Opinion: The New Saints have cracked the league, but must break into Europe
In the aftermath of their sixth consecutive title win, it is safe to say Oswestry based The New Saints have cracked the Dafabet Welsh Premier League.
And although the Champions have this season even broken a world record to become arguably the greatest Welsh team of all time, they face becoming a victim of their own success.
For all they have achieved, fans are quick to criticise the club’s dominance, and accuse the Welsh Premier of being stagnant and boring. If TNS continue to boss the league, they face further vilification however justified, or unjustified it may be.
No one can deny their success is deserved, but if The New Saints want to stay relevant and respected, their next step is obvious: reach the group stages of an European competition.
No Welsh football club has ever made the groups of either the Champions League or Europa League since the Welsh Premier’s creation, but the The New Saints are the league’s best hope of becoming the first team to enter at that prestigious stage.
The thought of a Welsh Premier club playing competitive football against the likes of Barcelona, Juventus and Benfica seems impossible, but Dundalk’s achievements in the Europa League this season show it is possible for a minor league side to reach the big stage.
The Irish League club entered the Champions League in the second qualifying round, and went beyond expectations to reach the final play off round before the group stages, where they were beaten by Polish giants Legia Warsaw.
However, losing the Champions League play off round currently means entry into the Europa League group stage – and with this TNS’ chances of group stage football are boosted.
If The New Saints can battle to the play off round, they face the win-win situation of guaranteed group stage football. But are they strong enough to get there?
TNS haven’t seen much success in Europe recently, failing to surpass the second qualifying round since 2010/11. Their performances in this year’s Irn Bru Cup boosted hopes they could even win the competition against technically European opposition, but they were ultimately undone by St Mirren in the semi finals losing 4-1.
If the group stages are TNS’ goal, their campaign to achieve it must start now. The only truly competitive games they have to play are in the JD Welsh Cup where they are in the semi finals and looking to defend their title to box off a triple treble.
Aside from their treble ambition, the club will surely look to start laying the foundations for a European adventure of huge proportions.
That is of course, easier said than done. Along with readying their current squad, attracting players is a challenge as they compete with English Football League opposition for recruitment.
A hard truth is that it took TNS around ten years of hard work and dedication to dominate Welsh football, and it may take a similar amount of time for the club to become strong enough to reach the group stages.
It’s almost certain that the Saints will continue to dominate Wales, but with every title lift should come another big push towards the glitz and glamour of an European group stage.
Photo Credit: Brian Jones