Football: Intertoto welcome in the hillside

Phil Shaw sees the `other' Ebbw Vale team offer wholehearted commitment against quality French opposition in Europe's much maligned competition
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The Independent Online
The electronic scoreboard showed Ebbw Vale 27, Visitors 5 after European football took its leave of the Valleys yesterday. It was a reminder that the town's rugby club remain the more illustrious tenants of Eugene Cross Park, though there was no disgrace in the League of Wales part-timers' 2-1 defeat by Bastia in the Intertoto Cup.

When the Corsican side cruised into a two-goal lead with barely a third of the game gone it looked as if the welcome in the hillside would err on the side of of generosity. Not a bit of it. Playing down a considerable slope in the second half, Ebbw Vale swiftly halved the arrears and proceeded to dominate to such an extent that the bald pate of the Bastia coach, Frederique Antonetti, was positively incandescent as he berated his charges.

Whether such an afternoon reveals anything about the long-term prospects or respective strengths of Welsh and French football must be highly unlikely. Bastia, who finished only five points off the runners-up place in domestic competition last season, may well have been treating the match as a glorified training exercise.

What the closeness of the scoreline did suggest, however, was that Celtic will underestimate at their peril their Uefa Cup opponents from Cardiff, Inter CableTel, who pipped Ebbw Vale for second spot in the spring.

The Intertoto Cup received a bad press two years ago when Tottenham and Wimbledon - who later claimed they had entered under duress - both fielded loan signings and youth team players when staging their fixtures at Brighton.

Jimmy Greaves branded it the InterTwoBob Cup, and the list of entrants did contain more than its share of teams notable chiefly for the absence of vowels in their names.

Yet in this corner of Wales, where Merthyr Tydfil's glorious failure against Italy's Atalanta in the Cup Winners' Cup 10 years ago still stirs fond memories, the tournament is viewed as an opportunity rather than an irritation.

In their first Group game, at the end of last month, Ebbw Vale held the visiting Austrians Casino Graz to a goalless draw.

"We came within a whisker of the biggest upset in the competition's history," gushed the programme writer, perhaps exploiting the fact that only the most obsessive Euro-anorak would be able to contradict him.

Even the ensuing 4-0 defeat by Croatian opposition in Zagreb was viewed as a moral triumph, and when Simon Tyler scored only the second goal by a Welsh club in the Intertoto, the home players and supporters in the 1,000-plus crowd reacted as if hailing a Grand Slam at the Arms Park.

An hour before kick-off police outnumbered paying customers. While Bastia were backed by around 80 fans, there was never any cause for the constabulary to take their eyes off the pitch. The mood of gentle harmony was enhanced by a pre-match performance by the Ebbw Vale Male Voice Choir; or it may have been that spectators were too busy wading through a 175-word sentence in the programme to notice a Corsican contingent.

When the game got underway, Bastia's superior touch and speed looked likely to earn them a rugby score. The Slovenian international, Ermin Siljak, repeatedly ghosted into scoring positions. Undaunted by the sight of his drive coming out off the woodwork, he found space in a crowded six-yard area to touch home the first goal after Sebastian Perez returned the rebound.

Siljak soon made room to direct a header beyond David Williams following a centre by Christoph Deguerville. The procession towards Ebbw Vale's goal was interrupted briefly when Paul Giles, previous conspicuous only for his bright red boots, broke from his own half to fire narrowly over.

Unlikely as it seemed at the time, it proved a sign of things to come. Shortly after the interval Mike Mayer's header forced an acrobatic save from Eric Durand. Tyler forced the ball in at close range from the corner.

Suddenly it was a contest rather than a canter, with Dai Webley, a Merthyr hero of a decade ago, emerging to compound Bastia's discomfort in the closing stages. And when Siljak appeared certain to complete his hat- trick, Williams pulled off a thrilling one-handed save.

Unusually, both sets of fans were delighted with the outcome. Bastia had moved closer to back-door entry to the Uefa Cup; Ebbw Vale had lived up to the more adventurous connotations of their nickname "The Cowboys" (the origin remains a mystery, although it is said that a 1950s player called Oakley may have had a sister called Annie).

The public-address announcer was probably not alone in thinking he could get used to the idea of this European lark. "If you wish to travel to Denmark for our game against Silkeborg next week, the ferries are pretty cheap," he enthused. "We'd like to see you there."

Goals: Siljak (12) 0-1; Siljak (31) 0-2; Tyler (54) 1-2.

Ebbw Vale (3-5-2): D. Williams; Thomas (Dowd, 65), John, Graham: Giles, Mayer, Chiverton, S Williams, Wigley; Tyler (Webley, 70), A Evans.

Bastia: (4-4-2): Durand; Perez, Jurietti, Moreau, Deguerville; Swierczewski, Camadini, Soumah, Faye; Gohel (Jestrovic, 57) Siljack.

Referee: M McCurry (Scotland).

Bookings: Ebbw Vale: Tyler, Evans. Bastia: Jurietti, Perez.

Man of the match: Siljak.

Attendance: 1,010.

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