My verdict on the night that saw the Welsh Premier League return to Europe…
Two heavy away defeats have all but quashed hopes of seeing Welsh football’s UEFA Europa League representatives enjoying an extended continental campaign this season. Both Aberystwyth and Bangor City were sent packing home with 4-0 first-leg defeats, while Airbus have kept their tie alive after securing a 1-1 draw at Nantporth.
Barring a turnaround of epic proportions, the defeats against European debutees Stjarnan of Iceland and Northern Irish outfit (who confusingly represent the League of Ireland) Derry City have effectively condemned Bangor City and Aberystwyth to first-round exits, with both Welsh sides finishing with ten-players.
Aberystwyth Town, who I felt were the most able of the three WPL clubs to advance past the first qualifying round, were undone early on with the dismissal of goalkeeper Mike Lewis. The red card and resulting penalty proved to be the turning point of the game, much to the frustration of Aber manager Ian Hughes.
“I probably have to be careful what I say here, because I don’t want a big fine, but there are a few things that have gone on that I’m certainly not happy about and I’m sure the players in that dressing room aren’t either, so I’m really disappointed with many things external to what we control,” he revealed post-match before adding he is hoping for a far more competitive encounter in next week’s return leg.
“I’m really looking forward to next week’s game, I know we are 4-0 down but I’m looking forward to bringing them back to Park Avenue and showing what a good team we are.”
“We weren’t allowed to demonstrate that today with only having 10 men on the pitch.”
It will be interesting to see how Aber will acquit themselves in their home leg, as I certainly believe they have players who can cause Derry City problems and the Seasiders will have a score to settle, as a one-off contest at least with the four-goal deficit seemingly unassailable. The suspension to keeper Mike Lewis will be a headache to Ian Hughes – how he must rue the departure of defensive stalwart Peter Hoy, who performed so well in a unique run between the sticks last season, in Lewis’ absence!
At time of writing, I’ve not read too much about Bangor’s defeat but suspected they would find life difficult against a Stjarnan side, who’re on a good run of form in the Icelandic championship.
Two goals in quick succession saw the Citizens battling to keep the tie alive after just 16-minutes of play and Sam Hart’s late red-card added to their woes on a difficult night and confirmed the fears I had for Bangor going into this tie.
It is undeniable that Bangor are in Europe on merit following their play-off success but their squad has largely been untouched since last season, which was one of transition and one where they, at times, lacked consistency and looked vulnerable defensively.
Nev Powell is certainly right to rely on his core of more experienced players such as Les Davies, Sion Edwards and Chris Roberts to lead but I believe the side, at present, lack enough overall quality to compete in Europe. Though rich in potential this current Bangor side certainly aren’t as strong as some of the side’s Powell has been able to assemble in years gone by and it will certainly be interesting to see how much room he has to manoeuvre within his budget over the summer.
But let us finish on a high, where the story of the night was that of Airbus UK’s draw with FK Haugesund – an unlikely result which keeps the tie alive for the Wingmakers’ visit to Norway.
Few expected such a result with Airbus seemingly having the most unfavourable draw of the three clubs. But Jordan Johnson took advantage of an encouraging Airbus start before seeing their lead cancelled shortly before half-time.
Encouragingly, Airbus held their own for periods against a Haugesund, who’re enduring a poor run domestically despite last season’s third-place finish. And the Norwegians will be under pressure at home to advance, with Airbus seen as something of a banana skin.
Andy Preece’s infectious determination will serve them well, though with an away goal under their belt and strengthened by the probable return of first-choice goalkeeper Per Morten Kristiansen and their influential Serbian defender Dusan Cvetinovic for the second-leg, Haugesund should not be discounted as anything other than a formidable side.
Andy Preece’s was evidently delighted with how his side’s applied themselves, with the odds stacked heavily against last season’s WPL runners-up.
“I think it was an unbelievable performance, I don’t think anybody gave us a prayer really,” he said.
“When we watched a couple of their games, they played against Molde who are top of their league and their Champions League team, they were equally as good as them so we were thinking what might happen to us tonight.
“We were fantastic from the first whistle and we could have been a couple of goals up.
“They struggled to defend against us, we created a number of opportunities and that’s the only disappointing thing really is that we didn’t get ourselves a couple of goals in front.
“To keep in the game and to match them for 90 minutes when they are halfway through their season just shows the determination and desire of our players.”
Progression for any of the Welsh clubs in the Europa League would now be a remarkable feat, and it appears that it will be down to The New Saints to solely carry Welsh football’s hopes of an extended European run, when they begin their Champions League qualifying campaign against Slovan Bratislava in a fortnight’s time.