Were it not for the intervention of the domestic licences last season, Rhyl would have bid farewell to the Welsh Premier on Easter Monday 2016.
Fast forward to Good Friday 2017 and the Lillywhites are on the brink again. And this time, there’s no safety net. All twelve WPL clubs have gained FAW licences for next season – but so have the likes of already promoted Prestatyn Town and Welsh League title favourites Barry Town United.
Airbus fell through the trap door last weekend as Steve Lewis’ 88th minute winner gifted the Lillywhites a 2-1 victory over the Wingmakers and an escape from the drop zone. 24 hours later, they were back in the bottom two following Aberystwyth Town’s 2-0 victory at Llandudno.
And so, Park Avenue is where it could all be settled tonight. A win or a draw against the Seasiders will take the relegation battle to next weekend’s climax to the season. Three points will be all the more valuable to lift Niall McGuinness’ men two points clear of the dreaded 11th spot. But defeat will end four seasons in the Welsh top flight – the past two, of which, have been a particular struggle.
McGuinness could not be blamed for last season’s troubles. The Lillywhites were as good as destined for the Huws Gray Alliance by the time Gareth Owen’s turbulent reign as manager came to an end…and that was before the FAW intervened.
This term, an inspiring Welsh Cup run and an early six-game unbeaten run – off the back of a 10-0 defeat by The New Saints – have helped to soften some of the many blows that Rhyl have again encountered.
But with just two wins since the turn of the year, bouts of ill discipline marked by a high red card turnover, and not forgetting the curse of ex-Lillywhite players scoring against their former club – here’s looking at you, Cefn Druids – progress at Belle Vue has been at a premium.
Aberystwyth’s story of the season is similar. Outgunned in the race of a play-off spot by the improving late form of Newtown and Cefn Druids – and with both renovation and Mother Nature putting their Park Avenue home out of action for a considerable time – Aberystwyth have been as slow to garner the points since the league split. Up to last Sunday, when they ended a six game winless run at Dudno, they had picked up only eight points from eight games, but goal difference has kept them more in balance.
Back in Rhyl, while players have committed to next season despite the uncertainty of where their future lies, the substitute who set up that crucial win over vanquished Airbus, is currently a 50-50 over whether he can take to the field in Aberystwyth tonight. The Beast himself – Steve Lewis – picked up an injury during last Saturday’s triumph and is likely to face a late fitness test before McGuinness decides on whether he will be of use.
Despite the doubts, the manager remains confident in avoiding the drop and insists the Lillywhites will fight to the end. Tonight’s encounter in mid Wales could not be any bigger a six-pointer – because this time, defeat will bring no second chance.