The Trials and Tribulations of the Champions League
While most of us are still talking about the World Cup, teams across Europe will start work on their Champions League qualification process. Rhys Fisher visited Welsh Premier League club The New Saints to see how they prepare.
The Champions League – just mentioning the name conjures images of some of the finest footballers and teams to have ever played the game. It is a tournament that oozes prestige, and has acted as the pièce de rèsistance in crowning Europe’s most successful teams, whether it’s a Messi-inspired Barcelona, a Ronaldo-fired Real Madrid, a machinic Bayern Munich or an elegant Juventus. You would be forgiven then, for not automatically linking Wales’ The New Saints with European football’s most illustrious accolade. Outside of Gareth Bale, Wales tends not to be associated with the Champions League, like bacon on pancakes or grated cheese on curry, but for TNS, the Champions League qualification process is an integral part of their season.
Former player and current manager of TNS, Scott Ruscoe, acknowledges the importance of European football to the team: “Knowing you’re going to get these highly competitive games against top sides makes winning the Welsh Premier League that much more important.” However, Ruscoe maintains a realistic viewpoint despite the excitement and importance of these fixtures. “We’re underdogs the majority of the time, due to the value of the other squads, and the international players they have available in their teams.”
This comparative lack of resources is at the crux of TNS’ historical struggles in the competition, where despite their utmost efforts they will inevitably meet a team from a wholly professional league (TNS are the only professional club in the Welsh league), ultimately getting eliminated. The last few years have seen exits at the hands of HNK Rijeka of Croatia, Hungary’s Videoton and Slovan Bratislava from Slovakia.
“For me as the manager,” says Ruscoe, “a big part of the process is getting everyone to buy into the fact that on our day we can match anyone. I would describe us as optimistic but realistic, because we are aware that the standard of teams we play against is very high, so it’s always a big ask – but if we get a favourable draw, why not? Why can’t we have a run in the competition?”
Indeed, Ruscoe suggests his team has no difficulties in adjusting from domestic favourites to European underdogs, and seem to thrive under the ‘nothing to lose’ principle. “If the opposition is a lot fitter, stronger, and better, we hold our hands up and say we’ve had a right go, but they were the better team.”
With past draws pitting TNS against teams from the likes of San Marino and the Faroe Islands, these fixtures are a tad different from brief domestic coach trips. What is striking about discussing these fixtures with Ruscoe is his professional approach and meticulous planning. He informs me of how the team has just returned from a short trip to Portugal in order to acclimatise to the possibility of a fixture in a hot country.
“In the past we’ve been to Hungary and it’s been 35 degrees; we went to Cyprus and played in really hot conditions. So we’ve organised that trip for several reasons – one was for playing in the heat, but also to get used to travelling together, staying together, and preparing properly for these unique fixtures.”
These trips are clearly a far cry from the ‘tie exchange, hungover kickabout, back to the pool for a warm lager’ formula followed by amateur touring sides. Whilst Ruscoe does reminisce fondly about the parts of Europe he has been able to visit through playing/coaching football, the focus is unmistakably on picking up the victory.
While we may not be seeing The New Saints versus Barcelona anytime soon, Ruscoe’s infectious excitement and optimism makes you believe they could have a genuine run in the qualifying process. Remember Greece in Euro 2004? Leicester City at 5000-1 to win the Premiership? Like Ruscoe said, why not?
TNS play Shkëndija (Macedonia) between Tue 10 and Wed 18 July (kickoff times tbc) in the First Qualifying Round. Should they win, they will play either Torpedo Kutaisi (Georgia) or Sheriff Tiraspol (Moldova) between Tue 24 July-Wed 1 Aug. Info: www.tnsfc.co.uk