Llansantffraid march boldly into Europe

Phil Shaw on the Welsh village side who take on Poland's cup holders tonight
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The Independent Online
Only the most comprehensive road atlas acknowledges its existence, but the Welsh border village of Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain (population 950) will be put on the European football map tonight when the team bearing its name tackle the Poles of Ruch Chorzow in the European Cup-Winners' Cup at Wrexham.

Reports of the death of romance in sport have, it seems, been exaggerated. Situated just inside Wales, nestling between the fleshpots (comparatively speaking) of Welshpool and Oswestry, Llansantffraid earned the right to a possible tilt at Liverpool or Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven or Benfica, by beating Barry Town in a penalty shoot-out after the Welsh Cup final at Cardiff in May.

Barry were the runaway winners of the League of Wales, in which Llansantffraid trailed in eighth, and have since become the first side from that competition to win a European tie.

While the 14-times Polish champions will surely present sterner opposition than Latvia's Dinaburg, the Montgomeryshire club's chairman, Edgar Jones, admits he has allowed himself to imagine "the Saints" playing at Anfield.

After all, the Cup-Winners' Cup has indulged the Principality's non-League dreamers before. Bangor City, then of the Cheshire League, took mighty Napoli to a Highbury play-off; and Merthyr Tydfil did the Southern League proud when they went down by the odd goal over two legs to another Italian team, Atalanta.

When reality reasserts itself, Jones concedes that it will take a major upset for them to advance from the qualifying round to the tournament proper. The self-employed coach-proprietor watched as nearby Newtown were overrun at the preliminary stage by another Latvian outfit, Skonto Riga. He expects Chorzow to be at least as formidable, despite a one-season sojourn in Poland's Second Division.

The customary practice is to fly out to "scout" the opposition. Llansantffraid's manager, Graham Breeze, was unable to do so. Not only was the cost prohibitive for a club whose average home gate is less than 200, but he has his work cut out running the squad and editing the North Wales Newspaper.

Breeze had to end his previous tenure as manager because of the pressures of the day job. "He came back half-way through last season when we weren't doing too well," Jones recalled. "Everything just took off from there and we'll be running eight teams at the club this season."

Of the pounds 50-a-match part-timers wearing the green at the Racecourse Ground, only Michael Brown lives in the village. The Evans brothers, Ian and Gary, are from Llanmynech, two miles away. Among their colleagues are an electricity worker, two builders and an insurance salesman. Also in contention are four students, Anglos all and including twins John and Chris Whelan, who sacrificed coaching trips to the United States to prepare for tonight's first leg.

The striker Jones describes as "our star", Tommy Morgan, works in a building society at Aberystwyth. A sharp-witted Welsh-speaker, he stole the show when S4C, Wales' Channel 4, screened a half-hour documentary on Llansantffraid on Tuesday. Andrew Mulliner, who saved the vital spot-kick against Barry, is alone in having had experience of a League club - as a YTS boy at Port Vale.

The one regret is that Llansantffraid could not stage the game at their own Recreation Park, even though its capacity of 1,000 would have housed the entire community. "We took over a thousand fans to the National Stadium for the final," Jones the bus said, "so we ought to get more going the 20-odd miles to Wrexham. It should be a great night."

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