With the juggernaut that is Euro 2016 taking a grip of the nation, the fact that the Welsh clubs begin their very own European campaigns this week is an odd one.
Unseasonable, unpublicised and uncompromising. That pretty much sums up the first qualifying round for most of our Euro-bound clubs bar treble-winning TNS, who kick-off the 2016 WPL Euro adventure at Park Hall on Tuesday night.
Bala Town, Llandudno and Connah’s Quay all face sizable tasks in progressing past their first qualifying round opponents in the Europa League; an unfortunate draw in Switzerland last week left the North Wales trio with ties against three strong Scandinavian sides. More on that tomorrow.
That leaves us with TNS however, and they will be favourites to advance past their Champions League first qualifying round opponents Tre Penne of San Marino over two legs with Cypriot champions APOEL ready and waiting in the next round.
Craig Harrison’s side won comfortably at this stage last year, notching a 6-2 aggregate over Faroe Islander’s B36 Torshavn before a suffering a narrow a.e.t defeat to Videoton, who in turn lost out in the next round to BATE, who would eventually qualify for the full Champions League group stage.
That of course remains the dream and ultimate ambition for Mike Harris and all associated with TNS. With every league title they collect and European campaign they partake in, the Saints continue their learning curve taking another step in maturing as a side. Yes, their professional status gives them a significant advantage domestically but it assists them in their chances of achieving their European goal. Such is their dominance at domestic level, it is not harsh to suggest European football is now the platform on which to TNS should be judged and I believe the side are edging closer and closer to reaching the group stages of the Champions League or more likely, the Europa League.
TNS would need to reach the Champions League third qualifying round in order to stand a chance of reaching the Europa League; a defeat in that third round would see them drop into the Europa League play-off round where victory would famously clinch them a group stage spot.
I get the impression that TNS are ready to push hard this year. The club have acted boldly since the end of last season, notable first-teamer’s Mike Wilde and Kai Edwards headed a list of seven players not to be retained by the club, as to what appears from the outside to be a deliberate effort to reshape their first-team squad. Defenders Tom Matthews and Stevie Saunders have arrived at Park Hall, along with midfielder Jon Routledge – all three are likely to become core players in the Saints’ new-look side.
I suspect that TNS are still on the lookout for another striker and the exit of experienced centre-forward Michael Wilde has certainly created a gap within the squad. The addition of a quality forward would be another progressive step forward for the Saints but it does seem that, for whatever reason, they’ve not been able to bring that man in. The ideal scenario would be to have a completed squad going into their European fixtures but that’s not to say that the club are not busy behind the scenes and I would certainly watch this space between now and the start of the season. TNS are a club always looking to add if the right player becomes available to them but these summer months have seen them more active than usual on the recruitment front.
Whilst it would be a tremendous to see TNS achieve their European goal, one can only wonder the impact wider success in Europe would have domestically. The advantage of regular European football and its prize money would see their dominance and grip over the Welsh Premier League increase ten-fold. That issue of course, does not lie with TNS but for the remaining eleven clubs and FAW to circumnavigate.
I believe it’s a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ TNS will succeed in continental football, and the rest of domestic football will need to be ready for what could be a particularly challenging era for those trailing in the Saints’ wake.
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