While the rest of European football shuts down for a well-earned break at Christmas time there is no such luxury in the United Kingdom. It has long been a traditional within the Home Nations to continue over the festive period and this season will should see some interesting action.
In England there is the very real possibility of the top two teams pushing away from all the rest to indulge in their own private dual to win the Barclays Premier League. Manchester City (Played 17, Points 44) will top the standings on Christmas Day for the first time since 1929 but they only have a two point advantage over arch-rivals United who, as usual at this time of year, are peaking are just the right time. Having trailed City by seven points only a few weeks ago, United are now breathing down their neighbours’ necks and have dropped only two points out of the last 24 available since they suffered an embarrassing 6-1 at the hands of City in the Manchester derby.
City will hope to preserve their place at the top but will face tough challenges against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns on Boxing Day followed by a home tie against a Sunderland team revitalized since Martin O’Neill became their manager a fortnight ago. Roberto Mancin’s men have done well to remain at the top given all of the antics happening on and off the field. The Carlos Tevez saga has annoyed and bored everybody in equal measure whilst Mario Balotelli remains a constant source of fascination whether he is setting off fireworks in his home United, meanwhile, will play two home games, both of which look very winnable on paper. Wigan Athletic have taken points from both Chelsea and Liverpool in their last two games but recent history suggests that the Latics will do very well to take anything off United as the Lancashire side have lost every game against United in thirteen matches since they came into the Premier League in 2005. Blackburn Rovers are the visitors to Old Trafford on New Year’s Eve with Rovers fans’ campaign to get rid of their coach Steve Kean likely to take up the headlines going into that match.
In case either of the Manchester teams slip up Tottenham Hotspur are still the best placed team to take advantage despite their 1-1 draw at home to Chelsea FC on Thursday night. Spurs face two of last season’s three promoted sides in the form of Norwich City and Swansea City over the festive period. Three-time Premier League champions Chelsea hope to maintain their top four ambitions with wins in the local derby at home to Fulham FC and against struggling Aston Villa. Just outside of the Champions League places Arsenal FC have two home games against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Queens Park Rangers whilst Liverpool, who have had to contend with recent allegations of racism towards star player Luis Suarez, also have two home games with Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United providing the opposition. Nothing less than six points will do for the Reds who have struggled for consistency and dropped too many points against teams they should’ve beaten this season. If Kenny Dalglish’s men are to challenge for the Champions League spots then they really need to start a good run from here.
In Scotland defending champions Glasgow Rangers (Played 19, Points 48) have an early kick off today away to St Mirren with three points essential if the Gers are to at least preserve their current four point lead going into next Wednesday’s Old Firm derby against eternal rivals Glasgow Celtic. Neil Lennon’s Celtic side have a home tie against sixth placed Kilmarnock today with the former having enjoyed a run of seven straight wins following a tough start to the season. Old Firm games always have something riding on them and Wednesday’s encounter will be no exception. The first meeting between Rangers and Celtic this season saw the former etch out a 4-2 win over the latter after Celtic had led the game 2-1 at half-time. Celtic, however, will have home advantage next time and go into the game in better form. Even so coach Lennon must prove that this is a Celtic team that will be capable of taking the champions all the way in this season’s title race following a three year title drought at Parkhead.
Outside of the Old Firm, Motherwell have had a great season under Stuart McCall and they hope to continue their impressive form with wins against Heart of Midlothian, who have been beset by internal upheaval with players in dispute over unpaid wages throughout the season, and Dunfermline who are currently bottom of the table on goal difference with Edinburgh side Hibernian just above them on goal difference. Speaking of Hibs they will face local rivals Heart of Midlothian in the capital city derby on January 2nd in a game neither club dare lose given their current predicaments.
In the Welsh Premier League there is currently an exciting tussle at the top with the best three sides – Llanelli AFC, The New Saints and Bangor City – all separated by just two points. With just two games left before the twelve team league is split up into two groups of six it is imperative for clubs to see out 2011 on a high. League leaders Llanelli (Played 20, Points 45) will face off home and away against fourth place Neath Athletic, who are ten points behind the league leaders, whilst The New Saints and defending champions Bangor City will also face double headers against Newtown and Prestatyn Town respectively.
In Northern Ireland table toppers Linfield FC (Played 22, Points 52) have a five point lead over Portadown and Cliftonville going into the festive period. Record champions Linfield, who won their 50th championship last season, will meet fifth placed Glentoran and ninth placed Glenavon over the next seven days. Should Linfield slip up then Portadown and Cliftonville will be looking to close the gap. Portadown, whose last league title came in 2002, have games against Glenavon and sixth placed Crusaders to look forward to whilst Cliftonville, whose most recent title triumph came in 1998, meet Crusaders and fourth placed Coleraine FC.
All of the four major championships in the United Kingdom are under way for the 2011-12 season. The big kick-off took place in the English and Welsh Premier Leagues on Saturday whilst the Northern Irish championship and Scottish Premier Leagues are two and four weeks old respectively.
It may only be the opening weekend but The Barclays Premier League saw, just like in previous seasons, yet another round of games in which champions Manchester United enjoyed a late win whilst many of their title rivals dropped points to lesser teams. Sir Alex Ferguson’s United were being held 1-1 by West Bromwich Albion before a Steven Reid own goal gave the Red Devils three points with eight minutes remaining. This happened on a weekend in which Chelsea (0-0 v Stoke City), Arsenal (0-0 v Newcastle United) and Liverpool (1-1 v Sunderland) all faltered early on to ensure that the Premier League kept up its tendency to allow perennial champions United the opportunity to take advantage of opposition ineptitude. Bolton Wanderers take the plaudits for their 4-0 thrashing away to newly-promoted Queen’s Park Rangers whilst Wolverhampton Wanderers came from behind to defeat Blackburn Rovers 2-1 at Ewood Park. There were opening day draws for Fulham (0-0 v Aston Villa) and Wigan Athletic (1-1 v Norwich City) whilst Manchester City begin their campaign at home to Swansea City on Monday night. The game between Tottenham Hotspur and Everton, scheduled to be played at White Hart Lane on Saturday, was postponed due to the recent rioting that affected the area last week.
The Welsh Premier League also began this weekend with a win for the champions Bangor City. In a highly entertaining game Bangor gained some revenge for their Welsh Cup final defeat last season to Llanelli AFC by defeating the same opponents by three goals to two. Alan Bull scored twice including the winner in the 85th minute to ensure that the champions got off to winning ways. The biggest winners of the opening weekend were Neath Athletic for whom Lee Trundle scored twice in a 4-2 win over Aberystwyth Town. Elsewhere the other two teams enjoying a winning start to the new season were Newtown AFC (1-0 v Carmarthen Town) and Prestatyn Town (1-0 v Afan Lido) whilst five-time champions The New Saints could only draw 1-1 to Bala Town which was the same score line seen at the Airbus UK versus Port Talbot Town fixture.
The Carling Premiership sees familiar faces at the top of the table with both Linfield FC and Glentoran FC as the only teams to enjoy a 100% record after two matches. Defending title holders Linfield FC put five past Donegal Celtic this weekend with Philip Lowry getting on the score sheet four times in their 5-0 win. Glentoran FC scored both goals in their 2-0 win over Dungannon Swifts in the first half as an Adam McMinn own goal and Darren Boyce strike sealed the three points for the home side. Elsewhere Ballymena United and Cliftonville followed up opening day wins with closely fought draws with the former involved in a thrilling 3-3 at home to Glenavon and the latter saw a first half lead equalized midway through the second half by a Leon Knight goal in a 1-1 draw.
The Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League began a couple of weeks early this season and, having played four matches so far, Motherwell FC are currently enjoying life at the top of the table. They sealed their third win of the season this Saturday when defeating St Mirren 1-0 thanks to a Tom Hateley free-kick in the penultimate minute of the match. Both of the Old Firm also enjoyed wins as Glasgow Celtic thrashed Dundee United 5-1 while Glasgow Rangers made hard work of a 2-0 win away at Inverness Caledonian Thistle. With the Old Firm having a game in hand Motherwell may not find themselves in first place for very long. At the bottom of the table Aberdeen FC find themselves struggling along with Inverness and Perth-based St Johnstone as the only clubs in the league without a win. It is a blow for former Scotland coach Craig Brown who left Motherwell FC in controversial circumstances last season to take up the job at Pittodrie which has become something of a poisoned chalice in recent seasons.
All four championships of the United Kingdom have been completed for another season. Stoppage Time – International Football Blog reviews the situation in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Manchester United finally broke the stranglehold of their arch-rivals Liverpool FC and won a record 19th English championship thanks to a combination of some late-winners and ineptitude of their fellow title challengers. The Red Devils were unbeaten for their first 24 matches of the Premier League season despite the fact that they played far from free-flowing football but the team’s spirit allowed them to remain at the top of the table for most of the season. Manchester City, forever living in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbours, finally had a trophy to show for their efforts as they defeated Stoke City in the English FA Cup final. Chelsea FC, who were defending the title at the start of the season, started superbly but saw their form dip from November into the early weeks of the new year and allowed North London rivals Arsenal FC to overtake them as United’s main challengers. However Arsene Wenger’s men also collapsed in a manner which used to befit the English national cricket team as they saw their chances of winning four trophies in one season reduced to dust in the last couple of months and they finished the season empty-handed. Tottenham Hotspur pipped Liverpool FC into fifth place and the final UEFA Europa League spot but both teams will consider the season to have been a disappointing one. At the other end of the table West Ham United lost their first four games of the campaign and remained rooted to the bottom of the league all season. Birmingham City, who defeated Arsenal FC in the Carling League Cup final, also drop into the Championship (2nd tier) next season along with Blackpool FC.
WATCH MANCHESTER UNITED DRESSING ROOM CELEBRATIONS HERE:
It was a troubled season in the Scottish Premier League but, despite the negative headlines which affected Scottish football in the last few months, there was a fantastic title chase between the two Old Firm giants. Glasgow Rangers finally managed to clinch a world record extending 54th domestic championship on the final day of the season when their 5-1 victory away at Kilmarnock saw them over the line. Outgoing manager Walter Smith leaves the club having won his tenth SPL title with the Ibrox club and will go down as a club legend, especially as he also sealed a double triumph having beaten arch-rivals Glasgow Celtic to the CIS Insurance League Cup in a tense Hampden Park final in March. At least the green and white half of Glasgow had some silverware of their own to celebrate as they won the end of season showpiece Scottish FA Cup final with a 3-0 win over Motherwell, allowing manager Neil Lennon the chance to reward the loyal fans who had stood behind him during difficult times. Outside the Old Firm Hearts of Midlothian showed signs of a title challenge in the early months of the season which, sadly for them, evaporated as the season progressed but at least the Edinburgh club could claim to be the “best of the rest” finishing third in the table. They will play in the UEFA Europa League next season along with fourth place Dundee United whilst, at the bottom of the table, Hamilton Academicals will go down into the First Division (2nd tier) next season.
WATCH GLASGOW RANGERS TITLE CELEBRATIONS HERE:
The Welsh Premier League had a final day title decider which was worthy of the name. With just a single point separating them, Bangor City and defending champions The New Saints would face off on the final day at the former’s Farrar Road stadium to decide the destination of the title. Bangor City scraped a 1-0 win and claimed their third league title by just two points allowing them the opportunity to compete in next season’s UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds. Bangor City were in line to celebrate a league and cup double for the first time in the club’s history having also reached their fourth consecutive Welsh Cup final but blew their big chance, going down to a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Llanelli AFC which proved to be a maiden Cup triumph for the victors. The New Saints got their hands on the final piece of silverware, winning an exciting Welsh Premier League Cup final against Llanelli by four goals to three. As well as the two victorious cup sides, Neath Athletic will also feature in the UEFA Europa League next season after they won an end-of-season play-off tournament. At the bottom Haverfordwest County look set to drop down into the second tier having only accumulated 19 points in 32 games.
WATCH BANGOR CITY v THE NEW SAINTS TITLE DECIDER HIGHLIGHTS HERE:
There appears to be no stopping Linfield FC at the moment. The dominant force of the Northern Ireland Premiership easily won their 50th championship from nearest challengers Crusaders FC by a gaping margin of eleven points. The latest league triumph was the fifth in the last six years for Linfield who also secured the Irish Cup at the hands of Crusaders winning the final in their Windsor Park home by two goals to one. The League Cup final saw a new name on the trophy as Lisburn Distillery defeated Portadown and, at the very least, allowed somebody else to experience some success. Crusaders, Glentoran and Cliftonville FC will compete in the UEFA Europa League qualifying rounds next season whilst Newry City will find themselves playing second division football in 2011-12 having finished bottom of the table.
WATCH LINFIELD FC v PORTADOWN FC & TITLE CELEBRATIONS HERE:
The Principality Building Society Welsh Premier League, to give its full title, saw a classic last-day title decider on Saturday. Bangor City, whose most recent championship came in 1994-95, were at home to defending champions The New Saints who were narrow favourites to pick up the point they needed to win a sixth league title in just over a decade. At one time Bangor had enjoyed a massive 16 point lead at the top of the standings but in recent weeks TNS looked to have turned things around and could’ve won the title before Saturday’s game. But TNS lost their anti-penultimate match of the season at home to Neath Athletic who, in turn, were defeated days later at their home ground by Bangor City leaving the destiny of the championship wide open going into this match.
I arrived at Farrar Road stadium, just five minutes walk away from Bangor train station, about three hours before kick-off in order to sense the anticipation ahead of this mouth-watering fixture. Speaking of mouth-watering, I headed to the club bar to buy myself a beer and could also have found myself taking advantage of a ticket for the Welsh Cup final – which Bangor City hopes to win for the fourth year in a row against Llanelli AFC this coming Sunday – for an amazingly cheap £5 as there were a stack of tickets on sale. Following the beer I set out to blend in with the locals and buy myself a scarf but, much to my disappointment, there was nobody in the club shop. I asked a nearby steward when it will be open and all he could tell me was that it’d be open “when the merchandising guy turns up”. As much as I tried to coax any more information out of him he was unable to give me a time so I had to settle for the match programme. I returned to the club shop a little under an hour later and the “merchandising guy” had finally arrived. “Do you have any scarves for sale” I asked him; “No we don’t have any” came the reply. Naturally I couldn’t believe how blasé he was about the lack of available merchandise, especially as the club’s biggest game for years was just little more than an hour away, so just decided to walk around the stadium and plan from which section of the stadium I would watch the game.
Kick-off time of 15:30 finally arrived and I had placed myself behind the goal to which the home side would shoot towards in the first half. Bangor City, playing in their traditional all-blue strip, enjoyed the lion’s share of possession but were unable to make the most of their dominance. With only a couple of clear chances in the opening period it was no surprise to see the first half remain goalless. The point would’ve been good for The New Saints and it was clear that they had come to Farrar Road hoping to frustrate their hosts. In the second half Bangor continued to pile the pressure towards the visitors’ goal but it seemed for a while that luck would allude them. I had changed ends for the second half and was watching the game from behind the goal in which Craig Garside would give the hosts the lead in the 68th minute. A throw-in from defender Peter Hoy was flicked on by midfielder Dave Morley and Garside found himself just yards from goal and able to turn the ball home to send most of the 1,700 capacity crowd ecstatic.
Naturally The New Saints had to come out and attack if they were to re-claim the title and they did threaten in the last twenty minutes but the sense of anticipation around the stadium meant that Bangor gave everything to preserve what they had. When the final whistle sounded it prompted a pitch invasion from the home supporters who could finally celebrate their third league championship title. A media scrum ensued as the game was featured live on the Welsh TV station S4/C as well as an assortment of photographers, supporters and yours truly basking in the warm sunshine and the champagne that was in the air following the Bangor team’s victory. As Bangor City coach Neville Powell and his assistant Marc Limbert lifted the championship trophy in the air it was clear that this ever popular management duo had created even bigger names for themselves amongst the home faithful. Bangor City (played 32, points 70) won the title by just two points from The New Saints and now have a chance to win the club’s first ever league and cup double this weekend. It may only be considered one of the smaller leagues but this was a fantastic occasion for Welsh football and one which would’ve graced any other championship in the world.
WATCH BANGOR CITY v THE NEW SAINTS HIGHLIGHTS HERE:
The Welsh Premier League has completed its first stage of the season with all of the twelve teams completing 22 rounds of matches. The league will now be split into two halves with the top six fighting it out for the championship and European places whilst the bottom six hope to avoid the pain of relegation.
Bangor City looked for the most part like they would run away with the title. The two-time Welsh champions started the season with fifteen straight victories and were running away with it before a couple of recent slip-ups, coupled with better form for defending champions The New Saints, has whittled Bangor’s lead at the top to six points having been a massive thirteen at one stage. Nevertheless the signs are good for Bangor who didn’t actually play this weekend but who saw nearest challengers The New Saints surprisingly drop two points away at second bottom Newtown AFC on Saturday. The home side were two goals up through Sean Highdale and Sean Jones after half an hour but the visitors pulled one back nine minutes before half-time thanks to Craig Williams. Just when it seemed the chance of a point would go begging for The New Saints they would ultimately be grateful to Aeron Edwards for restoring parity twelve minutes before the end of the match.
After 22 games played the top six teams – Bangor City, The New Saints, Neath FC, Llanelli AFC, Prestatyn Town and Port Talbot Town – will play each other home and away to determine who will win the Premier League title and get the European spots. The bottom six – Aberystwyth Town, Airbus UK Broughton, Carmarthen Town, Bala Town, Newtown AFC and Haverfordwest County – will face each other home and away to see which two teams will get relegated at the end of the season.
Stoppage Time – International Football Blog has made the relatively short trip to the North Wales town of Prestatyn to take in a game from the Welsh Premier League.
Bastion Gardens, the home of Prestatyn Town Football Club, is a long way away from the great stadiums of the world but then the Welsh Premier League is one of world football’s more modest championships. Initially I was going to go further along the north Wales coast to see Bangor City v Airbus UK Broughton in the Friday night match, a game which featured the top two sides in the league going into Matchday 5, but timing issues and prior commitments forced me to miss that particular contest. Nonetheless as I boarded the train going from Liverpool Lime Street to Chester, where I would change for Prestatyn, on Saturday I looked forward to some alternative viewing especially as Lee Trundle, one of my fellow ‘compatriots’ from Liverpool and the league’s marquee player, was expected to star for the visiting team who had some title ambitions of their own after a promising start to the season.
The day began with the traditional pre-match pint at the nearby Royal Victoria pub, just across the road from the train station, where a number of people had gathered to watch the early English Premier League game between Everton and Manchester United. Amongst the crowd was a guy called Paul, a West Bromwich Albion supporter and Groundhopper extraordinaire who was fanatical about travelling across the country to watch lower and non-league football. He had arrived a little late so wanted to know how the Everton game had finished before telling me he was ticking off Bastion Gardens from his footballing to-do list. So it was that we took the short walk from the pub to the tiny stadium which, on a good day, can squeeze as many as 2,500 but there was no danger of that as me, Paul and another 218 (yes, that’s two hundred and eighteen) hardy souls took our places to watch the match. Also present were the commentary team from the Welsh language television channel Sianel Pedwar Cymru, better known to British readers as S4C, amongst them was the former Arsenal, Glasgow Celtic and Wales forward John Hartson who stood only metres from where we gathered behind one of the goals and who was providing expert analysis for the Welsh channel’s live match coverage for the Sgorio football show.
The match itself turned out to be a classic “game of two halves” and, with the wind playing its part, Prestatyn Town dominated proceedings in the first half and should’ve scored more than the sixth minute strike which put the hosts ahead. After the Neath keeper Craig Morris had collided with Town’s Steve Rogers both of whom chasing a long ball forward, Lee Hunt was there to turn the ball home from outside the box much to the pleasure of the loyal Town fans present. The hosts had many opportunities including a shot that hit the crossbar and it seemed that Neath, Trundle et al, hadn’t shown up such was their anonymity. Prestatyn Town’s first half performance was in stark contrast with their previous league match against Aberystwyth Town – not that I was present at that game to see it but a certain Groundhopper next to me was – and with the score 1-0 at the break the home side must’ve fancied their chances of an unexpected win.
But Neath finally woke up in the second half, although Lee Trundle was personally not having his best day at the office, and they got a deserved equalizer in the 73rd minute when Chris Jones’ long-range strike was too hot to handle for Town keeper Jon Hill-Dunt who could only despair as his attempts at keeping the ball out were in vain. From then on both teams had their chances to win the game and, with just minutes to go, Prestatyn thought they should’ve had a penalty but referee Kevin Parry looked like he was never going to give any major decisions in this game. After stoppage time was played the final whistle blew and the final score, as some S4C viewers may have heard it, was “Prestatyn Town Un, Castell-Nedd Un” which, to me and Groundhopper Paul, seemed a pretty fair result.
Having learnt earlier in the day that Bangor City had beaten Airbus UK Broughton in Friday night’s game by five goals to one the Welsh Premier League table was starting to take shape. Bangor City still has a 100% record and leads the way with a six point gap from defending champions The New Saints who beat Carmarthen Town 7-0 yesterday and have a game in hand. After this game Neath Athletic are in sixth place with seven points but have also, like TNS, played four games whilst Prestatyn Town look like they could be facing a difficult season at the wrong end of the table as they have four points from five games and currently lie in ninth place in the twelve team league.
Football is well and truly coming home this weekend with each of the individual championships up and running in the British Isles. The Carling Premiership in Northern Ireland is already seven days old whilst its equivalents in England, Scotland and Wales all look forward to the big kick-off. Stoppage Time – International Football Blog previews the weekend’s action.
Many pundits are predicting that this could be one of the most open Barclays Premiership titles ever with a multitude of teams catching up to those clubs who have graced the top of the league for many years, namely Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. West Londoners Chelsea, who won their fourth English title in 2009-10, have what appears to be an easy start on paper at home to newly promoted West Brom. Manchester United, who were denied a history-making fourth consecutive Premiership title by a solitary point last season, also start off against a club who have risen from the Championship (i.e. 2nd tier), namely Newcastle United. Amongst the usual suspects Arsenal have the toughest start playing against a Liverpool side who are under the stewardship of former Fulham boss Roy Hodgson and hope to challenge for the title again after a dreadful campaign last term. Amongst the other title hopefuls there is an intriging first match of the weekend when Tottenham Hotspur, buoyed by last season’s fourth place finish, meet Manchester City in the 12:45 kick-off at White Hart Lane on Saturday. Everton hope to get off to a good start but will have their work cut out away at Blackburn Rovers whilst Aston Villa, still getting used to life after Martin O’Neill after the Irishman surprisingly handed in his resignation last week, face off against West Ham United. In games affecting the predicted strugglers Blackpool FC start life in their first ever Premier League with a home tie against Wigan Athletic, Sunderland meet Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers play Stoke City and Bolton Wanderers meet Fulham FC.
Having won a record extending 53rd domestic championship last season Glasgow Rangers are under even more pressure to lift the trophy again after a very limited transfer market for the Ibrox club this time. With money scarce not just in the blue half of Glasgow but throughout the league most teams haven’t spent heavily on new recruits this time around. The only exception are Glasgow Celtic under new coach Neil Lennon and the Bhoys open up this weekend’s action in the the Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League with an away tie at Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who return to the SPL after a twelve month absence. Champions Rangers have a home tie against Kilmarnock at Ibrox Park where the traditional unfurling of the championship flag will take place before kick-off. Dundee United, for whom Peter Houston enjoys his first full season in charge after taking over from Craig Levein midway through last season, hope to keep up momentum following a successful 2009-10 season with an away win against St Mirren. The usual wannabes such as Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian and Aberdeen will start afresh and will hope for winning starts against St Johnstone, Motherwell and Hamilton Academicals respectively. Once again the Scottish Premier League has maintained the “split league” system whereby after 33 matches the league splits into two halves of six teams each, with teams playing every other team in their section once.
The Principality Building Society Welsh Premier League, to give it its full name, resumes this season with just twelve teams (reduced from eighteen) after the clubs voted to restructure the league in order to increase the quality of the competition and to provide a new criteria which aspirant clubs should adhere to if they wish to play in the Welsh Premier League in the future. Rhyl FC, Welsh Premier League champions in 2004 and 2009, were the biggest name casualities of the restructure as their stadium didn’t meet up to requirements and, thus, have been demoted to the Cymru Alliance which forms a new second tier of football in the principality. As a result of the restructure teams will play each other twice before the league splits for the top six and bottom six. The teams in each section will then play each other twice again to determine championship and relegation issues. This weekend sees The New Saints, who claimed their fifth title last term, get the new season under way on Friday night with a home tie against Prestatyn Town. Llanelli, runners-up in the last two seasons, begin away at Airbus UK Broughton whilst Bangor City, another team who hope to be there or thereabouts at the end of the season, entertain Neath FC. Three more games make up this weekend’s opening round with Haverfordwest v Newtown, Carmarthen v Aberystwyth and Port Talbot, third in last season’s title race, facing off against Bala Town.
The new Carling Premiership began last weekend in Northern Ireland with champions Linfield FC hoping to claim their 50th league championship this season but they got off to a goalless start last weekend only able to muster a 0-0 draw at home to Ballymena United and will hope to improve on that by beating Dungannon Swifts on Saturday. Glentoran, who last won the title in 2009, are hoping to reclaim the Premiership trophy and made a fantastic start to the new campaign with a 6-1 demolition of Lisburn Distellery in the opening round of games and will hope to keep up momentum at home to Coleraine this weekend. Two teams who didn’t get play last weekend get their new seasons under way with Portadown away at Glenavon on Friday and Cliftonville starting away at Newry with Cliftonville a good outside bet for the title after they finished five points behind Linfield in the championship race last season. In the other games this weekend Ballymena United play at home to Donegal Celtic and Crusaders, who won their opening match last weekend, at home to Lisburn Distillery. The Northern Ireland championship takes on a similar “split league” system as that in Scotland with twelve teams playing each other three times before they split into two groups of six.
The New Saints, from the area in the United Kingdom covering Oswestry (in England) and Llansantffraid (in Wales), have won the Principality Welsh Premier League title after a nail biting climax to the season this Saturday. The club have become famous in the UK in recent years thanks to Sky Sports TV presenter Jeff Stelling who, after all of the day’s football results are read out, will often (sarcastically) claim that “they’ll be dancing on the streets of TNS tonight” after every victory that is announced in favour of the club. If it is the case that the club and its followers like to get down after every victory then they’ll be dancing a bit heavier after TNS secured their fifth championship with a 3-1 away win at Aberystwyth Town.
Before Matchday 34 got under way there was one team, Llanelli AFC, who could snatch the title from TNS’s grasp as they started the day just two points behind the league leaders. Llanelli AFC were playing at Prestatyn Town whilst Aberystwyth were not going to make things easy for TNS as they were fighting it out for third in the table, and a place in the UEFA Europa League qualifiers for 2010-11, against Port Talbot Town. With all matches in the league kicking off at the same time followers of TNS must’ve been nervous as news reached them that their title rivals Llanelli AFC had a 2-1 half-time lead whilst their match remained goalless. However the goals started to fly in during the second half with Chris Sharp, son of legendary Everton FC striker Graeme Sharp, bagging a brace and Steve Evans scoring once with Aberystwyth Town scoring a consolation through Luke Bowen in stoppage time. Llanelli AFC did all they could in their match eventually disposing of Prestatyn Town by 5-1 with Rhys Griffiths helping himself to a hat trick but it was TNS’s day. The New Saints qualify for the 2010-11 UEFA Champions League qualification rounds whilst Aberystwyth lamented defeat as it ruined their chances of UEFA Europa League qualification after Port Talbot’s 0-0 draw with Bala Town allowed them to secure third place.
The Principality Welsh Premier League is undergoing fundamental change next season with the number of particpiating teams being reduced from twenty down to twelve. The bottom six teams this season – Newtown AFC, GAP Connah’s Quay, Porthmadog FC, Welshpool Town, Caersws FC and Newi Cefn Druids – are now relegated and two more teams could join them. Bala Town FC and Haverfordwest County finished in 11th and 12th place respectively and their position in the Premier League is dependent on finding replacements from the second tier who will have the necessary facilities and finance to operate in the top flight.