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Saturday, 22 February 2014 21:46

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SATURDAY 22ND FEBRUARY - The Marstons Stadium: dry, sunny, cold wind.
AFAN LIDO 0 PRESTATYN TOWN 2 (Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League)
It's a Saturday, but not as we know them. It's not raining, and there a only a few reports of waterlogged grounds, so for the first time in 2014 we can look at the fixture list with reasonable confidence that a chosen game will be on.

For me Port Talbot is the obvious place to be this week, as the borough's two Welsh Premier sides are both at home to northern visitors, with staggered kick-off times. In fact, there's a third game, just up the road, where Trefelin entertain Penrhyndeudraeth in the FAW Trophy, but attending that would mean not being able to attend the other two, so I'm going for the Welsh Premier option.

The sun's still shining as I make my way down to Aberavon Beach for the 12.30 kick off between Afan Lido and Prestatyn Town. Across the promenade gardens, the sea is lively and the waves noisy, and there's already a chilly breeze coming in. These fixtures may have been the obvious choice for me, but it seems I'm in a minority, as a pitifully small attendance is gathering. I count around 70, although the official number is later given as 111. There's no sign of any support for Prestatyn, either vocal or identified by colours or accent. Result - precious little atmosphere. Maybe it's understandable, both teams suffered humiliating defeats last time out, and their seasons are proving a big disappointment. Prestatyn, who performed so well in Europe and beat TNS back in August at the start of the league campaign, are now among those scrapping for a play-off route back into Europe. Lido (who on my last visit in the late autumn seemed to be staging a revival) have now slipped to being relegation certainties.

Lido's very young side don't make the best of starts and are soon being put under a bit of pressure. There are appeals when keeper Gareth Couch collides with Chris Hartland early on, but the Seasiders don't even get a corner out of this. Still, they only take 12 minutes to go ahead, Mike Parker reaching a flick-on from a free-kick and scoring from close range.

Keeper Couch lasts only a few minutes more, landing badly on his ankle when collecting the ball and having to leave the pitch. Without a specialist keeper among their substitutes, Lido are forced to put outfield player Kieran Howard in goal. He makes a confident start, gathering several dangerous balls, but in the 30th minute he has to face a Lee Hunt penalty, after a trip in the box. Hunt scores to make it 0-2 and the game is already beyond Lido with an hour to play. Will they collapse to an even bigger defeat than against Aberystwyth in midweek ?

The answer turns out to be negative. Lido improve after going two down, and after the interval they seem to gain enough confidence to deal with Prestatyn attacks and move the ball around nicely. They don't have many chances, but they aren't really under pressure either - though this seems to be partly due to a rather distracted, ineffectual showing from the visiting team. It's not hard to see why they are down here in the lower half of the league, though it remains surprising given their strength last season.

In the end, the game peters out with no more goals and little action to distract from the ever-colder and stronger wind. The final whistle is welcome and everyone is probably content - some positives for Lido's youngsters, and three points for Prestatyn to take home.

For a fair proportion of the paltry crowd, the whistle is our cue to head round the corner to....
The GenQuip Stadium: still dry, overcast, even colder wind.
PORT TALBOT TOWN 1 GAP CONNAH'S QUAY 2 (Corbett Sports Welsh Premier League)

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The 3pm kick-off brings together two more teams 'condemned' to slug out the second phase of the season contesting places 7 to 12 in the table, and again we have one (Connahs Quay) who are in danger of relegation, and one (Town) who must fancy seventh place and a tilt at the Europa play-offs. These two both started the second phase last week with good results, in contrast to the pair I've just watched.

A slightly bigger crowd is in the somewhat better-appointed GenQuip Stadium, though mostly sheltering from the cold wind. Again, no evidence of any support for the visitors, but Town's band is going to ensure there's a lot more atmosphere here despite the low attendance. On the pitch, the opening exchanges are more competitive too, with a fast tempo and plenty of aggression. The visitors - who have radically changed their squad in the January transfer period - appear to have a game-plan to unsettle Town and stop them playing an attacking game. They set out to play with a very advanced back line, which catches Town's forwards offside frequently. Chances do come for the home side, but they don't take advantage. One passage of play sees all twenty outfield players chasing from the Port Talbot half towards a long ball played over the top - it finds Ashley Evans in space but he can't get his shot past Mc Cormick in the visitors' goal.

Connah's Quay create little in the first half, although right at the end Steven Hall has to come off his line to save smartly - a timely warning that, unimpressive as the visitors have been throughout the first 45 minutes, they could still pose a threat. And indeed, after the break, Connah's Quay do start to look increasingly dangerous, with Hall's goal coming under real pressure for the first time.

But neither side manages an early breakthrough, and there's more attrition than anything else, referee Stewart kept busy with the yellow card. The game reaches the point where it desperately needs a goal; and it goes well past that point. Mc Cormick does well to tip one long range effort over, but then on 72 minutes, out of the blue, Jason Bertorelli launches another from distance that he can't stop: 1-0 to Port Talbot. This really seems to be the winner as we head into the last few minutes, but some suicidal defending by Town gifts Quay an 86th minute equaliser, Lee Healey advancing into space where the right side of Town's defence should be and beating the stranded keeper. Points shared then ? Well, I conclude so, but as it turns out Quay snatch a late winner - Healey again - as I'm leaving the ground. Port Talbot have given away three points they had taken so long to earn.

For south Wales, a bad afternoon, our two WPL teams beaten at home by visiting 'Gogs'. This itself is a disappointment, but there are deeper concerns too. Paltry attendances and, frankly, 120 minutes of pretty uninspiring action, do not speak well of the health of the Welsh Premier or local football in south Wales. During the afternoon I've heard many mutterings about the lack of interest in the second phase fixtures in this twelve-team format. I believe in our national league, and I want it to thrive, but there are clearly problems with the current WPL format that are more than just perception.

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