a dynamic Cardiff Met side did enough to finish fifth, whilst Carmarthen showed trademark mettle to secure the final spot on the last day of phase one with a win over Cefn Druids.

Shocks at the bottom

The league standings, in correlation with most football around Europe, were predictable at the top. However, two giants of the WPL found themselves propping up the table for a large part of the season. Newtown and Airbus struggled for the majority of phase one, finding themselves rooted in the bottom two.

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Newtown and manager Chris Hughes knew they had to find consistency to avoid relegation, and made major improvements in phase two. They did this, going from relegation candidates to out right favourites for  seventh place, going onto to gain the final spot in the Europa League play offs, which they had won just under two years ago.

In perhaps the biggest shock of the season, Airbus failed to turn their fortunes around, and a grey cloud above the club seemed to get bigger with every defeat. Having had key players such as Ian Kearney, Jay Owen and Mike Pearson move to Connah’s Quay over the summer, they failed to group together and couldn’t find results in the bottom six.

When the Wingmakers relegation looked all but certain there was a fight back when they came back from 2-0 down against Aberystwyth to win 4-2, keeping survival hopes alive. But this was too little too late, as a 2-1 defeat at Rhyl, who were also relegated, confirmed Airbus’ demotion after 12 straight seasons in the top flight.

Going from Welsh Cup and play off finalists to the second tier of Welsh football in the space of 12 months, Airbus’ relegation serves as a sobering reminder of the level needed to survive in the Welsh Premier.

Transformation at Bangor 

Previous Welsh Premier League seasons had plenty of entertainment and value, but missed one of its biggest assets – Bangor City. The Citizens spent time flirting with relegation in the bottom six, but when a new administration took over the club the changes were rung – with long serving manager Neville Powell replaced by Andy Legg.

With little to no time for any pre-season preparation, Legg impressed by imposing exciting, attacking football on Bangor, helping them consolidate fourth in the table. But just as Bangor fans felt they had the right man – Legg left.

In his place was the relatively unknown Ian Dawes, who sealed a top six finish and spent phase two chasing Bala and Connah’s Quay. In this time a number of high class signings had been made, the biggest of them all being Gary Taylor-Fletcher, who brought a wealth of Football League experience and Premier League class to Nantporth.

As Bangor prepared to fight for Europe in the play offs there was yet another managerial change, as Ian Dawes left the club having failed to secure a position on a Pro Licence course, a mandatory requirement for clubs to be able to play in Europe. Having already become a fan favourite on the field, Taylor-Fletcher was appointed interim manager to guide Bangor through the play-offs.

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He did so successfully, beating Newtown in the semi finals and edging past Cardiff Met to take Bangor back into Europe at the end of a season of major transition. With Kevin Nicholson now manager working alongside Tayl0r-Fletcher, the Citizens may look to achieve even bigger and better things next season.

Heightened standards 

As the season went on, there was an increasingly intense battle for the automatic European qualifier spots. With TNS already Champions, their two biggest rivals, Connah’s Quay and Bala, were to battle it out for second – and Bangor weren’t far behind them.

Connah’s Quay had hold of second place (which guarantees Europa League and more recently the Irn Bru cup) for most of phase one, and did so despite a full scale injury crisis which took out nearly all of their first choice defenders.

But at the start of Phase Two they wobbled with back to back defeats, leaving Bala Town to leap frog them into second and stay there until the final day of the season, when a TNS defeat for Bala and victory over Cardiff gave Nomads a second placed finish.

But the stats only tell one story, as Nomads, Bala and Bangor all upped their game to perform at a higher level, physically and tactically, than we have seen previously in the league before. Particular games, such as Bala’s phase two 1-1 draw with Connah’s Quay, emulated more a high-end National League battle, a standard that the league has aspired to reach for many years.

With displays seen this season, and high quality coaching personnel continuing to enter the WPL, the league looks to have indeed matched the National League level, which can only mean better personnel, better games and satisfied spectators.

Off field success 

Standards aren’t just rising on the pitch. For all its progress, the Welsh Premier has previously been dogged by licensing controversies, when successful, title winning second tier clubs have been denied promotion to the top flight. This had knock on effect, with only one or – or sometimes no clubs relegated from the WPL.

Last season’s denial of a license to high-flying Caernarfon Town, one of the North Wales’ best supported teams, left a sour taste to the end of an otherwise positive season.

But this season was different, with nearly all clubs who applied for a FAW domestic license achieving one. Promotion and relegation was undisturbed, with Rhyl and Airbus making way for Prestatyn Town and Barry, who both have massive pedigrees and a point to prove next season.

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With no controversy, clubs could get on with the end of the season and enjoy their football, a simple pleasure that will hopefully continue for many league campaigns.

A shock from the Lakesiders 

History was made by Bala Town when they shocked everyone in Welsh football by winning the Welsh Cup. In their first Welsh Cup final, they were up against a TNS side going for their third consecutive treble of cup wins.

The latter looked to be the story of the game, when after a non-event first half TNS took the lead, but goals from substitute Jordan Evans and a late winner from Kieran Smith brought the Welsh Cup to Bala in dramatic circumstances.

The victory was outside of the Welsh Premier, but a significant one for the league between two of its biggest clubs. TNS went home empty handed, bettered by Bala, just as they had been by Connah’s Quay, Bangor and Carmarthen in their three league losses of the season.

Those defeats and Bala’s win smashed the myth that TNS are unbeatable – and show that the first place in the 17/18 season is not a foregone conclusion.

 

The play offs 

Carmarthen, Cardiff, Newtown and Bangor were this years play off entrants, and although Bangor were the clear favourites no one could be ruled out. In two tight semi finals, Bangor and Cardiff edged past Newtown and Carmarthen respectively, setting up a David and Goliath-esque final.

Cardiff Met, who won the hearts of many as the student team who finished sixth in their first ever season in the Welsh Premier – were just one game away from Europe. Bangor, an awakened giant of the league with an extremely talented squad were looking to make a triumphant return to Europe.

Bangor came out victors by one goal to nil, confirming their place in the Europa League after a whirlwind campaign. Cardiff were left disappointed, but after a stunning season, they can be expected to return and go for Europe once more.

A successful season 

2016/17 will go down as a successful season where the competition got more serious than ever before. When Welsh teams are at their best, they help break down the misconception of the Welsh Premier as an amateur platform, and this time round that was achieved.

TNS topped the table and Bala beat the status quo, but for games, standards, players and personnel – Welsh football was the winner of the 2016/17 season.

Featured Image: Brian Jones

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