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Sunday, 23 August 2015 07:56

The Road to Europe Starts Here

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SATURDAY 22nd AUGUST: Deep Duffryn - humid.
AFC PERTHCELYN 1 LLANTWIT FARDRE 2 (JD WELSH CUP, 1st Qualifying Round)
Another week, another national cup competition gets underway for 2015-16. This time it's the Welsh Cup, so technically the road to the Europa League starts here, though the 118 clubs in action today will realistically be hoping for a run through a few early rounds, enough to earn a share of the prize money in the 'Proper' rounds, rather than a tilt at European glory.

With 58 ties in almost every part of Wales, there's no shortage of choice: there are numerous games that appeal - many of these at clubs which wouldn't normally issue programmes. But adverse weather, which so often afflicts this first stage of the cup, means postponements are possible, and I'm not travelling too far afield. The Perthcelyn tie is one within easy reach and with 'options' if the weather prevails. The home side are the only entrant from the Aberdare Valley League, hosting a team from three divisions higher in the pyramid, and on a ground I've not visited before.

Sunday, 16 August 2015 08:46

'New' North End off to a winning start

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SATURDAY 15th AUGUST: Penygaer playing fields, dry and cloudy.
PORTH TYWYN SUBURBS 2 NORTH END 6 (FAW Trophy Round 1)
After another three-and-a-half week break since my last game, it's time to go to football again, because the domestic season is starting. Most of the main leagues in Wales get underway today, with some interesting matches, but the first round of the FAW Trophy has greater pull. I hadn't picked a game in advance, but on returning from holiday yesterday a serious look at the ties caused one to jump out: Porth Tywyn Suburbs v North End. Two famous names from west Wales football (or rather its recent past), and not regular Trophy entrants. A quick look at Twitter revealed that North End have reformed, and this will be their first competitive game: decision made then.

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WEDNESDAY 22nd JULY: Sóstói Stadium, Székesfehérvár. Sweltering heat, no breeze.
FC VIDEOTON 1 THE NEW SAINTS 1 (after extra time) (UEFA Champions League, 2nd Q. Rd, 2nd leg)

I'd booked my travel to Hungary before the exact match details were fixed, so I had made provision for being in Székesfehérvár on either Tuesday or Wednesday evenings. That means travelling out on Monday, and in the absence of anything more convenient, I'm flying from Gatwick - a long journey from Cardiff via Reading, Gatwick, Budapest Airport, Budapest city and finally arriving in the city of Székesfehérvár via train, roughly an hour's travel south-west of Budapest. But it all goes more or less to plan and I'm installed in my hotel in the evening, pondering how deserted it seems, when a big coach pulls up and the TNS team and management pile out. Apparently their supporters are not with them - their trip being based in Budapest, where there's undoubtedly more to do for the visitor (I opted for convenience, staying in Videoton's home city, reckoning I can easily get to Budapest for sight-seeing anyway, which I do on the Tuesday).

The big problem with this trip is the heat: temperatures in high thirties, scorching sun, no air. Just walking around, even in the shade, is an effort, and it slows down my sightseeing, both in lovely Budapest on Tuesday and in pleasant Székesfehérvár on Wednesday, match-day. If it's bad for me, what must it be like for the players preparing for a big game ? Mercifully, the match itself has been scheduled for 8.30 p.m., so at least the shadows are starting to lengthen as I set of for the Sóstói Stadium, on the other side of the town centre, under the railway and down the final approach road with a cemetery on either side. Even so, what would otherwise have been a 25 minute walk is a cautious 50 minute amble, with frequent water stops.

Once at the ground, the challenge is to establish the whereabouts of my press accreditation: an odyssey the length of the ground, escorted inside, then out again, finally leads to a tiny hut hidden by trees in a field behind the far end of the stadium. All is fine from then on, and once inside, there is respite from the heat, and a chance to soak up the pre-match atmosphere from the press area high in the large stand, looking out over the vast uncovered bowl. Way up behind the left hand goal, a small group of TNS fans unfurls a huge Welsh flag and set up their base high in the open seats.

Sunday, 12 July 2015 06:49

Drama and Heartbreak at the Seaside

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THURSDAY 9th JULY: Belle Vue, sunny and mild.
BALA TOWN 2 FC DIFFERDANGE 03 1 (UEFA Europa League 1st Qual. Rd., 2nd Lg)
Forty-eight hours after travelling north to see TNS in the Champions League, (and less than 24 hours after getting home) it's time to do it all again: destination Rhyl, to see if Bala can overturn that 3-1 deficit from the first leg of their Europa League match.

It's a fine, sunny day, without the excessive heat of last week, so conditions should suit both sides better. Bala Town have taken over Belle Vue for the evening and the ground is already lively as the first spectators start arriving an hour and a half ahead of the match - merchandise, programmes and raffle tickets all on sale just in side the entrance; UEFA and media types bustle about importantly. There's an air of expectation, almost quiet optimism I feel, among the Welsh contingent. Maybe the feel-good factor from TNS and Newtown pulling off 3 wins so far is infectious, but having seen Bala lose last week, I feel any respectable result tonight will be satisfactory - but an aggregate victory is too much to expect. When asked, I rate the chances as no more than 15-20%....

Thursday, 09 July 2015 07:00

TNS sweep aside Faroese champions

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TUESDAY 7th JULY - The Venue, Park Hall - dry, breezy.
THE NEW SAINTS 4 B36 TORSHAVN 1 (UEFA Champions League 1st Qualifying Round, 2nd Leg)

Back in Wales, and more normal temperatures, this week brings a chance to see The New Saints and Bala Town in their home legs, and tonight it's the Saints, defending a 2-1 win from their match in the Faroes. Hopes are very high of another Welsh win and progress to the next qualifying round, an unusual sensation to savour.
It's good to see TNS able to play these European games at Park Hall again (the ageing artificial pitch had not become unsuitable for UEFA games, but has now been replaced with a brand new one). The Venue is already busy as I arrive after the walk from Gobowen station a couple of hours before kick-off, and hospitality etc. is already underway - TNS have the facilities to exploit these occasions well. Those who've purchased gold or silver tickets can relax inside the centre before the game - but those with just match tickets are stuck with pretty limited facilities inside the ground - burger bar, portable toilets etc. Still, on a fairly pleasant, dry summer evening, that's not the hardship it might have been in more extreme conditions.

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