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Sunday, 10 July 2016 07:01

Cold Welcome in a Hot Country

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TUESDAY 5th JULY. San Marino Stadium, dry and humid.
S.P. TRE PENNE 0 THE NEW SAINTS 3 (UEFA Champions League, 1st Qualifying Round, 2nd Leg)

San Marino isn't the easiest place to get to from Cardiff. My journey for Tuesday evening's return fixture in the Champions League starts at 5.30 a.m. on Monday, and involves a taxi, flight to Milan, airport express transfer, a three hour train journey to Milan, and a bus to San Marino. With an overnight stop in the handsome seaside city of Rimini, we finally arrive in San Marino on Tuesday morning.

San Marino city perches on top of a mountain, overlooking the rest of this tiny landlocked republic spread out in the foothills. It's a lovely place to while away most of Tuesday, and whilst sightseeing we keep bumping into the TNS official party. When we stop for lunch, the very friendly multi-lingual waiter guesses we're here for the game - he turns out to be a Tre Penne fan. I ponder the contrast - nobody in Oswestry town centre last week even seemed to know there was a game on. The home fan is sure his team will "lose heavily" tonight....  

Tre Penne's own home ground is close to the city, but can't be used for UEFA games, and so the match is at the San Marino FA's main stadium in Serravalle - way down in the foothills, and actually almost half-way back to Rimini. And that proves to be the source of our one and only problem on this trip. On arrival at the stadium's press window, instead of the expected welcome, we are told by the Sammarinese FA official, in no uncertain terms, that we do not have accreditation, we're not going to get it and they're not going to sort it out for us. She's not even apologetic. Probably the least welcoming host I've ever encountered in many years of watching UEFA matches, and in the smallest country I've visited!

With the intervention of TNS, I am eventually offered a photographer's bib (but no pass) and allowed through a gate onto the running track, but told repeatedly I must not try to enter the stand or other areas. My colleague has to buy his stand ticket. Trapped pitch-side, I spend the next hour with no access to refreshments or toilets, trying to get hold of programmes or team-sheets somehow. I get one of the latter from TNS.

With the evening not going to plan, I wonder if the game will go as badly wrong. After all, that away goal TNS conceded last week has given the second leg an extra edge - a 1-0 win for Tre Penne would be enough to cause an upset and de-rail the Welsh Premier's progress in Europe for this year. TNS need an early goal, and once again set about trying to break down the well-organised Tre Penne defence - and have as much success as they did throughout that goal-less second half at Park Hall, even though they seem to be trying to thread the ball through the middle, instead of getting to the goal-line as they mostly did last week.

Tre Penne's goal survived the last 50 minutes last week, and after 40 minutes here, it's the same story. Tre Penne have actually held TNS for 90 minutes! All the while the nagging worry is that it will only take one lapse, or one poor refereeing decision, to put TNS in a very uncomfortable place. Tre Penne muster a couple of attempts on Paul Harrison's goal, just to show anything is still possible.

The home goal almost survives the whole first half, but in the final minute TNS get the vital first goal: as they appeal for a penalty after an incident on the edge of the area, the ball runs loose and Scott Quigley - being played onside by a stray defender - lashes it home. So at half time, the tie suddenly looks less tense - even to be taken to penalties, TNS will have to concede twice.

After the restart, any lingering doubts about the outcome are dispelled. Quigley wins a free kick on the touchline and when it's whipped in, Aeron Edwards reacts as the ball deflects into the goalmouth and heads home the Saints' second.

After this, with the match won, TNS labour in the increasing humidity to add to their tally. Chances come and go and keeper Migani makes a couple of spectacular saves again. In the closing stages, TNS replace Quigley up front with the more experienced Greg Draper, and with Tre Penne visibly tiring, the Saints attack immediately looks more potent. Draper duly adds a third goal in the last minute of the 90, sealing an emphatic 5-1 aggregate win.

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