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Sunday, 06 July 2014 07:18


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Thursday 3rd July 2014, The Book People Stadium, Nantporth. Sun, wind and drizzle.
AIRBUS UK BROUGHTON 1 FH HAUGESUND 1 (UEFA Europa League 1st Qualifying Round, 1st Leg)
While most of the football world is watching and talking about the World Cup (although it's a non-match day in Brazil today), in a number of European football outposts the focus is on European competition. Three of our Welsh teams are in action tonight - Aberysywyth Town and Bangor City away and Airbus at home, although as the Broughton side cannot use their own Airfield ground, nor Wrexham's Racecourse, they're actually playing over 60 miles west of home, at Bangor's ground. Inconvenient for their supporters, and in fact for me too: the logistics of arranging trips to these games, at short notice, during the working week are bad enough, but Bangor is a long way both from home and work. Given more notice (longer between draw and games) I might have managed to arrange a trip to Derry for Aberystwyth's away leg, but Bangor's just about possible, by taking the afternoon off and making a hasty getaway after the game.

Work is in Birmingham at the moment, so I set off at lunchtime, stopping off in Crewe to ditch work clothes and paraphernalia, and heading out west as soon as I can. Plenty that could go wrong with these arrangements, but by 3pm I'm on a westbound train making its way towards Chester and the north Wales coast. It's a fine afternoon, perfect for taking in the coastal views from the train, first across towards Wirral, then across the Conwy estuary, out towards the Great Orme, and finally across to the Anglesey coast. On arrival in Bangor it's noticeably windier, and despite the sun, fine drizzle keeps threatening to spoil the evening. The views from the train were good, but those from the road out to Nantporth are even better: this must be the finest walk to any Welsh Premier League ground. I stop and eat my tea on a bench overlooking the Menai Straits, before strolling along to the ground.

An hour and a quarter before kick off there's not much activity outside the ground: a few early arrivals, mostly neutral fans. Inside the stadium officials and guests are tucking into a pre-match dinner (meaning the bar is out of bounds for mere mortals). Soon a coachload of Norwegians arrives, and the noise level increases. At 5.45, exactly an hour before kick off, the gates are opened.

The pitch looks superb, as expected at this time of year, and in the early evening sunshine this is a fine venue to start the season's football action. Without the rather fierce wind it could be called idyllic, at least by those of us whose idylls are football grounds. The Haugesund fans are being directed over to the low-rise seats on the water side of the ground, while home and neutral fans have the main stand - but despite the segregation, the fans mingle happily before the match. As ever in UEFA games, there's no standing, so it's going to be empty behind both goals.

Airbus, as the second best team in domestic Welsh football, carry some real hopes with them into this match, although tinged with realism: we know Norwegian full-timers generally prevail over our part-timers, we know they're in mid-season. But they're not having a great campaign and are maybe (we hope) not as formidable as Brann and Aalesunds who have scored at will against our teams in recent times. We hope all our sides can get decent results tonight, but the bookies' assessment that the odds against all three winning are 180-1 should warn us not to get too carried away.

By the time the match starts, there is drizzle once again in the wind, which is in Airbus' favour in the first half. The early exchanges are inconclusive, although Airbus initially look a bit nervy. They soon get into their stride though, and begin to enjoy some good possession in the opposing half. Chris Budrys is lively up front and seems intent on scaring the teenage Norwegian keeper. The lad isn't put off though, stopping a couple of goal-bound efforts, and anyway Budrys seems to be penalised just about every time he's in a good position. Airbus have a couple of half-chances and are definitely holding their own against opponents who look accomplished, as you'd expect, but not all that confident.

After a promising first 30 minutes, a good move sees the ball played up to Budrys in the box; he lays it off without conceding a free-kick this time and sets up the unmarked Jordan Johnson with a perfect chance to place the ball past Bratveit in the goal. 1-0 to Airbus. The lead, and the ten minutes of comfortable dominance that follow, evoke familiar mixed emotions: pleasure of course, and hope for a good outcome, but also a fear, born of experience. So many times we've been here - an early lead, dreams of holding on for a historic win, followed by a wake-up call as continental visitors hit back. I catch my hopes rising and tell myself not to get carried away. So it's still disappointing, but not entirely unexpected, when the Airbus defence gets badly stretched just before half time and a low hard drive beats Coates in the home goal.

Experience also tells me that after the break a couple of scenarios are most likely: one, Haugesunds step up a gear, buoyed by the equaliser, and their superior fitness tells. Or two, everyone settles for the draw and the game becomes pedestrian. What actually happens isn't quite either of those, but there are echoes of both. Haugesund do enjoy far more second-half possession and Coates is repeatedly tested - but he proves equal to everything. The Norwegians never become truly dominant, though. And Airbus do play with more caution, wary of the visitors' threat. That's not to say they don't create chances, and there's plenty of activity at the caravan park end that they are attacking into the teeth of the wind - not like some UEFA games I can recall where taking up a photographer's position behind the opposing goal meant being a distant spectator for 90% of the time. A couple of times Haugesund goal escape conceding a goal through a slice of fortune - notably when a goal-bound shot by Andy Jones hits team-mate Jordan Johnson and stays out. But the game does drift rather inevitably to a draw, which is a fair result, and much credit to Airbus, who have now played three games in Europe and not lost any of them ! Now, if only they can do the same next week away, but hopefully not just draw 0-0 and go out on away goals again. Unlikely maybe, they're still underdogs in this tie, but they are still in it. Which sadly, is more than can now be said for Aberystwyth and Bangor - both have kicked off later, but as we leave Nantporth both are already trailing by a couple of goals in Ireland and Iceland respectively.

After the match, there's little time to admire the views towards Bangor pier and Beaumaris on the walk back into town to catch the last train eastwards to my overnight stop at Crewe. A late night dash back into England but it was worth it, a good performance by a Welsh Premier side and an enjoyable evening.

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