Underdogs hope to halt League champions
3 May ~ Wigan Athletic fans complained about the logistical problems posed by the late Wembley start time for their recent FA Cup semi-final. Venues, kick-off times and even ball colours have drawn criticism in the last few years. These moans were in stark contrast to the positive atmosphere the Welsh Cup has enjoyed this season. Perhaps it's because PR people haven't had to create their own artificial hype around it. There were no American brewery sponsorship deals and the final won't be at the national stadium, but this 127-year-old competition continues to be an attraction for its competing clubs.
Holywell Town, a club from the third tier of the Welsh national system, battled through to the semi-finals. Founding members of the Welsh Premier League (WPL) in 1992, Town struggled in subsequent years. But a last-16 victory over WPL side Newtown AFC ignited belief, and they also won at second-tier CPD Porthmadog. Manager John Haseldin's men became the first from the third level to make it to the final four. Despite not getting to the final, they made a name for themselves and Haseldin says local interest in the club has increased.
As reported in WSC 113, since the mid-1990s only clubs that play in the Welsh system can enter, ending years of full-timer participation. This shortens the odds considerably for the likes of Holywell. One professional outfit is still allowed to compete, of course: The New Saints have just steamrolled their way to the WPL title and will be going for the double in today's final at Wrexham's Racecourse ground (kick off 3pm). Greg Draper and Michael Wilde have netted 16 goals apiece as TNS will finish the league season at least 14 points clear and with a goal difference of plus 68.
But the overwhelming favourites face a side who are used to overcoming adversity. The Victorian seaside town of Aberystwyth was battered by this winter's storms, its grand pier and seafront requiring extensive repair. This turmoil was mirrored by the town's football club, who sealed a place in the top half of the league (which splits into two in January) only to be docked three points for fielding an ineligible player, meaning they failed to make the cut.
Sunderland also fielded an ineligible player this season but were not docked points for making the same mistake. Launching an appeal could have considerably delayed the start of the second phase of fixtures, so it was admirable that the club accepted the punishment. Undeterred, Ian Hughes's men motored on in the competition they have won just once, in 1900, and have now earned a place in the Europa League (TNS having already qualified for Europe). The money and publicity will provide a real boost and should grab the attention of the area's booming student population.
Beaten finalists as Neville Powell's Bangor City lifted the trophy in 2009, Aberystwyth will be keen to go one further this time. In WPL top scorer Chris Venables (24 goals), they have the firepower required to spring what would be an enormous surprise. The game will be shown live on digital television and online by S4C, and will also be available through its "Clic" catch-up service. Andy Lloyd-Williams