One big talking point, moving away from the league this season, was TNS and Bala Town’s involvement as guest teams in the new Irn-Bru Challenge Cup, where the two clubs came up against Scottish sides. This gave many football supporters the chance to see how good the Welsh Premier League’s top 2 sides were when compared to Scottish teams in the leagues below the Scottish Premiership. The competition also featured 2 guest teams from Northern Ireland: Crusaders and Linfield. All the guest teams joined the tournament in the 4th Round and were all immediately knocked out bar The New Saints, who managed to reach the Semi-Finals, before crashing out 4–1 to St Mirren.
Prior to their loss at St Mirren, The New Saints had also suffered their first and only loss of the season so far in the Welsh domestic football calendar, when they lost 1–0 to Carmarthen Town. Following on from the 2 successive losses, TNS struggled to overcome Bangor City in the JD Welsh Cup Quarter-Finals. Despite the Citizens being down to 10 men, they went into the lead in Extra Time, before TNS managed to salvage the game, winning 2–1 in the end. Whilst The New Saints’ form has improved since, there is a renewed sense that they are beatable, and that next season will be a lot more competitive. So, who can end The New Saints’ dominance over the Welsh domestic game?
CONNAH’S QUAY NOMADS
One of the clubs currently challenging TNS near the top of the table, Connah’s Quay have enjoyed something of a turnaround in recent seasons, going from mid-table regulars to title challengers. Getting into the Europa League Qualifiers last season was a huge achievement for the club, and there’s a real sense that they’ve used it as a springboard to achieve even more success. They’ve been among the most consistent teams this season, having been in the Top 3 since October. However, their form since the start of Phase 2 has been more inconsistent, picking up just 4 points in the 4 games since the break, and this has allowed Bangor City to close the gap between 3rd and 4th to only 2 points. With the club being very open about their ambitions to go full time at the end of the season, and signing big name players like Kai Edwards, it looks increasingly likely that they’ll be challenging near the top of the table for the foreseeable future. One of the most anticipated games in the Welsh domestic footballing calendar is now the Nomads’ JD Welsh Cup Semi-Final fixture against TNS, and it will be very interesting to see whether or not Connah’s Quay can knock the reigning champions out of the Cup, stopping The New Saints’ bid to become the first Welsh Premier League club to win all 3 club competitions for three seasons in a row (adequately billed as the ‘triple treble’). The game, played at a neutral venue, will be a decent test for both teams, and a chance for Connah’s Quay to prove to everyone that their ambitions are capable of being realised.
One of the most historic, and successful clubs in Welsh domestic football, the Citizens suffered a decline in recent seasons, going from title challengers to relegation battlers. However, with new owners, new staff, and an impressive haul of talented players, they’ve been in the Top 4 since the start of the season, and thoroughly deserve to be in the race for the automatic European Qualification places. With the club harbouring plans to go full time at the end of the season and recruiting players like Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Dean Rittenberg and Yalany Baio in January, it seems as though the Citizens have a reason to be cautiously optimistic about challenging TNS in the near future. The big problem for City this season has been finding consistency, but since the start of Phase 2 they’ve been playing better and they are piling on the pressure as they bid to reach the automatic European Qualification places ahead of Connah’s Quay and Bala Town.
Overall, comparing where Bangor was for the past 2 seasons, compared to now, this season has to be considered a huge success, with the Citizens playing some impressive football and looking a lot like their former selves again. Next season will be very interesting for all to see whether or not the Citizens can achieve their aim of challenging for the title, but based on current form and the talented group of players they have at their disposal, the future certainly looks bright for the Citizens, and they are among the favourites to push The New Saints next season.
Bala is perhaps the hardest to judge, with both Bangor and Connah’s Quay being more open about their future plans and aspirations. One of the most consistent Welsh Premier League sides for the past few seasons, Bala Town began the 2016/17 season poorly and were stuck in the Bottom 6 until November, when they found their form and went on a 12 game unbeaten run that propelled them up the table. Since finding that consistency, they’ve been much better, and are currently 2nd in the league, 3 points ahead of Connah’s Quay Nomads and 5 points ahead of Bangor City. This Friday’s clash against the Citizens at the Bangor University Stadium is eagerly anticipated as the race for the automatic European places heats up, and should provide the winners, with a chance to build momentum heading into the final month of the season.
Should Bala Town remain in 2nd place at the end of the season, it will be the third consecutive time they’ve finished as runners-up, and their next challenge will surely be for the title in the near future. However, there is a sense that, in order to challenge for the title, they must be consistent throughout the season, having effectively given TNS a head start thanks to their poor form early on in this campaign. They definitely have the potential to challenge TNS, and their recruitment this season has been impressive, having made a string of quality signings, including the prolific Chris Venables from Aberystwyth Town at the start of the season, and recently bringing in former Fulham and Wrexham player Jordan Evans. All these signs point to a Bala Town side that is happy to be quietly going about their business in the hopes of making a title challenge next season.
Next season is shaping up to be a very interesting campaign for all the right reasons. The New Saints have been very successful in recent years, so it is important that these clubs do push forward and challenge for the title next season. Currently, the lack of competitiveness isn’t just damaging the other clubs, but the league on a whole, as the league struggles to draw new viewers and supporters because many see it as a foregone conclusion that TNS will win the league. The truth is, currently, The New Saints are the only full-time team in the league, which gives them an advantage, as they train more and can attract bigger names to the league. However, it seems as though the rest of the league is slowly starting to raise their levels in the hope of challenging TNS, and this can only be considered a good thing. With talk of multiple clubs holding aspirations of going full time in the near future, time will tell if they can end The New Saints’ reign on Welsh domestic football.
Another point worth considering is the fact that the rest of the league is competitive, with the relegation battle and the race for Europe being very closely fought. What this means is that, whilst Bala Town, Bangor City and Connah’s Quay all look the most likely to challenge for the title next season, another club could end up causing an upset. There is still plenty to play for this season, but next season is shaping up to be very interesting for all the right reasons.
‘Who can challenge The New Saints for the coveted Welsh Premier League trophy?’
Photo Credit- Carmarthen Town AFC
Photo available from: http://carmarthentownafc.co.uk/index.php/pages/league-table