Mark Pitman on a brief period when the reds turned rojo in the Welsh Premier.
Llanelli have enjoyed success from being one of the most consistent teams in the Principality Welsh Premier League over the last few seasons. The West Wales side have not finished outside of the top three in the last five seasons and in 2008 they were crowned Welsh Premier League champions. In each of the last four campaigns they have boasted the Welsh Premier’s leading goalscorer in Rhys Griffiths and the striker is currently challenging for an unprecedented sixth consecutive golden boot award despite the side occupying an unfamiliar fourth place as they head into the business end of the season.
This was not the case before the summer of 2005 however. In fact in 2004-2005 the club were at the opposite end of the Welsh Premier League spectrum as a disastrous start under the guidance of former Cardiff City manger Eddie May saw the club languishing in the relegation places of the domestic top-flight. Then-Chairman Robert Jones turned to Nicky Tucker, a young manager enjoying relative success in the Welsh feeder league, to revive the fortunes of this once famous club and Tucker pulled off one of the league’s great success stories by leading them to fourteenth place and to safety at the end of the campaign.
Llanelli made their name in what is a traditional rugby town back in the 1950’s after being admitted to the highly-regarded Southern League in the English pyramid system. With the nation starved of live sport following the Second World War, Llanelli were boosted by the arrival of a number of Scottish players who had moved down to Wales for employment, including their most famous import, the late, great Jock Stein. The interest generated by the clubs success enabled them to turn professional and relative success in the league and in the FA Cup followed over the next decade. All would change for the club by 1958 however as the Football Association of Wales refused to grant them permission to remain in the Southern League and their most successful era subsequently came to an end.
With impressive facilities at their Stebonheath ground, Llanelli earned respect in Welsh football circles and were able to consistently attract former professional players to end their careers at the club as the continued to play in the Welsh League. The introduction of the League of Wales, eventually the Welsh Premier League, offered the club a new platform and a chance of European football, but they struggled to make an impact on the league until former Wales International Leighton James took over the reigns and guided them to a fifth place finish. Controversially sacked despite his achievements, the club entered another slump that saw managers and players come and go before a surprise development in the summer of 2005 changed the face of Llanelli Football Club.
Chairman Robert Jones had put the club up for sale for £350,000. Jones, a former Swansea City Director, a respected local-businessman and the Uncle of Hollywood star Catherine Zeta-Jones, had overseen and interfered as he thought best with all things connected to Llanelli football club but was now looking to pass on his beloved Reds to the right new owners. In June 2005, Jesco Group, an investment company led by incoming club Chairman Nitin Parekh, took control of the club and returned Llanelli to the professionalism that they last enjoyed in the 1950’s. Former Swansea City defender Stuart Jones became the clubs first professional player for over fifty years but it would be six other arrivals that would headline the start of this ambitious new-era at Stebonheath.
In an interview for the Independent newspaper a year later, Parekh explained the philosophy that had prompted the new signings that had followed his arrival. “I sat down with one of my directors (Carlo Mason, a former European Tour golf professional) and we thought about what sort of football we wanted to play,” said a reflective Parekh. “We wanted flair, the sort of style which would bring people through the turnstiles”. With their intentions for their new football project decided, Llanelli turned to the continent and appointed Spaniard Lucas Cazorla Luque as the clubs Director of Football.
Luque had enjoyed a successful playing career in La Liga as a striker with clubs such as Atletico Madrid, Real Betis and Malaga and brought five of his countrymen to Stebonheath in a welcome blaze of publicity for the much-maligned Welsh Premier League. Arriving at Llanelli in the summer of 2005 were strikers Rudi Torres, Francisco Rodriguez and Jacob Mingorance along with midfield duo Ivan Nofuentes and Efren Fernandez. The club also made some domestic signings but the summer news centered around the Spanish arrivals, and debate raged over how they would adapt to the unfamiliar stage of the Welsh Premier League.
With little use of the English language, and certainly no Welsh, the refined former striker stood out from the crowd as he talked his way through each game from the sidelines. Signalling with whistles, hand-signals and occasional dramatic arm-waving, Luque kicked every ball for Llanelli and showed his praise for each completed part with a pigeon-English cry of ‘very good’, before whistling his way through the next passage of play. With Nicky Tucker’s achievements long since forgotton and the former Welsh League manager no longer a part of the club, former Wales International Peter Nicholas was brought back to the club as part of Luque’s backroom staff and would eventually replace him as manager when Luque had his contract with the club cancelled the following February.
Luque was certainly something new and memorable for the Welsh Premier League, despite his short stay, but the five fellow countrymen that followed him to the club went onto make more of an impact on the field. Rudi Torres scored twice on his debut, a 5-0 home win over Bangor City, but would only make nine appearances for the club before the former Malaga and San Pedro forward became a target for Scottish side Hamilton Academicals and he made the switch North of the border in January in a five-figure transfer. His time in Scotland would not prove successful however, either due to the unfamiliar football or unfamiliar weather, and by the following summer he was back in Spain playing in the Zaragoza area after being released.
Also on target for Llanelli against Bangor City that day was the influential Efren Fernandez. The midfielder scored the first goal of the new revolution that was being witnessed at Stebonheath but within ten games he suffered a broken leg while playing against Aberystwyth Town. The injury would not be the end of his career in Wales however, as he returned to action for Llanelli the following season, but spent the majority of his time on the bench for that second campaign as he struggled for match fitness and break into a team additionally strengthened during his enforced absence.
Striker Francisco Rodriguez made his debut for the club after the opening few weeks of the season but would not make the impact of his four compatriots at the club. A former goalscorer with Real Betis, Rodriguez was the oldest of the Spanish contingent but would make only five starts, affectionately known as ‘Cipri’, he scored his only Welsh Premier League goal in a five-goal rout at Cefn Druids.
Ivan Nofuentes soon became a fan favourite at Stebonheath. An attacking winger with experience of playing in the Spanish second division with foerm clubs Motril and Nilanova, Nofuentes brought incredible pace to the side and was instrumental in the majority of their attacking play over the course of his twenty-nine Welsh Premier League starts for the club in his one and only season. His talent was not restricted to wide positions however, and he scored fifteen league goals during the campaign before deciding to return to Spain in the summer of 2006.
Last, but by certainly no means least, there was Jacob Mingorance. Unlike his native countrymen, Mingorance enjoyed his best season at the club during the following campaign, but showed enough ability in a deeper-midfield role in his first year to be voted into the Welsh Premier League manager’s team of the season. Despite scoring just four league goals from his twenty-four starts, Mingorance was both a midfield general and an enigmatic creator. An incredibly gifted footballer and another of the contingent with a history of playing for Malaga, Jacob played a huge part in the Spanish arrivals being regarded as a success as his ability and vision made him the best playmaker in the Welsh Premier League.
Llanelli finished in second place under the eventual guidance of Peter Nicholas that season and with the former Wales, Arsenal and Chelsea striker now in control of summer signings a more domestic approach saw the club make intelligent domestic signings in the summer of 2006 as they weakened their South Wales rivals. Striker Rhys Griffiths headlined the new arrivals as the league’s leading goalscorer made the move from Port Talbot Town, but with Rudi Torres having already exited for a professional opportunity in Scotland before a subsequent return to Spain and Rodrigues having stayed at the club for just five games, Nofuentes would be the third Spaniard to leave Stebonheath as he returned to his homeland to continue his playing career.
A place in the UEFA Cup was the reward for their second place position and for the investment made and it was Swedish side Gefle IF would provide the opposition for Llanelli. A dream win in Solna saw Griffiths score on his debut and joining him on the scoresheet was Jacob Mingorance as the Reds claimed a superb 2-1 victory on their European debut. It would be a sign of things to come for Llanelli’s new forward pairing, but after progressing through to the second round with a goalless draw at home, the side would come against Danish giants Odense BK and were comprehensively defeated 6-1 over the two legs despite claiming a 1-1 draw in the 2nd leg in Denmark.
As the 2006-2007 league campaign began with a 1-1 draw at Aberystwyth Town, Jacob Mingorance was the only Spaniard left in the starting line-up. His other remaining countryman, Efren Fernandez, was named on the bench but marked his arrival with a 72nd-minute equaliser. The midfielder would struggle to make the same impact as he had before his injury however and struggled to earn a regular place in the side. It was a very different story for Mingorance though. Playing in a more advanced position, the influential playmaker combined superbly with Rhys Griffiths as the duo built on their debut success in Europe. Griffiths went onto retain the golden boot that season with an incredible haul of thirty goals, while Mingorance added a further nineteen as Llanelli finished the season in third place. The club also reached the semi-final of the Welsh Cup for the second season in succession.
Since the initial investment two years before, the club had made significant progress although significant changes had also been made along the way. The relative league and European success justified the validity of the project in place at the club, but there would be an unwelcome change ahead of the 2007-2008 season, and it was a change that would end one of the most memorable chapters in the clubs history.
Jacob Mingorance had thrived alongside Rhys Griffiths in his second season at the club, again named in the Welsh Premier League manager’s team of the season, Mingorance, the last remaining Spaniard from the initial influx of six in 2005, was now the integral playmaker who scored as many goals as he created.
His time at Stebonheath however was about to end and it would end in bizarre circumstances. With the club competing in the now-defunct UEFA Intertoto Cup as a result of their league position, Mingorance missed the match against Lithuanian minnows Vetra as he remained in dispute with the club over the terms of a new contract. Llanelli stated that Mingorance had demanded £1,600 a week plus bonuses, but had instead been made ‘a good offer to stay,’ without revealing anymore. Mingorance himself then admitted in the press that he had asked for ‘about £1,000 a week’ in order to sign a new contract with the club. The two parties failed to agree. Mingorance returned to Spain. The Spanish revolution at Llanelli was over.
Were they missed? That season Llanelli won the Welsh Premier League title and Rhys Griffiths again claimed the golden boot award. For all the flair and ability that the Spanish influx brought to the party, their best games were reserved for the best surfaces and the best weather, and their influence was often lost when asked to perform on heavy winter pitches or on a midweek visit to North Wales. Early results under the guidance of Lucas Cazorla Luque were mixed to be polite, while the injury to Efren Fernandez and the early departures of Rudi Torres and Francisco Rodriguez limited their potential impact at the club. Ivan Nofuentes brought some welcome excitement to the club and to the Welsh Premier League but his pace was best suited to the right conditions, while the love shown from the Stebonheath terraces for Jacob Mingorance was soured by the wage demands that brought his eventual exit.
Reflecting on the above, the time that the Spanish six spent in Wales may not seem so important or influential, but it is a time that is fondly-remembered by the fans attracted to the club by their arrival and who have remained with the Reds for the success that has followed since.
Llanelli are currently fourth in the Principality Welsh Premier League and have retained a number of the squad that won the league title in 2008. Former Wales International Andy Legg, a player in that title-winning season, is now manager, while Nitin Parekh, the man who started the revolution with the investment of his Jesco Group, remains as Chairman. Further continuity remains in the fact that Rhys Griffiths is still the clubs, and the Welsh Premier League’s, golden boot holder and is currently competing for his sixth consecutive award. For all their recent achievements however, the interest that the Spanish Armada generated back in 2005 has not been matched, but it remains a memorable and important chapter in the history of the club, and of the Welsh Premier League.
For more from Mark, visit his website and follow him on Twitter @markpitman1.