Thanks to the Irn-Bru Cup it all came to pass at Station Park yesterday and whatever the consensus is about the new format of this competition – which has seen four Northern Irish and Welsh teams join the last 16 stage – it certainly added an air of intrigue to this meeting between League Two Forfar and the current Premier League champions of Wales, The New Saints, who happen to play their home games in Oswestry, Shropshire.
A coachload of fans of the club, which goes by the not inconsiderable full name mouthful of The New Saints of Llanstanffraid & Oswestry, made the 350-mile trip to the heart of Angus to witness this little piece of football history in the making.
As Welsh champions on no less than ten occasions, including the last five seasons on the trot, they’ve become accustomed to some long treks in the qualifying rounds of European competitions, including the Faroe Islands and Bulgaria, as well as glamour ties against Manchester City and Liverpool.
Basking in sunshine, and with friendly locals and bridies aplenty, they’ve probably not come across many more hospitable places than Forfar on their travels.
The cordiality only extended so far however – on the field Gary Bollan’s side gave a decent account of themselves after enduring a sticky start.
After looking like they might be swept aside in the opening half hour as the visitors sprayed the ball around with a confidence that might be expected of a side that have won all ten of their opening league games, the Loons recovered from going a goal behind to a Greg Draper strike to level matters through Stuart Malcolm’s towering header.
It fairly punctured the visitors’ belief for a long spell and for much of the second half they were on the back foot as Forfar boldly went in search of another.
They came agonisingly close too as Jim Lister’s close-range effort was deflected over the bar and from the resulting corner a Danny Denholm shot was parried away at full stretch by TNS goalkeeper Paul Harrison. Martyn Fotheringham then sent a free-kick curling just wide of the upright before tiredness, full-time opponents and, most importantly of all, Draper, combined to take their toll.
A full New Zealand international who is in a rich vein of form, with nine goals in eight games going into this match, Draper was a class apart and two composed finishes in the 80th and 87th minutes ensured that the Welsh side would take their place in the quarter-finals.
The final scoreline was harsh on the hosts, but they could take a lot from their spirited performance.
“We were in the game for 80 minutes,” insisted Bollan. “In the second half we created a few chances ourselves that we maybe should have scored from. But we’re playing against a side that are champions of Wales year in, year out and I think we put in a real good show against them today.”
Asked if he enjoyed the novelty of playing new opposition, Bollan was affirmative: “A lot of these guys haven’t played against a side from outside Scotland, so hopefully it’s a good experience for them and they will have learnt from it.”
TNS manager Craig Harrison praised his opponents. “They put our centre halves under pressure and played 4-4-2 – in all fairness there’s not many in our league do that, but I never felt under huge threat,” he said.
“We’re very excited to represent Wales and I think for spells we gave a good account of ourselves, but it was a tough place to come and I knew they would be a physical side to play against.”