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Sunday, 13 December 2015 10:30

Llandudno on course for Europe?

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SATURDAY 12th DECEMBER: Richmond Park, dark, wet and windy.
CARMARTHEN TOWN 2 MBi LLANDUDNO 4 (Dafabet Welsh Premier League)
As the deluge has continued to soak the grass pitches of Wales for another week, and as rain is forecast in many places again today, once again the challenge is to dodge postponements and find a game that's on and that I want to see. As Carmarthen staged a game last week, I decide to take a chance on a grass pitch rather than the limited 3G options today - chiefly because I'm keen to see Llandudno play, the north coast side lying second only to TNS in the Welsh Premier in their debut season.

As I head west on the train, hopes that the morning rain would clear up begin to fade: the usual scenic views out across Gower and the Teifi estuary are grey and bleak, and when I arrive in Carmarthen the wind and rain make even the short walk into town an ordeal. But still no tweets of doubt on today's game....

An hour and a half later, with the rain showing no sign of relenting, entering Richmond Park (or, as I won't be calling it, the Vibrant Vapours Stadium!) the I get my first look at the pitch, and while there are no actual puddles on the playing surface, it is clearly very heavy. It seems the visitors had been worrying that their long journey and overnight stay might be in vain, but they're now relieved the referee has deemed the pitch playable.

It's truly the most gloomy and miserable of December days, and what's needed is some uplifting music. But what Town have chosen for us is the most soporific of Christmas medlies: I can just about stand crooned versions of Frosty the Snowman and Winter Wonderland, but Ave Maria ? That's a first at a football ground. Thankfully, kick-off time arrives before long.

As soon as the game gets going, it is clear the conditions will have a major effect: the ball is holding up in the mud, causing errors, while players are slipping and sliding into mis-timed challenges everywhere. The first into the book for one of these is Llandudno's Jonny Spittle. The first quarter of an hour passes with no discernible pattern, as the team struggle to adjust to the conditions, but in the 19th minute Carmarthen open the scoring from a corner on the left, when Liam Thomas glances a header inside the far post. It crosses my mind that, once again, I've chosen to watch a high-flying team, and they're losing; it's happening quite often this season - Caldicot and Caerau (twice) spring to mind. Have I jinxed Llandudno too?

But Carmarthen don't consolidate their lead, and Llandudno are soon back in the game. First, good work by Marc Williams on the left leads to Leo Riley receiving the ball in the area, and despite the quagmire his shot trickles past Idzi and over the line. Then a second goal, Williams himself this time, pouncing on a loose ball after an Idzi save. Llandudno are starting to look the part of a top team, playing with some swagger and confidence. But, just before half-time, Carmarthen equalise - Luke Prosser reacting quickest to a half-chance, and the teams go in level. On the evidence of the first half, there should be more goals, and with the conditions making life difficult for defenders, they could come at either end.

After doing well enough before the break, Carmarthen simply fail to perform after it. Llandudno increasingly look the more accomplished, organised and committed side, and it seems to be a matter of time before they re-take the lead. However, when they do, it's controversial to say the least: Williams heads for goal, and on the edge of the box, flanked by two defenders, he goes to ground. Foul, slip, or dive ? The referee says foul, inside the box, and penalty. For what it's worth, I didn't see it as a foul. Lee Thomas scores from the spot, 3-2 to Llandudno, and the visiting supporters celebrate, leaving the debate on the penalty award to everyone else.

Carmarthen need to rally and to battle for an equaliser, but they never really look like doing so, rather in the manner of a team near the bottom, short on belief. Llandudno have chances to make the three points safe, but squander them until the 76th minute, when a free-kick on the right goes through the crowded box and Marc Williams scrambles it out of the mud in the goalmouth and into the net. Carmarthen are not going to come back now, and their fans are reduced to cheering when they win a corner. People start to drift away before the end, disappointed again.

I'm grateful to have seen a match, and six goals, when so many games are off today. It's been decent entertainment too, and despite the conditions, I've been able to see enough of Llandudno's organisation and battling qualities to understand how they're doing so well. Today they've shaved a couple of points off the gap between first and second, but more significantly, they're now 13 points clear of seventh place, and virtually assured of being comfortably in the top six when the league splits in the new year. If they make it to the Europa League next June, these three points earned in the mud, rain and wind of Richmond Park will count every bit as much as those won on their 3G pitch back home.

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