The New Saints’ European dreams are over for another summer after last night’s 3-0 defeat to APOEL in Cyprus.
The Saints continued to defy and frustrate APOEL, in similar manner to the first-leg, with the scoreline remaining goalless at half-time.
But nine-minutes into the second-half the complexion of the game would change as APOEL finally made the breakthrough, and although the goal actually did little to effect the balance of the tie – with TNS requiring an away goal – it did open the game up somewhat and for the first time in the two legs we saw the Saints attempt to play with purpose in the APOEL half.
A second goal for the Cypriots on 73 minutes effectively killed the tie off before Steven Saunders’ poor challenge inside the area then allowed APOEL to wrap the game up late on as they made it 3-0 on the night from the penalty spot.
So that brings TNS’s European campaign over for another year as we’re given another reminder of what level of quality our domestic game needs to aspire to if we are to step-up on the continental stage.
APOEL were a very difficult opponent for TNS and have the sort of pedigree in European football that we in the Welsh Premier League can only dream of. TNS looked to box clever in their attempted route to the third qualifying round and Craig Harrison’s game plan was a smart one; they held out against wave and wave of attack in the home leg to give themselves a fighting chance of advancing. Their efforts at Park Hall gave them a possible foothold with the knowledge that with an away goal, a score-draw out in Nicosia would seen them through. If TNS could frustrate the hosts and somehow grab one on the break then they would be knocking on the door of the next round and Harrison’s plan would come to fruition.
That was the plan, that was the hope. But if we take a step-back away from our wishes to see a WPL club side progress in Europe, we have to be truthful and admit that across both games APOEL were distinctly the better side and TNS rarely caused any concern in advanced areas.
Yes, they have shown incredible defensive resilience and work-rate which are real plus points, but the Saints are still missing one or two pieces of the puzzle going forward and whist the quality within their squad is ample for competing in the Welsh Premier League, there is a shortcoming of individual talent that can penetrate and hurt teams of a higher standard.
The Saints are unique in the Welsh Premier League in that they are a full-time club. Yes, it gives them a solid advantage over the other 11 clubs year in, year out but in order for them to continually improve, it should be considered just how difficult it perhaps is for them to attract quality players when competing against budgets and ambitions that other professional clubs offer.
Playing in the semi-pro WPL in front of paltry crowds and training throughout the summer months with the biggest games of the season being played in July, are unlikely to be a major selling points for TNS when club officials sit around the table with potential new recruits. What TNS do offer however is the opportunity for players to play for a club with a winning mentality and for those slipping out of the professional game at Football League level, the opportunity to rebuild their career at a club with long-term stability, gain experience of playing in Europe and if all goes well, the possibility of perhaps progressing onto bigger and better things.
I have little doubt that these would’ve been among the topics discussed and dissected when the club signed Jon Routledge (ex-Wigan), Steve Saunders (ex-Scottish international) and Tom Matthews (Q.P.R.) earlier this summer.
And it could be for the aforementioned reasons why TNS have not added another striker to their ranks – perhaps the most obvious requirement of the current squad. It was the club’s decision to not renew long-term striker Michael Wilde’s contract at the end of last season and it seems odd that the club have not yet re-strengthened as neither winger/striker Scott Quigley or Greg Draper have so far been able to hold down a place in the starting line-up for an extended length of time. Particularly at European level, TNS seem a side short of a quality centre-forward. Hindsight makes it very easy for me to comment now but you wonder what difference would a striker who offers his side a better outlet and possesses better ability to keep centre-backs on their toes have made against APOEL over the two-legs? Margins…
Each competitive tie against good European opposition however is a step forward in that learning curve which our clubs need to come through in order to become more competitive. The TNS players and coaching staff are probably better having come through the experience and will have learnt a lot about themselves individually and collectively along with a better grasp of the barriers they must overcome if the Saints are going make that sought after European breakthrough.
In the meantime though, TNS need to recover, regroup and go again in the bread and butter of the Welsh Premier League, where I sense for the first time in a few seasons, things might just start to become a little more competitive at the top of the table.
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