WELSH PREMIER FOOTBALL

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Kim Bowley

AFAN Lido's return to the Welsh Premier is welcome news, writes Mark Pitman.

ON Wednesday night Afan Lido confirmed their return to the Welsh Premier League with a 2-1 victory at Welsh League rivals West End.

The achievement of reaching 64 points with two games remaining was matched off the field as the club successfully appealed against the decision not to grant them the FAW domestic licence at the first inspection, but their success on both fronts will also be welcome news for the Welsh Football League, as the Lido become one of just three clubs to gain promotion from the South Wales feeder league in over a decade.

The reduction of teams in the Welsh Premier League significantly strengthened the North Wales feeder league as established clubs such as GAP Connah's Quay, Caersws, Cefn Druids, Porthmadog and recent champions Rhyl amongst others stepped down into the lower levels of the Welsh game. The demands of domestic licensing led to a popular consensus that clubs in the North would have a far better chance of gaining promotion than their South Wales equivalents. By October, those wishing to apply for promotion to the Welsh Premier League had submitted their intentions, but disappointingly only eight clubs across the two feeder leagues elected to apply. Unsurprisingly the majority were from the North as only three clubs from the South put themselves forward. Barry Town, Bridgend Town joining Afan Lido in showing that ambition does remain in the Welsh League.

Achieving the FAW domestic licence is one of the biggest hurdles that clubs in the feeder leagues have to contend with but on the field issues are also taken into account and in order to be considered for promotion the successfully licensed club must win their respective division or finish runners-up if the champions are not eligible to make the step-up. In what initially seemed a creditable boost for the Welsh football pyramid, GAP Connah's Quay won the Cymru Alliance league in the North ahead of their appeal against the original decision to reject their domestic licence application, while Afan Lido, also waiting on the result of an appeal, were nicely placed in second in the South Wales equivalent.

If both clubs had won their appeals, and confident noises emerged from the two as the appeal date approached, the Welsh Premier League would welcome one club from each feeder league for the first time since 2003-2004 when Llanelli and Airbus UK both earned themselves a place in the top-flight. Unfortunately, there would be huge disappointment for GAP Connah's Quay as a controversial decision discussed further in my previous blog - The winners and losers of paperwork promotion - denied them promotion. But a successful appeal left Afan Lido just a couple of wins away from promotion with three games remaining before nearest rivals for second place, Cambrian & Clydach, dropped points in two games to leave Lido just a point away from confirming their return to the Welsh Premier League as they went into Wednesday's match at West End.

A strong and experienced starting line-up meant that nothing would be left to chance for the potentially difficult match at mid-table West End. The Pryderi Park surface is traditionally difficult and the Swansea-side boast as much local pride for Townhill and the surrounding areas as the Lido have for theirs. The victory and subsequent promotion would be achieved by Lido handling the pressure of the occasion rather than measuring up against the ability of their opponents, and a header from defender Ryan Morgan after 10 minutes eased the nerves as Lido took the lead.

Controversy followed before the break as West End equalised. The assistant flagged for offside but was overruled by the man in the middle much to the frustration of the Lido players, management and supporters. A point would be enough for Lido but three would lead to a much more relaxed performance in the second half. A nervy second half followed with the scores level, but relief and euphoria arrived on 89 minutes when substitute Scott McCoubrey put Lido in front to effectively seal promotion at the expense of Haverfordwest County, the bottom club in the Welsh Premier League.

Afan LidoAfan Lido were themselves relegated from the Welsh Premier League at the end of the 2004-2005 season, the sad twist being that it was exactly a decade after the club had qualified for Europe. The relegation was not without controversy as the club were docked points for fielding an ineligible player as defender Leigh Shrimpton featured for the side despite being sent off during a local Sunday League match. Cefn Druids eventually finished a point ahead of Lido but six wins throughout the season told its own story and Lido were relegated as a result of a poor season on the field as much as they were from an administrative error.

It was a sad end to one of the Welsh Premier League founder clubs who had been one of its great success stories. The attention of the town's football public was slowly but surely turning towards local rivals Port Talbot Town at the time of the clubs relegation as the recently promoted club began to firmly establish themselves in the league. With the two clubs based just a couple of streets apart, there are firm connections between the two, with the majority of players from the town having played for one or often both clubs at some point in their careers. The elevation of Port Talbot Town to the Welsh Premier League in 2000 signalled the start of Lido's eventual demise, but the competition it brought also had huge benefits for both clubs and it is that intensity that makes Lido's latest return so important for football in the town as a whole.

Afan Lido made an immediate impression on the previously named League of Wales following its inception in 1992. The club twice lifted the League Cup and in 1994-1995 the club secured a place in the UEFA Cup by finishing as runners-up in the league. It was a tremendous achievement for a club that was only formed in 1967 and competed in the local divisions before their emergence through the ranks of the Welsh football pyramid in the seventies and eighties. The club, led by the still influential figure of Phil Robinson, recognised the potential of junior and youth football in the area and the legacy of that vision remains as strong today as ever before as hundreds of youngsters play football under the umbrella of Afan Lido every weekend.

It was that local community spirit that galvanised the successful team of the 1990's as the side entered the UEFA Cup with almost a full team of Port Talbot-based players in their ranks. Local businessman and goalkeeper in their early League of Wales years, Andrew Edwards, doubled-up as the clubs Chairman during this period of success, and he would eventually move on to emulate the achievement of bringing European football to the town as the Chairman of rivals Port Talbot in 2010. The European adventure of 1995 lasted just one round as the club were defeated at home 2-1 by Latvian side RAF Riga in the 1st leg match played at the home of Aberavon Rugby Club in front of over 2,000 people. Only half as many fans were present for the return leg in Riga but the club achieved a 0-0 draw, the first time a team from the league had not been defeated away from home in European competition.

Off the field problems followed that season and the club were eventually relegated along with South Wales rivals Llanelli in 1996. It marked a significant season for the club but also a significant change as new personnel arrived on and off the field, although the club remained as dominant in the local community as it always has and retained its foundations for a better future. In 1998, the club finished runners-up in the Welsh League behind Ton Pentre and gained promotion back into the top-flight. Two years later they would be joined in the league by the then-named Port Talbot Athletic who had risen up from the lower levels of the Welsh pyramid under the guidance of former Afan Lido Chairman Andrew Edwards. Both clubs competed in the league together for the next five seasons, but the most significant part of the rivalry was the competition between the two.

As the two sides competed in the league, both benefited financially from the now infamous derby games between the two clubs. Usually held over Christmas, New Year or the Easter holidays, both clubs regularly came close to welcoming a thousand fans to their respective grounds when the two sides met. The football on offer did not disappoint either, with local pride and passion often resulting in controversy and red cards for the partisan fans. As the intensity of the derby games grew to 'El Clasico' proportions, both clubs realised the importance of success in the twice-annual event and as a result strived to make sure their squad was stronger than their rivals as the domestic season progressed.

The rivalry raged in 2004 when Andrew Edwards proposed a merger between the two clubs to unify their qualities and build a stronger to club to compete against the North Wales power-shift that had become evident in the league. The idea brought fiercely mixed reactions from officials and supporters of both sides but the idea was eventually rejected by Afan Lido to the delight of the majority of people canvassed. The reaction to the proposal was clear evidence of the local pride and passion that football can generate in the Port Talbot community and how important the individuality of both clubs mean to its football public.

Relegation in 2005 left Port Talbot Town searching for a new rival in the Welsh Premier League and while recent contests against Llanelli and Neath have proved memorable, they have lacked the same local pride that the town embraced when the two Port Talbot sides met in competitive action. Afan Lido are now back and have achieved their success with a mix of Welsh Premier League experience in the form of players such as Craig Hanford, Karl Lewis, Chris Pridham and Kristian James and even Football League experience in Andrew Mumford to compliment impressive youngsters like strikers Mark Jones, Nathan White and the pacey Corey Thomas. The management team of Vince Lewis, Kim Bowley (pictured) and Mark Robinson have made the ambitions of chairman Sean McCreesh a reality while off the field the achievement of the FAW domestic licence shows the club have a solid structure to take into their Welsh Premier League return.

The club have consistently shown their credentials for a return to the top-flight during their latest spell in the Welsh League however. In 2007 they reached the Welsh Cup Final, enjoying a derby victory at Port Talbot Town at the quarter-final stage along the way before an eventual defeat to Carmarthen Town in the final, while all the time continuing to produce a regular supply of local talent through their emphasis on youth and junior football. Lido also enjoyed domestic success in the Welsh League Cup, winning the trophy on penalties in 2009. The club continued to re-structure and build off the field, and the benefits of their actions have played a vital part in their return to the Welsh Premier League.

Afan Lido now join a very different Welsh Premier League to the one that they left however. The traditional composition of eighteen clubs has now been reduced to twelve and as a result the local pride factor will be far more evident. The league is comprised of clubs from all over Wales, but now the town of Port Talbot can boast two out of the twelve clubs. Competition for fans will be as intense as competition for players, but some forward-thinking fixture planning should mean that local football fans will be able to show their support for both clubs throughout the campaign. Since Afan Lido were last in the top-flight, their neighbours Port Talbot Town have also brought European football to the community, but the emergence of other South Wales clubs such as Neath and Llanelli and their respective financial advantages have made the league extremely competitive and the Lido will have to adapt very quickly to the significant rise in quality.

As important a part as Afan Lido have played in the Welsh League over the last five seasons, the feeder league can take great pride from the fact that a club from their set-up has passed the stringent licensing criteria to become the first club to gain promotion into the reduced Welsh Premier League. Port Talbot Town can now welcome back their local rivals and the return of the competitive intensity that has been missing from their South Wales derby games for too long while the Welsh Premier League welcome back a founder-member club at a time when off the field controversy from the FAW has left some clubs questioning their future in the league. Most importantly however, Afan Lido welcome back top-flight football to The Marston's Stadium, and football in the town as a whole will be the better for it.
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