European nights await for JD Cymru Premier quartet

This season’s JD Cymru Premier European representatives get their campaigns on the continent under way in the First Qualifying Rounds of the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Conference League this week. 

The New Saints emphatically secured a record-extending 16th JD Cymru Premier title last season and their Champions League journey kicks off on Tuesday night against Montenegrin side FK Dečić at Park Hall. 

Saints have been busy in the transfer window so far, adding the JD Cymru Premier’s 2023/24 Player of the Season Sion Bradley to their ranks from Caernarfon Town. Other signings include Jack Bodenham and Harrison McGahey, who both have experience in the English Football League. 

Craig Harrison’s side were victorious in friendlies against Gresford Athletic, 1874 Northwich and Caernarfon Town before heading to Ireland and Northern Ireland to face Bohemians, Ballyclare Comrades and Cliftonville in the space of three days. 

With arguably one of their strongest squads ever, a victory in the First Qualifying Round is certainly a possibility for Saints as they look to avenge last season’s frustrating European losses to BK Häcken and Swift Hesperange. 

Standing in Saints’ way are FK Dečić, who are making their UEFA Champions League debut after winning the Montenegrin top-flight for the first time ever in May. They are yet to win a tie in Europe after first qualifying round defeats in the UEFA Europa Conference League in 2021 and 2022.

The key man to watch out for in Milorad Peković’s side is Serbian Bojan Matic, who scored nine goals in 14 appearances last season.

The only Welsh team flying abroad for their first leg in Europe will be JD Welsh Cup holders Connah’s Quay Nomads, who travel to Slovenia to face NK Bravo at the ZSB Ljubljana Stadium on Thursday night. 

This will be The Nomads’ third UEFA Conference League campaign, and they will be eager to avenge their 2021 and 2023 heartbreak by progressing in the competition for the first time. 

The Nomads recently said goodbye to two of last season’s standout performers Andy Firth and Josh Williams, but manager Neil Gibson has found perfect replacements in former Cymru U21 international George Ratcliffe and experienced midfielder Ben Maher.

Chris Marriott, the most decorated player in JD Cymru Premier history, has also put pen to paper for The Nomads after his departure from TNS, while their attacking ranks have been boosted by the returning Anderson Pinto and former Haverfordwest County striker Elliot Dugan. 

It has been a goal-heavy pre-season for Gibson’s side so far, as they have lost 3-2 to fellow European participants Caernarfon Town and won 4-3 against Flint Mountain.

NK Bravo finished fourth in the Slovenian PrvaLiga last season and were awarded a place in the Conference League after cup winners NK Rogaška were rejected for a UEFA licence.

This will be their European debut in any competition, but recent form suggests that Bravo will be a tricky opponent. They are unbeaten in all competitions since April and have picked up pre-season victories over FC Spartak Trnava and more notably, FK Partizan, who the Nomads lost out to in the 2019-20 Europa League.  

Bravo’s young and talented side features striker Matej Poplatnik, who made his debut for the Slovenian national team in a friendly against USA back in January. Defender Matija Kavčič also sparkled for Bravo last season, grabbing the joint most assists in the league.

Bala Town make their return to Europe as they host Estonian outlet Paide Linnameeskond at Park Hall in the Conference League first qualifying round first leg on Thursday night.

Familiar faces Louis Robles and Lassana Mendes have returned to Maes Tegid this summer, with full-back Alex Downes joining from Colwyn Bay and goalkeeper Joel Torrance joining from EFL League Two side Salford City. 

In pre-season, the Lakesides have tested themselves against Pwllheli and Northern Irish side Larne, who they were beaten by in the 2021-22 Europa Conference League first qualifying round. 

Bala have only ever progressed once in European competition – a 1-0 win over Valletta in the 2020-21 Europa League first qualifying round. Their other seven campaigns have seen them bow out at the first hurdle, so Colin Caton’s men will be keen to improve that record.

Paide Linnameeskond, who are currently in the middle of their Premium Liiga season in Estonia, have participated in the UEFA Conference League qualifying rounds in every season since the competition’s formation in 2021. 

Their best run in the competition came in the summer of 2022 as they reached the third qualifying round before being outclassed by Belgian giants Anderlecht. 

Experienced striker Henrik Ojamaa has 63 caps for the Estonian national team and his attacking teammate Thomas Agyepong spent seven years at Manchester City but did not make an appearance.

Caernarfon Town were the final JD Cymru Premier club to book their place in Europe after defeating Penybont in the play-off final.

The Cofis will play their first ever match in Europe as they host Northern Irish side Crusaders at a sold out Nantporth Stadium on Thursday evening in the Europa Conference League first qualifying round first leg.

Richard Davies’ side have already faced Northern Irish opposition in pre-season as they visited Cliftonville at the end of June, while they have also tested themselves against last season’s JD Cymru Premier top two The New Saints and Connah’s Quay Nomads.

Sion Bradley’s departure is undoubtedly a blow for the Cofis, but their squad has been bolstered by the arrivals of Matty Hill, Ryan Sears, Matty Jones, Paulo Mendes, Sam Downey and Stephen McMillan. 

Like Caernarfon, Crusaders also qualified for the Europa Conference League through the play-offs as a stoppage time winner from club legend Jordan Owens secured a 3-2 win over Coleraine.

This will be Crusaders’ third consecutive season in the Europa Conference League and they have progressed to the second qualifying round in their last two campaigns.

Manager Stephen Baxter left his position at the end of last season following 19 years in the dugout, with the club’s former midfielder Declan Caddell now in charge. Veteran midfielder Robbie Weir has nearly 300 English Football League appearances to his name, while Scotland U19 international Kieran Offord has signed on loan from St Mirren this summer.

JD Cymru Premier clubs’ European fixtures in full:

  • The New Saints vs FK Dečić (Tuesday 9 July, 7pm BST) – UEFA Champions League first qualifying round first leg
  • NK Bravo vs Connah’s Quay Nomads (Thursday 11 July, 5pm BST) – UEFA Conference League first qualifying round first leg
  • Caernarfon Town vs Crusaders (Thursday, 11 July, 6:30pm BST) – UEFA Conference League first qualifying round first leg
  • Bala Town vs Paide Linnameeskond (Thursday 11 July, 7pm BST) – UEFA Conference League first qualifying round first leg
  • FK Dečić vs The New Saints (Tuesday 16 July, 8pm BST) – UEFA Champions League first qualifying round second leg
  • Paide Linnameeskond vs Bala Town (Thursday 18 July, 5:30pm BST) – UEFA Conference League first qualifying round second leg
  • Connah’s Quay Nomads vs NK Bravo (Thursday 18 July, 6:30pm BST) – UEFA Conference League first qualifying round second leg
  • Crusaders vs Caernarfon Town (Thursday 18 July, 7:45pm BST) – UEFA Europa Conference League first qualifying round second leg

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