Awesome, amazing, astounding…and other # superlatives…and that’s just the ones beginning with ‘A’! I’m looking at it this way: by reaching the semi-finals and losing 2-0 Wales exactly matched the achievement of World Champions Germany! Now we must aim to become regulars in this exalted company. Euro 2016 must be the beginning not the end, a learning-curve dress rehearsal for the even more important task that looms on the horizon: qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, 60 years after our last appearance in 1958.
Wales are in European Group D, from which only the Group winners automatically qualify, along with Austria, Georgia, Ireland, Moldova and Serbia. What is sure to be yet another emotional roller-coaster of a campaign starts very soon with a home match against Moldova at Cardiff City Stadium on September 5th. Thanks to our recent great form and consequent rise up the rankings, Wales are top seeds in this eminently winnable Group. But the head-to-head record against our five opponents is bad enough for me to get my pessimism in early and sound a sobering note of caution:
An immediate insight into the technical excellence and strength in depth of Serbian football will be provided shortly when Connah’s Quay Nomads take on Vojvodina over two legs in the 2nd qualifying round of the Europa League, following their sensational 1-0 aggregate win over Stabæk in the 1st round. In their European debut the Flintshire part-timers progressed thanks to a fantastic performance against the fully-pro Norwegian outfit in Fredrikstad last night. Manager Andy Morrison, still a cult hero at Manchester City after captaining them out of England’s third tier in 1999, has created a team in his own fearless, resolute image, building on the solid foundations of the best youth academy in the WPL, a long-running sponsorship deal since 2008 with club owners recruitment firm gap personnel (note to gap, the Principality Building Society, oil sheikhs, etc: I don’t append sponsors’ names – I consider it vulgar), and close collaboration with Coleg Cambria (formerly Deeside College) since the club moved to the brand new Deeside Stadium from their old Halfway Ground (now housing) in 1998. In three hours of European football Nomads have yet to concede a goal – a record that will be tested to the limit against the crack Serbians on 14 July in Novi Sad. The second leg is at Rhyl on 21 July because the very basic Deeside Stadium, with only one stand seating 500, is among seven of the 12 current WPL grounds that are not UEFA-compliant (Belle Vue, Latham Park, Nantporth, Park Avenue and Park Hall are compliant). It is so fitting that the Nomads are suddenly sharing a bit of the limelight with Wales, because the club was founded this month 70 years ago (as Connah’s Quay Juniors) by one of Wales’ most distinguished internationals: local lad and Everton icon Tommy ‘TG’ Jones (1917-2004).
Following The New Saints comprehensive 5-1 aggregate win over Tre Penne in the Champions League 1st qualifying round, Nomads’ victory makes this as great a week for Welsh club football as it has been for the national side. Bala and Llandudno both put up creditable performances in their unsurprising defeats and getting two out of Wales’ four European entrants through to the next round has only happened twice previously. Wales’ UEFA club-coefficient, which currently places Wales 50th out of 55, will creep upwards with these results. TNS are in their 18th consecutive European campaign and 19th overall and now have a record of P44, W7, D6, L31. The WPL’s only full-time club are gradually getting to grips with the exacting demands of European football and cannot be entirely written off in the next round against APOEL of Nicosia, Champions League quarter-finalists in 2012 and the leading club of Cyprus. The first leg at Park Hall is on 12 July – and it will be shown live on S4C! More proper Welsh footie and Mark Jones on the red button: unmissable! Increasingly, the bigoted broadcasting boycott of the WPL is crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions.
Right, must dash, I’m off to the city centre to join the homecoming welcome for our returning heroes. Strange days.