Opening fixtures 2020-21
Saturday, September 12 (2.30 pm kick-offs unless stated)
Aberystwyth Town v Cardiff Met University
Barry Town United v The New Saints
Caernarfon Town v Penybont
Connah’s Quay Nomads v Bala Town (5.45 pm)
Flint Town United v Newtown
Haverfordwest County v Cefn Druids.
Bala Town have the capability to do what Connah’s Quay Nomads did last season and spring a total surprise by winning the 2020-21 Cymru Premier League title.
Colin Caton’s side were not a million miles away from being crowned champions themselves in 2019-20, finishing third and just three points behind runners-up The New Saints.
While last season ended early with six rounds of matches left due to the coronavirus outbreak, I still believe the right team lifted the championship trophy.
Nomads were four points clear at the finish and I am convinced they had the staying power to remain at the summit.
TNS owner Mike Harris felt using the unweighted PPG method to decide the title winners was unfair on his team and believed a play-off would have been a more balanced way of determining the champions.
Fair point in some ways, but 26 matches played out of 32 was a very large chunk out of the scheduled season.
Nomads had been the most consistent team while Saints were less ruthless than they had been on course to winning eight previous titles.
It was not just a two-horse race though. Bala were a very honourable third, again proving themselves to be a national league ‘superpower’.
The Lakesiders finally laid a long-standing jinx by finally beating TNS in a league match and made the most of what I believe was the strongest squad yet at Maes Tegid under Caton.
So tomorrow sees the start of the 2020-21 campaign with all matches to be played with no fans present due to COVID-19.
I feel the Welsh Government’s decision to allow behind closed doors matches only is a ridiculous one, given the relaxation in rules to allow crowds to gather in other events/walks of life in Wales.
But it is what it is (I hate that saying, reminds me of a doom-mongering former boss) and for all the disquiet behind the scenes – not least among the clubs set to lose out the most due to no gate income – the action starts on September 12.
Here are my thoughts on the prospects of the five North Wales clubs (plus TNS) on the eve of the 29th national league season….
First joined league: 2009-10
Best position: 2nd (2014-15; 2015-16)
Last season: 3rd
Prediction this season: 1st
Why not Bala?
They were right in the mix last season, and if the remaining six rounds of games had been played, who knows?
Town have already recorded a fantastic result in Europe, winning 1-0 at Valletta of Malta in the Europa League to set up a meeting with Belgium’s Standard Liege in the next round.
Signing Alex Ramsay, arguably the league’s finest keeper, is a great move, while bringing in former Ruthin Town goal machine Llyr Morris up front is a fascinating prospect alongside the more experienced Raul Correia.
Defender Nathan Peate is a great signing, with ex-Football League stalwart Antony Kay alongside, Will Evans from Cardiff Met another exciting addition.
Quite a few have left Maes Tegid, but most departures make sense in the light of who has replaced them.
Last season’s Golden Boot winner Chris Venables has at least one more good campaign in him, and the retention of players like Anthony Stephens, Lassana Mendes, Steve Leslie and Ollie Shannon can only be positives.
And what about Danny Gosset’s comeback? The midfield will be welcomed back with open arms after winning his brave battle against illness. Welsh football will be wishing him all the best.
Can Bala lay down an early marker when they visit champions Connah’s Quay for the season’s opener?
First joined league: 1995-96
Best position: 4th (1996-97; 2018-19)
Last season: 5th
Prediction this season: 6th
It has been a tough summer for the Canaries, not only losing some vital players but also facing the prospect of playing their early Cymru Premier matches behind closed doors, as well as having routes to Europe via the Welsh Cup and Welsh Premier play-offs slammed in their faces due to FAW rulings over Covid-19.
With the Cofis attracting the league’s biggest crowds by a mile, the empty grounds will have a major effect on club income.
Departures from The Oval have included captain Nathan Craig to Flint Town United, striker Jamie Breese to Newtown, midfield ace Leo Smith to The New Saints, keeper Alex Ramsay to Bala Town and Gareth Evans to Llandudno.
However, quality arrivals such as strikers Asa Hamilton and Mike Hayes, keeper Josh Tibbetts, attacker Cory Williams, defenders Jack Fleming and Iddon Price, and exciting new signing Paulo Mendes from Aberystwyth will inspire hope among the Cofi Army. Tyler French and Cai Jones are two other fine additions.
There has been a general consensus that what’s come in does not match what’s gone out, but football is all about opinions and those opinions are so often proved wrong.
Some outstanding players have remained at the club and in keeping with their great first two comeback seasons in the Cymru Premier, Caernarfon look a decent bet for a third consecutive top six finish.
First joined league: 1999-2000
Best position: 5th (2017-18)
Last season: 8th
Prediction this season: 10th
All change at The Rock this summer with Portuguese coach Bruno Lopes appointed first-team manager this week.
The 36-year-old, who has arrived from Portimonense, a team relegated from the Primera Liga on the final day of last season, is taking charge after Stuart Gelling’s time at the club was brought to an end following the expiration of his contract.
Since the 2019-20 season ended abruptly, the Druids have seen the departure of some quality players, including Nathan Peate, James Davies, winger Ramirez Howarth and this week Neil Ashton left to join Llandudno.
New faces at The Rock have included Niall Flint and Sam Phillips from Newtown, while stepping up from Cymru North are Ben Barratt, Jacob Wise (Holywell) and Kieran Smith.
Former TNS star Alex Darlington is the most notable summer signing, while Josh Green and midfielder Chris Azimall arrive on loan.
Much will depend on how things settle for Cefn, with so many changes at the club over the summer. It could prove an overall struggle this season.
Connah’s Quay Nomads
Joined league: 1992-93
Best position: 1st (2019-20)
Last season: 1st
Prediction this season: 3rd
After what they achieved last season, and the fact they are growing stronger all the time, I may well end up regretting betting against Nomads making it back-to-back championships.
With TNS ultra-determined to regain their title, however, and Bala looking good for a major push this season, Andy Morrison’s side might have to settle for a closely-fought third spot.
The squad already at Deeside Stadium at the start of the summer is more than good enough for another title challenge.
However, adding the midfield class of Aeron Edwards, as well as highly-rated Danny Davies from Prestatyn Town has given the Deesiders added power.
And the fact they have kept hold of so many from last year’s championship-winning squad really does reflect well on the thriving set-up at the club.
Nomads have already impressed in a 2-0 Champions League loss to FK Sarajevo and next up is a cracking clash against Dinamo Tbilisi at Wrexham in the Europa League.
Flint Town United
First joined league: 1992-93
Best position: 4th (1993/94)
Last season: Not applicable
Prediction this season: 7th
Niall McGuinness and his management team have made a number of outstanding signings over the summer.
Promoted on the back of last season’s Cymru North champions Prestatyn Town lacking the criteria to go up, Flint certainly look capable of making the most of their good fortune.
Rob Hughes, who was with Prestatyn last season before joining a team in Australia, is a dazzling operator who will be a player to watch in black and white stripes.
Perhaps the biggest capture at the Essity Stadium is Nathan Craig, who played for Caernarfon Town in their first two seasons back in the CPL. The former Everton and Wales Under-21 defender/midfielder and dead-ball specialist is certainly a marquee signing.
Ex-Wrexham right-back Wes Baynes is another eye-catching new arrival, while Ben Burrows, Ben Lockley, Ben Nash, Conor Harwood, Harry Lockley, Kai Wallis, Mason Blackwell, Darren Thornton and Matthew Jones all have potential.
I see Flint having no problems staying up, and indeed I fancy them to push hard for a top-six place.
The New Saints
First joined league: 1993-94 (as Llansantffraid)
Best position: Champions a record 13 times
Last season: 2nd
Prediction this season: 2nd
For the first time since 2011-12, TNS are chasing the title rather than defending it.
There is still a feeling of injustice at Park Hall as to how the championship was decided last season, and Scott Ruscoe’s men will be extra determined to reclaim the crown.
Leo Smith, Louis Robles and Ryan Astles are all excellent signings – the sort of players who could make the difference between winning and losing the title.
Aeron Edwards’ departure for Connah’s Quay is a blow, but Saints have enough quality to remain in and around the top of the table all season.