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Sunday, 22 November 2015 17:12

Vikings fail to pillage place in last 16

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SATURDAY 21st NOVEMBER Longbridge Playing Fields, sunny, cold, northerly wind.
AC PONTYMISTER 5 HAKIN UNITED 1 (FAW Trophy Round 4)

The fourth round of the Trophy, sixteen ties to choose from in all regions of Wales; it's never easy to decide, but when this east v west encounter in Risca is confirmed as 'on' during Friday, that's good enough for me. It brings Pembrokeshire champions Hakin, so unlucky to go out to eventual winners Holywell last season, to first-time entrants Pontymister - who just happen to be playing on a new ground this season.

Pontymister's new venue, at Longbridge Fields, is at the north end of the linear village of Risca, whereas their former base in Fields Road was right at the other end. Hidden away just off the main road, the newly railed pitch sits on a raised plateau above road level, and up a slope from the austere changing room block near the Bridge Street entrance. A few spectators have arrived early and are sheltering from the bitter wind either in cars of in the lee of the changing room building. Hakin have brought a few with them, and there are a few neutrals like me, devotees of the unfamiliar fixtures the Trophy can produce. As kick off approaches, and the teams emerge, we too have to forsake shelter from the wind and take our places on the railing.

The first impression of the pitch is of the length of the grass - a rugby surface, not good for football. Whether the council would have cut it at this time of year is debatable, but they've had a perfect excuse with the incessant rain of the past two weeks. In some places the pitch surrounds are seriously boggy, though the playing surface itself doesn't appear to be holding too much water.

My thoughts in advance of this game are influenced by Hakin's good cup record, in this and the West Wales Cup. If the Vikings can reproduce that battling performance against Holywell last February, I'd fancy them to beat any Gwent County side. And initially, they start with confidence, taking the game to Pontymister; though there are a couple of worrying signs - an angry exchange between team-mates in the first minute, over a misjudged pass, and the way the conditions are affecting their preference for fast breaks from midfield. There's no real pattern to the first quarter of an hour, both teams struggling to establish control.

Friday, 13 November 2015 09:04

What every Welsh fan will wear in 2016...

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We can now confidently predict what thousands of Welsh men and women will be wearing next summer. No, we haven't acquired a new fashion correspondent - but the kits that Wales will wear at Euro 2016 have been unveiled.

Most of the fans who follow Wales home and away have never had the opportunity to see their heroes at a 'finals' tournament. The World Cup finals in Sweden in 1958 was a very long time ago - before the era of cheap travel and widespread 'football tourism', and in any case the majority.of current Welsh travelling fans weren't born then. Yes, it's true Wales reached the quarter-finals of the Euros in 1976, but there was no hosted tournament to travel to under the competition's format back then.

So Euro 2016, conveniently close in France, is an opportunity that tens of thousands of Welsh fans are going to seize without regard for the cost or logistics. And it's a fair bet that most of them are going to want to be sporting the latest Welsh kit designs, which will be available in the next few weeks.

Sunday, 08 November 2015 21:06

Martyrs Stumble at the Crossroads

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SATURDAY 7th NOVEMBER. Penydarren Park, wet.
MERTHYR TOWN 1 WEYMOUTH 3 (Evostik Southern League Premier Div.)
The wettest spell of the season so far means widespread postponements and only fixtures on 3G surfaces are a safe bet. What better excuse to catch up with the Martyrs for the first time this season - especially as pre-match comment has suggested they are at something of a 'crossroads'.

Merthyr found the early months of the season tough. Promotion to the higher level, then player losses and injuries, a limited playing budget, all combined to bring a worrying run of results through September and into October. But fortunes have improved recently and the question now (the one presumably behind the crossroads analogy) is whether Merthyr can build on this, and push on up the table.

It's only just over six months since my last visit here, but much is slightly unfamiliar as I approach up Park Terrace. Alongside the challenges on the field, supporters have to cope with building works as Penydarren Park is being redeveloped. The project - due to complete in the spring - has put part of the ground out of bounds, with all access round the back of the stand at The Walk end of the ground. Bars, offices and changing rooms are all relocated away from the main stand, and the players emerge from a temporary entrance in the corner rather than the traditional point under the grandstand. In the circumstances, the crowd (later confirmed as 474) is pretty healthy on a nasty, damp afternoon, though maybe the postponement of so many local games actually helped swell it. No doubt the recent upturn in results played a part too.

Friday, 06 November 2015 09:02

Young Dragons keep their shield

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THURSDAY 5th NOVEMBER, Dragon Park. Persistent rain.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 1 SCOTLAND 1, WALES 3 NORTHERN IRELAND 1 (Under 16 Victory Shield)
What to do on a wet Thursday in November? Well, a day out in Newport wouldn't normally be my first thought, but that's where I find myself today, thanks to a belated discovery that Wales is hosting the Under 16 Victory Shield tournament - advance publicity was virtually nil. Today is the deciding, third round of games at the Newport Sports Village complex.

Until this year, the Victory Shield tournament between home nations under 16 sides, had been played throughout the season. However, following the loss of sponsors Sky Sports and participants England (who have decided the other home nations aren't the sort of opposition they want for their schoolboys), it's been re-formatted as a week-long tournament in a host country, with the Irish Republic taking England's place.

Results earlier in the week mean any one of the four sides could still lift the Shield. The first game, kicking off a noon on the main Stadium pitch, has Scotland on three points playing the Republic on just one, then Wales (with three points) meet Northern Ireland (top of the table with four) at the relatively new Dragon Park. The crowd for midweek daytime games like this is, of course, made up of a mix of parents, club representatives and others involved in the football 'business' in some way - only that can explain a number of middle-aged men making detailed notes.

Out on the heavy athletics stadium pitch, the Irish and Scottish boys seem a long way from the crowd and I find it hard to get engaged. The pace of the game is rather slow, both sides quite patient in their build-up, with little to light up a grey afternoon. Scotland look technically competent but dour, and hope individuality hasn't been coached out of these schoolboys already. The Republic, on the other hand, seem more adventurous on the break, but are more wasteful of possession. They have all the chances in the first half, and finally get a deserved lead to the delight of an Irish group over to my left. Near me, a Scotsman personifies frustration throughout the half, berating the officials and barking his unheard advice "Early, early" at the youngsters over and over again.

Scotland equalise from the penalty spot early in the second half and the game opens out a bit after this. Both sides have their moments, but in the worsening conditions the draw becomes ever more likely. Despite a late attacking flurry by the Scots, that's how it ends. This means that the final game over at Dragon Park will decide the 2015 champions - all Wales and Northern Ireland need to do is win.

Dragon Park is only couple of hundred yards away, but it's a different world from the stadium: compact, with a nice new playing surface. Spectator facilities are all on one side, in a low-level, four-row stand that's OK for a training facility but not really built for a crowd. The money has clearly been spent on the main building on the other side of the pitch, not this most basic of stands, which runs only about half the length of the pitch. Nevertheless, on such a wet day it's welcome cover.

From the outset, the Wales v Northern Ireland game seems different from the earlier one. It could partly be the effect of being close to the action, but there's no mistaking the different tempo. It's good to see the Welsh youngsters start with confidence, and in the opening five minutes there's more flair and individuality than we saw in ninety earlier. Wales take the game to the Irish and are rewarded with a goal when Cardiff City youngster Sion Spence drills in a low shot. At this point they're well on top, captain Ethan Ampadu an authoritative and distinctive figure in midfield, while Benjamin Cabango looks solid at centre-back and Rabbi Matonda's runs at defenders cause plenty of trouble. Smallest player on the pitch Elliot Thorpe also shows a remarkable ability to retain possession against boys twice his size.

Towards the end of the half the game becomes more even, with Northern Ireland starting to exploit gaps in the left side of the Wales defence, and it's from this flank that Jordan McEneff launches a spectacular dipping shot that drops over Wales keeper Pryzbeck to level the scores.

The second half begins with both sides having spells of pressure, but gradually Wales begin to look the more likely to score. Time's running out, though, and a draw would be enough to give the Irish only their second-ever title. It needs a moment of inspiration to break the deadlock, and it's one of Matonda's powerful runs that does the trick: he surges down the left and fires past Webber in the Irish goal.

The boys in green must now press for an equaliser, and much of the play is now in the Welsh half. Corners, free-kicks, chances - all survived with varying degrees of ease, but still the announcement of "a minimum of four added minutes" adds to the tension. But we needn't have worried: as the Irish push up, and Wales seek respite by hitting long clearances, one loose ball heads for the half-way line. Irish keeper Webber and Wales sub Steffan Buckeley converge on it, the latter reaching it first and hitting it deep into the Irish half... and watches it drop into the Irish net ! A goal the Wrexham youngster will remember for the rest of his life.

At 3-1 in stoppage time, Wales are assured of the points and all that remains to delay the Welsh celebrations is a slightly protracted 'closing ceremony', which unfortunately takes place with all four squads facing away from the spectators. Eventually though, the Welsh youngsters are set free and can race over with the Shield to their parents and supporters in the stand. From what I've seen today, they deserve it.

Saturday, 17 October 2015 18:42

Cardiff v Swansea in the Trophy

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SATURDAY 17th OCTOBER - Lawrenny Avenue / Leckwith Stadium - dry but cool.
CANTON LIBERAL 4 PENLAN CLUB 1 (FAW TROPHY, Round 3)

Third Round of the Trophy, 32 ties to choose from. As ever, there are plenty of interesting candidates but on this particular Saturday my choice is restricted - it's really not a day to attempt to use public transport, as Cardiff is once again swamped with rugby fans: not just those of the four visiting teams playing in the RWC quarter-finals in the Millennium Stadium this weekend, but also the usual turn-out of locals (who re-discover their interest in rugby on days when Wales are playing), heading to the city centre bars to watch the Welsh team at Twickenham this afternoon.

But I'm lucky: one of the very best ties in the third round of the Trophy is tight here in Cardiff (there are actually two local games). It's a Cardiff v Swansea clash (which always adds spice) and it involves two very good teams, Canton Liberal and Penlan Club. So, for the second time this season, my destination is the Libs' pitch next to Cardiff Athletic Stadium.

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