The top tier of domestic football in Wales returns this weekend with winds of change having swept through the Welsh Premier League this summer.
Last season’s Manager of The Year Craig Harrison, Player of the Year/Golden Boot winner Jason Oswell and Young Player of the Year Henry Jones have all left for pastures new since the end of last season, whilst Connah’s Quay, Bala Town and Bangor City each seem to have taken a step closer towards mounting a genuine title challenge to The New Saints, who with ex-player Scott Ruscoe at the helm, are targeting their seventh successive league championship.
JD Sports have extended their partnership with the FAW becoming the league’s new title sponsor with the league officially now known as the JD Welsh Premier League.
Former league heavyweights Barry Town are also back and are sure to be one of the storylines of the season as they embark on their first season back in the top-flight after a 14-year absence. Fellow newcomers Prestatyn Town won’t simply be arriving to make up the numbers after winning a strong Cymru Alliance last season in convincing fashion.
One of the league’s most successful managers also returns with league and three-time Welsh Cup winner Nev Powell picking up the reigns at Aberystwyth Town. The other new face in the dugout this season is former Cardiff City coach Kevin Nicholson who links up with Gary Taylor-Fletcher at Bangor City.
The league and its broadcast partners Sgorio are also trialling Thursday night football this week broadcasting a selection of games via Facebook Live.
On the pitch – quite literally – Carmarthen Town are the latest club in the process of installing an artificial playing surface, 9 of the 12 clubs this season will be playing on 3G.
Here’s a club-by-club guide of what to expect:
Last season: 10th
Manager: Nev Powell
Key arrivals: Declan Carrol, Declan Walker
Key departures: Luke Sherbon, Daniel Alfie, Dylan Rees, Sam Rodon, Elliott Scotcher
The club ran the risk of their first ever relegation from the WPL last season before Tony Pennock and Wayne Jones steadied the ship in the final few weeks of the campaign to ensure survival. Pennock then took on the role as permanent manger but left just a few weeks later after being offered a return to the first-team coaching staff at previous club Hull City. Aber finally turned to former Bangor manager Nev Powell to take the club forward and his experience will be key if the club are to avoid another season flirting with the drop.
Key man: Malcolm Melvin
One to watch: John Owen
Verdict: Hard to see anything beyond a bottom-six finish although Nev’s knowledge and contact book should keep them away from danger.
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Colin Caton
Key arrivals: Les Davies
Key departures: Kieran Smith
You know what you’re going to get with Bala – a well organised and effective squad with strength in depth, but is this the year they’ll genuinely push for the title? Les Davies is the Lakesiders’ big summer signing, unexpectedly making the switch from top-four rivals Connah’s Quay and he could give them a new dimension in the final third this year. The battle between Bala, Connah’s Quay and Bangor is likely to be fierce once again this season and could well be closer than ever. They won’t go far wrong under the big chief Colin Caton.
Key man: Chris Venables
One to watch: Jordan Evans
Verdict: Last season’s dramatic Welsh Cup final win over the Saints might just have given Bala the psychological boost they needed to push on and truly challenge for the title.
Last season: 4th
Manager: Kevin Nicolson
Key arrivals: Bradyen Shaw, Steve Hewitt, Tom Kennedy, Danny Holmes
Key departures: Henry Jones, Gary Roberts
Bangor City are aiming big as they head into the second year of their new ownership and the club seem to be targeting a push for the title. New manager Kevin Nicholson has an excellent coaching background but working with part-time players could prove to be a challenge to him and his assistant Gary Taylor-Fletcher. The departure of last year’s star performer Henry Jones will definitely hurt them but the club have acted wisely in bringing back Brayden Shaw after he impressed in the first-half of last season before returning to Accrington. Danny Holmes and Tom Kennedy will add experience to the side.
Key man: Gary Taylor-Fletcher
One to watch: Brayden Shaw
Verdict: If Bangor establish a winning mentality early on they will be a real threat. With a high turnover over players in the last twelve months and a manager new to the league however, it might just be a year early for them to really trouble TNS.
BARRY TOWN UNITED
Last season: Newly promoted, Welsh League champions
Manager: Gavin Chesterfield
Key arrivals: Kayne McLaggan
Key departures: Michael Hartley, Lee Baldock
Barry Town’s return to the WPL has been welcomed with open arms given the club’s proud history at this level and subsequent struggles which saw them rise up from the lower reaches of the Welsh system. The real work starts now for the Dragons however and to steer them them through the transition they have the highly-respected Gavin Chesterfield to bring an astute calming influence. There are lots of fond memories of trophies and European nights at Jenner Park but the reality is that the WPL is a very different place to what it was when they were the dominant side. The squad lack WPL experience but other sides have shown in recent years that good organisation and self-belief can overcome that.
Key man: James Sadler
One to watch: TJ Nagi
Verdict: Gavin Chesterfield has kept faith with his promotion winning squad making just small changes, how well they fare is anyone’s guess but I don’t think they’ll find it quite as easy as some are expecting. They could finish anywhere from 5th to 12th!
Last season: 5th
Manager: Dr. Wayne Allison
Key arrivals: Joel Edwards, Dylan Rees
Key departures: Liam Black, John Littlemore
Many expected Cardiff Met to adjust well to the WPL last season and this was indeed the case as they avoid relegation with ease and reached the play-off final. The Met’s academic structure doesn’t really allow them to go out and strengthen like other clubs and players are sourced through their acceptance on academic programmes and via this route, they have added two new faces to their squad in Dylan Rees and notably Joel Edwards who was captain at Hereford. A repeat of last season would be an excellent achievement but that might prove difficult given they have now lost their unknown quantity tag.
Key man: Joel Edwards
One to watch: Jordan Lam
Verdict: There is a risk that they will get a bit predictable here. Keeping momentum will be important, I personally think they’ll drop off this season, as Llandudno did the season after they finished in the top-six.
Last season: 6th
Manager: Mark Aizlewood
Key arrivals: Kostya Georgievsky, Liam Walsh
Key departures: Declan Carroll, Kyle Bassett, Mark Jones
Carmarthen overachieved last season by finishing in the top-six but that impressive feat will be hard to repeat this season. Once again Mark Aizlewood has stuck to his budget-friendly formula of recruiting from the Welsh League and beyond to replenish Carmarthen’s squad with a trio of experienced players moving on. Carmarthen will have their work cut out starting the season with six successive away fixtures due to the installation of their 3G pitch. The Old Gold will have no doubt taken note of just how difficult Aberystwyth found it starting with a stretch of away games last season but Carmarthen should be resilient enough to come through a difficult start.
Key man: Lee Surman
One to watch: Liam Walsh
Verdict: The most important signing Carmarthen have made this summer is signing Mark Aizlewood to a new two-year contract. Shrewd, measured and experienced Aize will be capable of getting enough out of the team to get them out of any real danger although the side lack a genuine goalscorer.
Last season: 8th
Manager: Huw Griffiths
Key arrivals: Lewis Buckley
Key departures: None
Cefn Druids surpassed expectations as they kept well clear of the relegation zone in their first season back in the top-flight. Expected by many as favourites to be relegated, Huw Griffiths formed a competitive side who were solid throughout and in Ashley Ruane had a genuine threat in front of goal. Lewis Buckley, joining from Llandudno, adds to their attacking threat whilst Griffiths’ summer signings are generally players who’re untested at this level.
The club will be simply looking to avoid relegation once again this year and key to that will be keeping Ashely Ruane fit and scoring goals.
Key man: Ashley Ruane
One to watch: Naim Arsan
Verdict: Huw Griffiths did a fine job last year and he faces an equally big a challenge in repeating the feat of securing survival for the Druids again. It might just be too big a ask.
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Andy Morrison
Key arrivals: Joe Heath
Key departures: Les Davies, Wes Baynes, Lewis Short, Tom Field, Craig Disney, Lewis Short
Coming off a season where they recorded their best-ever league finish and best defensive record in the league, ambitious Connah’s Quay would love to go a step further this season. The club are determined to close the gap on The New Saints and if Andy Morrison can improve on last season things could get very interesting indeed. The side have refreshed their squad with Joe Heath the highest profile name to arrive at the club and I suspect the Nomads’ transfer business isn’t quite yet done. The club have signed for four players onto full-time professional contracts this summer, their first steps in making the transition into a becoming a full-time outfit over the new few years. The departure of Wes Bayne – a dependable right back with good delivery – and the sale of Les Davies to rivals Bala were a surprise. Veterans Michael Wilde and Matty Williams are still perhaps the Nomads’ best attacking options but neither are getting any younger and I’d be surprised if the squad isn’t further strengthened in the goalscoring department, it’ll be interesting to see what the club do in the rest of the transfer window.
Key man: Danny Harrison
One to watch: Declan Poole
Verdict: The Nomads have a very solid defensive base but right now they don’t have the attacking options of their rivals. I have a strong hunch Connah’s Quay still have a few cards left up their sleeve to play before the transfer window closes.
Last season: 9th
Manager: Alan Morgan
Key arrivals: Sam Ilesanmi, Toby Jones, Ryan Edwards
Key departures: Jamie Reed, Jamal Crawford, Gareth Evans, Lewis Buckley, Liam Dawson
An unspectacular second season in the WPL saw Llandudno miss out on the top-six after Marc Williams’ form dried up in front of goal, scoring just six goals last season a year after hitting 15 and firing the team into Europe. The side were never troubled by relegation but their lack of goals never saw them mount to anything more than a mid-table outfit. Over the summer Alan Morgan has worked hard to try and readdress this balance by refreshing their front line, Toby Jones an experienced hard-working forward arrives from Rhyl and they’ve also picked up Sam Illesanmi, a highly rated young striker from Tranmere. The rest of the side doesn’t seem to have changed too much and it’ll be interesting to see what impact a fully-fit James Joyce can make this season, playing in front of Sam Hart down the left-hand side.
Key man: Danny Hughes
One to watch: James Joyce
Verdict: Llandudno are not a bad side by any means and can hold their own at this level but the success of their season will depend on whether their new arrivals can inject some spark in front of goal.
Last season: 7th
Manager: Chris Hughes
Key arrivals: Nick Rushton, Jamie Reed, Jay Denny, James Murphy
Key departures: Jason Oswell, Shane Sutton, Ross Stephens, Andy Jones, Stef Edwards.
It was a season of two halves for Newtown last year – they struggled as poor form and bad luck left them rooted in the bottom two of the table for much of the first-half of the season but they got things back on track eventually going into the play-offs. The summer was a difficult one for the Robins as two of their most important players, top-scorer Jason Oswell and captain Shayne Sutton moved on and Chris Hughes will have had an unenviable task of replacing those two on a limited budget although forward Nick Rushton’s loan move has been made permanent. Jamie Reed, still only 29, has been drafted in to add firepower and the move could be the ideal platform for him to regain his form and fitness and spells at Llandudno and Bangor. Chris Hughes will also be hoping he can reignite talented winger James Murphy’s career after a poor season with Airbus last season.
Key man: Nick Rushton
One to watch: James Murphy
Verdict: It could be a tough season for Newtown after being stripped of their most important players. Latham Park is a good breeding ground for talent however and if the new influx of players can settle in their new surroundings, the Robins might well unearth a gem or two.
Last season: Newly promoted, Cymru Alliance champions
Manager: Neil Gibson
Key arrivals: Zebb Edwards, Zyaac Edwards
Key departures: Jordan Davies
Prestatytn will be most people’s favourites for the drop this season but it should not be forgotten that they won a strong Cymru Alliance comfortably last season. The club have opted for continuity and stability in placing their faith long-term in manager Neil Gibson, who enjoys complete control and full backing from the club. Prestatyn have shown resilience on and off the field in the last twelve months and that should help them adapt to the new surroundings. The side will take every game at it comes and will be realistic about the challenge facing them, they will also feel they can cause a few shocks along the way.
Key man: Michael Parker
One to watch: Myles Hart
Verdict: Prestatyn are returning to a strong WPL with a squad largely unproven at this level. Their off-field stability and leadership of Neil Gibson will give them a fighting chance of avoid the drop but it will be tough.
THE NEW SAINTS
Last season: Champions
Manager: Scott Ruscoe
Key arrivals: Tom Holland, Blaine Hudson
Key departures: Phil Baker
The feeling around the WPL is that The New Saints’ bid to win a seventh straight league title will not be an easy one with rival clubs ready to pounce on any dip in form under newly appointed manager Scott Ruscoe. The loss of Craig Harrison is clearly a significant blow to the club but do not overlook the fact that Ruscoe had constantly been working as part of Harrison’s backroom staff. The side have been very quiet on the recruitment front this summer – quite possibly due to Harrison’s departure – and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Saints make a few bold moves in January if they feel their title defence is under threat. Scott Quigley could have a huge impact on their success this season if he remains with the club beyond the transfer window, his form in Europe this summer suggests he is going to have a breakout season.
Key man: Jon Routledge
One to watch: Scott Quigley
Verdict: Whoever finishes above the Saints this season will win the league but I still thing their full-time status and strength in depth will prove telling come the end of the season.
Opening weekend fixtures
Friday: Bangor City v The New Saints, Prestatyn v Connah’s Quay, Bala Town v Newtown
Saturday: Cefn Druids v Cardiff Met, Llandudno v Carmarthen
Sunday: Barry Town v Aberystwyth (live on Sgorio)
Featured image courtesy of the JD Welsh Premier League