Bala Town are in Belgium tonight, taking on one of the traditional European forces in Standard Liege. Few will give them much hope of producing what would be a huge Europa League upset – but midfielder Will Evans has walked this road before, as he tells Graham Thomas.
Will Evans used to play Standard Liege all the time on his Xbox – but on Thursday night the Bala Town midfielder will get to do it for real.
Evans will be part of the Bala side carrying the flag for Wales when they will be in Belgium for their UEFA Europa League second qualifying round tie.
The match – which is live online on S4C Clic as well as S4C’s Sgorio Facebook Live page – is a classic Welsh David versus European Goliath story.
Standard Liege may not quite be in the same bracket as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus or Paris St-Germain, but they have a pedigree that makes them more than simply giants in their own country where they have been domestic Belgian champions 10 times.
The scene is set for the Lakesiders tonight 💪
Mae’r olygfa yn barod am yr Lakesiders heno 💪 https://t.co/ha3zB95tqz
— Bala Town F.C. (@BalaTownFC) September 17, 2020
This is a club that were reaching European Cup semi-finals back in the 1960s, were UEFA Cup runners-up back in the 1980s, and are standard – if you’ll pardon the pun – EA Sports computer opposition for anyone playing FIFA gaming.
“I used to play Standard Liege, when I was playing on FIFA – and now I’m actually going to be playing against them. It’s a bit weird,” says 23-year-old Evans, the driving midfielder who moved from Cardiff Met earlier this year.
— Will Evans (@Will_Evs8) May 29, 2020
“They are a club with a massive stature in Europe, they have produced lots of well-known Belgian players, and they are used to playing in these tournaments.
“We are obviously not, so we will be huge underdogs. But we don’t plan on going there to be embarrassed or anything like that, we will go and enjoy it and as not many people will expect much from us, it’ll be a win-win situation.”
Bala – population 1,974 – reached the second round of the Europa League for the first time in the club’s history thanks to a 1-0 victory over Valletta in Malta in the previous round.
It was a win that should have seen the Lakesiders earn a home draw against Leige, but the fixture was switched to the Belgian city – population 200,000 – because of uncertainty over the availability of a Covid-19-secure stadium in Wales.
It means Bala – who finished third in last season’s Cymru Premier League behind Connah’s Quay Nomads and The New Saints – will be playing at the 27,600 capacity Stade Maurice Dufrasne, even though the high stands will be empty.
“It would have been nice to have played in front of a 20,000 fans – that would have been really something – but maybe this gives us more of a chance to do something special,” says Evans, who was part of the Cardiff Met side that had their own big European adventure in the same tournament last season.
— Standard de Liège (@Standard_RSCL) August 31, 2020
“If we are physical, get in their faces and stop them from playing, then we think we can put our own stamp on the game.
“Last year with Cardiff Met, we were playing in two legged matches, but this one is like our match in Valletta, it’s a one-off so perhaps that will suit us because there are no second chances for anyone.
“It’s a shame there are no fans involved, but we are still really excited about this fixture and we can’t wait.”
This will be Evans’ fourth taste of European football after his spell at Cardiff Met last season, where the students lost narrowly at the preliminary stage to Progres Niederkorn of Luxembourg after they had become the first college team from the UK to reach the outer limits of a proper European football tournament.
Like Cardiff Met – who had Christian Edwards as their manager – Bala have a wise old head with a hand on the tiller, in this case boss Colin Caton, who has been with the club for 18 years.
“Colin has been around and seen it all and is a very knowledgeable manager,” says Evans.
“He’s not some rookie and the same goes for our squad, too. We have a lot of guys who have played at a high level – like Antony Kay, who made over 600 Football League appearances, you’ve got Steve Leslie, who had a lot of years at Shewsbury, and Chris Venables, who’s also got loads of experiennce with different club in Wales.
— Will Evans (@Will_Evs8) August 29, 2020
“There are younger guys like me, who’ve worked their way up from lower levels in Welsh football, so the blend is a good one.”
Bala flew out from Liverpool on Wednesday morning in decent form, too, as they would have beaten champions Connah’s Quay last weekend, had the Nomads not snatched a 1-1 draw with a dramatic late equaliser.
“We’re in good shape,” says Evans, who last years completed a his teach training at Cardiff University.
“We will go there feeling confident, the club is a very well run and professional one, so who knows? Stranger things have happened.”
S4C – 6.55pm, Thursday – SGORIO: STANDARD LIEGE v BALA TOWN, Live from Stade Maurice Dufrasne, Liege. Kick off 19.00.
**Online only – On S4C Clic and the S4C Sgorio Facebook Live page **