A trip to San Marino beckons for Colin Caton’s Bala Town as they head into the Europa League once again to fly the flag for Wales and The JD Welsh Premier League. WPL.Cymru caught up with the Maes Tegid boss this week ahead of the first leg in San Marino on Thursday. Read on to find his thoughts on the challenges that lay ahead.
“I think if we made the kind of progress we want to make for Europe, it would be our biggest achievement during my time at the club, perhaps topping the JD Welsh Cup Final win against TNS.
“The difference is that it isn’t simply Bala Town flying our flag in Wales, but in games like this we’re Bala Town flying the Welsh flag in Europe, so if we were to progress then it would be absolutely fantastic for everyone involved and without a doubt one of the biggest things I’d have ever done in football.
“It has frustrated me massively over recent years – and angered me a little bit – that we haven’t progressed as much as we’d have liked in these situations previously, but sometimes in football you just don’t get your rewards. I’m really hoping that this time will be different! Everyone will be 100% focussed, we’ll do everything we can to progress, so let’s see what happens.”
’We’re ready for what lays ahead of us.’
On the eve of an occasion as unique as a European tie, it is always well worth reflecting on the journey our fantastic WPL representatives have been on in their quest to compete at this level, particularly in the case of The Lakesiders, who’s adventures have comprised a fantastic story over the last decade.
When Caton took the reins at Maes Tegid, the club put in place a plan to reach the JDWPL within ten years, and they did it in just over half the time, having since gone on to regularly compete at European level, which some may take for granted, but the Bala Town story is a very special one.
”We never ever dreamt of being a European side on a regular basis in The JD Welsh Premier League. It was never part of the plan, never something we envisaged, so it is amazing for us to have done what we’ve done.
“We had a 10-year plan to take ourselves to the top flight but we accomplished that in six, so for us to do that and challenge for European spots in five of the last six seasons, we just have to keep pinching ourselves really because it has been incredible.
“We’re established now, we haven’t got through over two legs over the last four games, so this year it is very important that we make that progress, to keep our coefficiency, to make sure that Wales has as many slots as possible for our sides to compete at this level. We’ve been a bit unlucky to play such high calibre teams, but we’re ready for what lays ahead of us and we’ll do everything we can to progress in the competition.”
’We have to plan for San Marino and make sure we do the best possible job.’
With a new format for the qualification rounds this year, much has been made of how big a benefit the changes will be for clubs in the early stages of the competition.
Over the last few days Bala have learnt what their fate would be if they were to successfully navigate their way past San Marino’s Tre Fiori in the Preliminary Round, with their First and Second Qualifying Round opponents outlined also. Does this prove a motivation for Caton’s side or a distraction of sorts?
“The restructure does help in many ways, but still we could play a team like AIK or one of the Scandinavian sides in the early rounds who are already midway through their domestic season, so that is really difficult for us, without a doubt, but we’ve been lucky in drawing Tre Fiori that they play a similar season to us.
“We’ve had a lot of information about the opposition from The FAW Trust, which is great for us. The format seems a lot better on paper, but it is difficult to judge, it is difficult to say how much more of a benefit it will be to us.
“It has been a bit distracting finding out who we could play two or three rounds in advance, because it is totally irrelevant if we don’t win against our present opposition – that’s all we can focus on, we have to plan for San Marino, make sure we do the best possible job, and see how that goes for us.”
’Signing someone like Andy Mangan shows how far we’ve come.’
A regeneration of the squad of sorts has been undertaken at Maes Tegid in recent weeks, with some half-a-dozen players leaving the club and a handful more coming in to replace them, but one signing in particular has really turned a few heads and Caton elaborated on the changes he has made to his squad this summer.
“I felt we needed to be better than we were last season, a lot better really, so that’s what has led to the changes we’ve made. A few players have left which, we couldn’t do anything about, and we’ve released a few as well, but it is time to freshen it up and bring new blood in.
“The atmosphere in training and the work-rate in training is the best that it has been for a long, long time, so the changes have certainly had a very positive effect and it’s exciting to see what could be achieved with this group.
“Signing someone like Andy Mangan shows how far we’ve come – we didn’t think there’d be much of a chance of him signing for us initially, but once Andy decided to go part-time, he knows Steve Fisher well, spoke to us as a club and decided to come on board. He’s going to add a lot to the club on and off the field, he’s a top-class player and he’ll do very well for us and hopefully attract even more high calibre players to the JD Welsh Premier League.”