Thursday 2nd July 2015.
Newtown 2-1 Valletta (Malta).
UEFA Europa League Qualifying Round 1, First Leg.
Latham Park, Newtown.
It’s been just under seven weeks since Newtown impressively beat Aberystwyth Town 2-1 in the Welsh Premier League play-off final at Park Avenue and I can’t even begin to tell you just how much I’ve missed going to the football!
The Robins, who were arguably second favourites going into that match, based on league position alone, outperformed their Mid-Wales rivals on every blade of grass in the park on the day and came away deserving victors.
It was fitting then that the mighty Newtown of Mid Wales would enter the Europa League competition for the first time since their last excursion in the mid 90’s when they met teams from the Sensible World of Soccer fame like Skonta Riga and such.
Entering such a prestigious competition for a club like Newtown represents just how much progress has been made at the club in recent years. It’s key to remember here that only the seemingly invincible TNS stood in the way of them clinching The Welsh Cup as well, such is the relative achievements of the Mid Wales side last season.
I was very excited about the Newtown tie, struggling to concentrate on my work in the office when the draw for the first round was made only ten days or so before tonight.
My wife and I have been moving house over the last month or so, moving four or five miles up the road from Pontypridd where we’ve lived for the last five years or so, to the somewhat quieter Porth, in the Rhondda Valleys.
The move has completely worn us out, downsizing from a three bedroom house to a two bedroom has meant we’ve made more visits to the local recycling centre and skipped more stuff than I care to remember.
My arms are weak and aching, my legs are weak and aching and when you couple this with the fact that we rejoined the local leisure centre gym three weeks ago and have been making six visits a week, I’ve become a very worn out man to day the least.
It was welcome relief then to have the opportunity of a night off of the unpacking and sorting, to head up to Mid-Wales to watch one of my nation’s sides represent our country in the Europa League.
As luck would have it, Newtown ran a competition on their Twitter feed, offering a pair of free tickets to anyone that could correctly guess the name of their mascot (Rocky the Robin for those interested!). I gave it a shot and forgot all about it. I promised myself that on pay day I’d phone up and reserve tickets.
Pay day came around and as I logged on to the Newtown club website to try and get hold of a contact telephone number there to purchase tickets I noticed that I had in fact, won the competition!
I invited my best man Al to the game. I booked the whole week off work, not specifically for the Newtown game I might add! I booked this week off as this week was supposed to be our moving date, as luck would have it we moved in early but I decided to have the week off anyway to try and relax after the move.
Al, for all his sins, is a great guy. He’s been a friend of mine for the best part of 15 years. He is a ridiculously talented artist, one of those types that seems to be able to do amazing portraits without even really trying or breaking a sweat.
Al is also a Newcastle United fan and a possessor of one of the greatest encyclopaedic knowledge of everything that happened in football between about 1993 and 1999, which makes for superb car company on the long journey from his studio in Cardiff up the A470 and along the long, winding bends that lead you to Newtown.
Conversation jumps and bounds about along the subjects of Efan Ekoku, Fat Mike from NOFX’s new musical, Andrei Kanchelskis, Art and everything in between.
The drive was pleasant enough. I always enjoy driving up to Mid-Wales, having done the journey up to Aberystwyth many many times, although tonight was my first visit to Newtown. I was quite proud that I didn’t need to use the Sat Nav until 0.2 miles away from the ground when we got ourselves in the situation where we could see the floodlights of the ground over sets of terraced houses but weren’t able to navigate our way in.
A local school next to the ground were offering parking for the princely sum of £2. We arrived in Newtown at about 5pm in the hope of parking the car up and walking into town to try and find a pub to have a couple of drinks before kick off.
After a ten minute walk back into town the first pub we stumbled across was a nice pub called The Pheasant Inn. A fairly quiet pub with a friendly bunch of locals at the bar who pretty much immediately clocked on that we were visiting purely for the purpose of taking in a football match.
The guys in the bar were a good laugh and a few of them had a pretty good knowledge of the Welsh Premier League which lead to some pretty good chatter. A few of the guys seemed a bit taken aback when I told the story of my blog and the whole challenge and everything, impressed but taken aback.
After a couple of pints and unsure of whether the kick off was 7pm or 7.15pm, we left the pub just after 6.30 to get into the ground in good time.
Having never visited Latham Park before, my only previous experience of the ground was the matches I’ve watched on Sgorio. It was nice to see a lot of the features of the ground I’ve only come to know on television come alive in front of my eyes. I found myself walking into the ground, being exceptionally loser-like and being amazed at seeing the stands I was so familiar with on TV or the makeshift terraces that sit on the grass bankings behind one of the goals.
It was clear on walking towards the stands just how many tickets Newtown had managed to sell for tonights game, with almost every single seat filled in every stand and this was with a couple of hundred potential supporters missing due to UEFA’s insistence on grounds being all-seater for Europa League ties.
We took our seats in the main stand, about three or four rows back and I took the time to adjust the new lens my father-in-law has loaned me, which has an incredibly ridiculous zoom on it, so ridiculous that I find myself over-zooming accidentally during the first half and taking accidental pictures of Valletta supporters on the opposite stand eating pasties.
We’re amused during the build up by the presence of a Nicky and a Llewellyn in the Maltese side this evening.
Newtown made an incredibly strong start in the game and looked exceptionally comfortable with the ball at their feet and didn’t seem to be ever in danger of conceding.
The first real opportunity of the match fell to Tom Goodwin of Newtown who latched onto the ball after a series of rebounded efforts and was unlucky to see his shot go inches wide of the post.
Both sides had a couple of chances in the opening exchanges but Newtown always looked the more threatening of the two sides and it did appear for large parts of the first half that Valletta were struggling to really get a hold on the game.
Newtown striker Luke Boundford put in a brilliant first half performance, winning header after header against his Maltese counterparts from Dave Jones’ goalkicks.
The Robins deservedly took the lead with five minutes to go in the first half. Valletta made the mistake of giving away a series of free kicks around their box. Unfortunately for the Maltese side, Luke Boundford was on hand to win another header around the penalty spot from the free kick which beat the trailing Valletta goalkeeper.
Going into the break with the lead in hand and the lion’s share of possession and chances, the Robins would surely fancy their the chances of taking the first leg of this all important tie.
Valletta came out for the second half with renewed vigour, confirming to myself that even in the world of Maltese football, an old fashioned “half time bollocking” still exists and has an affect on players.
Valletta were guilty of wasting opportunities early in the second half, namely through Abdel Nafti, who comically fired well over the bar from a free kick just outside of the box.
The second half wasn’t without good chances for Newtown, who still shaded the second half. Neil Mitchell was unlucky not to double his side’s lead on the hour when he forced a quite brilliant save from Valletta’s goalkeeper which hit the roof of the net.
With twenty minutes of the game left, one of the more amazing goalmouth scrambles I’ve seen this year happened in the Valletta goalmouth. I’ve even re-watched the highlights of the game back on the Internet and I’m still unable to document entirely what happened. All I know is that Newtown hit the bar (I think), they had three shots saved off the line by all manner of body parts.
After coming so close to doubling their lead it seemed only inevitable that Valletta would somehow gain a vital away goal and they did with 73 minutes on the clock. A deep and testing cross from outside of the box chipped Dave Jones in the Newtown goal and was headed in from a yard or two from goal by second half substitute Benitez to the rapturous applause from the thirty or so Valletta fans assembled at Latham Park.
Newtown pushed forward in their search for a winner, knowing that a draw and Valletta’s away goal would give them a mountain to climb in the second leg next week in Malta.
The Robins pushed forward and found themselves believing they had taken the lead in the 85th minute when Luke Boundford seemed to have headed home for his second of the evening but the referee saw an infringement in the build up and chalked off Boundford’s goal.
Valletta found themselves going into the last five minutes of the match with ten men when captain Ian Azzopardi picked up a needless second yellow for a cynical tackle about forty yards out from goal when Newtown weren’t really presenting much of a threat.
Not being a side willing to lie down and accept a draw, Newtown again pushed forward and were rewarded in the first minute of stoppage time when Jason Oswell clinically slotted home from close range after a well worked piece of Newtown play.
It was clear to see how much this goal meant to the Robins both on and off the pitch. Strangers hugged each other in the stand as every single player mobbed Oswell near the touchline, including the Newtown goalkeeper!
Valletta pushed forward and Newtown had to, at times in the last minute of stoppage time, defend pretty resolutely and in the case of some defenders really put their body on the line for their victory.
As the final whistle blew, the Newtown players walked off the pitch to a standing ovation from the Latham Park crowd. Regardless of what happens in Malta next week in the return leg, Newtown have made history this evening and were deserved winners of what was always going to be a difficult European encounter.
I get talking to a man sat near me as we walk out of the ground and I comment that Newtown were unlucky not to win 4-1 or 5-1 and he, like many others around me, completely agree.
My best man and I fill the two and a half hour journey back to Cardiff with talk of more random 90’s footballers and I try and sell him the merits of adopting a Welsh Premier League/Welsh League team, selling him the pro’s and con’s of every single Welsh League team in the Cardiff area within a few miles of his house.
Tonight was the perfect way to start the 2015/16 season.
I wish the very best of luck to Newtown and everyone involved with the club and wish a safe and pleasant journey to all of the Robins fans making the trip over to Malta next week.
My Man of the Match: Shane Sutton. Shane gave a superb captains performance. He didn’t score any of the two goals, he didn’t to my knowledge assist any of the goals but Sutton gave a typical 10/10 performance where I honestly cannot remember him putting a foot wrong all night.