Mark Pitman takes in a much-needed victory for Port Talbot Town in the Welsh Premier League.
It has been an experimental season in the Principality Welsh Premier League with the reduction to twelve clubs coinciding with mid-season split and an end of season play-off for the last UEFA Europa League place. For Port Talbot Town the euphoria of confirming a place in the top half of the table in time for the split was followed by a unwanted but significant line in the fixture calendar that was eventually scrapped on the last weekend of the season.
Since the mid-season split, Port Talbot Town had managed six draws and three defeats as they went into the last match of the season against South Wales rivals Llanelli at the impressive Stebonheath. Manager Mark Jones side had last experienced a Welsh Premier League victory in January, but with a crucial match at Prestatyn in the play-off approaching, a confidence boosting win to take into the match was a necessity and not just a bonus.
The string of recent defeats had been just as frustrating for the loyal and vociferous fans that follow the side across Wales each week as it had been for Jones and his players. With one match remaining to claim a victory, it was decided that the match at Llanelli would double-up as the supporters end of season party, and alternative transport in the form of the train was confirmed as part of the pre-match build-up. Wetherspoons provided breakfast, beer and a base to discuss tactics for the day ahead as a dozen fans began their journey to Llanelli.
Many events in the Welsh Premier League are compared to the good old days of football in this era of the Premier League and it’s overpaid superstars. From supporters of both sides meeting for a drink before the match to the often limited numbers swapping ends at half-time to watch their side attack. Old-fashioned grounds are often criticised but offer far more charm than the identikit stadiums of the professional game. One comparison that has yet to be made however occurred on Saturday, as Port Talbot Town defender Lloyd Grist was already on the train travelling to the ground as the dozen away fans boarded at Port Talbot International.
Players using public transport alongside the fans is reminiscent of football in the 1950′s. There have been modern exceptions but they are few and far between and the most recent in the professional game have been for commercial gain rather than convenience. Dutch legend Edgar Davids apparently caught a train during his time at Crystal Palace for an away match at Scunthorpe and former Spurs manager Christian Gross travelled to White Hart Lane on the tube following his appointment. Meanwhile, Thierry Henry pulled off a similar stunt by arriving for his New York Bulls debut on the train, just like Lloyd Grist.
Henry did receive a little bit more attention than Grist, despite the Port Talbot left-back hardly being an inconspicuous figure wearing his club tracksuit and carrying an oversized kitbag. Grist was soon the target of some alcohol-fuelled praise however as the fans boarded for Stebonheath and to witness their sides first win since January. A pub-crawl from the train station to the ground ensured that the visiting fans arrived in good voice and also significantly boosted awareness of their football club to the people of Llanelli, many of which had struggled to even offer directions to Stebonheath.
Llanelli 2-3 Port Talbot Town - Principality Welsh Premier League – Saturday, 30th April 2011
Llanelli went into the match with the distraction of the upcoming Challenge Cup Final just two days later and named an experimental side while Port Talbot Town manager Mark Jones elected to name a strong starting line-up as his side went in search of a confidence boosting win. Jones himself would watch the game from the stand as he served the first game of his two match touchline ban while his opposite number Andy Legg decided against naming himself in his sides eleven.
The main Welsh Premier League focus of the day was at Farrar Road as Bangor City and The New Saints would meet to decide the league title. A win for Bangor City would hand them the title over their opponents and closest rivals while TNS needed just a draw to retain their title. Llanelli also had a very keen interest in the fixture though as a win for Bangor City would confirm the Reds a place in the next seasons UEFA Europa League.
Port Talbot started the better of the two sides but it was Llanelli who took a 9th minute lead when striker Rhys Griffiths capitalised on some good work between Chris Holloway and Jordan Follows to score against his former club. Port Talbot soon settled back into the game and created a string of half-chances but could not find the elusive equaliser. Griffiths limped out of the match on 30 minutes with an injury that would keep him out Monday’s final, but his side held on to the lead at the break.
With Bangor City being held by The New Saints at Farrar Road, Llanelli received further disappointment three minutes after the re-start when the train-travelling Lloyd Grist was brought down in the area by Llanelli assistant-manager Steve Jenkins. Luke Bowen stepped up to convert from the spot to level the score and the goal signalled the start of a significant period of pressure for Port Talbot Town, and in particular, defender Lee Surman.
Surman has been a one-club man since signing for Port Talbot Town following his release from Swansea City as a youngster back in 2005. Now in his seventh season at the club, Surman had before Saturday made 184 Welsh Premier League starts for the club that had brought a return of five goals. His best form in front of goal came in 2007-2008 when he scored twice during the course of the season. On his 185th league appearance however, the former Wales Under-23 Semi-Pro captain scored twice in a seven-minute spell to put his side 3-1 ahead and with it match his best season in the scoring charts. Surman has a history of scoring at Stebonheath, and the West Wales club have a history of trying to sign him, but his two goals now appeared to have put Port Talbot Town on-course for a much-needed win.
But for all their dominance, Port Talbot Town did concede on 82 minutes when young striker Adam Orme capitalised on an opportunity to score a consolation goal. The substitute had replaced Rhys Griffiths in the opening half and did his growing reputation no harm with his second Welsh Premier League goal of the season. It was the second celebration in a short space of time for the home side, as despite trailing for a long period of the second half, Bangor City had taken the lead at Farrar Road.
And so that was how it finished at both games. Port Talbot Town claimed the victory that they had craved since January and will now take on Prestatyn Town on the back of a 3-2 win. Bangor City had claimed their first Welsh Premier League title since 1995 with a 1-0 win over The New Saints in front of a capacity crowd at Farrar Road and with it had guaranteed Llanelli European football once again next season. The fans of Port Talbot Town followed their tracks back to the train station, at a significantly slower pace than they had arrived, while Lloyd Grist, we can only assume, took a more conventional mode of footballers transport home.
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