Llanelli Town captain Joe Clarke was the match-winner, scoring a hat-trick as the Welsh League leaders overcame a tough examination from a spirited Cwmbran Celtic side at Stebonheath Park.
Clarke struck his first goal in the sixth minute, heading home a left-wing cross. James Loveridge doubled The Reds’ lead before two games at the end of the first-half from Chris Ham and Callum Wakeham levelled the tie. Clarke’s quick-fire second-half double earned him the match ball and looked to have put Llanelli Town firmly in control, only for Owen Cook to draw Cwmbran back into it again. A 25-yard half volley from Kurtis March finally settled any home nerves and sealed the points for the Welsh League title favourites.
Due to postponements, this was the first league meeting between the sides this season, although Cwmbran Celtic ended Llanelli Town’s involvement in the Welsh Cup with a 2-1 win at Celtic Park last November. The sides are also due to meet the semi-finals of the Welsh Football League Cup next month.
After a mini-wobble after New Year, Llanelli Town have re-established their place at the top of the Welsh League in recent weeks, while Cwmbran Celtic came into the game on the back of a remarkable 10-0 win at Goytre in midweek. However, there was little evidence of that in the early stages as the home side took control of the game and for much of the first half Celtic had real difficulties getting any sort of footing in terms of possession of the territory.
When Joe Clarke headed The Reds in front in the sixth minute it was of little surprise as they had already pegged the visitors’ defence back with Lee Trundle influential in most of the attacking play. Celtic’s hopes of getting into the game weren’t helped by disruption of having to make all three substitutions inside the opening half hour.
Rhys Williams was forced off as early as the seventh minute when he was injured attempting a tackle on Kurtis March. Then in the 22nd minute, an unfortunate collision between Cwmbran Celtic goalkeeper Lewis Watkins and team-mate Andrew Larcombe meant not only a six-minute delay but the replacement of both players. Manager Lee Chapman was forced to re-jig his line-up, with centre-forward Lewis Iles pushed back into central defence to accommodate the team shape.
While Cwmbran tried to come to terms with the re-organisation, Llanelli sensed the opportunity and turned up the gas. James Loveridge beat the offside trap and wasted one opportunity before he did double the Llanelli lead, while Trundle showed his class with a fine touch and turn, but his shot from the edge of the area was too close to replacement goalkeeper Jordan Dibble.
It didn’t take too long for the pressure to tell and it was the pace of Loveridge that unlocked the door. Breaking from their own half, Llanelli’s Chris Jones played the ball behind the retreating Cwmbran defence, Loveridge had the legs and rounded Dibble, this time showing better composure to roll the ball into an empty net from a tight angle.
Chris Ham beat a static Llanelli back line and showed superb touch to loft the ball over Llanelli Town keeper Craig Morris and into the net. Then on the stroke of half-time, the visitors levelled the game. King Junior Mwedzo’s cross from the left was missed by Morris, allowing Callum Wakeham to poke the ball home from a couple of yards. There was even a chance for Cwmbran to take the lead in first-half stoppage time, Mwedzo forcing a smart stop from Morris.
The second-half started as the first half ended, with Cwmbran the dominant side. Mwedzo was just centimetres away from connecting with a delicious Chris Ham cross. Shortly after Callum Wakeham was again in on goal, he did everything right to lift the ball over Morris, but Chris Thomas got back to stop the goalbound effort on the line.
However, Llanelli rode through this difficult period and regained the lead with their first chance of the second half. Kurtis March was unlucky to see his effort cannon off the crossbar, but Joe Clarke was on hand to smash home the rebound. There was outrage on the Cwmbran Celtic bench, feeling there had been a foul by March on Lewis Iles in the build-up. The severity of the protestations led to referee Kim Fisher sending Celtic manager Lee Challenger to the stands.
With their tails up, Llanelli looked to run riot. Chris Jones hit the post with a rasping drive, a minute later Trundle and Clarke combined superbly inside the penalty area, allowing Clarke a tap-in to complete his hat-trick in the 69th minute. It should have been done and dusted, but Celtic showed superb spirit to get themselves back into when Owen Cook headed home Simon Prangley’s free-kick as the game moved into the final ten minutes.
However, within a minute of the restart Llanelli Town re-established their two-goal cushion. Pouncing on a loose ball, March smashed home a half-volley from 25 yards that Dibble had very little chance of saving.
The win takes Llanelli Town three points clear of second-placed Penybont, but The Reds have five games in hand. More importantly, Llanelli are now nine points clear of their only real threat for the Welsh League title, Haverfordwest County. The sides meet at Stebonheath Park on Tuesday night in what is being billed as a probable title decider.
(Featured Image: Steve Roberts)