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THURSDAY 2nd JULY - Stade Municipal, Differdange. Weather conditions: heatwave.
FC DIFFERDANGE 03 3 BALA TOWN 1 (Europa League First Qualifying Round, 1st Leg)

Eighteen days after watching my last game of 2014-15, I'm setting off to watch my first of 2015-16: as usual, the new season is heralded by a burst of early July activity in the early rounds of the UEFA competitions and, since the draw last week, the Welsh Premier representatives and their followers have been hastily preparing for the first legs. In my case, I've chosen to watch Bala Town away this week, in Luxembourg, and - rightly or wrongly, I've decided to travel by rail. It seemed like a sound plan, saving significantly over flight costs, but that was before the Calais migrant and ferry worker strikes started disrupting Eurostar.... and before a heatwave started.

After several days of anxiously checking news sites and Eurostar service updates, it's good to get the journey underway on Wednesday, with a full day's travel ahead. Despite the heatwave that has descended on northern Europe making it a less than ideal way for travelling anywhere (Wednesday in fact sets a new July record temperature in Britain), things go smoothly enough after all: the disgruntled ferry workers refrain from blocking the tunnel today, so by late afternoon I'm in Belgium and heading south-east on the slow, stopping train to Luxembourg as it trundles out through the Brussels suburbs, depositing workers and day-trippers at every stop. Four hot and stuffy hours later, the service crawls into the Grand Duchy and, sadistically, dawdles for a final, agonising twenty minutes outside Luxembourg station before releasing its few remaining weary passengers into the humid night air. After a cooling bath and the news that TNS have won in Torshavn, my spirits are fully recovered.

Thursday 2nd July dawns with Luxembourg on red alert because of the heat and humidity: temperatures in the high 30s celsius have caused the government to put the country to implement its plan for the "canicule" (literally dog-day), involving mobilising squads of paramedics, red cross and social workers to visit elderly and vulnerable citizens and help them survive the hot, polluted days and nights.

In Luxembourg city, it's a day for taking things slowly, staying in the shade, drinking copious amounts of mineral water; all of which I do, before having to set off again on a train, in the peak mid-afternoon heat - destination Differdange, a town in the south-west of the country, in the 'Valley of the Red Rocks', an industrial area close to the French border. For an industrial centre, Differdange and its surroundings seem pleasant and semi-rural: the town centre is relaxed, the main road from the station to the square dotted with quiet bars. I settle in one for a cool beer, watching various unfamiliar French types of horse-racing on the TV.

The twenty minute stroll to the Stade Municipal is an ordeal because of the heat and humidity, but it's flat and straightforward. The stadium is adjacent to a large open-air swimming pool, which has predictably drawn huge crowds today. Smaller numbers are filtering into the football stand an hour before the match, all making immediately for the shaded upper rows. Around 75 Bala fans are here to show support with flags and songs, having made their way here across England, France and Belgium, variously by air, sea, rail and road. They're hopeful of course, but seem realistic too - Luxembourg may not be a football power-house, but their clubs are more experienced in Europe than ours and their league is probably a little stronger. Differdange are European veterans, the present club and its antecedent "Red Boys Differdange" having campaigned on this stage over forty years. Bala will do well to keep the tie alive for the second leg, I feel. Although I'm always an advocate of having a go and not showing too much respect - in view of the heat (still 36 degrees at 7pm, kick off time) the Welsh side need to keep things tight early on to settle into the game.

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Two weeks after the final act of the 2014-15 Welsh season - the promotion play off in south Wales - the curtain went up on the 2015-16 season with the much-awaited UEFA Champions League and Europa League qualifying round draws. In between, in the absence of a proper close season, the summer solstice seemed to mark the changing of the football seasons too: as the days begin to shorten, thoughts turn to autumn and winter, but long before that we have some summer action in Europe coming up.

It's an unfortunate feature of the UEFA calendar that the smallest nations in its "family", those who contest these earliest rounds of the two cups, are given barely a week to plan the biggest games of their year, and arrange tricky overseas travel for parties of players and officials. UEFA can of course point to the six-figure distributions to all competing clubs as justification for the demands, but surely it's not unreasonable to ask for just another week or two between draw and action?

Fans too face the challenges of arranging trips into Europe at short-notice, so the days following the draws are typically involve a day or so of uncertainty about dates, venues and kick off times, followed by frantic searching for and booking the best travel options. It's only when all that is in place that we can start to assess our hopes and expectations for the four clubs representing us in Europe's premier club competitions.

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SATURDAY 13th JUNE: Cardiff City Stadium - cool and rainy
PONTLOTTYN 1 STM SPORTS 4 (SWFA Promotion Play-off)
Sixteen hours after leaving the scene of a famous Welsh victory, I'm back at the same venue. But today there won't be 33,000 passionate fans in the stadium, and the players won't be millionaire superstars. For this is a match to decide whether the champions of the South Wales Amateur League (STM Sports of Cardiff) or the Senior League winners (Pontlottyn) will take their place in the Welsh League Third Division next season.

Saturday, 13 June 2015 11:38

An unforgettable night in Cardiff

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FRIDAY 12th JUNE: Cardiff City Stadium - humid, wet
WALES 1 BELGIUM 0 (UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifying)
Mid June and, marooned between the two football seasons, there's a sudden flurry of football activity in Cardiff this weekend. For most people, the big event is this crucial Euro 2016 qualifying match (although the minds of two local clubs are bound to be on another match, less than 24 hours later - but more of that tomorrow).

Expectations ahead of the visit of Belgium have probably been higher than at any time in recent years. Wales, unbeaten at the halfway stage of their group, joint top with Belgium, and radiating belief and togetherness, two qualities not always present in our national set-up. The nation senses something has changed and that something big is about to happen and the build-up to this game has been big, on all broadcast and social media.

So big, perhaps, that people are starting to talk as if Wales are favourites - to beat a team officially ranked second in the world. The Welsh football public is in uncharted territory here - we're used to despair, dejection and embarrassment - we know how to handle those. Hope is trickier: seasoned fans bear the mental scars of having hoped before, and are wary.... and yet, when you think you've put it in its place, hope creeps back in - could this really be different ?

Realistically, what do the 33,000 fans making their way to Cardiff City Stadium expect ? They've heard about the spirit in the Welsh camp, they've heard how important the fans' vocal support is, and they expect the team to give as much as they will themselves. But probably most would settle for a draw, not to lose, to stay level with Belgium at the top of the group.

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Saturday 9th May 2015: Corporation Park, dry but breezy

PENYDARREN BGC 0 PONTLOTTYN 0  after extra time. Pontlottyn win 4-2 on penalties. (CW Bruty Cup final)

Another Saturday, another cup final. This week it's the South Wales Senior League's CW Bruty Cup final, in fact the last ever time this cup will be contested, as the league is superseded by the new South Wales Alliance League from next season. It's quite a fitting end to the competition, with the league's top two sides in the final, and the venue chosen because it's the home of the cup's first ever winners, Grange Albion.

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