Welsh football is celebrating a rare double success after both The New Saints and Bala achieved victories in the Europa League on Thursday night. The Saints beat MSK Zilina of Slovakia 3-1, whilst Bala Town won 1-0 in Malta against Valletta. Matthew Burgess assesses the significance of both results as the clubs now prepare for the second qualifying round.
The power of football never ceases to amaze and, true enough, one of the leading topics trending on Twitter last night was ‘Bala’.
A couple of hours earlier, Bala Town had finally broken their European hoodoo, advancing to the second qualifying round for the first time.
The club’s Mr. Reliable, Chris Venables, scored the decisive goal out in Malta as the Lakesiders edged past Valletta.
Summer signing Alex Ramsey made his mark, too, saving a second half penalty to keep their lead intact.
And after five previous attempts that had each ended in disappointment, long-serving manager Colin Caton was finally able to taste success on the European stage.
Whilst Bala were on the path to victory in Malta, The New Saints were drawn into extra-time by MSK Zilina before coming through unscathed.
— Bala Town F.C. (@BalaTownFC) August 27, 2020
A goalless first half in Oswestry failed to reflect how Scott Ruscoe’s side controlled proceedings for long periods in the first half, but their patience paid off when debutant Luis Robles delivered the opener at the near post.
The young Zilina side were given a lifeline inside the final 15 minutes when a reckless challenge inside the area allowed them to level from the penalty spot to force extra-time.
But step-forward another debutant – Leo Smith – to restore The New Saints’ lead before a late red card and coolly converted penalty from Adrian Cieslewicz quashed any threat of a comeback from the Slovakian team.
Bala and the Saints will now be joined by a third Welsh entry, Connah’s Quay, in next Monday’s draw for the Europa League second qualifying round.
Between now and then, Welsh football’s gaze will be firmly fixed on the fact that unseeded Bala Town could potentially draw Milan, Tottenham or Rangers in the next round and any such draw would create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those directly involved.
If Bala do draw one of those clubs, cue the inevitable ‘Welsh minnows could face XX giants’ and other similar column inches that go hand-in-hand with such occasions.
And away we go 🙌🏴 / A ffwrdd a ni 🙌🏴 pic.twitter.com/b6u6adi6bh
— Bala Town F.C. (@BalaTownFC) August 28, 2020
They offer a brief, but ultimately insubstantial, window of mainstream media attention on our domestic game, but the novelty factor merely papers over the cracks and wider issues facing the game.
Barry Town manager Gavin Chesterfield called it right last week. Upon returning home, following his side’s heavy defeat in the Faroe Islands, he questioned whether it was indeed time for Welsh football and its clubs to consider their purpose.
Is it to develop younger players – and specifically target European progression – or is it to just function, as it currently does, and celebrate European qualification with anything beyond that being a bonus?
These unanswered questions leave Welsh clubs with a blurred and muddled blueprint that is pulling in various directions – meaning the success of both our league and clubs is difficult to measure.
Increasingly, it would seem compliance demands are pulling in one direction and the interest of clubs and stakeholders are pulling in another.
Exploring these issues honestly and transparently on a strictly impersonal basis would, at the very least, allow us to collectively understand the current landscape.
I would argue that the issue needs to be pushed somewhat further than Chesterfield suggests, with a need for engagement with the wider FAW, Welsh Government and Welsh media to examine whether they have a commitment to our national league and to what extent.
Until there is momentum and a desire to get to the root of these key issues, Welsh domestic football will continue to waste time and resources whilst being at odds with itself.