The New Saints retained their JD Welsh Premier League title while Connah's Quay Nomads lifted the JD Welsh Cup for the very first time. It's been another busy year for the men's and women's game on the domestic front.
JD Welsh Premier League- The New Saints
Orchard Welsh Premier Women's League- Cardiff Met
JD Welsh Cup- Connah's Quay Nomads
FAW Women's Cup- Swansea City
Manager Scott Ruscoe celebrated the JD Welsh Premier League title in his first season in charge of The New Saints as his side claimed their seventh consecutive league success, and title number 12 in total. Scoring an incredible 83 goals in the process, the champions ended the season with a 14-point advantage over closest challengers Bangor City.
The side only lost four of their 32 league games and convincingly answered the critics who thought that they may struggle following the departure of previous manager Craig Harrison in the summer of 2017. “I've put everything into it since we took over from Craig, who did a fantastic job,” explained Ruscoe. “I've taken bits from him and taken bits from our other successful managers. I've got my own stamp that I like to put on the team and the club. It's been a learning curve, but a very enjoyable one.”
Meanwhile, Dr Kerry Harris guided Cardiff Met Women back to the Orchard Welsh Premier Women's League title as the Archers made amends for losing their crown to rivals Swansea City Ladies the season before. The two clubs were once again challenging for the title and it was the team from the capital that eventually finished five points ahead of Ian Owen's Swans.
There was some early drama for The New Saints in the UEFA Champions League as they headed to Macedonia to take on Shkendija. A 5-0 reverse in the away fixture meant that Scott Ruscoe's side were pretty much planning for the UEFA Europa League, but goals from Dean Ebbe, Daniel Redmond, Ben Cabango and Kurtis Byrne in the return match at Park Hall saw the side narrowly miss out on a place in the 2nd qualifying round with a 5-4 aggregate defeat.
A 3-2 win over Lincoln Red Imps in the Europa League set up a difficult tie against Danish outfit Midtjylland, and there was no disgrace for The New Saints in suffering a 5-1 defeat over the two legs. However, Cefn Druids, Bala Town and Connah's Quay Nomads all failed to get through their opening ties in the UEFA Europa League qualifying stages.
Cardiff Met Women were placed in Group 6 for their UEFA Women's Champions League campaign and headed to Ukraine to compete against CFF Olimpia Cluj, Birkirkara and hosts WFC Kharkiv. A 3-2 defeat against Cluj was followed by a 5-2 reverse against Kharkiv, but the side ended the campaign on a relative high with a 2-2 draw against Birkirkara of Malta.
Welsh Cup glory
Wales manager Ryan Giggs was at Newtown to watch Andy Morrison's Connah's Quay Nomads claim the JD Welsh Cup for the first time in their history in May with a convincing 4-1 win over Aberystwyth Town.
Michael Bakare opened the scoring before a brace from veteran striker Michael Wilde put the match out of the Seasiders' reach. Andy Owens completed the scoring for the eventual winners, with a header from Ryan Wade proving to be nothing but a consolation goal for Aberystwyth.
The FAW Women's Cup final was held at Cardiff City Stadium in April, and it was Swansea City Ladies who came out on top against Cardiff City Women. However, it was the Bluebirds that took the lead through Alana Murphy early in the second half. Jodie Passmore equalised for the Swans from the penalty spot, and it was Katy Hosford who proved to be the hero as goalkeeper Cerys Chamberlain failed to deal with her speculative effort on 72 minutes to earn her side the trophy.
An exciting chapter for the domestic game in Wales began early in 2018 as Mark Jones and Owain Tudur Jones took charge of the Wales 'C' team for the match against England 'C' at Jenner Park in March. With eligible players chosen exclusively from the JD Welsh Premier League for the international challenge match, it offered an excellent opportunity to showcase the talent that exists in the domestic game, and despite the 3-2 defeat, it did not disappoint. The two teams will meet again in March 2019 at Salford City FC.
“There are players who have come from our league to go and do great things including representing the senior men's national team,” explained Mark Jones. “We’ve produced some great managers too. There’s plenty of people who have come from this league and accomplished far more than I have and gone on to do brilliant things. That’s what I’m hoping will be one of the big benefits of this team, we want to spread the word about this league and we want to increase the profile of the domestic game in Wales.”
Ups and downs
The JD Welsh Premier League welcomed the return of Caernarfon Town and Llanelli Town during 2018, but their promotion came at the the expense of Prestatyn Town and Bangor City, the latter suffering relegation through failing to attain the necessary Tier 1 Domestic Licence. Andy Hill's Llanelli stormed through the pyramid system to return to the top-flight with three promotions, while Caernarfon Town had attracted thefans back to the Oval as they finished above Denbigh Town to win the Huws Gray Cymru Alliance.
The Orchard Welsh Premier Women's League welcomed back Briton Ferry Ladies for the 2018/19 season, but it was Caldicot Town that would find themselves relegated from the top-flight. However, in November the WPWL was reduced to just nine teams, as Caernarfon Town Ladies confirmed that they would be withdrawing from the league with immediate effect.
Greg Draper claimed the JD Welsh Premier League Golden Boot at the annual awards evening having scored 21 goals for The New Saints on their way to claiming the league title. “It was a fantastic season for me personally,” Draper explained. “It's taken me a while to get my first golden boot, but it's nice now that it's arrived, and I just want to kick on and make sure I do it again next year.” During the course of the campaign, the New Zealand striker also registered a century of goals for the club since arriving in the summer of 2011.
In the Orchard Welsh Premier Women's League it was Lyndsey Davies who claimed the Golden Boot accolade following her 22 goals as her side finished third in the table. Davies also made headlines in the colours of her club back in 2016 when she became the first player to score a 100 WPWL goals. “Lyndsey is brilliant, she's everything you want in a striker,” said manager Richie Jeremiah. “She has pace and can score all different types of goals. She has a great attitude and works hard, and it shows that she's has come through the ranks in a good football environment.”
A bright future
The JD Welsh Premier League has set the domestic standard on and off the field in recent years, and 2018 confirmed a restructure of Tier 2 in the pyramid system will be applied from the 2019/2020 season to mirror the success of the national league. From next season, the Football Association of Wales will own and administer what will be called the 'Northern Championship' and 'Southern Championship', ensuring consistency in marketing, promotion, administration and coverage in conjunction with the JD Welsh Premier League. Each feeder league will consist of 16 clubs.
The recent introduction of the National Ground Criteria for Tier 2 clubs has already helped to raise standards off the field, and has put clubs in a stronger position to achieve promotion to the JD Welsh Premier League by bridging the gap to attaining the prerequisite Tier 1 Domestic Licence. But the progress doesn't end there, and for the 2020/2021 season, Tier 3 will also fall under the jurisdiction of the FAW, with licensing criteria to be introduced across the four regional divisions.