ONLY five days after undoubtedly their worst display so far this season Carmarthen travelled to The New Saints who, in their quest for a sixth successive Welsh Premier League title, have opened with eight consecutive victories, most by a comfortable margin.
Yet Town, undaunted by the task, defied the likely expectations of their sizeable following of fans at the Park Hall Stadium by producing a remarkably determined and disciplined performance which, with a little more luck in the closing minutes, could have secured for them a hard-earned draw. And this was achieved with their already small squad further depleted by the absence due to injury of three players from the regular starting XI.
From the outset TNS quickly settled into their customary game of monopolising possession and confidently passing the ball around before breaking quickly forward in search of scoring opportunities. Initially the Old Gold successfully resisted this pressure and they were able to respond with a couple of promising counter-attacks but failed to penetrate the home defence.
However the hosts eventually found an opening on 8 minutes when after a goalmouth scramble the ball was cleared only as far as Alex Darlington who from the edge of the penalty area struck a crisp shot that ‘keeper Lee Idzi resisted with a smart save. But they went ahead moments later when Ryan Brobbel sent a searching cross into the penalty area where Greg Draper was allowed the time and space to control the ball and finish clinically, firing it past Idzi and into the back of the net.
The Saints immediately stepped-up the pressure but Town’s defence presented a formidable obstacle. The back-four, comprising the familiar central partnership of Lee Surman and Dave Vincent flanked by Jordan Knott and Craig Hanford, showed commendable strength and composure in the face of the hosts’ persistent probing while, directly ahead of them, industrious midfielders Kieran Lewis, Ceri Morgan, Declan Carroll and Kyle Bassett eagerly provided a further valuable layer of defensive support whenever necessary. And further upfield strikers Liam and Matthew Thomas were always an available outlet, willingly using their pace and mobility to keep the home defenders fully occupied.
And for the remainder of the first-half this strategy proved worthwhile. Although TNS enjoyed territorial advantage and continually made progress through the midfield, they were unable again to penetrate Town’s well-drilled defence in any meaningful way.
Meanwhile the Old Gold were beginning to look more of a threat on the counter-attack.
Meanwhile the Old Gold were beginning to look more of a threat on the counter-attack. In the 18th minute Bassett surged down the left wing before sending a cross deep into the penalty area to reach Carroll who neatly headed the ball back to Lewis but he saw his 25 yard volley sail wide of the post.
Shortly afterwards Carroll produced a long throw-in which was cleared from the goalmouth yet went straight to Morgan who struck a fierce drive just too high. Then after 23 minutes Matthew Thomas won a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area – Lewis stepped up and curled the ball over the defensive ‘wall’ but it went narrowly over the bar.
The Saints’ only notable effort during this spell arose on 27 minutes when Aeron Edwards dispatched a speculative long-range strike that Idzi was well-placed to claim comfortably.
However finally, deep into added time, Town were rewarded for their persistence. Carroll began the move, sending the ball forward along the right flank where Liam and Matthew Thomas engaged in a slick exchange of passes before sending a dangerous cross into the goalmouth where Morgan arrived with perfect timing to win an aerial challenge with two defenders and then from close-range stab the loose ball past ‘keeper Paul Harrison and into the net.
Unfortunately the Old Gold had little time to enjoy that success – shortly after the start of the second-half TNS restored their lead when Darlington moved forward from the centre-circle then slid a fine pass through to Draper who from 8 yards smartly swept the ball past Idzi.
That heralded another spell of Saints’ pressure comparable to that of the early first-half – but this was met with much the same level of resistance from the visitors’ defence which now featured Dwaine Bailey who proved to be an admirable replacement for the injured Surman.
On 57 minutes Simon Spender made a strong run down the right flank before delivering a long cross into the goalmouth only for Robbie Parry to plant his close-range header within Idzi’s easy reach. Then after 63 minutes Chris Marriott’s left-wing cross into the penalty area found Mullan who set up a good chance for Brobbel but from the edge of the penalty area he fired over the bar.
With the play now confined largely to Town’s half they were struggling to get the ball forward, less still to create any goal threat – yet in the 72nd minute an opportunity at last arose when Idzi launched a huge free-kick that was headed on by Bailey to reach Liam Thomas but his 20 yard drive flew just too high.
Thereafter it seemed that TNS, surprisingly, were content with the score-line since they were clearly wasting time playing simple passes to one another deep in defence – and this almost proved calamitous. On 91 minutes Spender slid a hopeless pass across the edge of his penalty area which ever-alert striker Matthew Thomas easily intercepted but as other defenders closed in he snatched at his shot and Harrison was quickly down to gather the ball.
Yet this moment inspired the Old Gold to produce a final surge in further added time. After Bassett had sent a right-wing cross high into the penalty area a headed clearance was pounced on by Matthew Thomas only for his 20 yard volley to rise narrowly too high. And moments later Knott raced forward down the right flank and from the by-line drove the ball across the face of the packed goalmouth but sadly it somehow evaded three on-rushing team-mates.
The failure to capture a late equalising goal was disappointing but it did not detract from Town’s highly-commendable performance to which every player, demonstrating extreme fitness levels and an immense work ethic, contributed.
Town’s next fixture is on Sunday (2nd October k/o 3.00pm) when they travel to Connah's Quay.
CARMARTHEN TEAM Lee Idzi, Lee Surman (Dwaine Bailey 57), Jordan Knott, Craig Hanford, Kyle Bassett, Declan Carroll, Dave Vincent, Matthew Thomas, Liam Thomas, Ceri Morgan, Kieran Lewis.
Unused subs Danny Thomas, Neil Smothers, Luke James-Raymond, Rhodri Cole.
Goal Ceri Morgan (45+3).
John Collyer | Brian Jones