Sunday, 10 July 2011

Neath's Euro exit is one of waste but not of disgrace

With Danny half way up a mountain, the publishing tasks have been given to our office junior.  So any diversion from our normal style is all down to him and he will be sacked on Danny's return.

Mark Pitman reports from The Gnoll as Neath fall at their first European hurdle against Kjetil Rekdal's Aalesund FK.

The famous Welsh rugby landmark of The Gnoll played host to European football for the first time as tenants Neath welcomed Norwegian outfit Aalesund FK to South Wales for this UEFA Europa League 1st qualifying round match. The visitors arrived with a comfortable 4-1 lead from the 1st leg and their progression into the next stage of the competition seemed nothing more than a likely formality against a Neath side competing in European competition for the first time in their short history. It would not prove to be a comfortable evening for the Norwegians and their manager Kjetil Rekdal however, and Neath are now left to focus on their preparations for the new Welsh Premier League season, wondering what might have been.

Gnoll's House Party

With a comfortable lead from the match in Norway the week before, Aalesund named an experimental side but still filled with enough quality and experience not to leave the eventual outcome of the tie in doubt. That was at least the theory of manager Rekdal as the team bus pulled up outside The Gnoll early on Thursday evening and his players stepped onto the well-maintained playing surface in the bright South Wales sunshine. Joining the squad on their travels to South Wales were around fifty of the clubs 'Stormen' supporters club members who made themselves known to the local community and publicans in the build-up to the match.

Neath manager Terry Boyle had watched his side pay the price of conceding two goals in three first-half minutes in Norway and made one change of his own as striker Craig Hughes replaced Chris Jones in a strength-over-speed choice. Neath would need to score at least three times without reply if they were to overturn the scoreline and another attacking line-up was preferred by Boyle and his backroom staff as the two sides began to warm-up on their respective sides of the pitch. With kick-off an hour away, supporters and curious neutrals made their why through the turnstiles, many immediately gaining a negative impression when they were informed that the club had already sold out of programmes an hour before the match would begin, having put less than a hundred on general sale.

Although programmes were in short supply, commemorative scarves were readily available outside the ground as sellers lined all routes to the stadium. The merchandise proved as popular as lager with the visiting fans as the Norwegians invested in a souvenir of their short time in South Wales. Neath's high-profile striker Lee Trundle had called on the supporters of his former club and now neighbouring Premier League side Swansea City to come out and support him and his new team in Europe and a healthy crowd had arrived at The Gnoll as Belgian referee Christof Dierick lead the two sides out to some polite hand-clapping.
The Green Green Grass of Home

Photographers gathered around for the respective team photo's as Boyle and Rekdal took their places in the dugouts. The dozens of travelling fans had begrudgingly staggered from the clubhouse around to the stand on the cricket ground side of the stadium and began the first of many chants and choreographed moves that would eventually prove more entertaining than long periods of the game. In the main stand Crystal Palace assistant and former Cardiff City manager Lennie Lawrence was the most recognisable face in a sea of Welsh football who's-who as captains Lee Trundle and Peter Orry Larson met in the middle of the field in their respective number ten shirts ahead of kick-off.

For most people inside the ground, Neath were simply playing for pride against their superior opponents, and emerging from the tie with their pride intact would realistically be the best possible outcome for the Eagles. Aalesund forced the early possession with the influential Michael Barrantes orchestrating the midfield and offering a regular supply line to Jamaican International and former Stoke City midfielder Demar Phillips. The final ball proved poor for the Norwegian side however and Neath quickly grew in confidence as their talisman Lee Trundle became more and more involved in his sides build-up play.

Trundle made his career in the Football League as a showman with an library of tricks at his disposal. Now playing behind lone-striker Luke Bowen, he became the target of all of goalkeeper Lee Kendall's kicks, and caused a series of problems for the Aalesund defence as he tricked and flicked his towards goal while linking up with Bowen and midfielder Paul Fowler to create a number of openings for his side. In the build-up to the 1st leg, Aalesund had dismissed the possible impact of Trundle, but he answered his critics in Norway with the opening goal. Now quickly becoming the star of the 2nd leg, Aalesund became rightly concerned over his influence and resorted to conceding free-kicks inside their own half in a cynical approach to calming his impact on the game.

With the opening half reaching the midway stage, Neath had settled into the game and were matching their opponents in all areas of the park. Aalesund had forced free-kicks and corners of their own but, like their crosses and final-balls before, they could only waste the set-piece opportunities that were presented to them. Neath sensed the complacency in their opponents play and striker Luke Bowen twice came close to handing his side the lead with both a header and a superb run that saw the recent Neath signing weave his way past two Aalesund defenders before curling his effort narrowly wide of the far post. A penalty appeal followed as Bowen appeared to be brushed aside inside the area and the tension in the Aalesund ranks became common knowledge through the animated antics and verbals of Kjetil Rekdal.

Another free-kick on the edge of the area for Lee Trundle brought a save from Jonas Sandqvist in the Aalesund goal but he could only parry the ball into the path of Craig Hughes to present the striker with a golden opportunity. Under-pressure from back-tracking defenders however, Hughes failed to find the target, and Neath began to realise how many chances they had wasted and how few more they were likely to create. At the other end, Lee Kendall made a fine save of his own when he stopped a well-struck effort from Jonathan Parr  before the break to keep the score level as referee Dierick signalled for half-time.

Both sides left the field frustrated, Neath from having missed enough chances to have reduced the deficit from the 1st leg and Aalesund from having allowed Neath to create enough chances to have reduced the deficit from the 1st leg. As Katy Perry and Lady Gaga shook the speakers from the main stand roof, a mini-football match featuring two local junior teams provided further entertainment for those in the crowd without a programme to read. The low sun of the first-half was then replaced by torrential rain as the junior players quickly lost their enthusiasm and the two teams re-emerged from the changing rooms to a dark night of heavy drizzle for the second-half.

If the Neath team-talk had been to keep playing the way they were playing, the discussion in the away room would have been the opposite. Neither side decided on making any changes before the second period and after a slow opening few minutes the sun returned to dry out the playing surface. The competitiveness of the tie turned on 53 minutes however when Michael Barrantes, competing with Trundle for the man of the match award, drilled a low shot from the edge of the area that zipped past Lee Kendall on the wet surface and into the far corner of the net. The crucial away goal meant that Neath would now have to score four just to have a chance of taking the game to extra-time, and as they ball shook the net, the home side immediately conceded defeat.

Minutes before the goal Luke Bowen had seen his long-range effort edge the wrong side of the post and his frustrations soon became apparent as he was booked for a late challenge a minute after the re-start. Manager Terry Boyle then decided to bring something different to Neath's game with the introduction of diminutive striker Kerry Morgan in place of Craig Hughes. Morgan proved to be a lively addition to the game and he wasted little time in becoming involved in his sides attacking play. His arrival proved constructive and another addition of pace was made as Chris Jones replaced Paul Fowler. Neath had to score quickly to have any chance of turning the tie around but as Trundle's influence became less apparent, so did Neath.

As the second-half wore on Neath's opportunities became less and less, while at the other end Aalesund continued to prove hugely frustrating to Kjetil Rekdal as his frantic actions continued on the touchline and he began to take on the look of a manager willing to put his entire squad on the transfer list the next morning. The tie was then taken out of Neath's reach on 79 minutes when Magnus Sylling Olsen scored the second goal of the game for Aalesund and the two sides played out the remaining ten minutes with little point or purpose. All the energy in the stadium was now being used solely by the travelling fans on the far side of the ground as they sang their side into the next round of the competition.

Although not outclassed by any means on the night, Neath's European debut offered a steep learning curve into what they can expect on the biggest stage. A 6-1 aggregate reverse will be hard to accept from the chances they created in the opening-half but their failure to take advantage of what was presented to them proved to be the difference between the two sides. Aalesund now return to domestic action, currently being in the middle of their domestic season, while Neath will take a few days off from their new full-time schedule before beginning their pre-season campaign.

Neath have invested heavily to qualify for European competition but the only justification for their substantial spend will be in making European progress. A little more composure on the night could have made all the difference as the Eagles would have been good value for at least a two-goal lead at the break and such a scoreline would have seriously shocked their opponents and their travelling fans. By comparison, Aalesund will be pleased with what appears a very comfortable double-victory, and they can now turn their attentions to Hungarian giants Ferencvaros who await them in the second round.

Mark writes about all good things Welsh here and can be found on Twitter here.

Don't forget you can have your say on Welsh football, or any other issue over at EFW Chat, especially all of the transfer gossip about Nasri, Tevez and Fabregas because we just cannot get enough of that


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