The Greek fabulist Aesop was attributed to the famous old fable of the hare and the tortoise and a new re-enactment of the story has evolved from the current Principality Welsh Premier League season. The modern-day comparison reached a poignant stage in the story last week when The New Saints overtook, and then extended their lead, over Bangor City at the top of the table without breaking a sweat while their rivals continued to reacted to letting go a one-time sixteen point lead by further losing ground on their consistent professional rivals with yet another defeat.
The title race began back in August as Bangor City took the proverbial approach of the hare by incredibly winning their opening fifteen league games as their rivals, as steady but also as slow as the hare’s opposing tortoise, dropped four points from their opening five games as the Welsh Premier League began its new-look campaign with results that justified its claim of being the most competitive season in the league’s history. Included in Bangor City’s run of fifteen wins was a 4-3 win over The New Saints, but for all the potential of their flying start, The New Saints have moved into the crucial part of the campaign with the advantage and now look favourites to retain their title of league champions.
Following a run of three games without victory, Bangor City welcomed Port Talbot Town to Farrar Road on Friday, 25th March in a match that would offer The New Saints the title advantage if the home sides dismal run of form should to continue. With the match moving into injury-time, goals from Alan Bull and Darren Moss had helped put Bangor City 2-1 ahead. A great strike from Lloyd Grist for the visitors then beat goalkeeper Paul Smith and was celebrated as much at Park Hall as it was in the Port Talbot Town dugout. The New Saints remained three points behind Bangor City, but their game in hand would take place the following Tuesday, when they made the journey to Stebonheath to take on former league champions Llanelli.
Llanelli 0-2 The New Saints - Principality Welsh Premier League – Tuesday 29th March 2011
Attendances have been a cause for serious concern at Stebonheath this season but with no televised football distractions and the visit of the champions this Tuesday night fixture offered the potential of a deserved increase in support for Andy Legg’s much-improved side. Sadly, only 182 found the attraction of Welsh Premier League football in their town worth attending, as the two sides took to the field in the light rain that has also become an all-too familiar consistent at Stebonheath this season.
The two sides noticeably stuck to their attacking ideals from the start with both managers opting to keep their attacking players high up the field and an open game proved entertaining for the sparse crowd in the early exchanges. The New Saints showed the benefits that full-time training can add to a teams passing game as they opened up the home defence only to be denied by the assistant’s flag, while Llanelli were able to offer an effective reply on the counter-attack. The opening goal arrived on 17 minutes when a cross from influential Saints winger Richie Partridge was turned into his own net by Kris Thomas. The goal was harsh on Llanelli but its value meant that The New Saints were a step closer to moving above Bangor City, and every other team in the Welsh Premier League, for the first time since September.
On 29 minutes the lead was doubled when Chris Sharp and eventual goalscorer Craig Jones combined despite offside appeals form the infuriated home side for what would surprisingly be the last goal of the game. Llanelli maintained their attacking values as they went in search of a goal before the break but striker Rhys Griffiths, awarded before the game for his recent achievement of scoring his 200th club goal, rounded goalkeeper Paul Harrison before shooting wide despite the goal opening up in front of his well-created chance.
The New Saints relied on some last-ditch defending and some fine goalkeeping to maintain their advantage in the second-half as Llanelli continued to pressure the visitors. As the possibility of taking something from the match drifted further away from the home side however the chances became few and far between and The New Saints comfortably held on to claim the three points and move them above Bangor City. The champions were back in the throne, their noses ahead after six-months of playing catch-up on their challengers.
Port Talbot Town 0-0 The New Saints - Principality Welsh Premier League – Saturday, 2nd April 2011
Bangor City had lost their advantage at the top with a draw against Port Talbot Town, but a similar result against the same opponents a week later only further extended The New Saints lead. The reason being that Bangor City had again dropped points the night before with a home defeat against Prestatyn Town. It was the fifth game in succession that Nev Powell’s side had failed to win, and the second consecutive match that they had been reduced to ten men, as ill discipline coincided with the frustrations of their league form.
With the opportunity to make a significant step forward in retaining their title, The New Saints enjoyed the better of the game at a ground where they have enjoyed little success in recent seasons. Since the mid-season split, Port Talbot Town have earned creditable draws against The New Saints, Neath, Llanelli and Bangor City, and this latest point would be another point gained rather than two dropped for Mark Jones side. On-loan Swansea City goalkeeper David Cornell was the busier of the two as he saved from The New Saints Aeron Edwards and Matty Williams, although Kye Edwards and Luke Bowen could have also put the home side in front before half-time.
With a disappointing 205 in attendance at The GenQuip Stadium for the visit of the champions and league leaders, questions over the interest of Welsh Premier League football in South Wales must be asked, as two visits of this seasons UEFA Champions League competitors in less than a week failed to attract 400 people between both Llanelli and Port Talbot Town. The figure even becomes significantly less the number of people that did actually attend both is taken into consideration.
The second half saw Port Talbot Town enjoy longer periods of possession and Luke Bowen again came close but squandered his chance by shooting high and wide. Early substitute Matthew Berkeley, wearing a continental number 99 shirt, offered The New Saints a different option in attack after replacing Richie Partridge in the opening half but it was defender Tommy Holmes that would hit the post for the visitors with a header with minutes remaining. Port Talbot Town had already missed their best chance minutes before when substitute Craig Jones made space for himself in the area but could only place his shot wide of the post. Referee Wayne Stephens brought the game to a close to leave Port Talbot Town the happier of the two sides to take a share of the points, but also to extend The New Saints lead at the top of the table, despite them failing to score for the first time since October.
With four games remaining for both sides and The New Saints enjoying a one point advantage on top of their superior goal difference, the two teams now take a break from league action and will turn their attentions this weekend to the Welsh Cup. Holders Bangor City take on Cymru Alliance side GAP Connah’s Quay while The New Saints must claim another victory over Llanelli if they are to earn a place in the prestigious final at Parc-y-Scarlets. The league title remains top priority for both clubs however as its on the field rewards are matched by the off the field riches generated from the UEFA Champions League place on offer to the eventual winners.
Bangor City were quick out of the blocks but after five games without a victory they appear to have reached the stage in Aesop’s fable where the hare, complacent in his lead over the tortoise, takes a nap before reaching the finish line. Like the tortoise, The New Saints remained quietly confident despite the early loss of ground, and their steady but consistent progress, inspired by their professional approach, appears to have caught up with their challengers at a crucial stage in the title race and punished a conveniently mad-March for the proverbial hare that is Bangor City. The title race is not yet over, but The New Saints have the finish line firmly in their sights.
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