The New Saints are on the march. Here's Robert Doman.
When a football club averaging just 350 regular fans plays its way into the European history books you cannot help but wonder how it has belied the odds against it. After frightening mighty teams such as RSC Anderlecht and CSKA Sofia in recent years its progression could be the catalyst for a generation of change both in its own fortunes and the league in which it plies its trade.
The New Saints incorporate a history almost as long as the game itself, but whilst off-field antagonisms leave it striving to re-establish itself in the minds of supporters, the side is forging a future in European competition. The five-time Welsh Premier League winners have performed well beyond the level of sides its current size in recent years and with exertions on the pitch bringing fairytale fixtures to those wearing the club’s green and white colours, its vision is that of a schoolboy’s dream.
When chairman Mike Harris merged the Welsh and English border sides of Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain and Oswestry Town he did it to bring success, but it came at a price with fans of both clubs turning their backs on the deal. Llansanffraid FC had risen through the Welsh system to its highest tier, breaking into the top flight in 1993 having been formed 34 years earlier within a village of around 1,000 inhabitants. Three years later after winning the Welsh FA Cup the club was preparing for its first European foray in the UEFA Cup Winners Cup. Cue Harris who splashed out £250,000 in a takeover that would see Llansanffraid FC’s name changed to that of his Total Network Solutions company, the first British club to rename itself completely to its sponsor’s brand name. Total Network Solutions lost the tie 6-1 on aggregate to 14-time Polish champions Ruch Chorzow. It would be four years before Harris would witness his side return to Europe.
In 2000, after becoming what was until this season the Welsh system’s only full-time professional club, Total Network Solutions or TNS as they soon became known, won the league title and entered the UEFA Champions League first qualifying round against Estonians, FC Levadia Tallinn. Losing 6-2 on aggregate this was the first of 12 consecutive seasons which the club has now qualified for Europe. The following year TNS went out 6-0 in the UEFA Cup qualifying round, now the Europa League, to Polonia Warsaw, and a crushing 12-1 defeat to another Polish side, Amica Wronki, in 2003, inflicted a painful reminder to Harris that it was unthinkable for TNS to progress in Europe.
Cue his second purchase. Oswestry Town FC just seven miles across the border in England began life in 1860 and has competed in the Welsh system since 1876 as founder members of the Welsh FA. As such, The New Saints are currently celebrating their 151st anniversary.
During Oswestry Town’s 19TH Century heyday it had the honour of seeing eight of its squad selected for the first ever England v Wales international match in 1879.
Oswestrian, William Henry Davies, scored Wales’ first ever international goal in that 2-1 defeat. The golden age of football in Oswestry was not to last however, but now The New Saints are ushering in a new era.
In 2003 Oswestry Town was staring relegation from the Welsh Premier League in the face having gone without a win all season. To survive and for the merger to go through it needed to win its final five matches…and they say miracles don’t happen! With the merger complete and Total Network Solutions cleared to continue in the WPL, Harris could embark on his European dream with renewed belief despite many Oswestry fans turning their back on the club.
In 2004 TNS lost their UEFA Cup first qualifying round to Manchester City 7-0 over two legs. The following year the Welsh double winners fell to Swedes, Osters IF, 4-1. In 2006 Harris sold his Total Network Solutions company but retained the club’s TNS branding, renaming it The New Saints, encompassing Saint Ffraid of Llansanffraid and Oswestry’s Saint Oswald. Retaining the league title and moving to their current, redeveloped Park Hall ground, they faced European Cup holders Liverpool in a Champions League qualifier, losing 3-0 in each leg against a Reds’ side packed with internationals including England favourite Steven Gerrard who scored five of his side’s goals. Saints were getting closer.
In 2007 and 2008 TNS went out to Fins, MYPA, 2-0, and Latvians, FK Ventspils, on away goals after recording their first ever European win in the first leg. For the next two years it was Europa League action for the Saints, going out in first round qualifiers to Lithuanians, Suduva, 2-0, and Fram Rekjavik of Iceland, 4-2.
Then the inevitable happened. With five WPL titles now under their belts the Saints lost 1-0 in the first leg of their 2010 Champions League second round qualifier (UEFA co-efficient points were mounting up by now) against Irish Champions Bohemians, but a 4-0 second leg hammering of the Bohs at Park Hall set up a dream tie with Belgium’s European giants Anderlecht. Many predicted a walkover for Anderlecht but despite TNS conceding two early goals at home they deservedly pulled a goal back before eventually going down 3-1. In Brussels it needed two late strikes from Chelsea’s new £20million prodigy Romelu Lukaku to end The New Saints’ challenge and register a 6-1 aggregate scoreline.
The adventure wasn’t over however and after losing 3-0 away in a Europa League group stage play-off to former European Cup finalists, CSKA Sofia, they were unlucky to be held to a 2-2 draw at home before bowing out of Europe with heads held high.
TNS recorded their first European away win in this season’s Europa League qualifying second leg against Belfast side, Cliftonville, snatching a 2-1 aggregate victory in a pulsating match. Although they fell at the next hurdle to Danes, FC Midtjylland, boasting current Danish international Jakob Poulsen, the achievements of this under-supported club are evident for all to see. Now Harris is targeting the European group stages and with the strides the club, including its impressive youth academy has made under his tenure, you wouldn’t bet against The New Saints marching on.
You can find Robert on Twitter @Robert_Doman.