Connah’s Quay and Pen-y-bont have both fallen at the first hurdle on their European quests, but the adventure continues for both Haverfordwest County and The New Saints as they prepare for their respective ties in the Europa Conference League second qualifying round.
Following the defeat to BK Häcken in the Champions League first qualifying round, The New Saints will get another bite of the European cherry as they face the champions of Luxembourg, Swift Hesperange.
And despite being written off before a ball had been kicked, Haverfordwest County caused a major upset by winning on penalties against North Macedonian side, KF Shkëndija to book a place in the Europa League second qualifying round.
Connah’s Quay will be disappointed to have lost 4-0 on aggregate against KA Akureyri from Iceland, and Pen-y-bont suffered an extra time defeat in their second leg against Santa Coloma of Andorra to lose 3-1 on aggregate on their first ever European quest.
If either The New Saints or Haverfordwest County beat their next opponents they would progress into the third qualifying round, and after that there’s only a play-off round standing in the way between them and the Europa Conference League group stage.
The New Saints v Swift Hesperange (Luxembourg) | Tuesday, 25 July – 19:00 – Online
(Park Hall, Oswestry – First Leg of Europa Conference League Second Qualifying Round 2023/24)
It was always going to be a tough test for The New Saints against the Swedish champions, and although BK Häcken were making their first appearance in the Champions League after winning the Allsvenskan league for the first time in their history, the gulf in quality was clear to see.
But fortunately for the Oswestry outfit, the 5-1 aggregate defeat to BK Häcken isn’t the end of the road, as the Welsh champions have another shot at success after dropping down into the Europa Conference League.
Like BK Häcken, Swift Hesperange go into this year’s European competitions having won their national league for the first time in their history, and like The New Saints, the club from Luxembourg have fallen into the Europa Conference League after losing their Champions League first qualifying round tie.
Swift Hesper had caused quite a shock with their 1-1 draw in the away leg at the home of Slovakian champions, Slovan Bratislava.
But after missing a penalty in the first half of the second leg, Swift were made to pay the price as Slovan Bratislava netted twice in the second half to claim a 3-1 aggregate victory.
Ahead of this campaign, Swift Hesper had only played two previous ties in Europe, losing to Legia Warsaw of Poland in 1990, before another loss to Domžale of Slovenia in 2021.
Swift Hesper have therefore never won a European round, and have never won a European match, which should give Craig Harrison’s men some considerable confidence ahead of the opening leg.
Since 1996 The New Saints have played 76 European matches, winning on 17 occasions (22%), and they’ve progressed to the next round nine times in 39 attempts (23%).
Swift Hesper will be the first club from Luxembourg to face The New Saints in Europe, and after losing their last four rounds, the Welsh champions will be determined to make a mark in this tie.
B36 Tórshavn (Faroe Islands) v Haverfordwest County | Thursday, 27 July – 19:00
(Gundadalur, Tórshavn – First Leg of Europa Conference League Second Qualifying Round 2023/24)
This current Haverfordwest County squad have created history as the club have won a European tie for the first time ever to progress into this season’s Europa League second qualifying round.
After winning the JD Cymru Premier play-offs, the Bluebirds are competing in Europe for the first time in 19 years, and when the draw was made in Geneva it’s fair to say that not many had high hopes of seeing Haverfordwest County conquer KF Shkëndija of North Macedonia, who had beaten The New Saints in 2018.
Undeterred by their 7th place finish in the league, the Bluebirds went on to win on penalties against both Cardiff Met (4th) and Newtown (6th) in the 2022/23 play-offs to clinch the final ticket to Europe, with goal-keeper Zac Jones grabbing the headlines for his heroics in the shoot-outs.
And the young Kiwi was the hero yet again on Thursday as he saved twice during the penalty kicks, with another effort hitting the post as the Pembrokeshire posse went wild in the Cardiff City Stadium.
Tony Pennock’s team were already 1-0 down going into the second leg, and it seemed that Haverfordwest County’s European prospects were fading before young defender Lee Jenkins’ strike was deflected into the back of the net after 89 minutes of the second leg.
An extra 30 minutes was played with no break-through, and although Dan Hawkins and Ben Fawcett missed the target from 12 yards, Jazz Richards, Jack Wilson and Kai Whitmore made no mistake from the spot, and with Zac Jones oozing with confidence yet again the Bluebirds managed to pull off an incredible upset in front of 1,716 fans.
In their only previous appearance in Europe, Haverfordwest County lost 4-1 on aggregate against Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar (Iceland) with Tim Hicks scoring the Bluebirds’ only goal at Ninian Park, Cardiff.
21-year-old Lee Jenkins is therefore just the second player to score for Haverfordwest County in Europe, to secure his side’s first ever European win.
But as the celebrations continue amongst their followers, the team will be preparing for yet another mammoth task as they travel to the Faroe Islands to face B36 Tórshavn.
B36 Tórshavn are one of the most decorated clubs in the Faroe Islands, having won the championship 11 times, and the Faroese Cup on six occasions.
B36 have played 34 European ties since their debut in 1992, winning on 10 occasions (29%), but their recent record on the continent is much more impressive.
Since 2018 the club has won eight of their 12 European rounds, which includes a penalty shoot-out triumph over The New Saints in 2020.
The Faroese side has improved significantly in recent years as The New Saints had already beaten B36 comfortably over two legs in 2015 with Adrian Cieslewicz’s brother, Lukasz scoring a late consolation goal for B36 at Park Hall following Michael Wilde’s hat-trick (6-2 on aggregate).
B36 are yet to concede in the Europa Conference League this season as their goalless draw in the home leg against Paide Linnameeskond was followed with a 2-0 win in extra time over in Estonia on Thursday night.
B36 featured in the 1997 Intertoto Cup, losing all four matches, but have never reached the group stage of a European competition since.
The Betri deildin menn (Faroe Islands Premier League) is a summer league, which means that B36 are already 16 games into their league campaign and are currently in 2nd place behind, KÍ.
Some will say that B36 will consequently have an advantage, but Haverfordwest County have proven in the last round, and in the JD Cymru Premier play-offs that their fitness levels are high, and that they’re willing to fight for 120 minutes with the knowledge that ‘Super Zac Jones’ is in goal waiting to save the day once again.