TNS seek total Scouser solution to crack code of mighty neighbours

The Welsh Premier League's only full-time professionals will have to earn their money at Anfield. Ian Herbert reports

McKenna has been feeding DVDs of Liverpool matches into his machine for days now, even finding time on the short coach trip from Belfast airport to Glentoran, where his side lost 1-0 in a friendly a week ago. Finding any competition in early July is one of the biggest challenges to preparing for Europe's preliminary rounds so Total Network Solutions Llansantffraid - to give his Welsh Premier League team their full title - have been limited to Ireland and a guest appearance at the recent Anglesey Games.

The manager, once a record signing for Tranmere Rovers, is brutally realistic about his team's chances in a game he describes as "the biggest mismatch in football history". The game will be dictated by how Liverpool approach it, he said. "They will do something and we will have to react."

But he can at least take comfort from the fact that his players share his forensic understanding of the task in hand. McKenna has far more Scousers than Welshmen in his team - a fact borne out by their training ground, which is in the shadow of a chemical works on the banks of the Mersey. His spies at the Champions' League final in Istanbul included John Lawless, the TNS left winger whose right arm bears a Liverpool tattoo and who raced back from the Milan game in time to take up a place near Anfield's Kop for the parade of the trophy.

Lawless, 24, knocked a football around the De La Salle high school playground in Croxteth with Wayne Rooney and Francis Jeffers in the late 1980s, but his head was full of dreams about emulating John Barnes, his boyhood hero. For a time, it seemed that they might be fulfilled. Lawless won a place at Liverpool's academy, where he found himself under the tutelage of Steve Heighway, the club's Academy director and former winger. But at the age of 15 Liverpool released him.

"There are thousands of us who want to play in the Premier League and just a few places in the teams," he said before a training session. "That's just the way it goes."

But the consequences of failing to make it beyond Burscough, Aberystwyth and TNS (where he earns £400 a week) are obvious. While Rooney drives a £50,000 BMW X5, Lawless hasn't even passed his driving test. "I'm having lessons because there's a lot of driving in this Welsh League," he said. He says he has not given up hope of a Football League club.

Lawless is not the only TNS player with something to prove at Anfield. Striker John Toner was also on Liverpool's books as a youngster. And then there is the team's crop of blue-blooded Evertonians - midfielder Steven Beck, who was in the same Everton youth team as Rooney, and Tommy Rooney, Wayne's cousin, who has signed from Macclesfield Town.

Though McKenna's entire weekly wage bill is £7,000, Liverpool can expect more than a bunch of stargazers. TNS are the Welsh Premier League's only full-time professional side, courtesy of Mike Harris - the managing director of a computer software company who decided to sponsor Llansantffraid Town 10 years ago so long as the team took the company's name.

Harris also bought Oswestry Town out of financial difficulty recently and has merged the team with TNS, meaning that the club will be able to move into Oswestry's ground. The capacity is higher - at 3,000 - and offers a bigger fan base. Oswestry's population is 30,000 compared with Llansantffraid's 1,736.

The club's new-found wealth has brought European competition for seven consecutive seasons. They have failed to register a win in 12 outings, but still consider themselves unlucky to have conceded two late goals in the first leg of last season's Uefa Cup tie at Osters, in Sweden, and were only 1-0 down at half-time at Manchester City in the same tournament two years ago before some dire goalkeeping put paid to the tie, 5-0. (City won the second leg 2-0.)

These European experiences have made TNS considerably more accustomed than Liverpool to the painfully short summers that accompany the early rounds. (They won the Welsh Cup on 8 May and were back in training on 6 June.) And the matches have refined what club insiders describe as Ken McKenna's "European formation" - reserved for those two mid-summer encounters each season when his team are really up against it. The formation, on display in the match at Glentoran, is a midfield packed with players under orders simply not to give the ball away - a marked contrast with the "three up front and go for it" league tactics which netted TNS 83 goals last season, many of them coming in the last 15 minutes.

McKenna finally got to observe the European champions in the flesh at Wrexham on Saturday, and saw them go a goal down inside eight minutes before winning at a stroll. So maybe there are some grounds for optimism. "We've just got to hope that they are a bit rusty and not 100 per cent ready for the game," he said.