Sport

UEFA Europa League: Barry back for good

Source: Rhys Skinner

by Olly Allen 

Between 1996 and 2003, Barry Town dominated Welsh domestic football as they won seven out of a possible eight Welsh Premier League titles and enjoyed European ties against teams such as Aberdeen, Dynamo Kiev and Porto – memorably defeating the latter 3-1 at home ground Jenner Park.

However, over the following decade behind-the-scenes problems plagued the football club; from John Fashanu’s short-lived stint as chairman to a failed plan to appoint John Hartson as Director of Football, with administration battles in between.

In 2013, with his relationship with supporters already non-existent, then-owner Stuart Lovering withdrew Barry Town from the Welsh league system and the FAW council ruled that they would have to play “recreational football”. This decision would be overturned a few weeks later, but the new Barry Town ‘United’, controlled completely by fans, began the next campaign in the fourth tier.

Under the guidance of manager Gavin Chesterfield, the club has enjoyed a truly remarkable rise in the last few years as three promotions in four seasons saw them return to the top-flight in 2017, before a third-place finish last season earned a historic return to European competition for the first time in 16 years.

The Europa League draw on June 11 pitted Barry against Northern Irish side Cliftonville – logistically the easiest fixture when trips to Kosovo and the Faroe Islands were in the pipeline.

Working on the media side of things at the club, that’s when the excitement really kicked in for me as planning began for the two-legged tie. For the next two weeks, it was difficult to think about anything else – my role as a part-time Media Assistant had transformed into a European venture.

The games themselves actually came and went very quickly, such is the hectic nature of the early stages of the Europa League – we flew out to Belfast just five days after the first leg at home had ended 0-0. Ultimately though it wasn’t to be in the second leg as Cliftonville ran out 4-0 winners in front of their own fans. They were comfortably the better side and fully deserving of victory, but that made the scoreline no less gutting to take.

That disappointment was shared by everyone, but overriding that was an immense sense of pride in the team – after all, the Europa League is certainly beyond where Barry Town United was ‘meant’ to be at this stage of their resurgence. Despite the result, I personally loved every second of the experience. There were so many moments where I had to stop for a few seconds and take it all in.

From packing out a makeshift home ground at Leckwith (the Jenner Park pitch failed a UEFA inspection) to doing the conga with a stuffed fox in Belfast, the supporters were excellent. The buzz of being around a group of players preparing for the biggest game of their careers was fascinating. Sitting in a UEFA meeting was surreal. Overall, it was just a special occasion which I felt privileged to play a small part in. If that was the way I felt after six months at Barry, then I can only imagine the emotions of those who have been involved for years and who have seen the club at its very lowest.

I have nothing but admiration for Gavin and the work he has done as manager, as well as his wife Hannah who works tirelessly behind the scenes. I also can’t speak highly enough of club secretary David Cole, whose relentless organisation made everything possible. Working closely alongside all three in preparation for the tie, it was clear how special and rewarding this experience was for them. There are so many others too, for whom it clearly meant so much, as well as the fans who didn’t even think they would have a club to support six years ago.

The outcome may have been disappointing, but the experience only made everyone desperate for more European adventures and the club will no doubt have ambitions to qualify again next season.

There will be no lengthy absence this time.

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