The New Saints
Park Hall Stadium
If you were to mention the name ‘The New Saints’ to most football fans, then you’d probably only receive blank looks in return, but mention TNS or Total Network Solutions and the moniker is well known throughout the game. The club have a long and somewhat controversial history that could have any one of four dates given as its starting point. The TNS name first came about in 1996 when Llansantffraid FC agreed a sponsorship deal to add the local computer company’s name to their title, before controversially dropping the village name completely one year later. The Welsh side could trace their history back to 1959, yet despite coming from a small village with just over 1000 residents, their success in the 1990s was impressive, reaching European competition the same year as their name change, having won the Welsh Cup after beating Barry Town on penalties. Despite a disappointing loss to Polish side Ruch Chorzow, they were back in Europe again in 2003, and this time with a much more lucrative tie against Premier League side Manchester City, but the summer had been far more notable for more controversy which had seen UEFA getting involved after the merger with English side Oswestry Town. Dating back to 1860, Oswestry were one of the oldest teams in the world, and despite being English, had been a founding member of the Welsh FA, and playing in Wales since the mid 90s. It was this that finally bought UEFA around to agreeing to the merger having initially blocked it due to the two teams being from separate countries. They kicked off life against City, but a 5-0 first leg defeat was followed up with a 2-0 loss at the Millennium Stadium. The picture ahead though was more rosy, winning three successive league titles between 2005 and 2007 and setting up another big European tie against English opposition in 2005 when they met Liverpool in the Champions League. Again, to no great surprise, they were defeated in both legs, but their spirited performance drew praise and led to their first victory in Europe two years later against Latvian side FK Ventspils, who they defeated 3-2 at Newtown, before going out on goal difference after losing the second leg 2-1. In between the games against Liverpool and Ventspils, the sponsorship deal with Total Network Solutions had lapsed, and with the company having been bought out by BT, then the club were faced with the situation of what to do regarding their name. Various suggestions were put forward, before they opted for the rather wordy title of ‘The New Saints of Oswestry Town and Llansantffraid FC’, retaining the shortened version of TNS!
When the two clubs merged, Oswestry abandoned their council owned Park Hall Athletics Stadium to move across the border to the Recreation Ground, the home of Llansantffraid, but it was always going to be a short term move, with Park Hall being developed into ‘The Venue’ at a cost of £3m, before the team moved back there in 2007. During its redevelopment, the athletics track had been removed, and a new leisure centre built, albeit far more than just a leisure centre, with a bowling alley, sauna, spa pool and plenty of kids activities included as well. On the football side a new plastic pitch had been laid, and it was this that led to me finding myself here to start the new year following wide spread postponements that had left this as one of the few games on in the entire country.
My original plans had been to go to the local derby between Bedworth and Atherstone, but that was called off early on, so Plan B was put into action. Situated on the border, Oswestry hasn’t had its own railway station since 1966 thanks to Dr Beeching, back then even Park Hall had its own Halt stop, little more than five minutes walk from the ground, but nowadays the nearest station is Gobowen some two miles away. The journey there was relatively simple, services direct from Wolverhampton taking just over an hour, so even with waiting for news on Bedworth being called off, then I still managed to arrive in good time, albeit having had to set off before TNS had confirmed the game being on. Thankfully a call to them on the way relieved the worry, and after arriving in the Shropshire border town, then I found the warmth of the Cross Foxes Inn adjacent to the station, before walking down to the ground.
Park Hall itself is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, albeit probably less so if coming from the Oswestry direction, but after passing an oddly located hospital which appears from nowhere whilst walking down a country lane, then the ground is situated in a small dip of land after walking through the car park. From both outside and in, ‘The Venue’ building dominates, more so once having gone through the turnstiles, with this side of the building far taller than next to the car park thanks to the land falling away. There is no clubhouse as such, but after entering the bar then it’s surprising to see the building so busy with non-football goers, stewards having to stamp peoples hands to go in and out with ‘The Venue’ being free to enter from the other side. In front of the building lies all the seating at the ground, all of it temporary. Two small, uncovered blocks stand either side of the players tunnel, whilst a third block, seven rows high sits in the far corner with a canopy cover that is similar to that at Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Ground. The other three sides are hard standing, or rather a more accurate description would be, wet, slippery standing with only the pitch cleared of snow! Finally, a balcony on the side of the building provides an elevated view for directors and other such dignitaries.
With so many games called off, then as soon as entering, it was obvious that this game had attracted a number of groundhoppers, most of the crowd seeming to be made up of those looking to add another tick, or for many, just see some football even at a ground previously visited. The game started well enough for the home side, Craig Williams putting them into the lead on 7 minutes when he cut inside to hit the ball straight into the top corner. Welshpool didn’t really have much reply, and the hosts really should have increased their lead, with several chances to do so before the break, but they looked to have done so in the 51st minute when Williams beat the offside trap to find himself free, tapping the ball past the goalkeeper only to see it hit the inside of the post and roll agonisingly back across the line. Almost jinxed, he did it again two minutes later, but the result was never in doubt thanks to substitute Alex Darlington, who made it 2-0 in the 69th minute before completing a dominating display by adding another two to take the match ball home with him and send TNS back to the top of the table.
The game had seen a lot of good skill from the hosts, and it was interesting to see a 3G pitch in use, albeit I’m not sure I quite liked it. It felt like a bowl ground, all too perfect with nothing to interest, like a bobble, or notable slope, or patch of mud in the goal area, not that I’m particularly a fan of patches of mud I’ll add, but it just felt a little false, but of course then you have to note that with a normal grass pitch, the game almost certainly wouldn’t have gone ahead, so swings and roundabouts.Anyway, after leaving I made my way back and just caught the train, getting home with no issues, glad to have got to see a game on a bitterly cold day. The ground itself is nothing to really shout about, all very much ‘ticks the boxes’, however the club do have plans to build a 3000 seat stand so that it meets UEFA standards for hosting European football. That their average attendance is barely over 10% of that mark doesn’t seem to mean anything in the crazy world of ground grading requirements. Incidentally, it’s worth noting the irony that in going to a Welsh Premier League game, I never once left England!
All material copyright © T.S. Rigby, 2010