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Wednesday, 29 June 2016 13:29

The Underdog Bites Again

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TUESDAY 28th JUNE - Park Hall Stadium, heavy rain.
THE NEW SAINTS 2 S.P. TRE PENNE 1 (UEFA Champions League, 1st Qualifying Round, 1st Leg)

It's not yet July, the Euro 2016 tournament is only just past the half-way stage. Wales are still in it, and almost everyone's focus is on matters in France. But the UEFA Champions League 2016-17 tournament starts today - the first largely overlooked steps on a road leading to the final in Cardiff next summer.

Welsh champions The New Saints came through the first qualifying round last year - quite comfortably in the end, after a tricky first leg away in the Faroe Islands. This year their opponents are from sunnier climes - S.P. Tre Penne of San Marino. This season, TNS have the home leg first, so an opportunity maybe to ensure the away game next week is pressure-free. At least, that's how I'm thinking as I head up the English border towards Oswestry. (If rest of article not visible, click READ MORE below)

Not for the first time in this first week of UEFA competitions, the weather forecast is awful. Sure enough, despite a sunny start this morning in Cardiff, the thickening cloud develops by mid-morning. I make it into Oswestry town centre in the dry, but while I'm having a quick pub lunch the promised rain arrives. Another soaking in prospect at Park Hall - conjuring still-vivid memories of TNS v Bohemians - was that six years ago?

Spending the day pottering around the market town of Oswestry, I'm looking for signs that there's a major sporting event happening tonight, but I search in vain. Not a single poster, road sign or banner in the town centre, just adverts for a food festival next week. I was expecting more - not least because there was an open-top bus parade of the Saints' trophies last weekend. Mind you, there's nothing to show support for the town's other team either - FC Oswestry, who have chosen the English pyramid.

Wherever you go in Oswestry, there are signs of the railway, which is odd because the town lost its place on the network in 1966. The town grew as the hub of the Cambrian Railway company and it seems almost everything in town is named Cambrian something-or-other. At the former station, there's a thriving and ambitious heritage movement, who recently started running trains from the station on a short stretch of restored track. They have plans to re-open the line all the way up to Gobowen - including the former Park Hall Halt close to TNS's home, which might be useful. But there's no indication anywhere that the railway buffs have considered the opportunity of working with TNS or their tenants FC Oswestry to move their project forward.

After a wet afternoon in the town, and a wet walk out east to Park Hall, it's a relief to get under cover at The Venue. It's quieter than normal for a European tie here - it does really seem that everyone is still pre-occupied with the Euros; although it doesn't help that the weather is dreadful and the opposition have only brought two fans.
The teams emerge at ten to seven into the downpour, accompanied by junior mascots. The formalities are completed and TNS prepare to kick towards the covered end - as I had been hoping: with the stand half empty, I can head up to the back row and take photos from there. A small sacrifice in terms of closeness to the action, more than outweighed by protecting myself, my bag and my camera from a soaking.

TNS start briskly, pressing Tre Penne back with waves of attacks. The first half a dozen attempts are repelled, but after 12 minutes a cross finds Scott Quigley and he flicks home the opening goal. I sense the floodgates opening.
But Tre Penne have other ideas. They win a corner on the right, take it short, and the cross from deep is met by Stefano Fraternali , his header from distance beating keeper Harrison by the foot of his post. Tre Penne celebrate their away goal as if they've won the cup, and why not - it's only their second ever in the competition.

TNS need to start all over again, and indeed for the rest of the first half the continue the onslaught on the visitors' goal. Repeatedly they get the ball to the goal line and try to repeat the opening goal, but it doesn't come off. Muh time is spent in lateral passing in front of the dark blue back six. Quigley is put clear, but blasts his effort high and wide. He makes amends though in the 40th minute, with a run into the box and a cross that Jamie Mullan tucks past keeper Migani. At least the lead is restored, but at half time we assume Craig Harrison will be demanding a more incisive, ruthless performance.

As play resumes, the weather improves, but from a TNS perspective the game doesn't. More dominance, more chances, corner after corner, but no goals. Quigley squanders several more good openings, and Migani is a hero, beating out a couple of good goal-bound efforts. Towards the end, TNS try to force an opening, and predictably this has the opposite effect, finishing more wayward and errors more common.

In the end, whilst the win and the co-efficient points go to TNS, it's Tre Penne who will be far happier - a precious away goal, and just a 1-0 home win next week would do (a score they actually achieved in their last Champions League campaign!) And I had foolishly fantasised about a relaxed trip to San Marino with the tie already 'in the bag'. We write off underdogs at our peril, as the ongoing Euro2016 story should tell us.

Read 2583 times Last modified on Wednesday, 29 June 2016 13:34

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