Two months since Haverfordwest County’s dramatic penalty shoot-out victory to secure the final ticket to Europe, and the four JD Cymru Premier clubs are ready to represent Wales in this year’s qualifying rounds of the Champions League and Europa Conference League.
Welsh champions, The New Saints will face Swedish champions, BK Häcken in the Champions League first qualifying round on Wednesday (12/07), whilst Connah’s Quay travel to Iceland, Haverfordwest County head to Macedonia, and Pen-y-bont welcome an Andorran outfit in the Europa Conference League first qualifying round on Thursday (13/07).
BK Häcken (Sweden) v The New Saints | Wednesday, 12 July – 18:00
(Hisingen Arena, Gothenburg – First Leg of Champions League First Qualifying Round 2023/24)
With an emphatic 22pt lead, The New Saints were crowned JD Cymru Premier champions for the 15th time in 2022/23 and are preparing for another European adventure.
The Shropshire side made their European debut in 1996 with a 1-1 draw against Ruch Chorzow of Poland, with Aneurin Thomas on target for the Saints.
But a 0-5 defeat in the away leg meant that TNS had to wait until 2007 for their first victory which was a 3-2 home win against Latvian side, Ventspils.
Yet again, the Saints lost on aggregate, and it wasn’t until 2011 that The New Saints finally won a European round at the 12th attempt, beating Northern Irish club Cliftonville 2-1 on aggregate.
Since 1996 The New Saints have played 74 European matches, winning on 17 occasions (23%), and they’ve progressed to the next round nine times in 38 attempts (24%).
Their best run came in 2010/11, despite winning only one tie that season (vs Bohemians in the Champions League second qualifying round), before losing to Anderlecht and dropping down into the Europa League play-off round.
But a 5-2 loss on aggregate against CSKA Sofia means that TNS are still dreaming of reaching the elusive group stages.
The New Saints certainly have more European experience than their opponents this season, BK Häcken, but the Swedish champions can boast a better win percentage.
The Gothenburg gang have won six of their previous 14 rounds (43%) which includes triumphs over Dunfermline in 2007, and Sparta Prague in 2013.
BK Häcken won the Swedish Allsvenskan league for the first time in their history in 2022, therefore this will be their first appearance in the Champions League.
The New Saints will be eager to put things right after last year’s disappointing campaign where they lost 2-1 on aggregate against Linfield (N. Ireland) in the Champions League first qualifying round, before losing 2-0 on aggregate to Vikingur Reykjavik (Iceland) in the Europa Conference League second qualifying round.
BK Häcken missed out on Europe last season, but in 2021 they fell to a 5-3 aggregate defeat to Aberdeen, and the ‘Getingarna’ (Wasps) haven’t won a European tie in five years (vs Liepaja of Latvia).
BK Häcken will be looking to become the third Swedish sect to knock TNS out of Europe, following the Saints’ previous exits against Östers (2004) and Helsingborgs (2012).
It will be a tough test for Craig Harrison’s crew against a squad that is peppered with international caps: Ola Kamara (17 caps, 7 goals for Norway), Evan Hovland (24 caps for Norway), Samuel Gustafson (7 caps for Sweden).
As it stands, The New Saints’ duo of Declan McManus and Leo Smith share the record for most European goals by a JD Cymru Premier player with Michael Wilde and Scott Quigley (6 goals each), and therefore they will be keen to break the record this summer.
The second leg will be held at Park Hall on Tuesday, 18 July, and the winners will go on to challenge either Kí Klaksvík (Faroe Islands) or Ferencvárosi TC (Hungary) in the second qualifying round, while the losers will drop into the Europa Conference League to face Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia) or Swift Hesper (Luxembourg).
Pen-y-bont v Santa Coloma (Andorra) | Thursday, 13 July – 18:30
(Brewery Field, Pen-y-bont – First Leg of Europa Conference League First Qualifying Round 2023/24)
Pen-y-bont are preparing for their European debut after securing their highest ever finish in the JD Cymru Premier (3rd).
The club was formed in 2013 when Bryntirion Athletic and Bridgend Town decided to unite, and it took only until 2019 for Pen-y-bont to reach the top-flight of Welsh football.
Four years later, and Rhys Griffiths’ strategy is continuing to come to fruition as Pen-y-bont becomes the 31st team from Wales to qualify for European football.
Their opponents, Santa Coloma have vast European experience and are the most successful club in the history of the Andorran Primera Divisio with 13 championships to date.
Despite their league success, Santa Coloma’s European record isn’t too impressive as they’ve won just five of their 42 matches (12%), progressing only three times in 23 ties.
Santa Coloma finished 3rd in the 2022/23 Primera Divisio and their squad consists of several international talents: Josep Gomes (75 caps for Andorra), Marc Rebes (57 caps, 3 goals for Andorra), Jordi Alaez (53 caps, 3 goals for Andorra), Maksim Valadzko (33 caps, 2 goals for Belarus).
It’s no surprise that Pen-y-bont are lacking in European experience, but the signing of talisman Chris Venables will bring much needed knowledge to the side with his 19 appearances and two goals on the European stage.
Car salesman, Chris Venables will celebrate his 38th birthday later this month, and his move from Bala Town to Pen-y-bont proves that the five-time Golden Boot winner still has high ambitions.
The second leg will be held at Estadi Nacional in Andorra on Thursday, 20 July, and the winners will go on to face either FK Sutjeska (Montenegro) or SS Cosmos (San Marino) in the Europa Conference League second qualifying round.
KA Akureyri (Iceland) v Connah’s Quay | Thursday, 13 July – 19:00
(Framvöllur Úlfarsárdal, Reykjavík – First Leg of Europa Conference League First Qualifying Round 2023/24)
The JD Cymru Premier runners-up, Connah’s Quay will travel to Iceland to face the 2022 Besta deild karla runners-up, Knattspyrnufélag Akureyrar.
The Nomads have been constant European contenders for the past seven years, but have won just four of their 18 matches, and progressing from a tie just twice – vs Stabaek in 2016/17 and Kilmarnock in 2019/20.
KA Akureyri have qualified for Europe for the first time in 20 years after securing their highest finish since 1989 when they won their solitary Icelandic title.
KA finished higher than Vikingur Reykjavik, which was the team that knocked The New Saints out of Europe last season, as well as Stjarnan, who beat Bangor City 8-0 on aggregate in 2014.
But Akureyri have only played three rounds in Europe and have lost an all three occasions.
Connah’s Quay manager, Neil Gibson has fond memories of featuring in Europe after scoring the all-important goal for Prestatyn Town in their victory against Liepajas Metalurgs in 2013.
And the Nomads’ no.9, Michael Wilde will hope to add to his six European goals, which includes a hat-trick for The New Saints against B36 Torshavn in 2015.
The first leg will be held at Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, which is approximately 250 miles from Akureyri’s usual ground in the north of the country, which means a 5-hour car journey for the home contingent.
Connah’s Quay will host the second leg at Park Hall, Oswestry on Thursday, 20 July, and the winners will go on to face either Dundalk (Ireland) or Bruno’s Magpies (Gibraltar) in the Europa Conference League second qualifying round.
KF Shkëndija (North Macedonia) v Haverfordwest County | Thursday, 13 July – 19:00
(Toše Proeski Arena, Skopje – First Leg of Europa Conference League First Qualifying Round 2023/24)
A 19-year wait is almost over for Haverfordwest County who have qualified for Europe for only the second time in their history via the JD Cymru Premier play-offs.
Undeterred by their 7th placed finish, 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.
From the Welsh clubs’ four opponents this year, KF Shkëndija are considered the most experienced on the European stage.
Klubi i Futbollit Shkëndija have won the Macedonian First League on four occasions, with the latest success in 2020/21, but finishing 3rd was enough to seal an European spot last season.
KF Shkëndija have won 12 of their previous 26 European ties (46%) which includes a 5-4 aggregate victory over The New Saints in 2018.
Shkëndija sailed to a 5-0 win in the home leg with four goals from North Macedonian international, Besart Ibraimi, but the Saints fought back in the second leg with Ben Cabango amongst the scorers in a 4-0 win at Park Hall, but TNS fell short by one goal.
The team from Tetovo, which is 30 miles west of the capital, Skopje, have reached the Europa League play-off on three separate occasions but have never made it into the group stages.
Last year, Shkëndija saw off Ararat Yerevean of Armenia and Valmiera of Latvia, before losing on penalties against AIK of Sweden in the Europa Conference League third qualifying round.
Haverfordwest County will play the first leg at the international stadium Toše Proeski Arena where Aaron Ramsey scored from the spot in Wales’ 2-1 defeat to North Macedonia ten years ago.
It will surely be a difficult challenge for Haverfordwest County, who have seen their top scorer Jordan Davies, and four of their strongest midfielders leave the club over the summer (Jamie Veale, Henry Jones, Corey Shephard, Ioan Evans).
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.
Haverfordwest County will return to the capital this summer as the second leg will be held at the Cardiff City Stadium on Thursday, 20 July, and the winners will go on to face either B36 Tórshavn (Faroe Islands) or Paide Linnameeskond (Estonia) in the Europa Conference League second qualifying round.