Welsh football columnist and blogger Mark Pitman takes a look at the new season in Wales in an exclusive interview with ISN.
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Which Welsh Premier clubs are likely to finish top and bottom of the table?
The usual candidates are expected to finish at either end of the table, although there are usually one or two surprise packages for both the right and the wrong reasons during each campaign. For the title it is hard to look past the current champions The New Saints. They are now the only full-time side in the league and have again strengthened in the summer. Their artificial surface, currently the only one in the league offers a further advantage, and I expect a successful first full season in charge for manager Craig Harrison. Former champions Bangor City are likely to be in the chasing pack while Llanelli will still prove difficult opponents despite losing top goalscorer Rhys Griffiths. Bala Town are a club on the rise and their recent investment has been well-spent by manager Colin Caton. Other contenders for the coveted top-six place at the split include Airbus UK Broughton, Port Talbot Town, and Carmarthen Town. All three have made significant signings during the summer and will improve on last season when all three found themselves in the bottom six at the time of the mid-season split.
At the other end, newcomers GAP Connah’s Quay will prove a tough test with home advantage, but the league has improved since they were last in the top-flight but they should have enough strength to avoid a relegation battle and enough cash to buy their way out of trouble should they find themselves in any during the January transfer window. Prestatyn Town may find it difficult to once again push for a top six place, but this will be through the strengthening of their rivals more than through their own frailties, while Aberystwyth Town may suffer from the lack of an established quality goalscorer and from the loss of goalkeeper Stephen Cann to West Wales rivals Carmarthen. Newtown and Afan Lido are expected to find it difficult with limited budgets compared to their opponents, but both were expected to struggle last season and did impress against the odds, ironically meeting each other in the League Cup Final. Since the reduction to twelve clubs the league has been competitive each and every season with most clubs having plenty to play for right up until the last round of games before the mid-season split and the end of season rewards. A surprise is inevitable though, and with so many clubs investing for and expecting a top-six place by the split, don’t rule out a few managerial changes during the course of the season either.
What players are likely to have the biggest impact league wide?
For the first time in a number of years the Golden Boot is an open competition. Rhys Griffiths has held the title for the last seven seasons and his efforts have finally been rewarded with a move to the Football League with League Two club Plymouth Argyle. Llanelli will miss him after the striker brought an incredible return of 180 goals from 181 games for the club, but manager Andy Legg has replaced him intelligently with Martin Rose from Port Talbot Town and Luke Bowen from the now-defunct Neath. Griffiths was the headline signing for Port Talbot Town with Rose heading in the opposite direction but his Football League opportunity proved too big a temptation.
Greg Draper was another striker in fine form for The New Saints last season and even made his mark in ensuring Olympic qualification for New Zealand before being left out of the final squad. Draper established himself in the league last season with 22 goals from 27 league starts and could make an even bigger impact in an improved side this season. At the other end, defender Kai Edwards was named the Young Player of the Season last year during his time with Neath, and he has now returned to the full-time game with The New Saints and should impress in league’s safest backline. There are a number of talented players that have established themselves in the league over the last few years and a number of new arrivals this season that could make a significant impact. The above is only a small selection, although their influence over the season will depend on the success of their side, and it is no coincidence that two players from champions and title favourites The New Saints have been mentioned.
Are there any newcomers that should make a difference for their WPL side?
This will be a very interesting season in the fact that increased investment at certain clubs has attracted a number of outsiders to the league. Before the reduction to twelve clubs, the league stagnated with the same players moving between clubs, but the move to twelve teams has attracted talented players from the English pyramid into the Welsh system and there have already been some arrivals this summer of players with obvious quality. Airbus UK Broughton have headlined this change in culture with manager Andy Preece signing no less than eight players from his former club Northwich Victoria since his arrival at the Airfield, striker Wayne Riley the latest and highest-profile of these new additions, and the club have enjoyed some positive preseason results.
Port Talbot Town have also attracted some impressive names with former Southampton and Wales Under-21 midfielder Matthew Crowell returning to the club after a spell in Spain and defender Ryan Green becoming the latest former Welsh International to join the domestic top-flight. Ryan Fraughan made a big impact at The New Saints on-loan from Stockport County last season and he is again expected to impress having completed a permanent move to Park Hall. Other players from the English pyramid will also make their debuts in the Welsh Premier League, but how they will adapt to the league is difficult to determine.
Who is the next great Welsh footballer?
Wales have benefited greatly in recent years from the emergence of so many talented young players. The current golden generation includes established Premier League stars such as Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Neil Taylor amongst others and their introduction to international football at an early age has offered solid experience as Chris Coleman plans for the World Cup qualifiers. The work of former manager John Toshack and his Intermediate manager Brian Flynn cannot be underestimated in developing this generation of player but there are a few more progressing towards the senior game. One of the most talked about is midfielder Emyr Hughes of Manchester City. Hughes has been talked about for a number of seasons and has played preseason first team football for his club during the summer. His emergence for could come sooner rather than later for the talented teenage star and he already appears destined to join the ranks of the aforementioned Premier League stars very soon, although it may unfortunately take a move away from Manchester City before he can establish himself as a regular in the senior game.
How would you describe the current state of soccer in Wales in general?
There is a stigma attached to the Welsh game which the Football Association of Wales have actively tried to extinguish since Jonathan Ford was appointed Chief Executive. Significant investment and effort has been made to improve all aspects of the Association from the development of the women’s game to the introduction of futsal and many other positive initiatives. Our clubs in the English pyramid system are enjoying great success with Swansea City planning for a second season in the Premier League and rivals Cardiff City looking to join them in the top-flight. Newport County are once again establishing themselves as a professional club and planning to join them in a return to the Football League are Wrexham. Investment into the Welsh Premier League remains a topic of debate, but there are small steps forward being made against some long-standing resentment and the league has benefited greatly from the excellent support of broadcasters S4/C who now show one live match every Saturday afternoon during the season.
The national team took significant strides forward under the late Gary Speed and now Chris Coleman and his backroom staff must rebuild and restore the optimism that emerged under the guidance of Speed. The challenge for the national league is a difficult one in testing financial times as the lack of support makes it difficult for clubs to continue with sustained investment to challenge for the European prizes available for success. Neath are a prime example having been liquidated during the summer, but other clubs in the past have suffered a similar fate, and there will be others to follow unless clubs learn to spend within their means. The national team also have a difficult challenge ahead as World Cup qualification in 2014 will depend on having every player available for every game. There are positives and negatives to take from each Welsh football situation at present, for some the glass is half-full but for others it is half-empty. However, domestic and international success can be achieved with unity and the potential is very much there.