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Friday, 24 July 2015 20:35

Battling Welsh champions so close to historic win in Hungary

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WEDNESDAY 22nd JULY: Sóstói Stadium, Székesfehérvár. Sweltering heat, no breeze.
FC VIDEOTON 1 THE NEW SAINTS 1 (after extra time) (UEFA Champions League, 2nd Q. Rd, 2nd leg)

I'd booked my travel to Hungary before the exact match details were fixed, so I had made provision for being in Székesfehérvár on either Tuesday or Wednesday evenings. That means travelling out on Monday, and in the absence of anything more convenient, I'm flying from Gatwick - a long journey from Cardiff via Reading, Gatwick, Budapest Airport, Budapest city and finally arriving in the city of Székesfehérvár via train, roughly an hour's travel south-west of Budapest. But it all goes more or less to plan and I'm installed in my hotel in the evening, pondering how deserted it seems, when a big coach pulls up and the TNS team and management pile out. Apparently their supporters are not with them - their trip being based in Budapest, where there's undoubtedly more to do for the visitor (I opted for convenience, staying in Videoton's home city, reckoning I can easily get to Budapest for sight-seeing anyway, which I do on the Tuesday).

The big problem with this trip is the heat: temperatures in high thirties, scorching sun, no air. Just walking around, even in the shade, is an effort, and it slows down my sightseeing, both in lovely Budapest on Tuesday and in pleasant Székesfehérvár on Wednesday, match-day. If it's bad for me, what must it be like for the players preparing for a big game ? Mercifully, the match itself has been scheduled for 8.30 p.m., so at least the shadows are starting to lengthen as I set of for the Sóstói Stadium, on the other side of the town centre, under the railway and down the final approach road with a cemetery on either side. Even so, what would otherwise have been a 25 minute walk is a cautious 50 minute amble, with frequent water stops.

Once at the ground, the challenge is to establish the whereabouts of my press accreditation: an odyssey the length of the ground, escorted inside, then out again, finally leads to a tiny hut hidden by trees in a field behind the far end of the stadium. All is fine from then on, and once inside, there is respite from the heat, and a chance to soak up the pre-match atmosphere from the press area high in the large stand, looking out over the vast uncovered bowl. Way up behind the left hand goal, a small group of TNS fans unfurls a huge Welsh flag and set up their base high in the open seats.

The match gets started at 8.30, a slow start, partly because of the still oppressive heat maybe, but also because Videoton seem to want it that way. In fact, for the first couple of minutes (it seems like more), they pass the ball between them - as if they intend to keep possession all night and hang on to the 1-0 first leg lead. Well, at least 0-0 on the night would mean TNS earning a co-efficient point! On reflection, Videoton must have planned to thwart any early onslaught, mindful of the first minute scare at Park Hall.

But TNS do get to touch the ball, and as the half develops they even create chances: Mike wilde firing into the side netting, later a good move pulled up for offside, a couple of corners. But as in the first game, the possession and chances are mostly Videoton's, Harrison and his defence busy denying the home side. The crowd become restive after half an hour of this, berating wasted chances, balls that fail to find their mark. At half time they vent their frustrations as Videoton leave the field.

The second half - 9.30 now and still hot, but dark - and more of the same: TNS defending, desperately at times. Harrison has to make a fine one-handed save on 55 minutes, then a chance is headed off the TNS line after one of many corners. But then, TNS begin to enjoy their best spell and in the 65th minute Wilde is through, but ruled offside. Another chance comes in the air, but Videoton clear off the line. The crowd are now on their backs, whistling passes back to their keeper, and TNS gain strength from the palpable discomfort of the home side. The breakthrough comes in th3 73rd minute, a move on the TNS right wing, the ball slotted inside to Spender, whose cross is threaded through players in the box for substitute Matty Williams to tap in. Joy for TNS - but 17 minutes of normal time to hold the lead. Do they go for a second, which would leave Videoton needing to score twice ? Well, they try, but equally Vide are trying - quite frantically - to get on terms. Oliveira goes down in the box in the closing stages, but is booked for simulation. TNS hold on - we have extra time, there's still work to do, but to have won 1-0 away in Hungary is still an achievement, whatever happens.

In the first period of extra time, Videoton seem to be trying to force a goal. Too hard at times. But TNS are defending deeper now, creating less. Are they simply trying to hold what they have ? Whatever, they succeed in doing so for the first 15 minutes. At the brief interval, I ponder the prospect of a penalty shoot-out, and wonder if maybe TNS are "in a better place", psychologically, than Videoton, if it comes to that.

However, unfortunately my musings were premature: two minutes after the change-round, TNS pay the price for their tendency to gift possession unnecessarily. Three green shirts manage to lose the ball on the half way line, leaving them exposed on the right side. Danger man Gyurcso seizes on the chance to run at Harrison's goal and beats him at the near post. 1-1 - and now TNS need another goal.

Manager Craig Harrison sends on another striker, Greg Draper, and the game, now quite error-strewn, is open enough for chances at both ends. A variety of stoppages - injuries, then an incident which leads to Sam Finley's dismissal, then a tussle over the ball when TNS want to take a free-kick. But the clock on the scoreboard ticks away, and the 4th official decides to add just 2 minutes. They're not enough, and TNS are out.

The teams leave the pitch to contrasting reactions: Videoton. The "winners" of the tie, are whistled and booed by their own fans. Some players, and the manager, seem to be the main targets. Then TNS, the "losers", leave to a huge outburst of applause from a generous home crowd who appreciate their battling qualities. Cause to be proud of the Welsh champions, who have done plenty, along with our other teams this month, to make a favourable impression for Wales on the European stage.

At gone 11pm, the crowd files out to set off home. I notice a fair few of the people leaving the stadium are slipping into the graveyard - well, I suppose we're not far from Transylvania, and who knows how to spot a vampire these days? For me though, there's further to go, back across town - but it is a little cooler now, just in the high twenties. Tomorrow, the long journey home via Budapest and Bristol, but the four-day trip was well worthwhile to see a memorable - if ultimately disappointing - night for Welsh football. We can dwell on what might have been, what so nearly was (for TNS as with Bala), but I prefer to concentrate on the many positives from July 2015.

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