THE UEFA Champions League kicks off next week with a handful of first qualifying round ties. The top seed in the draw was none other than The New Saints of the Welsh Premier League, and the Oswestry-based club will play host to Gibraltar’s Europa FC.
The New Saints (TNS) have been in the competition for the last six seasons – not even Manchester United, Chelsea and now Arsenal can say that in 2017-18. Furthermore, their list of opponents in Europe looks quite impressive: Legia Warsaw, Slovan Bratislava, Videoton, Anderlecht, CSKA Sofia, Liverpool and Manchester City. “We greatly respect European football and our ambition is to win through to the group stages of the Champions League,” says Chairman/Owner Mike Harris. “The gap is gradually being reduced.”
The New Saints won’t have much trouble in filling their tiny ground at Park Hall for this tie. “We love these games and although we may start as favourites, we take nothing for granted. It’s a cliché, but there are no easy games in a competition like the Champions League.”
APOEL of Cyprus found that out last season when TNS held them in Wales 0-0 before losing by three goals in Nicosia. “They were terrified of us and you could see that in the faces of their officials. The stakes are high, APOEL needed European success because the financial rewards are enormous. We lost but we gave an excellent account of ourselves,” recalls Harris
Essentially, in terms of crowds, finance and status, the Welsh Premier League, which TNS have stood astride for the past decade, is comparable to non-league football in England. The big difference is that the Welsh Premier is representative of a nation and its teams can find themselves rubbing shoulders with top clubs from across the continent.
Oswestry’s famous sons include Ian Hunter, lead singer of Mott the Hoople, poet Wilfried Owen and golfer Ian Woosnam.
Harris considers that the Welsh Premier is becoming more widely recognised, although attendances in 2016-17 did fall. TNS’ own crowds were down 30%, but he doesn’t sound anxious about that. “We are not reliant on attendances alone and we are selling more season tickets than ever before. There is strong momentum in the Welsh Premier and crowds are not necessarily an accurate barometer. We are competing against many factors.”
There’s little denying that TNS are the “poster child” for the league and for its broader development. As the only full-time club in the Welsh Premier League, they clearly have an advantage over their closest rivals. But it wasn’t very close in 2016-17 as TNS were champions by an astonishing 27 points, their best-ever margin at the top, and 20 more than 2015-16. “Going full-time gave us the chance to lay the foundations for what we see today. We were able to invest on and off the field, attract good sponsors and develop a philosophy for the club,” says Harris.
That philosophy is not just about an attractive style of football – they scored 101 goals in 32 games in 2016-17 – but also the way TNS are structured, managed and in its ethos of developing players. “We are not a selling club,” says Harris. “But we are committed to our scholarship scheme and in nurturing talent. If a player leaves our academy and suddenly becomes a star elsewhere, I would want to know why we missed him. Our manager would be in trouble!”
Bringing players through the system is important to a club like TNS. They may be full-time, and they may have a turnover that has risen from something like £45,000 to £2m, but Harris runs the club on a playing budget of £600,000 which may seem small compared to the top level of the game in the UK, but is significant in the Welsh Premier. “We have a strict wage structure,” he insists.
Six glorious years: TNS record
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The next step for TNS and for Harris is the development of a new 8,000-seater stadium that can serve two football clubs and the local rugby club. “We are at an early stage of discussions, but if it comes off, it will mean we can host Champions League games in town and FC Oswestry can play FA Cup ties there. Alongside side that, we would use Park Hall for community and academy activities.”
And the latter is an important element for the club’s evolution. Originally founded in 1959 as Llansantfraaid FC (a team from a village of 1,000 people), they won the Welsh Cup in 1996 and played in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. Total Network Solutions, an IT company owned by Mike Harris, sponsored the club and changed its name to bear the name of the company. It was the first example in the UK of a football club renaming itself after its sponsor. In 2003, TNS merged with Oswestry Town and three years later, Total Network Solutions (the company) was taken over by British Telecom. Hence, the club’s name became The New Saints.
The name gained some international notoriety last season as they won 27 consecutive games, breaking a record held by the Ajax Amsterdam side of Johan Cruyff et al. This may have contributed to their manager, Craig Harrison, being recognised by potential employers and at the end of May, he was hired by Hartlepool United. Says Harris: “Craig was embedded in the philosophy of the club and he stamped his mark on it. But he’s from the North-East and wanted a fresh challenge, so Hartlepool is a good fit for him, but he’s left an excellent legacy.”
Two former players, Scott Ruscoe and Steve Evans, have been put in charge in the interim and Harris will be watching their progress. “Both Scott and Steve were in our succession planning and were both part of the scholarship scheme. They know the club inside-out, so we are hoping that the change will maintain the momentum.”
Does that mean the Welsh title is a prerequisite? Harris has a refreshing attitude when it comes to expectation. “It is, of course, lovely to win the league, but only one team can do that. Our ambition is to also further the cause and development of the Welsh Premier. We’re proud of what’s been achieved so far and we are certainly seeing some positive progress in Wales. The better the league becomes the better it is for us. And we want to be involved in Europe and to build our reputation – I would like to think we can be a standard bearer for the league.”
Special thanks to Mike Harris and Stewart Bloor of TNS for their cooperation. GOTP wishes TNS the best of luck in their European exploits this coming season.