Griffiths blazes a trail in Llanelli

Cristiano Ronaldo may be leading the European Golden Shoe standings, but he is ten goals shy of the top scorer on the Old Continent this season. That distinction belongs to a player based a short journey south-west of Manchester, yet locality on the continental map is one of few things Rhys Griffiths shares with the Portuguese superstar.

The Cardiff native has never played outside of his homeland or represented his country at senior international level, and while Ronaldo hikes his salary with lucrative sponsorship deals, Griffiths supplements his own semi-professional income by working as a fireman in Llanelli. Long renowned for its rugby union, the town was stamped on the footballing map over the weekend, largely thanks to the 28-year-old's grand contribution.

It's fantastic for everyone connected to the club, the chairman, management, officials, fans - everyone
Rhys Griffiths on Llanelli's title triumph

Indeed, Griffiths struck his 38th league goal in as many games during a round in which Llanelli AFC beat Connah's Quay and won their first-ever Welsh Premier League crown. In actual fact, the Tinmen's historic feat was secured on Friday night, when second-placed The New Saints lost 2-0 at Airbus UK. " It's fantastic for everyone connected to the club, the chairman, management, officials, fans - everyone," said Griffiths, before explaining how the players discovered they had seized the first honour in the Llanelli's 112-year history

"We were all in the hotel in Llangollen. Suddenly Lloydie (Gary Lloyd) had a text saying that Airbus had taken the lead - we were all shocked. We then heard it was 2-0 and then had the phone call to say we had won the league. All the players were elated but it was a strange feeling to win without playing. It wasn't the moment to start celebrating and we couldn't have a drink as we had the Connah's Quay game to prepare for, it was off to bed."

"I am delighted for everyone connected with Llanelli and pleased it's done and dusted as we did not want it to go to the last game of the season when we go to The New Saints," added manager Peter Nicholas.

Impressive ascent
A few years ago, Llanelli were a modest outfit accustomed to yo-yoing between the top two tiers in Wales, and best-known for having been represented by the legendary Jock Stein before he embarked upon his journey towards immortality at Celtic. However, a takeover by media producers Tinopolis transformed their fortunes, and they subsequently finished second and third in the 2005/06 and 2006/07 seasons respectively.

Significantly, in the summer of 2006, Llanelli prised Griffiths from Port Talbot, for whom he had just finished as the Premier League's leading marksman. It was a feat he repeated last term, and the powerful striker also underlined his ability in Europe, scoring in the Reds' 2-1 aggregate win over Gefle in the first qualifying round to the UEFA Cup. Nicholas' charges would bow out to Danish side Odense in their next tie.

He has had a great season and I'm certain he could play on a bigger stage. Anywhere up to Championship level wouldn't be a problem for him
Llanelli's Andy Legg on Griffiths

This form raised Llanelli's confidence that they could inscribe a sixth name on the Welsh Premier League trophy in 2008, and they duly dominated from start to finish. With Griffiths in scintillating form, they claimed maximum points from their first six outings and have since won 16 and drawn three of their last 19 matches.

"Rhys is a natural goal scorer, you give him a chance and it's in," said his Llanelli team-mate and former Wales international Andy Legg. "He is a terrifically hard worker and he has got what he deserves this year. He has had a great season and I'm certain he could play on a bigger stage. Anywhere up to Championship level wouldn't be a problem for him."

The Premier League title may be in the bag, but Llanelli and Griffiths can not afford to relax. The club will face Rhyl in the deciding match of the League Cup on 27 April, before confronting Bangor City in the Welsh Cup final one week later, while their star striker will be out to make it 100 goals in just two seasons at Stebonheath Park (he currently has 99 to his name) and reach the forty-goal mark in the league this campaign.

"Yes it would be great to score the 100th in front of our fans. But my big aim in the last two league games is to get the two goals I need to reach 40 for the season," declared Griffiths, who has netted 53 times in all competitions.

Thereafter, Llanelli can look forward to a first-ever appearance in the first qualifying round to the UEFA Champions League. "Unfortunately there are no teams near the equator in the draw," Griffiths joked when asked about which opponents he would like to draw.

"In a way I would like a really big team. On the other hand though, I would like a side we can beat so we can progress to the next round where we could play sides of the calibre of Celtic, Galatasaray or Slavia Prague."