Europa League play-off keeps interest alive after TNS title stroll

Craig Harrison

So the 20th Welsh Premier League season has come to an end, albeit the end-of-season Europa League play-offs start this weekend.

At the start of the season I predicted The New Saints would win the league, Airbus, Bangor City and Aberystwyth would capture the Europa League places, Afan Lido and Newtown would be relegated and Luke Bowen would finish leading goalscorer.

On reflection I would say I haven't done that badly with my predictions up to now, that's if Bangor win the Welsh Cup on Monday against Prestatyn at Wrexham's Racecourse.

The New Saints have deservedly retained the WPL trophy, to equal Barry Town's record of seven titles.

I have stated in the past that TNS have an added advantage of playing their home games on a 3G surface at Park Hall.

However, Craig Harrison didn't rest on his laurels after regaining the title from Bangor City and strengthened his squad accordingly with players who certainly made the difference this season.

The addition of Kai Edwards and Chris Jones from Neath and Michael Wilde from Chester - the latter becoming this season's WPL top scorer netting 25 goals - strengthened the league's only full-time club, which saw them run away with the title.

Wilde's signing may have surprised a few people, but he has not only scored the goals for TNS this season, his all-round game has improved since he last played in the WPL three years ago, which gave TNS a platform to work off through the season.

One of the teams who surprised a few people in the league this year were Airbus, who secured runners-up spot in the league and qualification into the Europa League for the first time in their history.

Andy Preece has done a superb job in challenging TNS and Bangor at the top of the league.

Their success hasn't come as a shock to me as I had seen the majority of their players playing for Northwich Victoria in last season's FA Trophy match against Newport County.

One concern I had was whether or not their players would adapt to the league, as many players in the past have come into the WPL thinking it's a stroll in the park. But not these lads, Preece and his coaching staff have done a tremendous job in getting the players to play free-flowing, attacking football.

This weekend sees the Europa League play-offs begin when Bala Town entertain Connah's Quay Nomads in a semi-final eliminator.

Bala, have won their last 10 games and go into the tie as clear favourites to progress to the semi-finals having finished 13 points clear of the visitors in the league.

Bangor City striker Les Davies
Striker Les Davies will be looking to lead Bangor City to their fourth Welsh Cup win in six years

Bala have certainly gained momentum since during the second half of the season and, with an experienced squad at his disposal, Colin Caton's men could snatch the last Europa League place.

The winners of Saturday's tie at Maes Tegid won't know until after Monday's Welsh Cup final between Bangor City and Prestatyn Town who they will face in the semi-final.

Either Bangor or Prestatyn will have their season extended if they lose at the Racecourse as the winner will guarantee their Europa League place.

If Bangor lose they will then host the winners of the semi-final eliminator between Bala and Connah's Quay, with Port Talbot hosting Carmarthen in the other semi-final.

If Prestatyn lose then they will host Carmarthen Town, with the winner of the semi-final eliminator travelling to Port Talbot.

In order to avoid confusion of who plays where and when in the play-offs, wouldn't it be better for the Welsh Cup final to be played a week prior to the final WPL game of the season?

This would then allow everyone to be clear on who has qualified for Europe through the Welsh Cup and give clubs in the WPL a better idea of who they will face in the play-offs and, more importantly, if they are they home or away.

Monday's Cup final promises to be a mouth-watering tie if this season's league games are anything to go by - 18 goals in four matches with two 3-3 draws amongst the games at Nantporth and a win each at Bastion Gardens.

Both teams will want to avoid the lottery of the Europa League play-offs and will be all out to secure their European place through the Cup.

The Citizens and the Seasiders pose great attacking prowess with Chris Simm and Les Davies leading the Bangor attack, with the experienced duo of Andy Parkinson and Jamie Price leading the line for Neil Gibson's men.

There may be a goal fest in prospect at the Racecourse and, although I'd like to see a new name on the trophy, I feel Bangor City will prosper to regain the trophy.