Talking Port: Mark Pike’s Season Reflection

Following this week’s announcement from the Football Association of Wales that the football season had been curtailed and that standings would be decided on an unweighted points-per-game basis, Brandon Arthur caught up with Port Talbot Town manager Mark Pike on Talking Port for his reflections on the 2019/20 season. 

Following the FAW’s announcement earlier this week, what is your immediate reaction to the campaign for Port Talbot Town?

Firstly, I would like to congratulate Trefelin BGC on winning Welsh League Division One. They have had a massive season and are a great side with some outstanding quality. Huge credit must be given to their gaffer Richard Ryan, his staff, players, Steve Green and everyone behind the scenes there for a huge achievement that was thoroughly deserved. 

For us, if I am being honest, we had a simple objective which was promotion and getting us back to where we belong at the first time of asking. Last season’s demotion was a bitter blow to myself and this group for reasons that we all know were not football related. 

We have been in the top three all season give or take and at the point of curtailment we were second place and deserved to be. Going into the latter end of the season, I genuinely did not see us losing and was very confident of us coming runners-up to Trefelin.

On the points per game basis, Port Talbot Town finish third in Welsh League Division One and in the final promotion spot. How hopeful are you that there will be movement up and down the pyramid? 

Whilst this is a decision I think every club involved in football is looking out for, we need to put it into perspective. The season was curtailed for a serious reason and people are losing their lives throughout the world. Families are heartbroken, people are losing their jobs and we are all giving up thing that we previously took for granted. At this time, the priority is keeping everyone safe and unfortunately that means football is on the backburner. 

Needless to say, sport in general is important for many reasons and gives us all a purpose. I, like everyone else, am missing the game and it has been a good time to reflect. However, it is difficult to answer the question. In my opinion, if there are winners then there must be loser. I do think the FAW will have movement, that is for sure. This is simply because of failures in licensing and not forgetting they have set the precedent of crowning champions in all league through tiers one to four, and leagues below have followed suit and rightly so. 

Social media has been rife over the last few weeks and a lot of it is just pure speculation. Until the FAW make an announcement then it is out of our hands. I am hopeful they will make the right decision and at the very least promote throughout all leagues as per the ruleset, but you never know. All we can do now is believe in the process and that the FAW make the correct decisions. 

What is your personal highlight of the season?

To be honest, it’s the season as a whole. These lads are a huge credit to what we want to achieve. From a game perspective, the 1-1 home draw vs Trefelin in August was an entertaining game for the neutral. We played ever so well that night. The last ten minutes was quite frantic as we started to run out of steam, and we could have been two or three up. However, we also could have lost it by two or three as well, particularly in the last ten minutes and that wonderful last minute save of our very own James Harris to deny Jordan Edwards to keep it a draw and a share of the spoils, which was a fair result in the end.

On another note, gaining the Tier Two license is hugely beneficial to what we want to achieve and now allows us to steer the ship both on and off the field. We have set our goals and targets for the next three years and will aspire to meet them like we have done since I have been in control. That will come with hard work on and off the field for sure.

And what might be your personal lowlight of the season?

I have to answer with a heavy and broken heart. It was hearing the news back in early September 2019 that my mother had a brain tumour and that no treatment was going to cure her. It was like a thunderbolt hitting me. Dealing with this and still trying to keep going was so hard, but we had to be strong for her and try to keep things as normal as we could. I did contemplate on finishing my time in the game to look after her and spend as much time as we could with her without knowing how long she had left in the world. 

At 74-years-old and still very strong, this news turned our lives upside down. The football community was unbelievable all across the globe with so many messages of support. It was just incredible and it gave me and the family the strength to keep on going. She passed away peacefully in February this year and that six-month period was so hard and on times was awful, but we kept going.

The players and the club as a whole were incredibly supportive and we are extremely grateful of that. As you know, Dai Morgan a friend and part of the club also lost his mum in the New Year so for us both and our families, it has been a tough time.  

What was the season’s best moment in your opinion?

To be honest, there were some great moments over the campaign. For me, it is seeing young players making their first team debuts. Tom Evans, Callum Lovett, Rhys Jones and Bailey Embling-Jones all just sixteen or seventeen and they have played a huge part in the season. 

The moment for me was seeing young Bailey scoring his first senior goal in the 2-0 win at Llwydcoed. That was a tough game in heavy and blustery conditions, and he pulls out a 20-yard strike out of nowhere that secured the three points.

On top of this, I have to mention our top supporters who have stuck with this club through thick and thin. They have seen many highs over the years, but they have also been through the lows. One thing for sure is that we have a management and playing group that rely on your support. The players and staff have created a great relationship and we are all extremely grateful of the supporters both home and away. They never stop singing and it just lifts the players to no end. 

We may not be the best ever Port Talbot Town side, but one thing for certain is that we have a group of young lads who want to be here and are proud to wear the badge. They give 100% for the supporters and the club and that will continue as we, together with you, will turn this club into one that is not just sustainable, but one that we can all be proud of. We sincerely hope that support base grows, and we will in the league we deserve to be in very soon, which will give the supporters something more to sing about. 

If you could pick just one, what goal stands out from the season?

It has to be the Owen Williams last minute flick and volley from thirty yards straight into the roof of the net against Gorseinon in the FAW Trophy. It was brilliant technique and we were destined to go into extra time. Last minute winners are always great goals, but this one was very special.

And what performance sticks out as the best from the season?

This one has got to be the 3-0 win away at Risca United. We worked on a game plan in training and whilst the lads did not really enjoy the session, they nailed it on the day. They played collectively in their own roles and responsibilities and we came away with arguably our best performance of the campaign. 

If you can differentiate, what was the most satisfying win of the campaign?

There were quite a few satisfying wins this season. The 5-0 win at Garden Village, the 2-0 win at Monmouth, the 3-0 at Risca and the 1-1 draw at home to Trefelin were all exceptional results. However, for me the 4-1 home win over Bridgend Street really stands out. It was a tough game from the start, and we went into it with a game plan we had worked on all week but come Saturday afternoon it went pear shaped. 

The experienced Paul Fowler was pulling the strings as a deep lying midfielder and we had to change our plan as early as the fifteenth minute. We never looked back though despite being 1-0 up at this stage and going on to win 4-1. I have picked this one out not simply because of our performance and the result, but from a point of having to change to Plan D and the player adapting quite quickly and getting an important win. 

How do you think the side improved in your second season in charge?

This is a difficult one to answer. Last season was a tough old challenge for what was a young and inexperienced side. Our character and attitude were exemplary in what was a tough league. As a result of the infamous relegation, losing Jandir Zola, Kieran Miller and Keane Watts was a bitter blow to what we wanted to achieve. 

Going into the season we had the collective objective of promotion, but to achieve it we had to understand the league and adapt accordingly. We did do that very quickly and became hard to beat as our goals conceded record proves.

Collectively, I think we are growing as a group and going to Caldicot midweek and coming away with a 1-0 win demonstrates what we are capable of. The wins at Garden Village and home to Bridgend Street both show that we have adapted fast in an unknown league.

Comparing last season to this one is difficult, but if there is one thing these guys have learned this year is that hard work pays off. In our last two games before the season was curtailed, we were not at our best but showed that we are a resilient team that is hard working and that we have a never-say-die attitude. We keep going until the end and the results speak for themselves. We now known how to manage games and see them out which is hugely positive. Over the two seasons we have all improved so much and there is much more to come.

If possible, who do you think is the most improved player of the season?

I think there are a few candidates for this category and I wouldn’t want to name them, but I can pick out young sixteen-year-old Rhys Jones. He has come on leaps and bounds this campaign.

Are there any incidents that stick out as a worst moment or game during the season?

There are one or two that come to mind, but I’ve got to be very honest here. It is the 2-1 loss away at Dinas Powys. If anything could go wrong, it certainly did on this day. It was a complete test of my character and desire for the game. We had seven players arriving just 45 minutes before kick-off when normally we meet at least 90 minutes prior. 

Our warmup was shocking and rushed and the team talk was everything else but the game. The pitch was extremely heavy and not playable down one side, but the officials were happy to play so we got on with and deservedly lost. The result was not the issue, it was the preparation and attitude of some of the players. For the first time in two years I can honestly say I thought I had lost the changing room because of the attitude towards the game. It was a certainly a time where I thought about walking away from the game and I was very close to doing so.

Do you have any funny moments from the season to share?

There are quite a few dressing room stories, but that is where they must stay. Jack Underwood hadn’t scored in a while and we placed a challenge him that Mo [Morrys Scott, Assistant Manager] was going to strangle him if he didn’t score! He came in at full time having scored a hat trick and said how about that – I’ll leave it to your imagination what the changing room was life before and after that game with Blaenrhondda.

Not so funny at the time but something to look back on with humour in hindsight now is the penalty shootout defeat in Ton Pentre. That’s got to be up there. We had five players super confident and all wanting to take one of the spot kicks. Well, John Hall’s penalty is still trying to find the line eight months on, and Dylan Llewellyn’s must be on planet Mars by now! Even though there is a stand behind that goal with 100-foot netting on top of it, he still managed to kick it out of the ground from 12 yards. Needless to say, we went out of the League Cup that day. 

Also, seeing Morrys take control of the first aid bag and running across the field to attend injured players with his backside in the air was quite a moment! Players didn’t really tend to get injured when they knew he was on the first aid bag duty.

Finally, what are you hoping for from next season?

We will use this time to reflect and I have talked to each player individually. We have already set our objectives and I am hopeful of being able to strengthen the squad and build upon the staff which is in the final stages of completing. 

Having Blake Morgan back fully fit will be like a new signing and it’s also great hearing Dylan Thomas is well down the path of recovery since his knee operation that kept the young lad out for this season. Having him back will also be like a new player. We will also look to add another two or three experienced players to give us more strength and experience across the park, but as a whole I am more than happy with the current squad. They have a lot of quality and are learning all the time.

Depending on what league we are in, we have different objectives. If we are in Tier Two in the JD Cymru South, the first goal is to stay in the league and then perhaps build to a top 6 finish. It will be a tough challenge, but we have been there before and are more than capable of achieving it. There are some great sides in that league, and it would come with some great local derbies for us all to look forward to and be a part of. 

If the FAW swing to no promotions and we stay in Tier Three, the aim is simple. It’s promotion. On top of this, we will aim to have a good Welsh Cup run and also aim to get to the Welsh League Cup final. We want to give this club something to celebrate which hasn’t been happening in the last five years or so.

Image Credit: Lewis Mitchell