Usually when the end of the season arrives I am feeling a bit bored and itching to watch any form of football I can find. Last season however was draining as Atherton Collieries crammed 15 matches into the final month of the campaign; enough to put the most hardened of football fans off the sport for a while.
45 days I had off from attending football matches having had my last day out at Chapel Town v Walshaw Sports in the final few days of the season. Admittedly, I’d have wanted a longer break but the opportunity of watching Europa League football at a small ground in Wales was too good an opportunity to turn down.
Nestling on the banks of the River Severn in the heart of mid Wales, Newtown lies in the old county of Montgomeryshire, which is now part of Powys. With a population of about 13,000, it is a pretty market town with a rich industrial heritage, surrounded by beautiful countryside.
Now, you’d have thought that by travelling to this match with a group of Atherton Collieries fans we would be having a nice relaxed night as neutrals. Some of us did, but “Welshy” who often goes on holiday to Malta had other ideas. Valletta are his adopted foreign side, so you can imagine his excitement when the draw brought the Lilly Whites over to the UK.
He told us he would sort out tickets and travel and in true Welshy style he delivered. Joining us were Atherton Collieries secretary Emil, groundhopper and Colls fan Sean and a minibus driver wrapped in a flamboyant Erasure t-shirt who didn’t say an awful lot. He did drive us there and back though, so I do have a little respect for him.
I was picked up from work in Leigh at 15:00 and we embarked upon the 2 hour journey to land where none of us had been before. Traffic was very kind as we traipsed through Wrexham, Oswestry and Welshpool popping in and out of Wales in the process.
In the days leading up to the match I wondered what I should wear to such a prestigious event. I had a Valletta shirt and a Wales shirt. I toyed with the idea of sewing them together to make a half and half shirt, but I opted to wear my Wales one. It made me look like a local, but it wasn’t long until my cover was blown.
A small brown signpost pointed us in the general direction of Latham Park, the home of Newtown AFC. A bloke in a fluorescent vest pulled us over and asked us, “Are you here for the rugby or the football? Because the rugby is on the other side of town!”. Daft question. We parked up in a layby at the local primary school and strolled down to the ground to purchase a matchday programme.
“Bloody hell! It’s a plastic pitch!” came the disgruntled shout from in front. These words always remind us of our depressing day in Woodley when we lost 5-0 against the now defunct Stockport Sports in the FA Vase. The artificial surface made for a boring match and we were desperately hoping tonight would not be a repeat.
Thankfully, I was too pissed to care about the quality of football by the time kick off arrived thanks to pathetic UEFA alcohol laws. Walking into the clubhouse, the Valletta fans appeared to have been on the beer all day, and who can blame them? We were told that alcohol would be served until 19:00, which was 15 minutes before kick off. We had an hour to enjoy a pint… or maybe something a little stronger?
As Emil and I sat at the bar pondering what to drink, the devastating news came through that the coolers had broken meaning that the only beer would be canned. Not to worry, two cans of Tetley’s were ordered. It turned out to be lukewarm leaving us looking at other options for our next alcoholic fix. “Excuse me cock, how much is a bottle of wine?” came the resulting question from my companion. Initially, I thought Emil was joking and began to laugh.
I shouldn’t have doubted him for a second as a minute later we were the proud owners of a bottle of wine and two glasses filled with ice. Emil rightly pointed out that tonight we had no jobs to do. We had no worries. To use one of his more preferred phrases, we were as calm as a lilypond. It was fantastic drinking wine without a care in the world. So much so that ten minutes before last orders we bought another bottle.
As we were pouring the second bottle the lights in the clubhouse were turned off and the curtains were shut. All patrons were ushered out into the ground as per UEFA licensing laws. In honesty, we assumed that last orders would be 19:00, not last orders and a quick down of your drink. Unperturbed by our pushy hosts we picked up our belongings and slipped into the hospitality lounge which was only a couple of metres away from us. This handed us a few more valuable moments to finish off what had been bought. I would say this finished me off.
I stumbled over to the open stand which is found at the far end of the ground. The match had by this stage already kicked off and stewards were encouraging us to hurry up and find a seat. You could see the club were under pressure from the authorities.
Having finally found a spot just behind the goal, I turned around and was surprised to see Runcorn Town fans Martin and Kevin were sat a couple of rows further back. I hurdled some surrounding spectators and went to sit with them for the most of the half.
The Robins’ last appearance in Europe was against Wisla Krakow in the Uefa Cup in 1998. It was no surprise that having waited so long to make another appearance there was a sell out crowd in attendance at Latham Park, as 1,420 spectators flocked to Newtown.
Newtown claimed the final Europa League spot available to Welsh Premier League sides with a 2-1 win over Aberystwyth Town in a play-off final on 17 May. This gave them just over a month to prepare for one of the biggest matches in the club’s history.
I’m sure the home side’s preparations went more to plan than their Maltese opponents. Valletta experienced a delay in completing visa applications for their non-European Union players. Tunisian midfielder Abdelkarim Nafti, forward Umeh Calictus from Nigeria, striker Thierry Tazemeta from Equatorial Guinea and Moldovan defender Maxim Focsa were the players affected. But the four players finally met up with the rest of the squad on Wednesday evening after securing UK visas through the British embassy in Paris.
Despite all the build up, the match never quite lived up to expectations as what followed was a dire affair. Both sides were poor in possession and found it hard to hit the target.
Valletta are a physical side and this ultimately proved to be their downfall. After a half that offered very little, the Maltese side conceded a free kick in a dangerous position when Ian Azzopardi brought down Luke Boundford.
Matty Owen whipped the resulting free kick into the box and Boundford’s glancing header nestled in the top corner for Newtown to lead. It was Newtown’s second ever European goal, coming almost two decades after Romilly Brown scored against Skonto Riga in 1996.
Half time arrived which allowed us valuable time to buy more alcohol. We walked back into hospitality bar where a couple of cans of beer were purchased. As I queued up at the bar, Emil hobbled off to the buffet which had been put on for the UEFA delegates and visiting officials. He returned with a vol-au-vent which he said would look good in my blog. It was a nice vol-au-vent and I would like to thank Michel Platini for such an opportunity.
For the second half we opted to venture over to the other side of the ground where a few spectators were sat on wooden benches. The chance of watching European football, sat on a wooden bench in the Welsh countryside was too good an opportunity to miss, so I scaled up the banking and plonked myself down next to a family from Whitchurch.
Newtown came close to doubling their lead early in the second half but were denied by a stubborn Valletta defence following a prolonged goalmouth scramble. I counted around six shots in this one phase of play, which just about summed up the scrappy nature of the match.
For all the chances the home side missed they invariably paid the price. On 73 minutes Brazilian substitute, Jhonnattann, headed in at the far post to secure a valuable away goal for the Maltese visitors.
This setback spurred on Newtown and they were given a real incentive to push forward late one when the visitors’ captain, Ian Azzopardi, was sent off. Newtown took full advantage with Jason Oswell finishing a fantastic move in the six yard box, on 90 minutes. All players formed a mass pile on, with the goalkeeper running the length of the pitch to jump on top of his team mates.
The final whistle blew and that signalled Newtown’s first ever European win at the fifth time of trying. They carried a slender 2-1 lead into the second leg which took place eight days later at the Ta’Qali Stadium. Newtown took an early lead before the home side pulled a goal back before the interval. Matty Owen scored a late penalty to take Newtown through to the next round.
Danish champions FC Copenhagen await in the next round, which all seems a bit odd really considering two years ago they were competing in the Champions League group stage against Real Madrid, Juventus and Galatasaray.
I can’t remember an awful lot of the match, which was probably for the best as the parts I can remember were bloody woeful. It summed up the evening when the queue was too big to go for a piss, so I ended up stumbling into the forest next to the ground. Somebody had placed some barbed wire at ankle level which resulted in me falling over and scraping both of my legs. I think it was a trap for the English.
After I had recovered we made a quick getaway allowing Mr. Erasure to do a pickup at Manchester Airport after he had dropped us off in Atherton. We arrived back in downtown ‘Bent just before midnight and I was looking forward to going to bed until it transpired that there was an opportunity to visit the Atherton Arms.
The Atherton Arms is a club which I had long wanted to have a pint in. Not because it was a must visit venue, or full of teenage girls, but because it was a pub I had not yet ventured in in my home town. Generally, the customers all have a free bus pass and walking stick, making it slightly awkward if I were to walk in on my own. Tonight was the night.
It felt slightly odd walking into the place with Emil after we had been at Leigh Library having an Atherton Collieries research day just a couple of days beforehand. It turned out that during our time in the Westhoughton League in the 1920’s our fierce rivals were Atherton Labour Club, which is now the Atherton Arms. We were basically going for a few pints at Atherton Laburnum Rovers.
Two pints later and I was stumbling back home, ready to wake up four hours later for another day at work. It felt like freshers at University all over again.
Overall, it was a nice and steady introduction back into football. A nice calm journey where I didn’t have to bother or worry about the logistics such as buying tickets or making sure I didn’t miss a train. I didn’t care who won, so didn’t have any moodswings and I had no jobs to do. It was brilliant. Unfortunately, I was a bit too pissed to take a lot away from my evening in Newtown hence why the blog entry is a bit shorter than normal.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 94 miles
- ADMISSION: £10
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £2.50