Following the news that the JD Cymru South has been granted ‘elite’ status by Sport Wales and the Welsh Government, Port Talbot Town manager Mark Pike joins Talking Port to discuss the time off due to the pandemic, season preparations and the upcoming Nathaniel MG Cup fixture.  

How much did the news that Cymru South was granted elite status please you?

That’s a good question, but I have to be very honest. Getting back playing was and still is the priority but keeping the squad motivated to do so is another thing. It is more important that all players, staff and club officials of all teams are safe before doing so. Their wellbeing is more important than a game of football.  I really do not know why the football governing body did not start the football season a long time ago, they have kept everyone guessing and hoping for months and it has caused a huge frustration throughout along with a social media frenzy. In England, they have been back playing for months at all levels and I really do not get it. This pandemic is not going away any time soon and it is worse now than it was a few months back. We are now probably in the height given it is winter resulting in more Covid tests and cases as a result, If the season does start, it is likely to be a stop-start affair for sure. We are in open spaces, and with tight controls there is no reason why all football could not have started in August or September. As a result of not starting, many players and managers are walking away from game, grass roots football is in a mess and now we are expected to start under strict protocols with no revenue coming through the door. Positive cases being on the increase is going to make it very difficult indeed. Being granted ‘elite’ status, in my opinion, is somewhat a frustration to accept and I really do feel for all football in Wales. It seems that ‘elite’ status has been given to get some form of competitive football back to the higher tiers in Wales and support the governing body.

What has pre-season been like with all of the extra Covid precautions?

I have to be very honest, the restrictions are very tight, but do I understand them fully? No! There are so many assumptions and opinions around them, there is good advice and good packs to support the restrictions but on times there are too many unanswered questions that no one can answer, which then leads opinions and further discussions. One thing for sure is that we as a club and I as an individual have been very cautious and probably over cautious. This has prevented our development and readiness for the season ahead, but at the end of the day if we didn’t then we would be putting players, staff and families at risk. 

How excited are you and the squad to be returning to competitive fixtures after such a long layoff?

There is a side of me that cannot wait to get going in the new year, and there is another side that feels for the thousands of young players and seniors who cannot resume. We have not played a competitive game since last March away at Caldicot meaning almost 10 months since and now we are expected to start. Let’s be fair, friendly fixtures have been great but with the protocols of just twelve players who can attend, they are little preparation for a restart of a season. It’s been a tough, tough few months that’s for sure.

How is the squad shaping up ahead of the season?

I am really happy with the squad we have assembled. Some new faces have arrived and are still arriving. Adam Jenkins, Callum Holden, Ross Davies and Darius Waters have all been added to the squad and also not forgetting Dylan Thomas is almost back from his long-term injury so he will be like a new signing this term. Preparations for the new season have been stop-start which has been difficult. The friendlies of late have been okay but with restrictions of twelve players it has been difficult to get going. To be honest, they are no measure of where we are or where we want to be. For me and the players they were just about getting back on the field and gaining minutes. We are still waiting for a league start date and until that date is announced it is difficult to focus any differently

How has been working with the backroom staff and management during the off season?

It has been tough. Keeping players motivated in lockdown has been extremely difficult from afar; they have had to train for weeks on their own; and local restrictions have all contributed to frustrations. To be fair, the majority of the lads have all bought into our training regime whether it be alone or collectively. But they like us staff have kept going through a tough period and I am glad to say we have not lost a single member of the group. 

How has the time away allowed you to reflect on the achievements of last season?

Last season was a huge success for us as a club. I am proud of that achievement, as are the players and staff especially to give success back. The last few years have been a nightmare for the club and its supporters but thankfully we are building something to talk about. Due to restrictions, we have not been able to celebrate it like we would have liked but we won’t forget it and the most important thing now is that we focus on what is front of us in a very difficult league and not what has happened in the past. Last season’s achievements have put a smile back in the club but there still a lot to do on and off the field. I just wish we all could have celebrated the success with the fans of the club, and I am sure in the months ahead we will be able to do so. 

Attentions first turn to the Nathaniel MG Cup. What are your thoughts on the home draw with Cambrian & Clydach?

This is a great fixture. Both sides will be in the same position as I outlined previously. The fixtures between us in recent years have all been tight affairs and no doubt their new gaffer in Lee Kendall will have them well organised. They are a great club that produce great players through their academy set up and are well organised behind the scenes. Both sides have been out for a long time and the preparation and restrictions of the weeks gone by will be faced by both sides and anything can happen in the cup. We will be ready for sure, but a large contingent of our senior and youth lads in the camp are in isolation due to track and trace and they won’t be out until after the cup game. We are already carrying a few injuries, but hopefully in the week ahead this will not get any worse than it is, and we do what we can with what we have got. 

With the Cymru South set to be truncated at 15 games, how does this impact preparations and the season ahead?

A fifteen-game season is going to be very tough. This league is a tough one and every game is going to be a cup final, and anyone can beat anyone on their day. There is no room for poor performances either individually or collectively and it’s important we are very fit, collectively stick together, and work harder than ever before. These lads know what is front of them, they know the pressure and expectations of myself, the staff and club and they know what it is going to take to deliver. 

Finally, what are your aims and expectations for the season ahead?

I do set goals and objectives and sometimes these are quite hard on myself and the squad. Since I have been at the helm, I have had a clear plan and vison. My first season was to remain in the old Division One and ensure we become a Cymru South side. We achieved that with local and young lads. However, we were demoted as a result of mismanagement behind the scenes. We remained together, with a new regime added to the squad and met the objective of promotion back to the Cymru South at the first attempt. Now we are there it’s important we remain there. 

Attentions now turn to Saturday 12 December with Port Talbot Town FC set to contest their first competitive fixture since 11 March. The Blues will take on Cambrian & Clydach in the Nathaniel MG Cup at Victoria Road. Unfortunately, this match will take place behind closed doors but keep your eyes peeled on the club’s social media for official live updates. Kick-off is 2.30pm.