Mark Pitman is a prominent Welsh football journalist and blogger. Visit www.markpitman1.com for links to all blogs, news stories, features, reports and opinion as the big Welsh football news stories break. You can also follow Mark Pitman at www.facebook.com/1markpitman and www.twitter.com/markpitman1.
Which clubs are likely to finish top of the table and bottom of the table?
I really think the title is Neath’s to lose this coming season. They are still strengthening despite already having a wealth of talent at their disposal and will have more money to spend in the January transfer window. Their move to full-time football this season will have tremendous benefits once the players adapt and with Peter Nicholas an instrumental part of the coaching staff they have someone on board who knows what it takes to win the Welsh Premier League. The pressure is on them to succeed however and only the title can begin to justify the level of investment that has been put into the project. I fully expect The New Saints to be their closest challengers at the top, strong at home with the advantage of the Welsh Premier’s only artificial surface, The New Saints are the only other full-time club in the league although they have been through a transitional summer after losing the title to Bangor City on the last day of last season. Champions Bangor City enjoyed an excellent campaign last year, but seem set to challenge with Llanelli for third place behind the two professional outfits. At the bottom Newtown are already strong favourites for relegation having lost players through a budget-cut but the league is otherwise very competitive. Bala Town and Airbus UK have strengthened significantly during the summer while Prestatyn Town have lost two very influential defenders and their main striker. Port Talbot Town boss Mark Jones has replaced a number of high-profile departures for what will be a season of transition for his club while newcomers Afan Lido have added some strength and experience to their side under new manager Andy Dyer since gaining promotion.
What players are likely to have the biggest impact league wide?
Neath striker Lee Trundle grabbed the headlines last season with his high-profile return to the Welsh Premier League and played an important part in Neath qualifying for the UEFA Europa League. With a years experience now behind him and his club moving to full-time football the former £1m striker can have no excuses for not making a big impact this season. Rhys Griffiths of Llanelli also seems set for another superb season in front of goal, the Welsh Premier League’s top scorer for the last six years should again enjoy some excellent service as his side continue to strengthen around him on the back of their Welsh Cup victory. From a defensive angle former Wales international defender Steve Evans has returned to The New Saints fold after a well-documented contract dispute and remains one of the most influential players in the Welsh Premier League while Neath’s Lee Kendall is widely-regarded as one of the best goalkeepers to have played in the league and his influence will play an important part in their title challenge.
Are there any newcomers that should make a difference for their side?
The Welsh Premier League welcomes a number of new additions this season and their arrival is a sure sign that standards are improving. There are now a number of players with Football League experience playing in the league and former Wrexham midfielder Matthew Crowell becomes one of the latest signings as he joins Port Talbot Town. Geoff Kellaway has recently impressed in Australia for Melbourne Victory but has now returned to his former club Aberystwyth Town while The New Saints have strengthened after the disappointment of last season by signing defensive duo Simon Spender and Jermaine Johnson. Upfront The New Saints have also brought New Zealand striker Greg Draper to the Welsh Premier League while Neath have signed Toby Jones from Conwy United, a forward who scored 45 times last season. It will be interesting to see how they, and a number of other experienced newcomers, adapt to the Welsh Premier League.
What player would be most likely to make a splash elsewhere in Europe via a transfer?
It is very difficult to judge. There is no doubt that the Welsh Premier League has some quality players, and although collective results in European competition have not been brilliant, there have been some impressive individual performances against teams from Scandinavia and other smaller nations. There are no players who could stroll into the top-flights of England, Germany, Spain etc, but significant investment is being made into the running of each club’s academy system and there are talented young players emerging from Welsh Premier League clubs each year. Tom Bradshaw (Shrewsbury Town), Jake Cassidy (Wolves), Jamie Reed (York City), Scott Barrow (Tamworth), and Danny Holmes (Tranmere Rovers) are just a few examples of players who have progressed from the Welsh Premier League to professional football in England over the last couple of years and as funding increases into academy football and coaching this list will grow and the reputation of the Welsh Premier League will grow with it. I mentioned Steve Evans earlier, in 2006 Steve went from being captain of the The New Saints to playing international football for Wales in less than a year due to a move to Wrexham. It shows that there are players in the league ready and waiting for their opportunity if professional clubs are willing to take a chance on them.
Who is the top manager in the league?
A popular argument this and one that is not exclusive to the Welsh Premier League. With significant funds available to them, compared to the rest of the league, Neath and The New Saints are expected to challenge at the top whoever is in charge. Bangor City won the title last season and for the three-years before lifted the Welsh Cup each time under the guidance of Nev Powell. The former Bangor player rightly earned the Manager of the Year award last season as his part-time side beat the odds and the same can be said for Andy Legg at Llanelli as his side convincingly defeated Bangor City in the Welsh Cup Final and this summer claimed a famous European win over Dinamo Tbilisi. At the other end of the table, former Northern Ireland international and World Cup veteran Bernard McNally has a difficult campaign ahead of him in charge of Newtown, and if he can keep them out of the bottom two places he would be as deserving as any of his peers. Strict coaching criteria means that each Welsh Premier League manager must hold, or be working towards, a UEFA Pro-Licence in order for their club to compete in the league so the standard of coaching and management is at a good level. As for who is the best, Nev Powell currently holds the official title, and it is a pretty-much deserved one.
Which Welsh Premier club has the best chance of having success in European competitions in the future?
There isn’t much point looking outside of the two full-time clubs for the answer to this question. The New Saints have made steady progress in Europe in recent campaigns and this year were the only club to make it through the opening round. They were also the first Welsh Premier League club ever to be seeded in the draw and this itself is a clear sign of their progress. Neath lost a difficult tie against Norwegian side Aalesund on their European debut this summer, but the move to full-time football and the continued strengthening of their squad will eventually bring better results in Europe if they can sustain their current level of investment. At present though The New Saints have the best chance of bringing some European success to the Welsh Premier League.
How would you describe the quality of play in the league?
The standard of football in the Welsh Premier League has traditionally been criticised by people who have rarely watched a game. The excellent work of television channel S4/C has seen the introduction of a weekly live match since the start of last season however and the league has been opened up to a much bigger audience as a result. Opinions remain mixed with some poor, but improving, playing surfaces offering little chance of teams producing an entertaining contest on a week-by-week basis and the lack of atmosphere generated from small crowds does little to improve the product either. The reduction to twelve clubs has improved the competitiveness of the league however, and with more and more players with Football League experience seeing the league as a viable option in their playing careers, the standard continues to steadily improve.
How would you describe the state of soccer in Wales in general?
It is hard to generalise when Swansea City are preparing to compete in the Premier League and the national team are at their lowest point for many years. In-between that Cardiff City are pushing for promotion to join the Swans from the Championship while Wrexham are fighting to stay in existence. Newport County of the Blue Square Premier and Welsh Premier League side Neath have both made the significant step of becoming full-time clubs this summer while the national league heads into the season as one of the few top-flights not to have the commercial and financial gain of a sponsor. The Football Association of Wales come in for heavy criticism from clubs and fans alike, but they continue to redeem themselves to some degree with investment into the women’s game in Wales and through the work of the Welsh Football Trust. The current state of play across Welsh football is indeed mixed! The flagship team of Welsh football however are the national team, and if their performance and ranking are to be used as an indication, then there is unfortunately a lot wrong it seems.
What do you see in the future for the Welsh men’s national team?
It will continue to get worse before it gets better. For a nation boasting a number of Premier League players such as Gareth Bale of Spurs and Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal there is no excuse for the current ranking or recent results. Years of bad management have now come to a head and the Football Association of Wales are suffering the consequences of their lack of action. A whole new culture needs to be introduced as players representing Wales have had too much pull for too long and the pride of representing Wales on the international stage appears to have been largely lost. Fans have voted with their feet and a national team that once regularly sold out the Millennium Stadium now struggles to fill regional rugby grounds. Gary Speed has been appointed as the man to make the short and long term changes, but has so far only offered lip service to that effect during his short time in charge. Welsh football needs a strong national team, but it needs strong leadership and guidance from its governing body to achieve it. Wales sadly lack both.