If it’s early July, and most of the football world is heading back to pre-season training, then The New Saints must be playing in the Champions League. Their striker Greg Draper knows the storyline, but this time he wants a different ending, as Matthew Burgess reports.
The Champions League qualifying rounds are familiar territory for Welsh Premier League champions The New Saints.
This evening’s visit of Kosovan side Feronikeli marks their eighth successive season in the competition, and although it’s a well-trodden path, the club are yet to truly make their mark on the European stage.
Perennial champions domestically, The New Saints are barely touchable when it comes to competition within Welsh borders.
They will start next season as odds-on favourites to land a 14th league title, beyond that their target will be 10-in-a-row. Yet their winning habits at home at the top level of domestic Welsh football have never successfully translated into European success.
The club’s long-term target has been to bridge that gap and pursue group stage qualification either via the Champions League or Europa League.
In doing so, they channel Welsh football’s best chance of improving our coefficient – the complex points system UEFA uses to determine how many European places each league receives.
Wider afield, The New Saints also go into each European campaign routinely carrying the hopes of Welsh domestic football.
All of this is has become standard practice for long-serving centre-forward Greg Draper, who is approaching his ninth season with the club.
During his time at Park Hall, the New Zealander has become well-travelled – adding stamps from Macedonia, Gibraltar, Denmark, Croatia, Cyprus, Hungary, Slovakia, Sweden and the Faroe Islands to his passport.
Following a shortened summer break, with just four weeks off following the Welsh Cup final and the start of summer pre-season preparations for the team’s European games, the 29-year-old is feeling confident ahead of this latest campaign.
“You don’t really lose too much fitness so we didn’t have to come back and do too much running to get us back up to a decent level, he says.
“So, we were able to a lot more ball-work as normal. Training has been really positive and all the lads are in really good shape.
“There’s a couple of new faces who’ve settled really well and the main squad has stayed together from last year.
“We’re in a much better position than last year where we had 10 or 11 new players.
“They probably hadn’t quite settled by this time. Naturally, when you’ve got 11 new players coming in, it’s going to take time.”
It’s a relative stability that Draper feels will serve the club well this summer.
“I’ve always felt that TNS’s success has been built on the fact that over the last few years, they’ve only ever let two players go and two players come in at a time.
“So, last year was a really big transition and up until Christmas it probably showed, really, as we were a little bit inconsistent. But once everyone settled in, domestically, we never looked back.”
Last season was a peculiar one indeed for Draper, who celebrated a league and cup double in addition to winning the Golden Boot for a second successive year.
Despite netting a career-best 27 league goals last season, Draper was used as an impact substitute by manager Scott Ruscoe for much of the year, after falling out of favour when the side endured a rare poor spell of results.
“It wasn’t ideal, there was times when I got a little bit fed up,” he reflects.
— Danny Bell (@dannybell_) July 9, 2019
“Although, I think I’ve had these experiences before. When we had Mike Wilde at the club five or six years ago, he was always first-choice, so I thought back to those days and that helped me get through.
“Obviously, luckily for me, when I was coming off the bench, I was managing to get a couple of chances and managing stick them away.
“So, even though I wasn’t starting, as long as I was scoring, I was also sort of reasonably happy. If I wasn’t scoring goals when I was coming on, I think I would have got fed up a lot quicker.
“We had that rough spell in November when I was starting and wasn’t scoring for three or four games.
“I came out of the team at that point and just had to be patient, really, and keep at it in training, keep working hard, waiting for my chance. Then, when my chance came around, I was able take it and was able to finish the season strongly,” he said.
In an unusual set of circumstances, Draper still managed to finish as the league’s leading goal scorer despite only starting 10 games – incredibly scoring 27 goals in 30 appearances.
Last summer’s European foray was one of disappointment for The New Saints, suffering an early exit in the Champions League qualifying first round at the hands of Macedonian outfit Shkendija.
Saints slumped to a 5-0 first-leg defeat in Macedonia and although they nearly turned the tie around in the home-leg, winning 4-0, they exited into the Europa League where they narrowly overcame Lincoln Red Imps (Gibraltar) before Danes FC Midtjylland ended their European run for another year.
Stadiumi “Rexhep Rehepi” Drenas pic.twitter.com/8TsPVdEv5t
— KF Feronikeli (@KF_Feronikeli_1) May 5, 2018
Now, Draper is hoping a strong start in Europe will not only boost his team’s hopes of an extended European run, but also secure his own place in the team.
“We’re definitely getting closer,” he says. “It’s probably the best chance we’ve had of getting through this round so there’s probably a bit of pressure around us in that sense.
“Last year, playing against the Macedonian team, we threw it away in the first-leg, really, and it gave us too much to do in the second-leg.
“But I think everyone saw that performance in the second-leg where we then beat them 4-0, so we’re capable of performances like that.
“It’s just a case of putting in a performance like that at home on Tuesday and being a bit more solid when we go out there the following week. Then, we should get through it.”
And of his own chances of adding to that goal tally?
“If I do end up starting, I just have to do everything I can and give no reason for Scott or Steve to take me out of the team,” he adds.
The journey of one of the finest players to have played in the Welsh Premier League continues and you sense there is little that could unsettle him along the way.