It was a difficult year for the domestic game in Wales as the pandemic affected every aspect of the sport. However, new champions were confirmed as Connah's Quay Nomads and Swansea City Ladies claimed their respective league titles.
The early curtailment of the 2019/20 season also saw champions confirmed in the JD Cymru North and South, while Swansea University were named FAW Futsal champions and were elected to represent Wales in the UEFA Futsal Champions League. As 2020 comes to a close, the JD Cymru Premier and Orchard Welsh Premier Women's League have resumed, while clubs in the JD Cymru North and South have returned to competitive action in the Nathaniel MG Cup. Here's a look back at 2020 in the domestic game.
Connah's Quay Nomads claimed the first silverware of the year back in February as Andy Morrison's side lifted the Nathaniel MG Cup with a convincing 3-0 win over JD Cymru South side STM Sports at Newtown. Two goals from Michael Wilde in the opening half were added to by Jamie Insall following the restart as the Nomads ended a 24-year wait for the trophy which the club previously claimed in the 1995/96 season.
A 1-0 victory for Connah's Quay Nomads over champions The New Saints towards the end of February proved to be crucial in the JD Cymru Premier title race. Within a couple of weeks of the victory, domestic football was suspended due to the pandemic, and the decision was eventually made in May to award the domestic titles on a points-per-game basis.
As a result, Andy Morrison's side were crowned champions of the JD Cymru Premier for the first time, and with it ended the domestic dominance that The New Saints had enjoyed over the course of the last decade. “It's fantastic, it's great and it's nice to have that title,” explained Morrison. “We were in an incredibly strong position when the season was curtailed. The work that goes on behind the scenes by so many different people is huge, so it's a reward for a lot of hard work, not just this season, but for a few seasons now.”
Derbyniodd Pencampwyr y JD Cymru Premier, Cei Connah, tlws y gynghrair heddiw!— JD Cymru Leagues (@CymruLeagues) August 15, 2020
The 2019/20 JD Cymru Premier Champions @the_nomads received the league trophy today!
————#JDCymruPremier x @sgorio pic.twitter.com/SXa3m8XQ1g
A similar situation occurred in the Orchard Welsh Premier Women's League, as Swansea City Ladies claimed the league title for the first time since 2016/17, denying Cardiff Met Women a third consecutive title. Meanwhile, Prestatyn Town were named champions of the JD Cymru North and Swansea University were awarded the JD Cymru South title. However, it was Flint Town United and Haverfordwest County that would achieve promotion from those respective divisions due to domestic licensing requirements.
European success and agony
The restrictions of the pandemic extended beyond the domestic game and into European competition, with the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions League, Europa League and Women's Champions League changing to a one game format instead of the usual home and away ties. Connah's Quay Nomads were drawn to play FK Sarajevo and staged the match at the Cardiff City Stadium. Despite a strong performance, the visitors claimed a 2-0 victory.
The defeat meant that the Nomads would enter the 2nd qualifying round of the Europa League and would host Dinamo Tbilisi at the Racecourse in Wrexham. Despite losing a number of players to coronavirus, a 1-0 defeat through an injury-time penalty was a cruel way for Andy Morrison's side to bring their European campaign to an end. There was better news for Bala Town as Chris Venables scored the only goal of the game away to Valletta to claim a memorable win, but a 2-0 reverse to Belgian giants Standard Liege in the next round ended their European involvement.
Barry Town United suffered a heavy 5-1 defeat away to NSI Runavik of the Faroe Islands in the Preliminary round of the Europa League, with Kayne McLaggon scoring the consolation for Gavin Chesterfield's side, while The New Saints defeated MSK Zilina of Slovakia 3-1 after extra time at Park Hall. However, a late extra-time equaliser from B36 Torshavn of the Faroe Islands in the next round took the tie to penalties after a 2-2 draw, and Scott Ruscoe's side were knocked out of the competition.
Towards the end of the year, Swansea City Ladies took part in the UEFA Women's Champions League, but suffered a 3-0 defeat to Apollon in Cyprus to bring their involvement in the competition to a close. Meanwhile, Swansea University headed to Poland to compete in the UEFA Futsal Champions League, but suffered a 6-0 defeat to Rekord Bielsko-Biala.
Return to play
Despite the disruption and lack of competitive domestic action for the majority of 2020, the year does end on a positive with the JD Cymru Premier and the Orchard Welsh Premier Women's League now a number of games into the 2020/21 season. In addition, clubs in the JD Cymru North and South have returned to competitive football with the start of the Nathaniel MG Cup in December, and their respective league campaigns are scheduled to start in the new year.
“We've worked hard with the Welsh Government to secure that the Cymru Premier clubs are granted elite status that allowed us to return behind closed doors,” explained JD Cymru Premier Secretary Gwyn Derfel at the start of the season. “There are demands on the clubs to secure everyone's health and safety. We have a responsibility, and if we want football to come back fully and ultimately with supporters then we have to be responsible.
“We're in very difficult times and the league has already started five weeks late. We're in weekly discussions with the Welsh Government trying to get our points across and we've tried to get the FAW and member clubs pulling in the same direction. We acknowledge that these are very difficult times but we are confident that we will have a meaningful season this year.”
The return to play has been a huge challenge for clubs in order to ensure that the necessary protocols are met in order for games to go ahead safely. The domestic game continues to be played behind closed doors, but the steps forward that have been made will hopefully bring fans safely back through the gates sooner rather than later.