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Saturday, 12 July 2014 06:58

EUROPA LEAGUE OVER FOR 2014

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THURSDAY 10th JULY: Park Avenue. Warm and sunny.
ABERYSTWYTH TOWN 0 DERRY CITY 5 (Europa League, 1st Qualifying Round, 2nd Leg)
Just like last week, the quest to watch a Welsh team representing their country means a long journey west, to a distant edge of the country from my midweek base in Birmingham. Actually, getting to Aberystwyth from Birmingham is a little bit easier than getting there from within Wales, certainly from home in Cardiff: I'm able to catch a lunchtime train that is heading all the way to the Cambrian coast, although for Aber there's a change of trains in Machynlleth.

And, also like last week, the train journey is one of the most scenic in Wales, through the gentle countryside of Mid Wales, then along the Dovey estuary and the coast to Aber. I don't think I'll ever be able to pass through the final stop, Borth, without thinking of the atmospheric Welsh police drama 'Hinterland' - its magnificent old railway station starred in one memorable episode of the recent series.

Arriving in Aberystwyth by late afternoon, there's time to drop my bags and go for a stroll around the town. The seafront and castle ruins are at their best in this glorious weather, and locals and visitors are enjoying the sun, the beach and ice-creams. Already around town it's easy to spot small knots of Derry fans, resplendent in their distinctive red and white candy-striped shirts. The more sedate of them are exploring Aberystwyth, but the noisiest have turned The Old Station Wetherspoons into an Irish bar for the afternoon; their singing causes a few worried glances from the mostly elderly locals and holidaymakers near the station. I doubt if many even realise there's a match tonight - when I checked into my hotel the owner had no idea.

At around 5.30 I stroll up to Park Avenue, where - in contrast to Nantporth last week - there's already a buzz. The ground is open, and home officials are already in place to welcome and direct the crowd. Programmes, raffle tickets and merchandise are on sale and then on the grassy knoll by the turnstiles there's some activity around a microphone: a choir of young people (most definitely NOT a traditional male-voice choir) assembles and starts to provide pre-match entertainment. Aber, the only one of our four clubs in Europe this year to host a tie on their own ground, are staging the occasion splendidly, it has to be said. And they are rewarded with a capacity crowd of 1,046, the home fans occupying the old main stand and the Dias Stand at the bus station end, and in the uncovered seats on the Park Avenue side the lucky Derry fans who got hold of the small allocation of away tickets. Lucky for them too that it's such a fine evening.

Just before kick off time we hear that Airbus are going out of the competition, narrowly beaten out in Norway. Then the teams emerge, the formalities - handshakes, coin toss, etc. - take place and then we're into the formality of the match itself: sadly, on such a fine evening, so well staged, the match means little, as Aber trail 4-0 from the first leg. Still, we hope, maybe they can restore pride, even win or draw on the night ? For ten minutes, it seems plausible, both sides mount attacks and force corners. But then, in the eleventh minute, from one Derry corner, Duffy scores and then three minutes later a good move on the right leads to a cross and an unchallenged header by McNamee doubles the lead. Derry have asserted control, to the delight of their singing, chanting and drumming followers.

The rest of the first half is low-key and time starts to drag. Aber really don't threaten to get any sort of foothold in the game, Derry are content with things as they are. It's surprising just how much stronger the Irish side are in every area of the pitch - Welsh sides have generally match Irish Republic sides over the years, but there's a gulf between these teams.

The second half starts much the same. Little of note happens, though Aber have a couple of free-kicks which might have brought something, but don't. But then, in the 61st minute Rory Patterson receives a through ball and in the absence of close marking is easily able to turn and fire past Draper. This looks like being the end of the action as the game sinks back into torpor, but in the closing minutes Patterson scores again from very close range and then completes his hat-trick with a penalty after a lunge by Luke Sherbon.

0-5, certainly not the pride-restoring, co-efficient improving result we wanted. 9-0 to Derry on aggregate. Up in Bangor, City have lost 8-0 on aggregate to Stjarnan. Two results that immediately set off some Twitter messages calling for summer football in the Welsh Premier; as if a little bit of match fitness, the sharpness from being mid-season like Ireland and Iceland, would have prevented such comprehensive defeats. No, the problems go deeper, and only with more money, profile and investment in the league will most Welsh Premier clubs ever be able to catch up with European rivals. Still, I muse as I sup a real ale in the Glengower on Marine Parade, watching the sun set on the Irish Sea, it's impossible to feel despondent on such a lovely evening on the Cambrian coast.

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