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Friday, 25 July 2014 06:44

ALL OVER FOR ANOTHER YEAR

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TUESDAY 22nd JULY : The Corbett Sports Stadium, Rhyl - hot and sunny.
THE NEW SAINTS 0 SLOVAN BRATISLAVA 2 (UEFA Champions League 2nd Qua. Round, 2nd Leg)

Getting to The New Saints European games is usually easier than this: their home base in Oswestry, and even their usual alternative big game venue of Wrexham, are both very accessible from the south and from England. But tonight, their Champions League game requires another journey west, to Rhyl, because the Park Hall 3G pitch requires replacement to obtain a UEFA licence, and The Racecourse is unavailable. So I have had to arrange another overnight stop in Crewe: as for the Bangor trip recently, I drop my bags off there before catching the train along the north Wales coast, excitement mounting, for tonight's game has taken on extra significance after the Europa League disappointments, and TNS's strong performance in last week's first leg. If they can pull off a win tonight, 2014 can go down in Welsh Premier history as a turning point. If not.... well, let's not think about that unless we have to.

 

The weather for the two Europa League weeks was warm and pleasant. Today it can only be described as hot, the sun blazing fiercely as I arrive in Rhyl, and little in the way of cooling breeze. Do the summer football lobby really want this to become the norm?

Rhyl has multi-lingual signs out in the town welcoming fans attending the game, and at the Corbett Sports Stadium, or Belle Vue as we used to know it, TNS have set up stalls for ticket and merchandise sales in the car park. It's all well organised, and well policed too, for the Slovakian fans' reputation precedes them. They arrive, mostly by coach, and are herded by stewards over to the segregated, eastern side of the ground.

It's still hot as the teams emerge for the formalities. Although far from a sell-out, the crowd is respectable (in four figures) considering the distance from Oswestry, and the £20 ticket price. The home fans are clearly in hopeful, even optimistic mood and there is a real sense that we may be about to see a 'shock'.

The Saints are attacking the car park end, and the open seats behind the goal are just about full. TNS chairman Mike Harris has abandoned the executive box to sit among the singing, chanting fans. Their team starts strongly and Greg Draper has an early chance, but he's closed down before he can get a clean shot away. It's not a flash in the pan either: in the minutes that follow, more of the game is played in the Slovan half and TNS are getting plenty of balls in from attacks down the left. But the Slovan defence deals with everything and when TNS do get a chance to shoot, it's wide or over. At the other end, Slovan pose a threat too – they have lots of corners, and a couple of efforts graze the woodwork. Paul Harrison is possibly the slightly busier keeper, but deals effectively with everything on target.

My position, just at the entrance to the open seats, is close to the centre of police operations. The team are focused on the hundred or so Slovak fans – whose nationality they keep forgetting and calling Poles. The visitors are noisy and boisterous and the controllers keep having to depute bobbies to go and lend support and a "show of strength" to the ground stewards trying to control the Slovan section. Towards the end of the half they start to worry about making the officers go and stand in the sun - but decide to leave them until half time. Despite all the fuss, there doesn't appear to be any real threat to public order.

The first half ends goalless and the half time mood is still positive. The home fans still hope for a breakthrough, but I'm starting to worry that Slovan look too comfortable at the back. It could suit them just to keep the game goalless.

But after the break, if anything, Slovan are a little more adventurous. They are also winning more of the free-kicks, often by being just that little bit more streetwise. Craig Harrison starts to make some changes, but I don't feel TNS become noticeably more cavalier – or desperate – in seeking the breakthrough. They still have their moments of promise going forward, but the game seems to be heading for 0-0. Until, that is, Slovan suddenly score from a long ball in from the left wing. Danger man Marko Milinkovic is credited with the goal, on 74 minutes, which leave the Saints needing three goals in sixteen minutes, which sadly is just not going to happen. They keep trying, but the lost cause becomes even worse when Milinkovic curls an absolutely delightful free-kick round the defence and the stationary Harrison for a second goal. 0-2 is cruel on the home side, but it makes little difference – they're out anyway.

At the final whistle the deflation is almost tangible. It's not that this is a new scenario, we are well used to seeing Welsh teams eliminated - even TNS. Two years ago they were well beaten in Sweden, and last year Legia Warsaw were too strong for them. This time, though, they seemed to be in with a real chance after the first leg, and it's the crushing of that hope that hurts. A subdued journey back along the coast and into England, pondering the implications of this undeniably bad year for Welsh Premier teams in Europe.

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