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Sunday, 12 July 2015 06:49

Drama and Heartbreak at the Seaside

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THURSDAY 9th JULY: Belle Vue, sunny and mild.
BALA TOWN 2 FC DIFFERDANGE 03 1 (UEFA Europa League 1st Qual. Rd., 2nd Lg)
Forty-eight hours after travelling north to see TNS in the Champions League, (and less than 24 hours after getting home) it's time to do it all again: destination Rhyl, to see if Bala can overturn that 3-1 deficit from the first leg of their Europa League match.

It's a fine, sunny day, without the excessive heat of last week, so conditions should suit both sides better. Bala Town have taken over Belle Vue for the evening and the ground is already lively as the first spectators start arriving an hour and a half ahead of the match - merchandise, programmes and raffle tickets all on sale just in side the entrance; UEFA and media types bustle about importantly. There's an air of expectation, almost quiet optimism I feel, among the Welsh contingent. Maybe the feel-good factor from TNS and Newtown pulling off 3 wins so far is infectious, but having seen Bala lose last week, I feel any respectable result tonight will be satisfactory - but an aggregate victory is too much to expect. When asked, I rate the chances as no more than 15-20%....

In bright evening sunshine, the game is underway at 7pm, Bala immediately busy trying to break down a very defensive set up by the visitors. It is clear they feel they must protect their lead and frustrate Bala, and for most of the half they do that without real difficulty. Only a flurry of Bala corners just before the break brings any prolonged action around Julien Weber's goal, but Differdange survive these and go in at half-time with their 3-1 lead intact.

But four minutes into the second half Bala's patience and belief is rewarded. A free-kick on the right wing, won by Kieran Smith, seems to have been wasted when Stephens finds only the defensive wall. But a kind deflection takes it to Conall Murtagh and his low header beats Weber to put Bala ahead. The ground erupts in celebration, but everyone knows this only sets up the chance for Bala to pull it off. Can they do it or will the Luxembourg side have the nous to close the game down for forty minutes ?

For a long time, the match seems destined to peter out with the score 1-0: Bala hit plenty of long balls, more in hope than anything else, but the taller visiting players mostly deal with these effectively. Time is running out but rather than end on a low-key, frustrating note, there prove to be more twists in this tale: seven minutes from time, Mark Connolly tries a shot which Weber fails to hold, and Ian Sheridan poaches a scrappy goal from the loose ball. Cue wild celebrations, as Bala's unlikely dream of progress (and the small matter of an extra 200,000 Euros) appears to be a very real possibility. Now they need to close the game down completely for what time is left.

Seven minutes of normal time, four minutes of stoppage time. Bala do not seem able to keep possession in remote, safe parts of the pitch - on the contrary, they lose the ball repeatedly, and the pressure on Ashley Morris's goal builds. Desperate clearances, every one cheered to the rafters, corners just about defended, and we edge into the last minute. You can sense that everyone is holding in the celebratory outburst, ready for the moment of release and exhilaration when the whistle goes. But then.... another attack, headed behind for a corner, the ball comes in, half-cleared, back into the box, loose to Moroccan striker Omar Errafik, and his low shot goes into a melee of bodies. From the other end, I lose sight of the ball, but the body language says enough: leaps of joy from the visitors, their substitutes and managers rushing onto the field. Apart from the few FCD03 supporters, everyone else stunned into a shocked, disbelieving silence.

There isn't time for Bala to recover from this blow. The whistle goes, more celebrations by the Luxemburgers, tears and expressions of disbelief amongst everyone else I speak to. Had the game ended meekly at 1-0, the reaction would have been far less extreme, just disappointment. But the agony is born of Bala having had the prize in their grasp, and seeing it dashed from their hands in the final minute. The win on the night (Bala unbeaten still at home in Europe, two more UEFA co-efficient points) may be some consolation for the Welsh club in tomorrow's reflections but tonight it's only the pain of defeat they can feel. We feel their pain too.

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