How Llanelli became Euro stars after being saved by the Spanish Armada

A distinct Mediterranean flavour has helped transform a club from bottom of the Welsh league to the brink of Uefa Cup glory tonight. By Ian Herbert
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The Independent Football

Llanelli can be forgiven for a rather one-eyed outlook on Europe, considering that its annual forays into Continental territory are generally limited to autumn days in France and Italy when the Scarlets are challenging for the Heineken Cup. But the highly improbable proposition of Denmark in early August will materialise tonight, as the South Wales estuary town embarks on the latest chapter of an adventure which, even by its own illustrious sporting standards, has been extraordinary.

In the same red jerseys as their rugby-playing brethren but without the faintest strain of sosban fach behind them, the association footballers of Llanelli will face Odense, a side managed by the former Scotland captain Bruce Rioch, in the second qualifying round of the Uefa Cup. The odds are not exactly with them - some bookies have Odense at 1-5 to make it through - yet the same could have been said of Llanelli's very existence, two years ago, when they found themselves second bottom of the Welsh National League and facing extinction.

At that time, some highly far-fetched stories about the club were flying around, among them the suggestion that Catherine Zeta-Jones might save the day since it was her uncle, a Swansea car dealer, who was selling up for £350,000. Instead, salvation came in the more sedentary figure of Nitin Parekh, a Swiss-based British entrepreneur with a background in financial services, whose investment company, Jesco, took a controlling share at the club's Stebonheath Park in June 2005.

Parekh immediately took the club full-time, like the Welsh Premier League champions, TNS, and is arguably the first club proprietor to pick out a foreign nation on which to model his side.

"I sat down with one of my directors [Carlo Mason, a former European Tour golf professional] and we thought about what sort of football we wanted to play," he said. "We wanted flair: the sort of style which would bring people through the turnstiles."

Within weeks, a veritable Spanish Armada was heading up the Burry estuary. Mason, who grew up in Spain and owns a real estate company on the country's south coast, had contacts in La Liga and helped secure former Atletico Madrid, Real Betis and Malaga striker Lucas Cazorla Luque to manage the side at the start of last season.

Luque did not have much of a grasp of English, let alone Welsh, but that was no problem when a troupe of his countrymen including Efren Fernandez, Ivan Nofuentes, Jacob Mingorance and Rudy Torres began arriving.

Torres, a huge hit, was duly snapped up by Hamilton Academicals but Nofuentes, who had appeared for Motril and Nilanova in La Liga's lower reaches scored freely in Luque's attacking system.

Creating a Spanish enclave amid the likes of Connah's Quay Nomads and Haverfordwest County was not quite as easy as it sounded. When the club stumbled in mid-season, Parekh felt his manager had not grafted enough defensive grit into his "three at the back and all out for goals" system.

"You have to adapt your style to the league and understand the strength of the opposition. We hadn't," he recalled. Parekh fired Luque and installed his assistant, the former Arsenal and Wales midfielder Peter Nicholas, as manager. The Reds eventually took second spot, behind TNS, securing them a place in the Uefa Cup's first qualifying round, from which they have since progressed with a 2-1 aggregate win over Norwegian side Gefle - all the goals coming from the away leg.

The arrival of a footballing force, deep in rugby union territory, does not seem to have caused the same ripples as Wigan Athletic's ascent in rugby league land, where a war of words between the two camps has, at times, been fought out in the local paper.

"Judging from the comments posted on the Scarlets website, it's been a positive reaction," said Chris Barney, sports editor of the Llanelli Star. "With the greatest respect to them, success like this is a treat when you've been struggling against the like of NEWI Cefn Druids each week."

That said, Llanelli AFC does not lack a footballing history. Formed in 1892 at the local Cae Blake furnace by migrant Staffordshire pottery workers who were fed up of the local obsession with rugby, its unlikely products have included Jock Stein, Leighton James and Robbie James and the side once played - and lost to - Fulham in the FA Cup at Craven Cottage.

Yet the new owners are unlikely to make a fortune from their acquisition. Average home gates, which doubled to 375 last season, are not expected to exceed 600 this time and the European foray, one of Jesco's main objectives, will not translate into much profit because of the cost of staging the home legs. The Gefle home tie was played at the Scarlets' Stradey Park; the Odense return will be at Swansea's Liberty Stadium.

For now, though, Llanelli is just revelling in the new adventure. Everyone in the town is an authority on the Danish round-ball game - and will tell you that Odense have their troubles, despite their reputation as the third-best side in Denmark. Three strikers have departed this summer and Rioch's seemingly defensive side are currently mid-table, having drawn or lost each of their first four home matches of the season.

"The Spanish dimension to our side will help us," said Nicholas, whose own European adventures included a 1-0 win at Juventus with Arsenal and many trips with Wales. "Technically, some of my Spaniards are better players, which helps when you're playing in Europe. They are very cosmopolitan in their football - and adaptable. Remember, too, that for some of my team, the whole process of flying from one country to another to play football is a source of excitement and that is going to be a boost for us. No one thought we'd be anywhere near this place when we were second bottom of the Welsh Premier but now that we are here I believe we have every chance of getting a result."