Football: Aberystwyth settle for parity

Welsh battlers launch new football season with dogged Intertoto draw.
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The Independent Online
A PENNANT bearing the crest and the green and black stripes of Aberystwyth Town has already been dispatched to Harry Redknapp. The question of whether the League of Wales part-timers will have the opportunity to make the West Ham manager's acquaintance on a more intimate level is still finely balanced.

To earn a lucrative tilt at the Premiership side in the Intertoto Cup, Aberystwyth have to beat not only their fellow semi-professionals from Malta, Floriana, but also overcome Estonian or Finnish opposition in the second round. Yesterday's 2-2 draw with the team from the George Cross island leaves them with a fighting chance in Saturday's second leg.

Just 23 days after a thrust of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's right leg brought one European campaign to a dramatic conclusion in Barcelona, Aberystwyth launched another in the somewhat more sedate setting of their Park Avenue ground. With 1,750 spectators basking in the mid-Wales sunshine, almost the only similarity was that they also profited from a late goal, Kevin Morrison's penalty restoring parity with only five minutes remaining.

Morrison, a Scottish-born former Welsh schoolboy cap with 200 goals for "Aber" to his name, had opened the scoring midway through the first half. Floriana retaliated swiftly through the game's outstanding individual, the Maltese international striker Richard Buhagiar, and looked likely to fly home with a lead after William Camenzuli headed them in front.

However, Camenzuli later conceded the spot-kick which enabled Morrison to add to his handsome haul. Aberystwyth, while unable to match their guests in terms of technique, were not flattered by the outcome.

League of Wales clubs normally have their five minutes of Euro fame in the preliminary round of the Uefa Cup, and are usually eliminated before the cricket season is over by teams from eastern Europe with no vowels in their names.

The Intertoto, a competition devised to provide summer results for football pools in Scandinavia and Germany, allows them to enjoy that part of the spotlight not currently trained on tennis and cricket.

Qualification can be a mixed blessing. Ebbw Vale, the principality's entrants two years ago, went bust within 12 months, having reputedly added massively to their debts during ill-planned jaunts to Corsica and Austria. Nevertheless, the tournament's appeal has grown since the finalists were granted a place in the Uefa Cup, as evinced by West Ham's glee at pipping Aston Villa for the English place.

Aberystwyth are determined not to overstretch themselves financially after their own brush with extinction last year. The bailiffs had already put the padlocks on their gates before a new chairman, Donald Kane, managed to convince Safeway that the ground would be sold to a rival supermarket chain. Under a novel "sponsorship" deal, Safeway wiped out the club's six-figure debts and guaranteed them pounds 30,000 a year for the next decade.

They duly finished fourth last season, missing a Uefa Cup berth only by virtue of Cwmbran Town's superior goal difference. But scuffling for points with the likes of Caersws, Connah's Quay Nomads and Rhayader Town is a far cry from engaging with different football cultures, and a crowd more than three times the average of 525 turned out to see the Maltese.

Floriana are veterans of the Continental scene, even if their participation is invariably as short-lived as that of the Welsh. Twenty-five times champions of Malta, they once lost 10-0 at Ipswich in the European Cup when Alf Ramsey was in charge of the Suffolk club.

Aberystwyth's manager, the former Wolves and Derby midfielder Barry Powell, is too much the old campaigner to have expected a comparable victory. After all, he was without a key defender, Aneurin Thomas, who could not unbook his holiday in Turkey. Somehow one cannot imagine Alex Ferguson accepting such an excuse from Jaap Stam. And although their rearguard did boast an international, it was Wales's angling team that Gari Lewis had represented.

Morrison's first goal, converted at the far post after a mix-up between Floriana's Bulgarian goalkeeper and a defender, followed an excellent cross by Chris Hammond, one of four Midlanders brought in by Powell to complement his largely home-grown squad.

The visitors' slicker build-up, orchestrated by the Congolese Rufin Oba, soon delivered an equaliser. Brian Said's perceptive pass found Buhagiar, who curled his shot expertly over Richard Anstiss.

Aberystwyth found Buhagiar especially difficult to pin down, and it was from his centre that Camenzuli beat Anstiss from near the penalty spot with a thumping header.

The scorer's delight, which prompted celebrations that would not have been out of place in the Nou Camp last month, turned to disappointment as Aberystwyth mounted a spirited late rally. Camenzuli handled Paul Challinor's drive in a crowded penalty area, enabling Morrison to stroke the penalty which means Mr Redknapp may yet be able to thank them for the pennant in person.

Goals: Morrison (18) 1-0; Buhagiar (32) 1-1; Camenzuli (64) 1-2; Morrison pen (85) 2-2.

Aberystwyth Town (3-5-2): Anstiss; Lewis, Challinor, Foster; Glyndwr Hughes (Evans, 82), J Williams, Hammond, Gareth Hughes, S Williams (Mellor, 69); Moore (Allen, 70), Morrison. Substitutes not used: Griffiths, M Hughes, Jones (gk).

Floriana (3-5-2) Kolev; Camenzuli (Mattocks, 90), Said, Caruana; Busuttil (Navarro, 88), Zaytzev, Vassilev, Oba, D Galea, M Galea (Glenn, 82), Buhagiar. Substitutes not used: Mifsud-Triganza, Ciantar, Camilleri, Haber (gk).

Referee: S Ghazaryan (Armenia). Bookings: Floriana: Camenzuili, Busuttil.

Man of the match: Buhagiar.

Attendance: 1,750.