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Sunday, 05 July 2015 07:16

Lakesiders (just) still alive in Europe

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THURSDAY 2nd JULY - Stade Municipal, Differdange. Weather conditions: heatwave.
FC DIFFERDANGE 03 3 BALA TOWN 1 (Europa League First Qualifying Round, 1st Leg)

Eighteen days after watching my last game of 2014-15, I'm setting off to watch my first of 2015-16: as usual, the new season is heralded by a burst of early July activity in the early rounds of the UEFA competitions and, since the draw last week, the Welsh Premier representatives and their followers have been hastily preparing for the first legs. In my case, I've chosen to watch Bala Town away this week, in Luxembourg, and - rightly or wrongly, I've decided to travel by rail. It seemed like a sound plan, saving significantly over flight costs, but that was before the Calais migrant and ferry worker strikes started disrupting Eurostar.... and before a heatwave started.

After several days of anxiously checking news sites and Eurostar service updates, it's good to get the journey underway on Wednesday, with a full day's travel ahead. Despite the heatwave that has descended on northern Europe making it a less than ideal way for travelling anywhere (Wednesday in fact sets a new July record temperature in Britain), things go smoothly enough after all: the disgruntled ferry workers refrain from blocking the tunnel today, so by late afternoon I'm in Belgium and heading south-east on the slow, stopping train to Luxembourg as it trundles out through the Brussels suburbs, depositing workers and day-trippers at every stop. Four hot and stuffy hours later, the service crawls into the Grand Duchy and, sadistically, dawdles for a final, agonising twenty minutes outside Luxembourg station before releasing its few remaining weary passengers into the humid night air. After a cooling bath and the news that TNS have won in Torshavn, my spirits are fully recovered.

Thursday 2nd July dawns with Luxembourg on red alert because of the heat and humidity: temperatures in the high 30s celsius have caused the government to put the country to implement its plan for the "canicule" (literally dog-day), involving mobilising squads of paramedics, red cross and social workers to visit elderly and vulnerable citizens and help them survive the hot, polluted days and nights.

In Luxembourg city, it's a day for taking things slowly, staying in the shade, drinking copious amounts of mineral water; all of which I do, before having to set off again on a train, in the peak mid-afternoon heat - destination Differdange, a town in the south-west of the country, in the 'Valley of the Red Rocks', an industrial area close to the French border. For an industrial centre, Differdange and its surroundings seem pleasant and semi-rural: the town centre is relaxed, the main road from the station to the square dotted with quiet bars. I settle in one for a cool beer, watching various unfamiliar French types of horse-racing on the TV.

The twenty minute stroll to the Stade Municipal is an ordeal because of the heat and humidity, but it's flat and straightforward. The stadium is adjacent to a large open-air swimming pool, which has predictably drawn huge crowds today. Smaller numbers are filtering into the football stand an hour before the match, all making immediately for the shaded upper rows. Around 75 Bala fans are here to show support with flags and songs, having made their way here across England, France and Belgium, variously by air, sea, rail and road. They're hopeful of course, but seem realistic too - Luxembourg may not be a football power-house, but their clubs are more experienced in Europe than ours and their league is probably a little stronger. Differdange are European veterans, the present club and its antecedent "Red Boys Differdange" having campaigned on this stage over forty years. Bala will do well to keep the tie alive for the second leg, I feel. Although I'm always an advocate of having a go and not showing too much respect - in view of the heat (still 36 degrees at 7pm, kick off time) the Welsh side need to keep things tight early on to settle into the game.

Bala proceed to do nothing of the sort: with an apparent absence of any concentration or focus, they commit football suicide, the defence gifting the ball away and parting obediently to allow the hosts to score two soft goals within minutes of the kick off. I'm already thinking in damage limitation terms - please not another humiliation like Aberystwyth's in Derry last year.

Bala start to get a grip, gradually coming into the game more, but after 26 minutes they're 3-0 down after giving the ball away in midfield again. It's hard to feel anything but fearful now for Bala, and instead - to avoid thinking about the 64 remaining minutes - I ponder how this has happened. How can match preparations have been so wrong that the tie has been tossed away in the opening half an hour? After all, I know Bala are by no means as bad as they look right now.

But then things on the pitch start to improve and drag me away from these reflections. In the 35th minute, a long ball to the left wing finds Ian Sheridan, who beats his defender, cuts inside and places the ball past keeper Weber. There are no joyous celebrations, merely a trot back to the centre to try to retrieve the situation further. Half time arrives with Bala now matching their opponents.

After the break, conditions remain just as challenging: no let-up in the heat, and with humidity so bad my camera is giving off distress signals, now a plague of insects completes the discomfort. But on the field, Bala are now looking altogether more at home. So much so, in fact, that they are dominating possession and forcing FCD03 into conceding free-kicks and yellow cards - four in the first twenty minutes of the half. Bala can't quite capitalise on this enough to score though - corners and free-kicks coming to nothing, a rightly disallowed goal, a couple of good chances - one especially falling to Sheridan but fired wide. Unfortunately the Serbian referee has started to even up the card count and when Mike Hayes goes down on the edge of the FCD03 box in the 80th minute, instead of a penalty he is given a yellow card - his second, so Bala are down to ten men for the last ten minutes.

With the one man disadvantage, Bala are now penned back, and keeper Ashley Morris is a busy man: twice he makes low, one-handed saves and sees the loose ball cleared, then he gets a vital, slight touch to deflect another goal-bound effort just wide of his post. Eventually, this late siege is over, and Bala have escaped with 'only' a 3-1 defeat. As the local French language paper says the next morning, FCD03 are only "almost through to meet Trabzonspor". Bala have a chance, albeit a slender one, of turning this round - and at 7.30 this evening even that outcome looked impossible.

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