There were plenty of positives for the domestic game to take from 2021 as the easing of Covid restrictions brought with it a return to competitive action at all levels of the game while supporters were welcomed back through the turnstiles.
For all the challenges faced by our clubs during 2020, the fact that both the JD Cymru Premier and Welsh Premier Women's League were played to a conclusion is testament to the tremendous efforts of the clubs and their dedicated bands of volunteers who went over and above to ensure the protocols were followed and that their players and officials remained safe.
But to celebrate the return of the collective domestic game it's important to focus on the football when reflecting on what has been achieved during the course of the last calendar year. Attendances have especially improved across the lower tiers since the action returned in the summer, with the excellent Cymru Football App playing a huge role in providing fans with fixtures and updates, and the focus for 2022 will be to ensure that the domestic game continues to move from strength to strength.
Connah's Quay Nomads retained their JD Cymru Premier crown as they finished above The New Saints for the second successive season.
A 2-0 victory over Penybont on the final day of the campaign sealed the victory for Andy Morrison's side, and while the manager was coy about his future in the post-match celebrations, he would remain at the helm for their UEFA Champions League campaign before stepping down at the end of September.
Meanwhile, Swansea City Ladies also won their second successive domestic title, and with it completed a league and cup double with a convincing 4-1 win over rivals Cardiff City in the League Cup final at Dragon Park.
Undefeated throughout the course of the campaign, the Swans finished the season a point ahead of Cardiff Met Women to book their place in the UEFA Women's Champions League.
It would prove to be a busy summer for The New Saints as they competed in the UEFA Europa Conference League, and despite missing out on the JD Cymru Premier title, manager Anthony Limbrick could not hide his excitement as he prepared for his first European campaign with the side. Drawn against Irish side Glentoran in the opening qualifying round, a 1-1 draw away from home was followed by a 2-0 win at Park Hall to setup a tie against Lithuanian outfit Kauno Žalgiris. An incredible 10-1 aggregate victory made headlines for the Saints and with it a third qualifying round tie against Czech side Viktoria Plzeň.
An established side in the European game, Viktoria Plzeň were rubbing shoulders against Real Madrid and Roma in the group stages of the Champions League in 2018/19, and few gave Limbrick's side any chance despite the manner of their win over Kauno Žalgiris in the previous round. However, a hat-trick from recent signing Declan McManus and a Blaine Hudson header put The New Saints 4-0 ahead at the Cardiff City Stadium before the visitors frustratingly replied with two late goals. A 3-1 defeat in the Czech Republic took the tie to penalties with the two teams level at 5-5, but the Czech's held their nerve to bring this memorable European campaign to an end.
Connah's Quay Nomads returned to the Champions League with a tie against Armenian champions Alashkert and drew 2-2 at Aberystwyth Town's Park Avenue before suffering a 1-0 defeat after extra-time in the return match. Andy Morrison's side dropped down to the Europa Conference League following the defeat and were handed a difficult tie against Kosovan outfit Prishtina. Despite suffering a 4-1 defeat in the away leg, the Nomads claimed a 4-2 win in the return match at Park Avenue, but could not find the elusive fifth goal on the night that would have brought them level as they were eliminated 6-5 on aggregate after an incredible effort.
Bala Town and Newtown, the latter qualifying as JD Cymru Premier play-off winners, would take the remaining places in the Europa Conference League with the Lakesiders suffering a 1-0 defeat against Larne in both legs to exit 2-0 on aggregate. Colin Caton's side had made headlines in the build-up to the campaign with the signing of former Cymru midfielder Dave Edwards, but even his international experience could not take the side past the opening round. It was a similar story for Newtown as Chris Hughes's side went down 5-0 on aggregate against Dundalk.
Swansea City Ladies announced the appointment of Chris Llewellyn as their new head coach as they headed to Cyprus for their UEFA Women's Champions League qualifying group in August. Drawn against full-time Russian side CSKA Moscow, the Swans put in a tremendous display to take the match to extra-time as Chloe Chivers equalised in the final moments, but the Russian side would claim a 4-1 win. The Swans were then beaten 2-0 by FC Dinamo Minsk in the 3rd place play-off, with hosts Apollon Limassol progressing to the knock-out stages of the competition as the mini-tournament winners. Llewellyn has since been replaced by Chris Church as the side look to retain their domestic title.
The influential and evergreen Chris Venables played a key role in Bala Town qualifying for the UEFA Europa Conference League as the 36-year old claimed the Golden Boot with 24 goals during the campaign. Another veteran in Michael Wilde showed he still has the ability to make an impression in the JD Cymru Premier as he scored 18 goals for Connah's Quay Nomads and claimed the Player of the Season award.
Meanwhile, Chloe O'Connor scored 15 league goals for Cardiff Met Women to finish as the top scorer ahead of Swansea City Ladies' Stacey John-Davies who found the net 14 times during the campaign. A string of impressive performances from O'Connor attracted the attention of Bristol City Women during the summer and she completed her move to the FA Championship club in July.
Following the departure of Andy Morrison in September, Connah's Quay Nomads quickly announced the appointment of Craig Harrison as his replacement. However, the former boss of The New Saints will need to see an improvement from his side in the second half of the season if they are to make qualify for a European place. Although The New Saints boast a commanding lead at the top of the JD Cymru Premier, unlikely candidates Newtown, Penybont and newcomers Flint Town United are all pushing for European football next season, and there should be an exciting conclusion to the campaign as the final places are decided.
Meanwhile, Airbus UK Broughton are enjoying a successful season at the top of the JD Cymru North, but things are a lot closer in the JD Cymru South with Pontypridd Town, Briton Ferry Llansawel and Llantwit Major all currently in the title mix.
The competitive nature of the feeder leagues continues into Tier 3 with all four divisions of the Ardal Leagues looking too close to call as the teams head into the festive period.
In the new Genaro Adran Premier, Swansea City remain on-course to retain their title, while Aberystwyth Town have defied the odds to claim a top four place ahead of the mid-season split.
The Nathaniel MG Cup final will take place in February 2022 as Connah's Quay Nomads take on Cardiff Met at the Penybont's SDM Stadium. With the competition curtailed last season due to the pandemic, the final brings together the last two winners of the trophy.
The JD Welsh Cup and FAW Women's Cup also resume in February with both competitions reaching the quarter-final stage.
The semi-finals of the FAW Youth Cup will then take place in March as Caerau Ely take on Flint Town United and The New Saints face either Briton Ferry Llansawel or Penybont.