A UEFA match played between the champions of Wales and the champions of Cyprus; played at a venue that can be described as being little more than a municipal leisure centre.  Welcome to modern day UEFA competition with a twist.

The ‘twist’ of course is that the game is not being played in Wales but instead in the English county of Shropshire near the town of Oswestry.  Oswestry is some 2 miles away and is one of the UK’s oldest border settlements and home to the domestically dominant Welsh champions. But how this current club that goes by the name of The New Saints came to be based in England is a rather complicated one.

A former local football club – Oswestry Town – had been one of the few English teams to compete in the League of Wales and the Welsh domestic cup competitions.  Due to financial issues, this club folded due to bankruptcy in 2003 and they merged with another club Total Network Solutions of Llansantffraid – a Welsh village that sits eight miles away on the Welsh side of the England/Wales border.

Total Network Solutions had a proud history in Europe which included UEFA matches against Liverpool and Manchester City. But by 2006 a new team name was required for TNS since sponsorship deals with a company called Total Network Solutions had lapsed.  Due to the previous club Llansantffraid being known as ‘The Saints’ and Oswestry being the town of ‘Saint Oswald’ a decision was made to rename the new club ‘The New Saints’.  When this decision was made the club emblem was subsequently redesigned to include a dragon representing Wales and a lion that represented Oswestry.

While the original home of Llansantffraid was the Recreation Ground in Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain, current competitive matches including those in the Champions League are played at Park Hall a stadium located on the outskirts of Oswestry. Despite the participation in UEFA’s top competition, it is a ground which can accommodate only 1,000 seated spectators.

The current campaign is The New Saints 18th successive campaign in European football and their 5th successive Champions League qualifying campaign.  Despite the domestic dominance, over the last decade, the record in European competition has been in stark contrast with the club playing a total of 43 games and winning only 6 times.

The record of The New Saints in European football is in complete contrast to that of Welsh clubs in Europe before the current Welsh League came about.  The likes of Wrexham and Newport County performed admirably in the 1970’s and 1980’s with FC Porto amongst the notable scalps.  However, in the modern era, The New Saints are the only club in the history of the Welsh Premier League to have won a round in the Champions League more than once.

The 2015-16 season saw The New Saints successfully win a qualifying round for only the third time in their history beating B36 of the Faroe Islands 6-2 over two legs in the First Qualifying Round of the Champions League.  Moreover, they also defeated Bohemian FC of the Republic of Ireland (2-1) over two legs in the Second Qualifying Round of the Champions League in 2010-11.

Cliftonville of Northern Ireland (an experienced side with years of UEFA competition participation) were defeated in the First Qualifying Round of the 2011-12 UEFA Europa League.

The Third Qualifying Round of the Champions League is the furthest The New Saints have reached in the competition, losing to Belgian giants Anderlecht 1-6 over two legs in 2010-11.  The second round of this year’s Champions League competition and the match up against APOEL has attained thanks to a win over Tre Penne from San Marino.  With that win, the club showed just why they had won the Welsh Cup, League Cup and Welsh Premier League for a second successive season in 2015-16.

Match Night

No sooner has the border into Wales been navigated then we are back in England once again.

Oswestry was the birthplace of Wilfred Owen the famous World War I poet and the town has a long association with war being burned to the ground during the English Civil War.  In more recent times the village of Park Hall, where The New Saints play, was a British military training camp and hospital.  Today the village retains some of the former hospital buildings but it is mostly a residential and agricultural farming area with only a small number of light industrial units.   Before the New Saints arrived Park Hall Farm had become a visitor attraction in 1998 when it became home to the Museum of the Welsh Guards.   

The Park Hall Football Stadium is about the only other famous building in the area. But if the intention of the club was to attract residents from Oswestry as new fans then the secluded location of the stadium did not do the club many favours. Despite being the best team in Wales crowds remain low due to the lack of inner town accessibility and the low profile of the League of Wales.

Park Hall houses ‘The Venue’ which is an impressive leisure development the adjoins the stadium.  This building includes a large sponsors’ lounge, bars, restaurant, children’s play area, an eight-lane 10-pin bowling alley, gym and activity rooms.  The actual playing area used by the club has an artificial FIFA approved pitch and there are currently over 1,000 seats most of these being in a small stand behind the goal.  Temporary seating is also in place with one small stand opposite being used for club officials and squad members.

Behind the ground, on match night a group of APOEL fans have set up temporary shop and are selling tickets to interested parties.  The sizeable Cypriot population in London contains many fans of APOEL and some of these have come to Oswestry for the game.  By kick off almost all of the noise inside the stadium is coming from the 60 or so APOEL fans located behind the goal.

Led by manager Craig Harrison the Welsh side put in a solid defensive display against a club who have reached the Champions League group stages three times in recent years.  APOEL Nicosia has been Cypriot champions for the past four seasons and reached the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals in 2011-12 only losing out to Real Madrid.

Pride in the Welsh game was clearly around with the Welsh flags on display at Park Hall.  Euro 2016 fever clearly has boosted the morale and status of the Welsh domestic game with nearby Connah’s Quay Nomads also performing well in this season’s European competition.

The similarities to the Welsh national team did though stop on the pitch with the team lacking the flair of Bale and Aaron Ramsey.  They did though call upon the team ethic of Chris Coleman’s side with a back to the wall performance.   The sole attacking poise in the match came from the Cypriot side who did their best to impose a sense of attacking aspirations on the tie.

About the closest to a winning goal came just after half time when a shot from De Vincenti curled towards the far corner of Paul Harrison’s goal.  While the skipper goalkeeper was beaten so was the post as the number 10 fired narrowly wide to the disappointment of the Cypriot fans.

With its strong squad – which has numerous international players amongst its ranks – APOEL will be confident of finding the net at home in Nicosia against the Welsh side. With its highly skilled players, the Cypriots in truth provided the only skill on show in Oswestry with the Welsh side parking the bus from early doors.   Should APOEL win through as is expected it’s highly unlikely that the Cypriot champions will be asked again to play in such humble surroundings in this year’s competition?

FT: The New Saints v APOEL (0-0)

The New Saints

Harrison, Brobbel, Baker, Mullan, Marriott, Pryce, Rawlinson, Routledge, Cieslewicz, Quigley, Edwards

APOEL Nicosia

Waterman, Efrem, Cruz Junior, Alexandrou, Oliveira Franco, Milanov, Vieira, Sotiriou, De Vincenti, Astiz, Morais

You can see images from The News Saints game here