WELSH PREMIER FOOTBALL

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Lee TrundleMark Pitman reports from Neath's 2-2 draw with The New Saints at The Gnoll last Friday.

A POPULAR football phrase for a flash of on the field brilliance before it was replaced with modern day Sky nonsense such as ‘take a bow, son’ or ‘unbelievable tekkers’ is the more traditional ‘that was worth the admission price alone’ or variations thereof. Neath invested in their own brand of tekker-potential in the summer with the signing of Lee Trundle headlining the arrival of a number of former Football League stars with significant Swansea City connections, and while the flashes of brilliance have been few and far between, a new initiative by the South Wales club seems set to backfire spectacularly.

A common debate in the English Premier League revolves around the fact that the everyday football fan is being priced out of the game by the greed of their clubs. From over-priced merchandise to four-figure season tickets, the revenue streams at Britain’s biggest clubs play a significant part in the young players from across the world becoming very rich, very soon. The average fan in the street resents the exploitation but the worldwide interest of the Premier League means there is a constant stream of revenue. Interestingly, the Principality Welsh Premier League acknowledged this growing resentment, and used it in their marketing campaign at the start of the season.

“No inflated ticket prices” and “No overpaid superstars” screamed the posters at the launch of the new ‘Super-12’ league. The profile was further increased when Neath stepped-up their big spending by bringing in Trundle and company, leaving the “No overpaid superstars” slogan a little dated as rumours over the weekly wage bill at The Gnoll became the talk of the Welsh Premier League. The club remained well aware that they would need the support of the town if their ambitious project was to succeed however and admission prices remained at the league average of £7 with discounts available for Swansea City season-ticket holders as they attempted to tap into the potential a new market of fans that were quickly gaining an interest in the club through the arrival of Lee Trundle and his former Swansea City team-mates.

That all changed on Friday night however. With champions The New Saints the visitors to The Gnoll for a vitally important match for both clubs, Neath decided to break a Welsh Premier League record and hiked up the admission to £10, the highest ever amount charged by a club in the history of the league. To non-league regulars across Britain this may not seem excessive, to regular Blue Square watchers it may even appear quite reasonable, but in the Welsh Premier League such actions are significantly frowned upon and despite the attraction of the fixture, over two-hundred less than the clubs average gate were in attendance as a reported 421 took their seats to take in the match.

Lee Trundle has been criticised in some circles for his contribution, or lack of it, for Neath in the majority of games this season. Within minutes of the kick off however a neat bit of showboating (another tekker-style Sky induced phrase) set up Chad Bond for the first chance of the game. Neath enjoyed the better of the initial exchanges, but the full-time professionals of The New Saints soon settled into the match and adapted to a surface desperately in need of a rest. The visitors began to dominate and focused on using their pace upfront against the lack of it in the Neath defence but would not take the lead until the 40th minute. Impressive winger Chris Jones knocked a fine ball from the right into the area where an unmarked Chris Sharp showed that he has indeed inherited some of the quality of his Everton and Scotland-legend father Graeme with a well-placed header past goalkeeper Lee Idzi.

The New Saints were deservedly ahead at the break and with the turnstiles now open a number of spectators originally turned off by the £10 admission 45 minutes earlier made their way into the ground to take in the second half. Once again Neath attempted to turn people away with their choice of blaring half-time music but a significantly improved crowd took their place for the second half while those who had witnessed the first were left to wonder why the visitors were not further infront having dominated for so long.

But then Neath have quality and experience in their ranks, and while it is not consistently apparent, when they do click together they are a match for any side in the league. Within nine minutes of the re-start referee Dean John awarded Neath a free-kick on the edge of the area and it was Lee Trundle who took hold of the ball. With the wall in-place and goalkeeper Paul Harrison sufficiently covering all angles, a moment of magic from the daps himself saw him curl a low shot around the wall and inside Harrison’s near post. The scores were level and Neath were starting to play on a par with their expectations.

Their form continued as The New Saints struggled to make any sort of impact in the home sides half. Harrison had to be at his best to deny Chad Bond and the impressive Chris Jones while Trundle enjoyed another moment of magic that brought back memories of his best days in front of the Vetch Field’s North Bank as he weaved his way through six opponents before eventually being dispossessed. Minutes later Trundle hit the post with a superb strike and on 72 minutes he was brought down in the area by goalkeeper Harrison as The New Saints began to tire of his dominating performance.

Referee Dean John correctly pointed to the spot with few complaints from the visitors but Neath were soon incensed as John only produced a yellow card for Harrison when the keeper should have been sent off. Despite the protests, Harrison took his place in goal as Trundle stepped up and made no mistake with a well-taken penalty to put his side in front. It seemed as if Neath would now cruise to victory. The New Saints made changes but they only added to Neath’s dominance as midfielder Barry Hogan struggled to keep possession and striker Matthew Berkeley failed to make any sort of impact.

On 88 minutes however everything changed. A speculative long-range effort from Scott Ruscoe caught goalkeeper Lee Idzi short and the ball crept into the corner of the net to hand The New Saints an equaliser. Undeserved in the second half but probably a fair result overall given the chances they created but failed to take in the first, the visitors had snatched a share of the points from what was an entertaining contest, unfortunately not witnessed by as many people as usual at The Gnoll. Neath’s performance in the second half was up there with their best of the season, but was it worth the admission price? That’s another story.

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30 March 2017

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