Monday, 7 November 2016

#38 Park Hall, The New Saints

The New Saints 3 Connah's Quay Nomads 0
Sunday 30th October 2016, Welsh Premier League

And so we must bid a fond farewell to Ireland after a jam-packed, boozy two days. We were whisked back to Brum at an astonishing pace by our pilot, the Latin maniac Esteban and after scrapping with the spaghetti junction for a bit and getting some much needed sleep, we were ready to hit the road for a place closer to home, namely Oswestry in Shropshire for a taste of the Welsh Premier League.

The New Saints are a pretty eccentric entity with a shedload of curiosities attached to them. They are the only team to my knowledge that represent two places in different countries, the English town of Oswestry and the Welsh village of Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain. Oswestry lies a mere 5 miles from the Welsh border and shares many cultural ties their neighbours. The town's previous club Oswestry Town played in the Welsh league until it merged into Llansantffraid's local team, which were at the time known as Total Network Solutions because a telecommunications company of the same name based in Oswestry had arranged a £250,000 sponsorship deal with the club making them the first instance in the UK of a football team being named wholly after a sponsor. With me so far? Good.

The new millennium brought professionalism to the club who went full-time in 2003, changed their name to The New Saints in 2006 and moved from The Recreation Ground in Llansantffraid to Park Hall in Oswestry in 2007. Since the downfall of Barry Town, TNS have been the only professional club in the Welsh Premier League and have won the top flight 10 (ten) times. Despite this success they have the same problem as the rest of the Welsh league when it comes to attracting crowds, with an average attendance of 247 so far this season.

"How are a club with such a modest gate able to maintain professional status?" you may ask. Might have something to do with the fact that the large clubhouse at Park Hall is more of a leisure centre than a clubhouse. We entered the main building upon arrival and were greeted by a room full of young families enjoying the soft play area, bowling alley and cafe which is nestled between trophy cabinets, the club bar and newspaper collages of the team's European adventures. Swarms of young children hopped-up on sugar and arcade machines tear around tables of old-timers supping their pints during half time. It's very weird but undoubtedly a great earner for TNS. It's also probably the reason that they host their European matches in other locations such as Wrexham's Racecourse Ground or Rhyl's Belle Vue as it's hard to imagine Slovan Bratislava or Legia Warsaw ultras having a go in the ball pit.

Eventually someone took pity on us and pointed out the direction of the turnstiles. We entered the ground to the sound of a pop song paying tribute to Jeff Stelling's famous "they'll be dancing on the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight" quip that he made on Soccer Saturday whenever the Saints won a match. Park Hall boasts the third 3G pitch we've seen a match played on this trip and is a very modern, training-facility like ground with not a massive amount to write home about. At ground level there are two temporary stands, one a metal contraption behind the far goal and one a tent (see it's not just Rovers that have a tent) on the clubhouse side. The ground is also home to the most elaborate gantry I've ever seen.

The posh seats take the form of a handful of wooden tables and chairs arranged on the balcony of the leisure centre, this area also contains the press desk. The ground was strewn with practice goals of all shapes and sizes, which were tucked away wherever there was room. Including as I would find out when I went to look, down the back of the metal temporary stand. The ground is at least in a nice wooded area, so the pitch was surrounded by trees in beautiful autumnal colour, which added some much-needed character to the place.

As per for the Saints, this top of the league clash only tempted a modest crowd of 248 to North Shropshire but this did include an adorable gaggle of mini-ultras that spent the first half excitedly banging their drum and cheering for the home team. This was the only real noise, apart from a group of lads old enough to know better chanting "keeper's got a boner" as the opposition player was being treated by the team's female physio.

The game itself wasn't what you'd call a classic for the first 45 minutes. Both teams got into space fairly often but were hesitant to take anyone on. There was lots of passing back and very little tackling, "a bit like watching England" as Daz would opine in possibly the most offensive way one could talk about the champions of Wales. We wondered whether the combination of chilly afternoon and 3G pitch was causing the players to only commit to a shin-shredding tackle when there was absolutely no other option. Do to boredom I pursued Daz's programme and was surprised to see such luminaries as New Zealand and Scotland internationals Greg Draper and Steven Saunders turning out for the home team. Draper was such a big name that he warranted his own sponsorship, which this match was none other than Oswestry's own 'Crumbilicious Bakery', who clearly recognise a star of a rising league when they see one (arf).

I'd have to watch the second half alone as a shadowy figure known only as "The Rev" had invited Daz to be a commentator on TNS Radio for the afternoon. The encounter was streamed live to the club's Facebook and is posted here for posterity. My favourite bit was:

Rev: "and I see you've come in a TNS scarf!"
Daz: "uh, no. Welton Rovers."
Rev: "oh right... and how are they doing?"
Daz: "well when I saw them they got relegated."

The Saints turned the screw in the second half and went on to win the game 3-0. Wes Fletcher came off the bench, turned his marker and smashed it past the reach of the Nomad's keeper. The second goal came through Steve Saunders, assisted by the left-back Ryan Pryce. Finally Jon Routledge opened up his TNS account, putting the final product on a good counter attacking move from Ryan Brobbel.

Me having a hard time processing it all

The New Saints are without a doubt the wild card club of this trip. We really didn't know what to expect going in. I think it's fair to say that Park Hall is the better equipped of the three we've seen in terms of playing and hospitality facilities but they won't be to everyone's taste. I'd certainly rather rough it in the Cliftonville Social Club or the pub under the stand at Dundalk but considering those wanting to bring their families along, there's covered seats to spare at Park Hall and what better way to bribe the wee'uns to a freezing midweek Welsh Premier fixture than a go on the old 10-pin after? The club have obviously got a plan for growth going forward and good luck to them.

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