Andy Preece

FEW Airbus UK related headlines manage to avoid an aviation pun, but if the limited jokes are starting to become tiresome, it is only because the Wingmakers are making so many headlines recently. 

Promoted to the Welsh Premier League less than a decade ago, the Broughton-based club have taken-off in recent seasons and now find themselves well on-course for a European debut as they occupy second place in the table ahead of the mid-season split. The highest goalscorers in the domestic top-flight with 56 goals from their opening 21 games, Airbus UK claimed second place last weekend with a convincing 6-1 win at nearest-rivals Prestatyn Town with five different players registering themselves on the score-sheet. 

The victory left manager Andy Preece celebrating his anniversary in the job in the best possible way, but the former journeyman striker appears to have no intention of letting the January transfer window pass him by without continuing to strengthen and improve his already strong and improving side.

The club entered the Welsh Premier League in 2004 with a humble side playing in a humble stadium on the grounds of the Airbus UK factory. Their rise has been possible through steady on and off the field development and both the stadium and playing surface are now unrecognisable from only a few years ago.

After making up the numbers in the league during their first few seasons, the side began to improve under the management of former Wrexham midfielder Gareth Owen from 2005 to 2008, and subsequently under the guidance of former Middlesbrough defender Craig Harrison, before he returned to the professional game with full-time Welsh Premier League rivals and current champions The New Saints in December 2011. 

His departure paved the way for Andy Preece to announce himself to the Welsh Premier League after a nomadic career in the English pyramid system, and along with trusted assistant Andy Morrison, himself a well-respected veteran of the Football League, the duo have made a immediate impact as they look to realise the clubs increasingly ambitious aims.

At the start of 2012, Preece announced his arrival from Northwich Victoria in the middle of the January transfer window by being tipped for success by newly-appointed Wales manager Chris Coleman, and eventually made early changes to his inherited side over the next fortnight by signing three strikers and a defender from the English non-league pyramid. 

In the week leading up to his appointment, top-scorer Ian Sheridan was sold to league rivals Bala Town for an undisclosed fee, but the stability on offer at the Airfield compared to the financial turbulence at his former employers proved attractive to Preece in his decision to join the Wingmakers.

Stability

"That (stability) was key to the decision to come here, that we had a platform to build on over a number of years," Preece announced. Despite having no previous experience in the Welsh Premier League, Preece and accompanying assistant Morrison brought coach Darren Ryan back to the Airfield. Ryan, a well-known and respected veteran player and manager in the Welsh Premier League, had also worked with both Preece and Morrison at Northwich.

"It's a long term project and we can do it in stages and we haven't been in that position at clubs we've been at before because they've always had problems financially," added the former Crystal Palace striker. "This club's on a stable footing with the potential to be a force in the Welsh Premier. I spoke to Stewart Roberts (chief operating officer) and he told me about the plans and what could be achieved if we're successful and it things go well there's no reason why we can't be challenging for, or getting into Europe over the next couple of years.

"If we do that, we can move on again and look to be challenging at the top of the league, so that realistic opportunity is too good a chance to turn down. You don't get that as a manager at the level I've been managing the past couple of years to get into Europe and this club is set-up really well, it's good a good base and just needs to be built on."

Preece did spare a thought for former club Northwich Victoria as he settled into his new position, explaining his intentions not to break-up a side enjoying success against the odds in the middle of a potentially memorable campaign. Things changed in the summer however, and as Preece prepared for his first full-season in charge of Airbus UK, a total of ten players from his former club followed him to the unfamiliar surroundings of the Welsh Premier.

New additions

The new additions were joined by Toby Jones and Jack Lewis from the recently defunct Neath, and further players joined from other parts of the English non-league system as the club made their ambitions intentions public. However, although consistent with the rest of the league, results for the Wingmakers have been mixed. While the six-goal haul against Prestatyn was more than matched by a 7-1 win over Newtown last September and complimented by five-goal victories over Afan Lido, Port Talbot Town and again against Prestatyn at various stages of the campaign, surprise recent defeats against GAP Connah's Quay and Aberystwyth Town have left Preece wondering what position his side could have been in at this crucial stage of the season with a bit more consistency.

Following last weekend's win over Prestatyn, Preece took advantage of his post-match interview to dispel what he perceives as a general consensus about his sides style of play. Preece's signings have shown physical consistency and they have used this to their advantage at set-pieces throughout the campaign, but the manager was keen to emphasise that there is far more to his side than physical superiority, and that their lack of live television coverage had become embarrassingly apparent despite their success.

Boasting one of the most improved playing surfaces in the Welsh Premier League, there is every reason to believe that Preece's side have the potential to dominate on the floor as much as they have in the air, and the inevitable increase in live television coverage as they push for a European place in the second-half of the season will either justify or ridicule Preece's passionate post-match claim. Although the quality of Glenn Rule's strike in the victory over Prestatyn may have done enough alone to prove to any doubters that this is a side with genuine football quality.

For those on the outside, the clubs name inspires an image of a factory team swapping shifts to represent their employers, but the clubs business model shows a very different reality. In the aftermath of the 6-1 reverse, Prestatyn manager Neil Gibson made reference to his opponents transfer activity when discussing his own clubs January business.

"The people that are making signings are the people that can afford to make signings," said Gibson. "There's a couple of players we've spoken to, but we can't afford some of the players we'd like to bring in. Short of building a factory and offering some jobs, I doubt we'll be able to do that."

The jibe sparked an immediate reaction from Stewart Roberts, who just like his manager in his post-match interview, used the media opportunity to dispel the myth of public perception about the club. "I'm a little bit disappointed in Neil's comments to be honest, they are certainly misguided to say the least," said Roberts. "Airbus UK Broughton runs completely independent from Airbus the company and we have not one single player who works for Airbus!"

"We have had to work unbelievably hard off the pitch to create a sustainable budget that allows us to compete the way we are doing at present," added Roberts. "We are a club that's evolving and that is testament to the commercial and community work put in by each and every person at our club. I understand people linking us to the factory and at the end of the day our ground is on the Airbus site so that is natural but, as I keep saying, the club is wholly independent and will continue to grow that way."

Although independent, success for the football club on the European stage will bring welcome coverage for the Airbus brand, and there will inevitable opportunities for the two parties to work together on making the most of any such sporting success, as there is with any other interested party. On and off the field progress has been a consistent aspect of Airbus UK Broughton since their emergence into the top-flight in 2004, and they appear to have no intention of starting their descent any time soon.

Since the reduction in the Welsh Premier League to 12 clubs the league has been more competitive than ever, with teams throughout the table playing for something for the duration of the season, and one-time surprise results are no longer seen as a surprise.

Predictions

The early-season predictions featured the usual title-challengers of Bangor City and champions The New Saints, while Newtown and Afan Lido were the favourites to struggle at the wrong end of the table. Airbus UK presented something of an unknown quantity with so many new arrivals unfamiliar with the league, its grounds and the opposition, guided by a manager with only a few months of experience in the top-flight competing against some managerial veterans. I confess to doubting the clubs positive early-season claims of a top-six finish, and judged that their unfamiliarity with the league would see them struggle to attain the consistency required to challenge the natural order. At least my other predictions were somewhat closer to the eventual mid-season outcome.

But the success of Airbus UK and their band of Welsh Premier League newcomers does ask some questions about the progress of the league, although the answers can only be based on opinion, not fact. Andy Preece is an experienced player and manager and quickly identified what would be necessary for his side to compete with the best of their rivals in his first full season in charge.

His signings from former club Northwich Victoria had experience of playing alongside each other, but no experience of playing in the Welsh Premier League. The Northern Premier League is not considered to be a standard of football that many Welsh Premier advocates would consider comparable to the domestic top-flight, preferring to point their slightly tinted-shades at least one, maybe even two, levels above.

However, the management and players of Northwich Victoria have emerged in a new guise, with some fine-tuning, onto the Welsh Premier League stage and have become the highest-scorers and closest challengers to champions and league leaders The New Saints at the mid-season split.

Andy Preece and his staff arrived at Airbus UK with a background in the professional game and an ambition to make an impact in football management. Unlike the lower-levels of the English pyramid system, the Welsh Premier League offers weekly live television coverage and the opportunity to qualify for Europe. A shop window for those with loftier career intentions, the Welsh Premier League can put players and managers on a stage that is slowly but surely improving its reputation on a wider scale.

The opportunity and the potential of the league has not been lost on Andy Preece, and his recent transfer activity, such as the arrival of former Wrexham and Chester veteran Christian Smith, suggests that the club now has a genuine and even greater ambition.

Challenging The New Saints for their league title and qualifying for the lucrative UEFA Champions League in the process may not have been an immediate aim for the club, but the reality is that Preece and his side may have already reached that level, and Craig Harrison now has his former employers firmly on his tail as a result.

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