Facing the Welsh Premier League's 'Big Three' – Llanelli AFC, Rhyl FC and The New Saints FC – in successive weeks would normally be enough to send any manager running for the hills. For fast-improving Neath Athletic AFC, however, the tough run of fixtures merely provided the latest confirmation that they are becoming an outfit to rival the best.
Neath's return from those three games was an impressive seven points and it could so easily have been a maximum haul as they led 2-0 at TNS before the home side recovered to draw. At one stage this season the team from South Wales, who were only promoted to the top flight two years ago, led the way in the table and the fact that they have been able to maintain a strong challenge reflects the abilities of manager Andy Dyer.
Neath's rise follows the arrival of a consortium of business people halfway through last season and the decision to go full time. Dyer says it has been a big factor in their ability to put together more favourable results after last season's struggles, when they finished four places off the bottom. "There's no doubt that if you are introducing seven or eight players from a higher standard of football that the group as a whole will improve," he said. "At the same time we've still got eight of last year's squad and if you've got more time to work with them, and if you can put more detail into that work, then improvements will come.
"Hopefully other teams will look at what we have done and will be inspired to follow suit," added Dyer. "That will make the league stronger. Our aim at the start was to try and finish in the top three and we will be disappointed if we can't achieve that. But there's other teams with the same drive and the same capabilities of getting there. The league is a lot tighter and that's because of the move to slim down to 12 clubs next season. Teams need to be in the top ten and have spent accordingly."
One of the players Neath have been able to attract is former Wales attacking midfielder Chris Llewellyn, who played in England for Grimsby Town FC last year. "This is a tough league, an unforgiving league, with good managers who send out well-organised teams," Dyer said. "Chris will be the first to tell you that he was really impressed with the standard when he arrived and, if we can attract more players like him, it can only help the profile of the league."
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