One has to feel sorry for Llanelli AFC. After a long 2011-12 season, they qualified for the Europa League via the rather convoluted Welsh Premier League's Europa League Play-Off system. Their Play-Off Final victory over Bala Town was played on Saturday May 19th and just over seven weeks later they were duly dumped out of the competition that they had strived so hard to reach. They fell at the first hurdle on a rain soaked Thursday evening in mid-July, just as many of their compatriots were only just thinking of returning from a ‘summer’ break in preparation for the new 2012-13 campaign.
Although Llanelli are no strangers to European football, their adventures on the continent have never lasted long. They have graced the Champions League, UEFA Cup, Europa League and the Intertoto Cup but have only progressed beyond a First Qualifying Round once, despite notable wins in the past against the likes of Motherwell and Dinamo Tbilisi. Wales are position 46 (out of 53) in the 2012 UEFA Association Coefficient rankings and little is expected in European club football from Welsh teams. On the same evening as Llanelli’s Europa League exit, Bangor City and Cefn Druids also disembarked from the train that will eventually alight at the Amsterdam Arena in May 2013. The New Saints are now the only Welsh club with a remaining interest in Europe for the coming season; this week they begin another Champions League campaign but will have to overcome Swedish champions Helsingborg side to progress.
To focus on the Welsh teams’ lack of progress is perhaps a little harsh – it is unlikely that any of the European clubs that played in this First Qualifying Round will make it to the latter stages, with the possible exception of former Dutch champions FC Twente, who found themselves playing this early in the competition because of their fair play exploits last season. Representatives from San Marino, the Faeroe Islands, Andorra and Luxembourg all started at this early juncture alongside teams with far from household names such as Sūduva Marijampolė (Lithuania), Flamurtari Vlorë (Albania) and Nõmme Kalju (Estonia). The best that most could have hoped for was to reach the group stages and make a little money and a few friends along the way.
Llanelli’s Europa League jaunt ended with a 1-1 home draw on Thursday 12th July against a reasonably adept Finnish side, KuPS Kuopio. The Reds had lost 2-1 in Finland on a 3G pitch in the first leg and come the return there were high hopes for progression. Likewise, Bangor City and Cefn Druids had reason to be confident following their opening games, both taking 0-0 home draws into their second leg matches, but their hopes were dashed on the night – Bangor City lost 2-1 in Moldova against Zimbru Chişinău and Cefn Druids ended their first ever European venture with a 5-0 defeat by another Finnish side, Myllykosken Pallo−47.
In the short time Llanelli had between the end of last season and this season’s Europa League fixtures, they were able to squeeze in two weeks of training and a friendly against Monmouth Town. In comparison, KuPS were 17 games into their Veikkausliiga season. Towards the end of the second leg encounter at Stebonheath, the hosts looked seriously short of match-fitness. Those who bemoan the ever decreasing break between football seasons need look no further than UEFA for ammunition whose match schedules saw the Champions League and the Europa League campaigns begin before the Wimbledon tennis had finished.
The game itself was played in some of the heaviest and most persistent rain I can recall, with a dose of thunder and lightning thrown in for good measure. To the enormous credit of the Llanelli groundsman (one Eddie Donne, for the record), the pitch was in superb condition and weathered the storm, quite literally. A large crowd had been expected, but pre-match rumours of a near sell-out (3,000 plus) were way off the mark and a mere 534 hardy souls braved the conditions, including a noisy and impeccably behaved contingent of around 50 fans from Kuopio.
Llanelli were understandably disappointed with the result. Manager Andy Legg had high hopes for a trip to Israel in the next round, despite his assertions pre-match that the Finnish were favourites. Legg summed up the frustration felt after the game saying “It’s difficult because the boys are not 100% fit yet, we’ve been together for the last couple of weeks, having finished the season off late due to the Play-Offs, so that’s something that’ll have to be looked at, and possibly the [Welsh Premier] League may have to look at. All three [Welsh] teams have gone out tonight, so it doesn’t help any of us; they [KuPS] are seventeen games into their season so they’re going to be stronger and fitter.”
Llanelli may well have another chance next summer, but they could have to do it the hard way again. The Welsh Premier League is looking even stronger for 2012-13 and there will be stiff competition from the likes of Bangor City, The New Saints and Airbus UK Broughton. Llanelli will be aiming for an eighth successive qualification for Europe, but hopefully via an automatic slot rather than through the Play-Offs. If nothing else, this will give them a couple of extra weeks of preparation.
Andy is an author and feature writer, who has written for When Saturday Comes among others.
Thanks to Stuart Fuller for the picture.