Sunday 10th May 2015.
Aberystwyth Town 3-2 Gap Connah’s Quay.
Welsh Premier League Europa League Play-Off Semi Final.
Park Avenue, Aberystwyth.
Attendance: Circa 250
This time of year and this period of the football season is very annoying for any ground hoppper as you start to watch the season slowly but surely close off in front of your eyes. Regular league fixtures are replaced by end of season cup finals and promotion play-offs.
It’s especially annoying when you’ve become used to the flurry of fixtures that traditionally happen at this time of the year, given all of the rescheduled postponements from Winter cancellations.
The Welsh Premier League, which finished two weeks ago is no different. Over the course of the weekend the sides that finished 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th took part in the end of season lottery of the Europa League play-offs to determine the final side from the Welsh Pyramid to join Bala Town and Airbus UK Broughton and take their place in the Europa League’s early stages in June and July.
Yesterday saw Newtown beat Port Talbot Town in a very tense 1-0 victory, their goal coming in the 121st minute of the game after a goalless draw lead to extra time at The Genquip Stadium.
With Newtown being the perceived ‘weaker’ of the two sides playing out yesterday’s other semi-final, this afternoon’s sides would surely fancy their chances should they claim victory in today’s semi-final.
Gap Connah’s Quay are a new team for me, I haven’t seen them live in person before but I have seen them many a time being introduced by the dulcet tones of Nicky John on a Sunday afternoon on S4C’s Sgorio.
Connah’s Quay’s late resurgence in the league, fuelled by the arrival of Welsh Pyramid enigma Cortez Belle has not gone unnoticed among football fans in the principality. For so long since the league split in half Carmarthen Town looked like bankers for the coveted Europa League play off spot, only to find their assault tail off at the end of the season.
Cortez Belle is a bit of an enigma in the Welsh Pyramid. He’s a player I first watched at The Genquip Stadium when he was playing for Port Talbot Town. I actually first saw him play in a pre-season friendly against a Cardiff City side in 2011. He impressed me greatly that day with his physical presence and his ability to play an effective role at either end of the pitch.
The 12.45 kick off, scheduled for a convenient Sgorio kick off, coupled with the fact that we stayed up until 2.30am with a bottle or two of wine whilst watching Manic Street Preachers videos on YouTube lead to a slightly groggy start to the morning.
We originally planned to get ourselves up to Aberystwyth at about 10am, which would allow us a couple of hours to get ourselves some breakfast, have a look around some of the shops in the town before finding a decent coffee shop and chilling out for a bit.
As is standard in our household, we delayed and delayed our departure time to the point where we would only have time to grab a quick Starbucks to go and having to make do with a McDonalds breakfast in Merthyr Tydfil on route.
The drive from Pontypridd to Aberystwyth via the fairly rural route of the A470 past Rhayader and then across the coast along the A44 is a pretty drive for the most part, especially once you pass Brecon on the A470.
It’s easy to see why travelling up to North Wales on a 52 seater bus is a challenge for Welsh Premier League teams in the South of the country. Even a journey that for us in a nice, comfortable Ford Fiesta that would take us about two and a half hours could easily double that with the amount of hairpin turns and narrow country lanes along the way.
Such is the rural nature of some of these roads around Rhyader that at one point when my dashboard tells me I’ve got about 30 miles of diesel left in the tank I’m left genuinely worried that I may not come across a petrol station in enough time. To fight off this risk I transform into ‘Super Efficient Man’, taking every corner gently, only peppering the accelerator, turning the air conditioning off and generally driving around like a 90 year old man.
To my relief, we hit the Heart of Wales services on the A44 about six or seven miles later. As we pull into the forecourt a Shrewsbury Town FC minibus pulls up alongside us. I don’t know whether it’s the male or female team, as an equal amount of both sexes stumble out of the minibus.
My wife, Lara, is suffering the ill effects of a night spent drinking wine with my mother. Sometimes a hangover hits you when you don’t deserve it. She only drank a bottle and a half of wine and a pint or so of our homebrewed Strawberry Cider.
She admits herself that she has only come today because it’s a match involving Aberystwyth Town, a team we both have a soft spot for and a town which has strong family links for both sides of our family.
We arrive in Aberystwyth a little after midday with just about enough time to head to the top of town to pick up a couple of Caramel Macchiatos to take to the game.
On first glance, Park Avenue seems quite busy. The club gave away 200 free tickets throughout the week and this certainly seems to have resulted in a fair walk up crowd. Unfortunately, driving to Aberystwyth during the week just to pick up a pair of free tickets would have been ridiculously cost ineffective, so we each pay the fair £5 admission fee on the gate.
This afternoon was my first time back at Park Avenue since the very first game of this adventure and having sat in the main stand for that game, I decided to sit in the group of seats known informally as “The seats the club added so they could play Europa League games on the ground” that line a small part of the ground along the far touchline. The seats aren’t sheltered, but it’s a warm day, albeit with a strong cooling breeze, so we’re safe from the weather at least.
Such is the importance of this afternoon’s match and the potential financial prize on offer for even just qualifying for the Europa League, it was understandable that the tension was palpable for the first quarter of an hour or so of this semi-final. Aside from a couple of early free kicks for both sides very little tested either goalkeeper.
Aberystwyth were the first side to mount a decent effort on goal by way of a free kick taken by Craig Williams which tested Terry McCormick, keeping goal for Gap Connah’s Quay. McCormick was only able to punch Williams’ effort out for an Aber corner kick.
Five minutes later Gap Connah’s Quay took the lead after a superb piece of skillful play by tricky playmaker Sean Miller.
Miller delightfully chipped a ball over his marker and nutmegged another marker before the move broke down. Seconds later a long ball was dispatched from just inside the Aber half right into the Connah’s Quay penalty area.
Two Aber players failed to deal with the long pass and Ryan Fraughan stole in behind them to poke home his shot from just inside the six yard box to give his side a 1-0 lead.
Connah’s Quay’s lead would only last five minutes. Aber were awarded what looked like a fair penalty, however when I returned home and rewatched the incident on Sgorio – it became clear that the awarding of the penalty was very soft indeed and arguably the offence occurred a couple of yards outside of the box. However, I was there and I was fooled so it’s understandable why the referee made the decision he did.
The prolific Chris Venables stepped up to the spot and fired home a powerful effort down the left hand side of the goal. Terry McCormick guessed the right way and made an excellent effort to keep out the shot, getting a firm hand to the ball but such was the power behind the kick it was always going to hit the back of the net.
With parity restored and with the momentum in their hands, it was almost written in the script that Aberystwyth Town would go on to dominate the rest of the match but this didn’t seem to happen. In fact following the Aber goal, Gap Connah’s Quay looked like the better side for most of the game.
Nine minutes before half time Ryan Fraughan was unlucky to see his effort from the edge of the box saved superbly by Mike Lewis, keeping goal for Aber.
On 50 minutes, Sean Miller again went on an impressive mazy run, which although very entertaining, sadly came to nothing.
Gap Connah’s Quay, by now sensing that perhaps they could pull off an upset this afternoon, pushed men forward in numbers looking for a possible winning goal. They were indeed unlucky not to score half way through the second half when George Horan headed a powerful effort at Lewis, unfortunately his headed chance was placed a little too centrally to be a real threat.
After a few minutes of relentless pressure, Connah’s Quay made their second half dominance count as they took the lead with about twenty minutes of the match remaning.
Veteran Steve Evans got his head on the end of a lovely cross from a corner kick. The assembled vocal Gap Connah’s Quay support in the main stand, who had been very loud and supportive of their side throughout the whole of the match rose to their feet as his effort beat Mike Lewis and gave Connah’s Quay a 2-1 lead at a vital time in the match.
Aberystwyth Town, now staring defeat in the face, took the impetus and threw men forward and adopted a more direct attacking approach with the ball at their feet and were almost immediately rewarded when Stuart Jones hit a spectacular overhead kick from the edge of the box. His connection with the ball wasn’t great but it still tested McCormick in goal.
In a moment of madness five minutes from time, Aberystwyth Town got their vital equaliser. Ross Stephens picked up the ball on the edge of the box and hit a placed effort that looked destined for the top left corner of the goal. As the ball traveled it took an unfortunate heavy deflection off the head of Connah’s Quay goalscorer Steve Evans, who could only watch on in horror as the ball rolled into his side’s goal to restore parity in the match.
I can’t believe I’m even writing the next part and not just embellishing the truth, or even just lying..
With the game slowing down to a crawl and extra-time looming, I took the brave decision with the game standing at 2-2 in the 89th minute to head over to the clubhouse to use the facilities, what can I say? I was absolutely desperate and figured I’d be able to watch extra time kicking off.
As I finished washing my hands I heard an almighty roar underneath the main stand. I rushed out without drying my hands only to see every single Aberystwyth Town player jumping on top of each other, agonizingly this was about five yards from where I chose to stand.
I could see fans jumping up and down, Gap Connah’s Quay players with their heads in their hands looking dejected and almost to the point of tears.
I took my seat again a few seconds later and turned to my wife, “So? Did I miss much?!”
It would take another four hours until we arrived home when I re-watched the Sgorio broadcast that I would see that Aberystwyth striker Mark Jones beat his marker Steve Evans and slotted home a shot from what looked like an impossible angle to send his side through to the Europa League Playoff Final next weekend against Newtown.
We called in at The Monachty in Aberaeron on the way home for a superb Falafel Dog before having a quick drive around New Quay and making our way back to Pontypridd.
I’m looking forward to next week’s Final between Aberystwyth and Newtown, both sides have had good seasons and will be excellent representatives for Wales in the competition. I wish them both the very best of luck and failing some kind of disaster I will be there.
My Man of the Match: Although he ended up on the wrong side, Sean Miller of Gap Connah’s Quay was superb for the whole 90 minutes and put in a match winning performance if ever there was one. Miller is definitely one to keep an eye on.