You know it’s been a good summer for Welsh Cymru Premier League teams when a league fixture is forced to be rescheduled to accommodate European commitments.
It might be some time yet before the league’s fixture computer is working away to identify free fixture dates in late October, but for the opening weekend of the new season at least, The New Saints’ first game has been moved back from Friday to Sunday to accommodate their Europa League tie with Ludogorets.
Whilst the tie itself (after a 5-0 first-leg defeat) is as much as a formality as the new Cymru Premier League title race, it goes without saying that over the summer period has been a memorable one indeed for the European-competing teams – The New Saints winning out in Kosovo, Connah’s Quay becoming a national news story when they dumped out Kilmarnock on their own turf , and Cardiff Met gave a good account of themselves and were somewhat unfortunate in their first foray in continental competition.
Whether that feel-good factor can sweep into the newly re-branded top-flight remains to be seen, but a competitive campaign with fluid promotion/relegation minus any off-field disruption would be heralded as a successful start to the Cymru Premier League era.
The much-maligned 12-team format returns for another year, but given its perceived lack of popularity and the targeted improvement of the Tier 2 clubs, a serious conversation exploring the possible expansion to the Cymru Premier League needs to be had sooner rather than later. The format does at least allow for an unpredictable mid-table scramble up until January.
The pack of clubs competing against each other for a coveted top-six spot already seem as closely matched as ever, and with a good start and some good fortune with injuries, chairmen, managers, players and fans will all start to believe their own team has a genuine chance of making the cut. Before a ball has been kicked however, I think there are three stand-out candidates ready to lock up half of those spaces in Barry Town, Connah’s Quay and The New Saints.
Beyond that, there are nine clubs with a very real chance of contesting for the three remaining places in the top-half of the table. Last season, Cefn Druids, the team finishing immediately above the relegation zone, still managed to finish 16 and 23 points ahead of the bottom two sides – don’t expect the margin to be anywhere near as vast as that this time around, and there could be some surprise sides still unsure of their league status at the back end of the season.
The very top of the table should be a far more predictable affair. Anything other than watching The New Saints comfortably march towards a ninth-successive league title would represent an upset, let alone them being genuinely pushed.
Last season, a dip in form did allow Connah’s Quay and Barry Town to spend time at the league summit with only two points separating the top-three going into Phase 2, but as things started to get serious, Saints were able to find another gear and managed to finish the season 12 points clear. The New Saints head into the new season with only a few changes to the team, with Scott Ruscoe recruiting a trio of young defenders.
Whilst results are likely to be predictable, their team selection is again expected to spring surprises – Greg Draper, last season’s Golden Boot winner continues to find himself in and out of the team despite a goals-per-game ratio in the league. Already, he has found himself in and out of the team during the Saints’ European games and it’ll be interesting to see whether he remains as patient sitting on the bench this time around.
After a memorable European campaign this summer, Connah’s Quay can be expected to battle with Barry Town for runners-up spot and an automatic European spot. On occasions, Andy Morrison’s Connah’s Quay can be the most effective side in the division, but in a league in which they start most matches as favourites, their defensive, direct game isn’t sometimes progressive enough to break down opposing teams and the Nomads have in the past shown a tendency to drop points in games where they are expected to go on the front foot.
They have barely added to last year’s team despite letting a handful of players depart and the reliance on experienced centre-forward Michael Wilde could prove an issue. It is quite possible they dip into their European prize money kitty and strengthen before the transfer window closes.
Gavin Chesterfield, one of the most respected managers in the Welsh domestic game, remains at the helm of Barry Town and his task will be to plot another campaign in the upper echelons of the league. Barry are a fluid attacking side and on their day, have enough about them to trouble any team in the league. The departure of talented on-loan striker Momodou Touray leaves them with a big gap to fill, summer signing Keyon Reffell possesses the ability to become one of the stars of the season – if he remains fit.
Cardiff Met will be among those leading the charge to be the best of the rest. Shrewd manager Christian Edwards has largely the same squad at his disposal and one of his projects this year will be to help fallen winger Jordan Lam to rediscover his best form as the side look to take another run at European qualification but without key striker Adam Roscrow, who’s looking to make a name for himself at AFC Wimbledon.
The Archers will likely face stiff competition from Bala Town after the Lakesiders endured a disappointing campaign last time around, missing out on Europe for the first time in four seasons. New striker Luis Robles has looked sharp in pre-season and his goals to lift an experienced team that looked stale last season.
Newtown will again fancy quietly fancy their chances of a top-six finish as they continue to punch above their weight with Chris Hughes again assembling a carefully curated squad blending youth with proven league experience.
There is an even larger air of unpredictability around the two newly promoted sides this season and Airbus UK and Penybont could finish anyway from top-six to relegation. The two teams were runaway leaders in their respective Tier 2 leagues last season, Airbus finishing 18 points clear while Penybont went the entire campaign unbeaten.
Neither side possesses a great deal of top-flight experience but clearly have clearly a winning mentality established within their ranks. A good start and momentum will be key. Both clubs will be looking to emulate Caernarfon Town, who finished fourth following promotion. Caernarfon, buoyed on by their strong home support, never looked like getting drawn into a struggle to stay-up and Sean Eardley has largely kept faith with the same group of players, from which Darren Thomas and Ryan Williams can be expected to thrive.
Aberystwyth Town finished eighth last season but it could be argued it was a false position after veteran forward Geoff Kellaway hit a rich vein of goalscoring form in the second-half of the season. The Seasiders have added to their front line to take the burden of Kellaway with some proven Cymru Premier League players in the same of Luke Boundford and the returning Rio Ahmadi.
Like Aber, West-Wales rivals Carmarthen Town will head into the season with their immediate objective being survival. An established defence gives the Old Gold a strong base but it’s unrealistic to expect another 20-plus goal season and others will need to step up accordingly.
Cefn Druids will have similar intentions and Huw Griffiths will need to get more consistency from his team, who blew hot and cold last season. Griffiths has turned to the North-West for his summer recruitment where he’ll be hoping to have found a rough gem or two to strengthen his squad.
ABERYSTWYTH TOWN – Carmarthen (H), Barry Town (A), The New Saints (H)
Manager: Matthew Bishop. Last season: 8th.
Key player: Geoff Kellaway. One to watch: Lee Jenkins.
Best case scenario: New arrivals Edmilson Pedro Vaz and Luke Boundford give the Seasiders a fresh edge going forward. Park Avenue becomes a fortress once again and the side enjoy a good cup run.
Worst case scenario: Matt Bishop’s signings don’t work out as Aber struggle to muster goals, defensive insecurities creep into their play and difficulties at both ends of the park lead to an uneasy relegation scrap.
AIRBUS UK – Bala Town (H), Cefn Druids (A), Cardiff Met (A)
Manager: Steve O’Shaughnessy. Last season: Promoted as Cymru Alliance champions.
Key player: Alex Darlington. One to watch: Joe Palmer.
Best case scenario: Much like Caernarfon the year before, Airbus carry their promotion winning form into the top-flight and take full advantage of their unknown quantity status and take a top-six spot.
Worst case scenario: Alex Darlington is unable to find the form he has previously shown in the Cymru Premier, while the goals dry up for new striker Andy Owens. A poor run of results early on eats away at their confidence as last season’s hard work unravels leaving them fighting to survive.
BALA TOWN – Airbus (A), The New Saints (H), Barry Town (A)
Manager: Colin Caton. Last season: 6th.
Key player: Henry Jones. One to watch: Luis Robles.
Best case scenario: Determined to return to Europe and stamp their authority back on the league, Bala begin the season with renewed vigour with Luis Robles giving a fresh dimension in attack. Henry Jones and Chris Venables both enjoy bounceback seasons as the Lakesiders ride high again.
Worst case scenario: The side find themselves unable to stop last season’s decline and again find themselves in the unwanted position of having to make up ground to break into the top-half.
BARRY TOWN UNITED – (Penybont (A), Aberystwyth (H), Bala Town (H)
Manager: Gavin Chesterfield. Last season: 3rd.
Key player: Kayne McLaggon. One to watch: Keyon Reffell.
Best case scenario: The good times continue to roll at Jenner Park as free-scoring Barry hit the ground running and maintain within touching distance of leaders The New Saints. Silverware beckons in the form of a good cup run as the side are again serious contenders for a European spot.
Worst case scenario: The absence of Momodou Touray leaves Barry struggling to find their offensive spark and team find it difficult to pick up points away from home. With their bubble burst, Barry are never in top-six contention and miss out on the play-offs altogether.
CAERNARFON TOWN – The New Saints (A), Connah’s Quay (H), Cefn Druids (H)
Manager: Sean Eardley. Last season: 4th.
Key player: Darren Thomas. One to watch: Ryan Williams.
Best case scenario: The Cofis get off to a strong start and once again find themselves in top-six contention. An excellent home record definitely pushes them into the latter rounds of the Welsh Cup and into the play-offs.
Worst case scenario: Lacking the surprise element of last year, Caernarfon find their opponents taking a different approach to them this year. Big expectations at home begin to become a burden on the side, who nervously find themselves looking downwards at the relegation battle.
CARDIFF MET – Connah’s Quay (A), Penybont (A), Airbus (H)
Manager: Christian Edwards. Last season: 7th, Nathaniel MG & Play-Off winners.
Key player: Eliot Evans. One to watch: Guto Williams.
Best case scenario: Cardiff Met’s assured playing style drives them onto a consistent run with goals spread across the team. Solid and well-organised from front to back, the side are firmly on track for another European journey.
Worst case scenario: Adam Roscrow’s departure and his absence in front of goal hits the misfiring team hard. The youngsters struggle to get going as their season fades into mediocrity shortly into the New Year.
CARMARTHEN TOWN – Aberystwyth (A), Newtown (H), Connah’s Quay (A)
Manager: Neil Smothers. Last season: 9th
Key player: Liam Thomas. One to watch: Alaric Jones.
Best case scenario: Carmarthen’s experience pays off as their resolute style pushes them into the top-half. Luke Bowen’s form in front of goal picks up while Liam Thomas remains a composed finisher for the efficient Old Gold.
Worst case scenario: Liam Thomas is unable to replicate his career-best form of last season and it proves to be one season too many for this experienced core of players as Carmarthen find themselves getting left behind.
CEFN DRUIDS – Newtown (A), Airbus (H), Caernarfon (A)
Manager: Huw Griffiths. Last season: 10th
Key player: Nathan Peate. One to watch: Tyrone Ofori.
Best case scenario: Huw Griffiths’ signings all come off as he unleashes some fresh faces on the league. With a good backbone to the side, confidence and momentum carries the team back into the top-six as they put last season’s disappointing finish well behind them.
Worst case scenario: The form table reads as inconsistent as ever a real defensive vulnerability becomes apparent. The team continue to blow hot and cold for another year leaving them in a desperate, end of season scramble, for points.
CONNAH’S QUAY – Cardiff Met (H), Caernarfon (A), Carmarthen (H)
Manager: Andy Morrison. Last season: 2nd.
Key player: Michael Bakare. One to watch: Callum Roberts.
Best case scenario: Galvanised by their historic European win over Kilmarnock, the Nomads start the season on fire as their staunch defence is coupled with a punishing front-line. The side continue to ask questions of The New Saints deep into the season, even taking a handful of points off them along the way. Silverware and European qualification is well within reach.
Worst case scenario: A European hangover disrupts the Nomads start to the season and an early gulf in points forms between them and The New Saints. Michael Wilde is overly burdened up-top and the team just can’t get the right balance in attack with inconsistent performances undermining their efforts in the final third so much so, that they find themselves needing to dig in to secure a top-six spot.
NEWTOWN – Cefn Druids (H), Carmarthen (A), Penybont (H)
Manager: Chris Hughes. Last season: 5th
Key player: Neil Mitchell. One to watch: Lifumpa Mwandwe.
Best case scenario: The Robins new signings quickly bed in and the younger members of the squad quickly gain confidence playing in their new surroundings at Latham Park. Backed up by some experienced Cymru Premier League players, the Robins are a neat and tidy team, who can pack a punch going forward and play their way into the top-half early into the season.
Worst case scenario: The side struggle for cohesion as the squad’s new faces find the transition into the league a difficult one. An over-reliance on some of the senior players begins to take its toll and the frustrated Robins sink into the bottom half, having to look over their shoulder.
PENYBONT – Barry Town (H), Cardiff Met (H), Newtown (A)
Manager: Rhys Griffiths. Last season: Newly promoted, Welsh League Div 1 winners.
Key player: Curtis Hutson. One to watch: Daniel Jeffries.
Best case scenario: Penypont are fearless from day one and build on last season’s momentum early on. Backed by Rhys Griffiths’ experience and knowledge of the league, Penybont are a plucky, well-balanced side who compete well and earn their way to league survival via a top-six spot, with Griffiths becoming a candidate for Manager of the Year.
Worst case scenario: Penybont quickly find that the gulf between the Tier 1 and Tier 2 is greater than expected and are dealt some harsh lessons early on, from which they struggle to recover. Their lack of Cymru Premier League experience leaves the side with a naiveness that sees them struggle for points at the foot of the table.
THE NEW SAINTS – Caernarfon (H), Bala Town (A), Aberystwyth (A)
Manager: Scott Ruscoe. Last season: Champions
Key player: Jon Routledge. One to watch: Kane Lewis.
Best case scenario: Saints are relentless from the opening weekend and sweep all before them with ease, marching to a domestic treble with relative ease. Some of the squad’s younger additions establish themselves in the first-team as the squad go from strength to strength.
Worst case scenario: A combination of complacency, injuries and pressure from the chasing pack see The New Saints drop points early in the season which opens up the top of the table. Scott Ruscoe is unable to settle on a preferred line-up and Greg Draper’s becomes increasingly disappointed for being left out and his form begins to suffer adding to their malaise.
OPENING WEEKEND FIXTURES:
Aberystwyth v Carmarthen Town, Fri 7.45 @ Park Avenue
Airbus UK v Bala Town, Fri 7.45 @ The Airfield
Newtown v Cefn Druids, Fri 7.45 @ Latham Park
Penybont v Barry Town, Fri 8.00 (live on Sgorio) @ KYMCO Stadium
Connah’s Quay v Cardiff Met, Sat 2.30 @ Deeside Stadium
The New Saints v Caernarfon, Sun 2.30 @ The Venue-Park Hall