PARK HALL: Close To A Classic

When news emerged that Welsh Premier League title-holders TNS had lost their Champions League qualifying encounter 5-0 in Macedonia, I began to think my return leg ticket purchase had been a bit rash.

The £12.50 entry fee looked like good value before a ball was kicked. Macedonian football isn’t my forte but I thought there’d be a maximum two-goal swing in the tie when the teams played again on these shores. While there was also the chance of TNS grabbing an away goal to make things tasty. It didn’t happen.

Because of this, there was little anticipation in the air as my girlfriend and I headed to our first groundhop of the new season. To be honest, I felt a bit ripped off. The game had effectively been reduced to a pre-season friendly with an aggregate hammering on the cards.

At least there’d be some goals, I thought. And I was right. But in the same instance, I was also very wrong in my underestimation of The New Saints.

The Highs

Looking through the ages

Originally based in Wales, TNS are the by-product of Llansantffraid Football Club’s merge with Oswestry Town. The team has played in the Shropshire town since 2007 and so, before kick-off, Saffron and I made the short journey across our home county to take in an area we’d seldom seen.

Unfortunately though, there are reasons why we’ve hardly visited.

The walk from Gobowen train station into Oswestry was longer than anticipated – involving sticking to a tight footpath on a main road – and was really quite boring. Then once we arrived in the town, we found the place to be rather sleepy.

However, there were some nice hidden gems to be found, like the massive antique store located in an old, converted building next to some disused train tracks. After working in a charity shop for three years, I still have an interest in discovering small treasures and I thoroughly enjoyed looking through the heaps of furniture and miscellaneous items on display.

Our journey through time continued as we headed to an old hillfort nearby. Dating back to the Iron Age, the man-made mound occupied settlers at the very top and still offers a home to a number of cows.

English Heritage have done a good job sign-posting the area and offered a lot of information on its history. Meanwhile the views at the top are surprisingly far-reaching considering the walk up only took around 20 minutes.

Things weren’t entirely peaceful though, as I encountered my third nettle sting of the summer on the way back down. This one was by far the worst, with the leaves managing to reach my back through the bottom of my shirt.

I’d like to offer my apologies to the people of Oswestry, as I’m pretty certain they could hear my screams in the town centre. Thankfully, Saff spotted some dock leaves to sooth my pain and prevent me from incurring any public order offences.

The comeback

With a slight sting remaining in my back, we headed to Park Hall for the match. This involved further walking on narrow footpaths adjacent to main roads until we reached the calmer setting of The New Saints’ home ground.

It was almost too calm. No one was chanting. The FK Shkendija ultras looked relaxed. I don’t think anyone was expecting the 90 minutes that were about to unfold. Unless, perhaps, you were a TNS player.

Their first half display was a perfect demonstration in how to get back into a tie when the deficit is so vast. First of all, they needed an early goal. This came after 15 minutes following a period in which they got in behind the Shkendija defence on a number of occasions – Dean Ebbe finally taking advantage of the early pressure.

Their dominance didn’t relent. Further chances fell to the home side – including a one-on-one for Ebbe with the goalkeeper which went begging – before a second goal arrived from Daniel Redmond’s shot from the edge of the six-yard box.

Momentum was clearly with TNS. They continued to attack a Shkendija team who didn’t look entirely comfortable on the artificial pitch and were in danger of losing control of the match – maybe even the tie.

Another goal 10 minutes before the break was the game-changer. When Ben Cabango’s exquisite finish hit the inside roof of the net, everyone in the ground began to believe the unthinkable was possible. It certainly wasn’t a pre-season friendly anymore and I looked forward to the next hour of football with the possibility of seeing something truly special.

The Lows

Not quite a classic

Having done the hard work of getting back into the game, a combination of factors made the second half one of the most agonising 45 minutes to sit through.

Wary of conceding an away goal, TNS took their foot off the gas. Meanwhile, Shkendija began to take things more seriously by changing their line-up. Besart Ibraimi – scorer of four goals in the first leg – came into the fray, along with fellow Macedonian international forward Marjan Radeski.

The substitution of the lively Ebbe for Greg Draper also hindered TNS’s chances, in my view. Draper may have been the side’s top scorer last term but he lacked the pace which hurt the Macedonians. It took a while for TNS to carve another opening as a result and as the minutes ticked by without a breakthrough, the belief began to slip away once again.

A fourth goal would have cranked up every aspect of the game but it proved elusive and that caused great frustration. Saints hit the post with 15 minutes remaining and had further chances to punish the away side before the fourth finally came in added time. Kurtis Byrne tapped home to set up a grandstand finale for Saints fans, who urged their team on with swathes of passion during the last few moments.

However, the referee blew the full-time whistle soon after and it proved to be a teaser of what could have been, both in terms of atmosphere and history.

The Verdict

I enjoyed my visit to Park Hall in the end. The ground was originally quite tricky – and a bit annoying – to find. But our walk back to Gobowen was much more peaceful in the quieter lanes surrounding the stadium. We’ll definitely take that route if we’re visiting next time.

Seeing ex-Wrexham players Blaine Hudson and Adrian Cieslewicz in the Champions League brought a smile to my face too. I feared the former would be outclassed in the centre of defence based on the first leg score. But, fair play, he made some great blocks and long passes to influence the game in a big way.

I can only praise him, his teammates and their manager, Scott Ruscoe, for the immense efforts they made to nearly force the round into extra-time. In all honesty, I think they could have won the tie without the additional half an hour. They certainly had enough chances to win by six or seven goals on the night.

That will give them confidence heading into the Europa League now. But, perhaps more importantly than that, it’s fulfilled the aim set out by Ruscoe before the match. He wanted a reaction, to restore pride in his team and the club after their drubbing in Macedonia. No one can argue they didn’t achieve that.

The New Saints 4 – 0 KF Shkendija (Agg. 4-5)
Champions League Qualifier

Ground rating: 4/10

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