A feature on a frustrating night for The New Saints in Europe.
The New Saints went into Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League qualifier against Gibraltan champions Europa FC confident, optimistic and odds-on favourites with the bookmakers. The highest seeded team in the 1st qualifying round draw, many were already debating about how they would fare against Croatian outfit HNK Rijeka in the next round. But Europa FC were determined to make history on their competition debut, and left Park Hall with a shock 2-1 advantage.
It seems strange to talk about a Welsh Premier League club suffering a surprise defeat in Europe, and that should be considered a sign of progress. However, any progress made by The New Saints in recent years was quickly forgotten as a disappointing performance helped Europa FC claim a deserved win on the night. The New Saints were a shadow of the side that have dominated domestically for so long. Disjointed, lacking urgency, lacking belief and conviction, it was hard to believe that this was the same team that made headlines last season by breaking the world win record.
— Welsh Premier League (@WPL_Official) June 27, 2017
But these are times of change at The New Saints, and while their opponents may have been underestimated, it appears that so has the impact of the departure of manager Craig Harrison. After six years of domestic domination, unprecedented success and a world record, it was inevitable that Harrison would eventually leave The New Saints to pursue his career at a higher level than the Welsh Premier League. After months of speculation, the move finally came just days after he collected yet another Manager of the Year accolade, as he returned closer to his roots by taking charge of recently relegated Hartlepool United.
Restoring the club to Football League status will not be an easy task, but Harrison is not one to shy away from a challenge, and will appreciate the opportunity that has presented itself with his love for the game now fully-restored. Meanwhile, his trusted coach Carl Darlington has also chosen to depart Park Hall and join Harrison at the top of the English non-league pyramid system, albeit with Wrexham. Back at the Racecourse for a second time, Darlington understands the need for this former giant to return to the Football League, and like Harrison the opportunity to be a part of such potential success proved too good to turn down.
— Hartlepool United FC (@Official_HUFC) May 26, 2017
The great Brian Clough came to prominence after starting his managerial career at Hartlepool, and while Harrison already has a few years of experience under his belt, repeating the success that Clough would later enjoy at the peak of his career would be celebrated right across the Welsh Premier League. Nigel Adkins enjoyed domestic success as manager of Bangor City, and went onto enjoy a successful career that has since taken him to the celebrated heights of the English Premier League. No manager has progressed from the league to anything like that level in the last two decades.
At the other end of the Welsh Premier League managerial spectrum, the departure of Harrison and Darlington has presented Scott Ruscoe and Steve Evans with the opportunity to make their names, and their experience of working alongside Harrison and Darlington in previous European campaigns should have put them in good stead for the immediate challenge. Taking charge in the Champions League in your first competitive game is a tough baptism for anyone, and Ruscoe’s frustration in his post-match debrief about his teams performance was evident.
— Mark Pitman (@UEFAcomMPitman) June 27, 2017
Consistently improved results and performances in Europe mean that The New Saints have the highest coefficient of any team in this opening round, but despite their seeding, The New Saints remain relative minnows on the European stage, and it will take another few years of regular victories for them to move to the next level of the European football establishment. Already, Ruscoe and company have their biggest game of the season when they head to Portugal for the return match next week, and he will need the right reaction from his players to reverse this surprise setback.
But as underwhelming as The New Saints were on the night, Europa FC did impress, and capitalised on the failings of the home side to create the better chances. Ghanaian midfielder Mustafa Yahaya controlled matters in the middle of the park with ease, while attacking trio Alex Quillo, Kike Gomez and former Portsmouth player and Gibraltar international Liam Walker combined effectively well. The New Saints struggled against the attacking pace of the visitors, and often resorted to unfamiliar long balls forward for striker Scott Quigley to chase with little return until he scored a spectacular goal just before the break.
🙌 WHAT. A. GOAL!
— BBC Wales Sport (@BBCWalesSport) June 27, 2017
This is an exciting few weeks in the Welsh Premier League calendar, and with no domestic business the entire focus of each and every club switches to the fortunes of the fortunate four that make it through to the promised land. Rivalries in the main are put aside, and success for any of the four clubs can make a massive difference to the perception of the Welsh football press and public to the league as a whole. Likewise, heavy defeats can be highly-embarrassing, and few onlookers will look beyond a double-figure scoreline to take into account the astronomic disparity in wages that can exist between the two competing teams. These are challenges the league has faced, and continues to face, since it was formed in 1992.
But the Welsh Premier League and its clubs have evolved to a position where progression in Europe has become a regular occurrence, and teams like The New Saints are now considered favourites for fixtures like this. These are small but significant signs that the Welsh Premier League is improving each and every year, and while it will always have its critics, it is clear that clubs have a solid appreciation of what investment it needs to make to qualify for Europe, and what they need to do to compete on the continent once they have reached their initial goal.
It’s full time in Wales.
— Gibraltar FA (@GibraltarFA) June 27, 2017
The group stages of either the Champions League and Europa League remain distantly on the horizon, but teams like Shamrock Rovers and more recently Dundalk have shown what can be achieved, and the Welsh Premier League is very much heading in the right direction despite the events of Tuesday. The focus now turns to Bala Town, Connah’s Quay Nomads and Bangor City as they compete in the UEFA Europa League, and the trio will be looking to restore some national pride following this latest disappointment.
Meanwhile, the focus for The New Saints will be to quickly learn from this defeat, and ensure they bring back the footballing philosophy that has brought them so much success in the past. By comparison, Europa FC caused an upset in Gibraltar last season by ending the domination of Lincoln Red Imps, and are now just one game away from causing a similar shock to The New Saints.