But will start at a disadvantage
2 July ~ As clubs prepare for pre-season friendlies, the Europa League qualifying rounds are already upon us. Welsh Premier League teams Airbus UK Broughton, Bala Town and Prestatyn Town will be flying the flag for the country (along with Swansea City, who enter two rounds and one month later), and will be tasting European competition for the first time this week. Of the three, Bala Town's story is the most remarkable. Today the team from a town with a population of 2,000 will play Estonia's Levadia Tallinn, just 45 days since they sealed qualification.
After two-thirds of last season's campaign, Bala found themselves among the relegation group, but then embarked upon a stunning run that saw them progress into the Europa League play-off phase. There they beat Gap Connah's Quay before a shock semi-final win at favourites Bangor City, ending their opponent's six-year run of European football. Their triumph in the play-off final at Port Talbot came with virtually the last kick of the season; a 1-0 win took them into Europe as they finished the campaign with 13 wins in a row.
The final of the 2013-14 Europa League will be held at the Juventus Stadium in Turin next May but teams starting this week will have more modest goals. For Welsh clubs, winning through a single round is considered an achievement. The other new boys, Airbus UK and Prestatyn, play on Thursday against Latvian teams FK Ventspils and Liepajas Metalurgs respectively. Airbus qualified as League runners-up, while Prestatyn's berth was secured as Welsh Cup winners.
While the three clubs are immensely proud of their achievements, and excited about their European debuts, there is a hint of disappointment that none of this week's ties will be played at their own grounds, despite all having "home" first-leg matches. UEFA's Stadium Infrastructure Regulations state that ties in the qualifying rounds must be played at Category Two venues. Among other things, grounds must have a minimum of 1,500 seats and (most incongruously) 100 "VIP seats". All three clubs fall short. Bala and Prestatyn will be playing at Rhyl, while Airbus will be rattling around Wrexham's Racecourse Ground.
Nonetheless, all three are hoping for healthy crowds; anything around the 1,000 mark would be considered a good turnout. But the early July start creates another problem. The Estonian and Latvian seasons are well underway – Levadia have already played 16 League games, Ventspils and Metalurgs 11 each. As most teams in the UK have been enjoying a summer break, Airbus, Bala and Prestatyn have all struggled to find opposition to play in preparation for this week's games. Suitable pitches are also difficult to locate. With a couple of warm-up games squeezed in at best, the Welsh clubs go into the Europa ties at a disadvantage.
One of the better-performing Welsh clubs in Europe in recent years are The New Saints (TNS), who will be the principality's sole representative in the Champions League. Remembered for their encounters with Manchester City (2003) and Liverpool (2005), under their original name of Total Network Solutions, TNS have enjoyed European competition every season since 2000. They will welcome Poland's Legia Warsaw to Park Hall in mid-July. So even though Airbus, Bala and Prestatyn will face lower-profile opposition in their Europa League ties this week, there is a chance that the three novices's European experience will be over before TNS play their first game. Andy Ollerenshaw