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Sunday, 22 January 2017 09:58

Saints Go Marching In (eventually)

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SATURDAY 21st JANUARY. Cyncoed Campus, dry but very cold.
A very cold January day, many local games postponed with pitches frozen, but I'm spared the difficulty of finding a game on - I was never going anywhere today other than the Welsh Premier's Nathaniel MG Cup final.

Although it's my eleventh visit of this season to the Cyncoed Campus ground, the occasion and the size of the crowd should make this a bit special - or at least that is what I've been hoping. There has been plenty of pre-match build up online and in social and local media and what's been encouraging has been the signs that the FAW and the sponsors - Nathaniel Cars - are treating this as a 'big match' with all the trimmings appropriate to a national cup final - tickets on sale, press accreditation, pre-match hospitality etc. And indeed, on arrival at Cyncoed mid-afternoon, the promise is already being fulfilled. A couple of hours before kick off and the Students' Union bar is buzzing with early-arriving fans and VIPs (the college caterers laying on an excellent meal for the latter, whom I am fortunate to have been invited to join).

An hour before kick off, darkness starting to fall and temperature dipping further, but the ground is filling up, with the blue and yellow of Barry not surprisingly outnumbering the green and white of TNS. The choice of Cardiff Met University as the final venue might have been seen by some as controversial, but I think it's inspired: close enough to Barry to double or treble the number who will turn out to support them in their first cup final in a decade - plenty of them clearly not regulars at games. The small ground will give the game an atmosphere that it couldn't have had elsewhere - showpiece finals in big stadia (like recent Welsh Cup finals at Wrexham) may have superior facilities but lack atmosphere for those present and look empty on live TV.

Even so, I hear moans from the 'glass half empty' supporters of both sides about the Campus ground. It's always possible to find fault. But for Barry folk especially, gripes about a neutral venue eleven miles from home that guarantees them the majority of the crowd seem perverse. Would they have preferred the 'easy option' of, say, Newtown or Aberystwyth?

By 5.15, the crowd - officially 1,116 vindicating the FAW's choice - is lining the touchlines, filling the seats. A privileged few can avoid the plummeting temperature and watch from the elevated, indoor balcony, but for me there's nowhere to be but pitch-side. It could get uncomfortably cold, especially if the match is over, as a contest, within half an hour - a possible scenario, if the first goal or two go to the Saints.

But thankfully, that is not how the first half unfolds. Barry start at high tempo, giving their fans a couple of chances and a couple of corners to cheer in the opening minutes. The TNS defence survives this early onslaught, and the Welsh Premier champions begin to flex their muscles. Barry keeper Mike Lewis makes a couple of unorthodox stops to deny the greens, while his defenders execute some fantastic saving tackles to protect their goal. Underdogs Barry hold out for 15, 30, then 45 minutes, and we have a better contest than we dared hope for. I hope it's as enjoyable on S4C as it is here at pitchside; I've forgotten how cold it is.

The second half is played almost entirely in Barry's half. The full-timers of TNS play patiently as always, trying to carve out the breakthrough, but the heroics of the Barry defence continue. Occasionally Barry make a foray into their opponents' half, raising hopes among their fans - never more so than when Jordan Cotterill surges goalwards and unleashes a shot that rattles Paul Harrison's cross-bar on its way over the target.

We're just beginning to contemplate extra time - though I've just commented that I still fancy TNS to nick it with a late goal - when the Saints finally conjure up something to beat Lewis in the Barry goal. It's Chris Seargeant, with one of his trademark efforts from distance. A spectacular shot into the top corner and a fitting one for a cup final. Twelve minutes left, Barry need a moment to adapt and go in search of an equaliser, but before they can, it's 2-0: Seargeant involved again, but Adrian Cieslewicz with the low drive that effectively puts the tie beyond the Welsh League side.

Cruelly, in the remaining minutes, Seargeant completes his hat-trick, giving a final score of 4-0 that belies Barry's 78 minutes of spirited and heroic resistance. The Barry fans begin to file towards the exit, philosophical in defeat and actually - maybe unexpectedly - quite appreciative of the quality of the side that's shattered their dreams. Everyone is kept waiting around in the cold Cyncoed night for the post-match presentations and celebrations - TV interviews, podium to be constructed - but eventually the medals are presented and the champagne flows.

It's quite rare in football for everyone to leave a game with cause for satisfaction, but I think tonight is one of those days: TNS can be satisfied that their usual patient, relentless style brought them a fine win (and confirmed the first leg of their domestic treble bid). Barry Town United can be mightily proud of holding full-time TNS for 78 minutes and giving them a scare or two. The sponsors, the FAW and the broadcasters have hopefully been pleased with a proper cup final occasion, a decent attendance and an entertaining game of football. I certainly have been (though I'm also quite glad we didn't have another 30 minutes or more out in the sub-zero temperatures of the north Cardiff night).

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