Over to you, Jeff

Four days after being dumped out of the Cup against Bangor City, we dust ourselves off and travel to Bridge Meadow Stadium to take on fifth-placed Haverfordwest County for our first chance to win the league. The bookies believe that we’ll do it as we’re 4/6 favourites. I make 11 changes from the Cup defeat, so the same 11 who started our last league match against Airbus UK Broughton get the chance to wrap things up – this results in Jan Sebek making his 25th career league appearance (and 25th league appearance for TNS). We might be away, but I tell the lads to do it for the 321 fans in attendance.

As with our last league match, there’s an early goal. Two minutes. But it’s against us; there’s a scramble in the area following a corner and McCulley is on hand to poke it home from 6 yards. It seems to spur us on as two minutes later, Darren Otten shoots over from 20 yards before shooting wide from a similar distance in the 10th minute. Wayne Carlisle has a go in the 12th minute and he sees his shot turned around the post for a corner. We’re piling on the pressure and it tells in the 18th minute when Kofi Poyser crosses from the right and Scott McBride taps into an empty net at the far post from 4 yards out for his second goal of the season. It’s Haverfordwest’s turn to be spurred on as Rose-Miles shoots straight at Sebek from 20 yards. Conor Hourihane unleashes another long range missile in the 24th minute, but sees his 20 yard shot beaten away by the keeper. In the 30th minute, a 25 yard shot from Evans beats Sebek, but it hits the post and we clear it for a throw. In the 33rd minute, Darren Otten takes a free kick from the left and finds David Nixon unmarked at the far post – he lashes into the roof of the net from 5 yards out for his first ever TNS goal and to put us into the lead. Goals are like buses and another one soon comes along in the 39th minute. Marco Pelosi takes a free kick from the left and Steven Smith heads home from 8 yards for his first ever goal for the club. The two goal lead nearly becomes a one goal lead in the 43rd minute when a header from Evans at the far post is cleared off the line by Joseph Oastler. A minute later, Poyser shoots tamely at the keeper from 18 yards.

The second half sees the first chance fall to us in the 51st minute when McBride crosses from the left and finds Carlisle unmarked at the far post. He heads from 8 yards and… puts it wide! That would have definitely wrapped the points and league up. The game starts to fizzle out, although Otten picks up a yellow card in the 78th minute. Poyser has a chance in the 84th minute, but his shot from 16 yards is tipped over by the keeper. The final chance falls to Roberts, but he shoots wide so he doesn’t set up a grand finale. Smith is named Man of the Match with a rating of 8.1 and a goal, but… WE’RE TOP BY 10 POINTS AND THE CHAMPIONS!!!! Winning the league also sees us break the points record, which had been held by Neath (65 points) and we still have three games to go. I think we all know what Jeff Stelling would say…

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Fighting on two fronts

After the ‘Battle of The Airfield’, we’re grateful for a ten day break between games as it gives David Nixon a chance to recover from his dead leg and for Wayne Carlisle to regain his fitness after limping off. Llanelli take advantage of a break as well and appoint Scott Ramsey as their manager.

After our break, we welcome third-placed Bangor City to Park Hall. We’re 1/3 favourites to win, but I’m a bit concerned as Darren Otten is playing and Lee Evans is refereeing. I make one change, with Kofi Poyser coming in for the injured Lucas Akins. Amongst the 205 in attendance is Mike Newell, the Wycombe Wanderers manager, who is reported to be interested in signing David Mooney. The fifth minute sees some head tennis in the Bangor penalty area, which eventually results in a header out of the area; it falls to Conor Hourihane who thunders in a volley from 20 yards for his second goal of the season and a dream start. Two minutes later, Mooney plays in Poyser, but he can only shoot wide from 30 yards. Poyser has a chance to make amends in the 15th minute when a cross from the left by Otten finds him unmarked on the 6 yard line, but the keeper gets out quickly and smothers the ball. Marco Pelosi puts an inswinging corner from the right into the near post in the 19th minute and Steven Smith goes down – penalty! Darren Otten steps up and fires it low to the keeper’s left for his 8th goal of the season. Mr Evans is involved in the next incident of note, booking Collins in the 24th minute for fouling Scott McBride. Pelosi is involved in the action again in the 25th minute as a diagonal ball finds Wayne Carlisle, who centres for an unmarked Poyser who scores his 4th goal of the season from 10 yards out. 3-0 inside the opening half-hour – brilliant! Conor Hourihane becomes our first booking of the game in the 27th minute. Bangor win a corner in the 42nd minute and an outswinging corner from the right finds Long, who reduces the deficit from 5 yards out with a header. Otten comes close to restoring the three-goal cushion in the 44th minute, but he shoots wide from 18 yards; he shoots just over from 20 yards in stoppage time. In the 52nd minute, Hourihane slides Mooney in and Johnston makes a last ditch tackle; Mooney goes down and Mr Evans blows his whistle – penalty! Johnston picks up a yellow card for his trouble. Otten places the ball on the spot and goes low to the keeper’s left again and hits the post… but it’s the inside of the post – 4-1! It’s Otten’s ninth of the season. Collins is summoned over by the referee in the 56th minute for a foul, but Mr Evans lets him off with a warning. Reed runs unchallenged down the right of the pitch in the 59th minute and beats Aaron McCarey at the near post to cut the gap to two again as I wonder where the defence went. Wilson is added to the book in the 62nd minute. In the 67th minute, Otten gets the ball and shoots from 25 yards – he beats the keeper at his near post for his 10th of the season and his hat-trick. The game peters out after our fifth, but David Nixon picks up a yellow card in the 88th minute. Darren Otten is unsurprisingly named Man of the Match following his hat-trick and a rating of 9.5. Perhaps more surprising that Otten’s hat-trick is that he doesn’t get booked by Mr Evans (I hope no-one from the Welsh FA is reading this!) Even better news is that we’re top by 6 points following our victory, although Carmarthen were not in action and have a game in hand over us.

Cheltenham Town are worried they might lose Mark Yates at the end of the season and my name is in the mix as a possible replacement. Darren Otten claims Player of the Month (3 games, 5 goals, rating of 8.13) and is named in Team of the Month, along with Marco Pelosi, David Nixon, Joseph Oastler, Paul Robson and David Mooney. I get named Manager of the Month. Some of our fans go slightly overboard with their praise of Otten though:

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Happy with Otten #FM

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He’s in fine form and young, but leading the line? He’s my ball-winning midfielder!

Three days after our convincing victory over Bangor, we welcome Haverfordwest County to Park Hall for the Welsh Cup quarter final. We’re 2/5 favourites and I make eleven changes. Bagsan Graham scores his first goal for the club in the 9th minute from 25 yards to the delight of the 252 fans in attendance. Little of note happens after the goal, with the exception of Jeff Whitley shooting over from 30 yards in the 31st minute and Matty Williams being played in by Graham in the 41st minute, but the keeper tips it over. The first half lacked excitement and it continued through the second half. Haverfordwest have a chance in the 60th minute when McLaren runs from deep, but he elects to shoot from 25 yards and it goes wide. In the 67th minute, I bring on Paudie Quinn for his return from injury. Richie Partridge has a free kick in the 73rd minute from 20 yards out, but it’s straight at the keeper. Matty Williams plays Graham in on goal in the 78th minutes and he selflessly squares the ball to Paul Robson, who rolls the ball into an unguarded net for his 4th goal of the season. Graham adds the icing on the cake in the 84th minute when Robson picks up a pass from Williams and fires straight at the keeper; Graham picks up the rebound and gets his 2nd of the game and season from 16 yards – an excellent way to end a 454 minute goal drought! Graham is named Man of the Match with his 2 goals and an assist, getting a rating of 9.3. Our semi-final opponents will be Bangor City. Whilst we’ve been in Cup action, Carmarthen have been in league action and record a victory, cutting the gap to three points again and nicely setting up our next league match away to them.

Can the lads show bouncebackability?

After our 5-1 thumping at Carmarthen, it’s not too surprising that we don’t walk away with any end of month awards. However, Paul Robson and David Mooney do make it into the January Team of the Month.

They say that after a big loss, the best thing to do is get straight back into action, which is just as well because the 4th Round of the Welsh Cup is just three days after our visit to Carmarthen. We welcome Port Talbot Town to Park Hall and I make 11 changes, which includes Darren Otten returning from suspension, Scott McBride making his first start since coming back from injury and Steven Smith making his debut. We’re 1/3 favourites, but after our last performance, I’m not feeling all that confident. We start off in the snow and in the 4th minute, Bagsan Graham plays in Kofi Poyser, but he shoots straight at the keeper. The snow soon turns to rain and the football on offer is less inspiring than the weather. The game sprang into life just before half time, as in the 44th minute, Scott McBride crosses from the left wing and Kofi Poyser heads in from 6 yards out for his 3rd of the season. Things get better almost immediately as in stoppage time, Darren Otten fires a free kick through the wall from 25 yards out into the keeper’s bottom right for his 5th of the season. We almost extend our lead further in the 50th minute when Bagsan Graham cuts the ball back from the right bye-line; the cross hits a defender and hits the post before being cleared to safety. The 54th minute sees the first card of the game as Clifford gets booked for fouling Poyser. A 2-0 lead is always said to be a dangerous scoreline, which Danny Holmes proves in the 64th minute when he plays a diagonal ball across our penalty area and Mirzai intercepts with a header on the 18 yard line that loops over Aaron McCarey and cuts our lead in half. Two minutes later, McBride has a chance to restore our two-goal lead, but can only head wide from 6 yards when unmarked at the far post. Danny Holmes’ afternoon gets worse in the 67th minute when he gets booked, although Clifford ends up with the worst afternoon when he fouls Poyser (again!) in the 73rd minute and the referee produces a yellow card and then the red. We comfortably see the game out to the delight of the 406 in attendance, but without really threatening further. Kofi Poyser is named Man of the Match with a rating of 8 and the contribution of a goal and an assist.

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Table split

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After the distraction of the Cup, we return to the league and the game against Carmarthen was the last one before the table splits into two. We start at the top of the table and the first of our final 10 league games is at home against the team we have also drawn at home for the quarter final of the Welsh Cup, fifth-placed Haverfordwest County. We’re 1/3 favourites and some more regular faces return to the starting line up, although Aaron McCarey, Steven Smith, Darren Otten and Scott McBride remain in the starting eleven. Lucas Akins returns to the starting eleven and makes his 75th career league appearance. Despite being favourites, it’s Haverfordwest who break the deadlock in the 14th minute when an outswinging corner from the right finds Gascoigne, who lashes the ball in from 8 yards. Ten minutes later, David Mooney is played in, but his shot is straight at the keeper. David Nixon picks up a booking in the 36th minute. In the 39th minute, David Mooney dribbles to the right of the area and crosses along the floor; his cross is met by Lucas Akins sliding in at the far post from 10 yards out, who celebrates his 75th career league start with his 7th goal of the season. We continue with the pressure and in the 49th minute, Mooney dribbles into the area again and Davies brings him down. The referee has no hesitation and points to the spot. Darren Otten finds the side of the net to the keeper’s right for his 6th of the season and to give us a 2-1 lead. A one-goal lead is always precarious and there’s a scare in the 55th minute when Collins takes a free kick from the right and finds Evans at the far post, who heads just over from 8 yards. Thankfully, we’re able to establish a two-goal lead in the 76th minute when Darren Otten slides in David Mooney, who fires the ball past the keeper for his 16th goal of the season and also his 75th career league goal, which he scores in front of 218 fans. Mooney has a chance to grab his 17th of the season in stoppage time when Ibrahim Farah plays him in, but he shoots straight at the keeper. Despite this, David Mooney is named as Man of the Match with a rating of 8.6, helped by a goal and two assists. The victory has us top by three points as Carmarthen beat Bangor and leapfrog them into second.

There are U21 international friendlies mid-week and Darren Otten and Aaron McCarey get call-ups for Wales and the Republic of Ireland respectively. Otten comes on as a substitute and records a rating of 6.6 as Wales U21s draw 1-1 at Chinese Taipei U21s. Aaron McCarey is also a substitute, recording a rating of 6.7 as Republic of Ireland U21s lose 3-0 at Italy U21s.

Both are available for our next league match, which sees us travel to The Airfield to take on fourth-placed Airbus UK. We’re 1/2 favourites, but Airbus UK decide to take a physical approach to try and level the odds in front of their 107 fans. Wraighte picks up a yellow card for the hosts in the 7th minute and a minute later, Lucas Akins shoots tamely at the keeper from 20 yards. In the 10th minute, David Nixon goes off injured and five minutes later, Edwards picks up a booking. In the 21st minute, Akins hits a much better shot (this time from 30 yards) that beats the keeper, but unfortunately not the crossbar. We continue to put the pressure on and in the 31st minute, an inswinging Darren Otten corner finds David Mooney at the near post and he finds the net. Sadly for us, it’s the side-netting. Three minutes after Mooney finds the side-netting, Akins finds the crossbar again, this time from 25 yards out. It proves to be his last effort of the afternoon as he becomes our second injury of the afternoon. Bagsan Graham replaces him and shoots just wide in the 53rd minute. Three minutes later, Conor Hourihane crosses from the left and finds Wayne Carlisle unmarked at the far post and he makes no mistake from 6 yards out and scores his 5th goal of the season. We have a great chance to make it 2-0 in the 59th minute when Bagsan Graham picks up a loose defensive header, but he can only shoot straight at the keeper. Wayne Carlisle becomes our third casualty of the afternoon in the 65th minute in an incident that also sees Wraighte pick up his second yellow card of the afternoon. In the 71st minute, Bagsan Graham crosses from the right and Paul Robson heads just over, missing the chance to score on his 50th league appearance for us. In stoppage time, Bagsan Graham is fouled in the penalty area and Darren Otten wraps the victory up with a penalty low to the keeper’s left that hits the side of the net before the back for his 7th goal of the season. Joseph Oastler is named Man of the Match, with a rating of 8.5. We remain top by three points.

After the battle at The Airfield, the physio comes with his report. Wayne Carlisle is not out for any period of time, David Nixon is out for 6 days with a dead leg, whilst Lucas Akins has a pulled hamstring and will be out for 5-6 weeks, so there will definitely be a change or two before our next game at Bangor in 10 days time. In news around the league, tenth-place Llanelli sack Andy Legg. Whilst in no danger of relegation due to Bridgend struggling so much, they were joint favourites for the title at the start of the season, so to be in 10th with 8 games to go has seen the patience of the board run out.