Take a mid-week stroll through any UK town and you’ll likely come into contact with a unique breed of university student. They move as one, weekly fancy dress distinguishing them from the rest, inebriation setting in as they freely fire off a repertoire of chants aimed at local rivals.
This is the world of university football, where the social secretary rules, Wednesday afternoons are sacred and you’re on the booze, whether you win or lose. Or is it?
In May, Cardiff Metropolitan University made international news as they became the first student side to qualify for the Europa League. This is the story of that run, told by the people who experienced it and detailing the disappointment that inspired success, a closely contested two-legged tie against top-seeded opposition and the long-term impact that qualification will have. Though ultimately international in scope, the story starts closer to home – in Bangor, on a warm summer’s evening in May 2017.
“We had a very painful experience the previous two years,” says Christian Edwards, manager of Cardiff Met FC. “In our first year in the Welsh Premier League we made it to the final but came up short against a strong Bangor side. The next year we found ourselves in the same position and felt we had enough to beat Cefn Druids, but came up just short again. It was very tough to take.”
In adversity comes the opportunity for education and Will Fuller, Met’s first-choice goalkeeper, claims the failings of the previous seasons provided a platform on which the squad could learn and build: “I think the experience we’d had of losing the two finals and the way the group had matured over those two years helped. We were all a year older and wiser.”
Aiding this new-found experience was the close-knit student community from which the team had formed. The student union served as an inner sanctum – a place to unwind and relax together off the pitch, with bonds forming as a result. “We’ve got an incredible togetherness as a result of the way we’re set up as a club. We spend all hours of the day together, studying, spending time in the SU and most of us live together, so in the tough parts of games and the season, that gives us an edge I think,” adds Fuller.
So it came to the 2019 playoff final against Bala Town. Would it prove to be third time lucky or another nearly moment?
Under the radar and out of sight of most European fans, this was the wild west of European qualification. For Edwards and his staff, who’d needed a rallying word from their head coach to rouse themselves back for one more rodeo after consecutive years of disappointment, it was also last chance saloon. Fitting, then, that it should all come down to a shoot-out.
Step forward Eliot Evans, Cardiff Met’s top scorer and final penalty taker. “I remember the keeper was trying to play some mind games before I took it but I can’t remember what he was saying. I started my run-up and he went early to his left, which made my mind up. We had a group of fans and injured players on one side of the goal, so I ran towards them after the ball went in and jumped into the crowd, waiting for the inevitable charge from my team-mates. That 20 or 30 seconds of celebration after the penalty was one of my best moments in football. I wish I could bottle up that feeling. It was unbelievable.”
Cue pandemonium. In the weeks that followed, Cardiff Met’s story gripped the football community, with Evans’ decisive strike viewed 1.3 million times on Twitter and media attention from across Europe, the reputation of university sport elevated with every interview. “I expected attention from local and national press, but certainly not global coverage,” reveals Edwards. “For about three weeks I did constant interviews with papers, even from Italy, Germany and Russia. We’d worked so hard and it was incredible the level of scope and status the story received. We opened a new market for Cardiff Met and university sport in general. We really bridged levels.”
The team were propelled into the spotlight, but there remained serious work to do in the shadows. A qualifying tie against Luxembourg’s Progres Niederkorn, the draw’s top seeds, awaited. “The celebrations were big but short-lived as we were back in not long after for prep,” recalls striker Jordan Lam. “Having said that, even when we came in to train again, it still felt like a celebration as the mood in the camp was sky high”.
As the first game dawned, there remained a critical question: how do you navigate a European tie against the round’s favourites and live to fight another day? Christian Edwards was determined to find the answer. “I’m not naive to think we could adopt a similar approach as in the WPL. Europe is a different kettle of fish. We couldn’t go gung-ho. We had to be defensive. Our reputation has been built on our ability to keep clean sheets, so that’s exactly what we set out to do.”
But some things can’t be planned for. In the lead-up to the first leg, Progres underwent an unexpected yet extensive transformation, sacking their manager and ten senior players. To cap it all off, on the eve of the game they also lost their best player, ruling a lot of Cardiff’s work worthless.
Edwards credits his coaching team and their deep research for ensuring they still went into the tie prepared: “We had an understanding of the new manager, his philosophy and we knew what to expect. We knew they’d play in a similar style to The New Saints, the 2018/2019 WPL champions. The whole group, staff and players, were excellent. We were so nearly, nearly there.”
Eliot Evans picks up the story: “We knew they had a decent history in Europe with quite a few international players playing for them. We respected them but always felt that we could cause them problems. The coaching staff did their homework so there weren’t many surprises. What we were less prepared for was the weather. It was ridiculously hot in Luxembourg as Europe went through a heatwave that week.”
“The tie itself was a proper football experience that not many can say they’ve had. The first leg was a very tactical battle with Progres having a lot of the ball, trying to work openings and us looking to cancel them out. When we went 1-0 down, we didn’t change the game plan. We weren’t unhappy with a 1-0 defeat although, ironically, the away goal did us in the end.” So the squad headed back to Cardiff, a goal down but with heads and hopes held high.
Such is Cardiff Met’s achievement that Bradley Woodridge is the only person who can say he’s captained his university in a European game. “It was phenomenal. It was such a proud moment for me personally, especially the home leg and walking out in front of so many friends and family. We just wanted to keep things as normal as possible. Obviously playing in the Europa League is a big thing for us all, but we didn’t want the occasion to override the performance as we felt that if we performed well, we’d have a chance of winning the tie. So no inspirational speeches from me basically!”
The return leg got off to the perfect start, Lam giving Met the lead just two minutes into the game. Things got even better in the 67th minute as Dylan Rees converted a penalty to put Met ahead for the first time in the tie. The team started to dream. “With 20 minutes to go and 2-1 up in the tie, I’ll be honest, I thought it was our day,” reveals Evans. Then, disaster. Progres took possession in the Met half and put a neat passing move together, pulling a goal back and wrestling the advantage back in their favour.
Still, Met refused to give up, fully-backed by the home crowd. “The atmosphere in the last ten minutes was top class with the crowd willing us to get the goal to send us through. But for two excellent saves from their keeper, we would have done,” recalls Evans.
Unable to find a lifeline, Met bowed out. Progres, with a rumoured annual budget of £2.5m, would go on to beat Cork City in the next round before ending their run with a narrow loss to Rangers.
All things considered, how do the players look back on the tie? “Immediately after, it was obviously disappointing,” says Fuller. “We were a goal away from a fairytale, knocking out the top seeds. We knew the sorts of teams we’d be drawn against if we had gone through so it was gutting not to get a chance. Once that feeling had gone, I think we were all proud of ourselves. We’d never celebrate a defeat, but when you look at the difference in teams, their experience and budgets, I think we’ve got every right to be proud.”
Goalscorer Lam, meanwhile, takes a similarly bittersweet perspective. “After the game I was as ecstatic as I was distraught. It was amazing to score my first European goal, but to go out on away goals was tough to take. It was a special occasion for the club and we all recognised how far we’d come. We’ve got a taste for it now, we all know what’s possible and will work as hard as we can to hopefully be in the same boat next summer.”
Edwards echoes his players’ words. “They’ve made the shirts heavy. It’s a WPL and Europa League shirt now. They’ve set a new standard. When I took over ten years ago, the club was in a bad way. I had a vision and understanding of the way I wanted to push it and I think this was the culmination of those efforts. There’s definitely a legacy for myself and the players”.
And what of the financial reward – a reported £193,000 – that European qualification promises? “I’m not interested in money,” counters Edwards, “When we got to the Europa, all the attention was focused on the money we’d receive and not about the players and what they’d accomplished. Make no mistake, it’ll be spent wisely. It’ll go towards retaining students, to recruiting new ones and to helping them with their education. It won’t be given to students to use recreationally, that’s not the way we operate.”
And just like that, it was over. Eight months after the season had started, there was finally a chance to rest – a time to regroup and recharge. Or was there? “The first session of pre-season started 11 days after the second leg”, says Edwards. “All the players, even those who played in the game, were back in for that session.”
Not long after it was time to go again, Met’s 2019/20 season opening with a 1-1 draw against Connah’s Quay Nomads. The journey back to the Europa League was underway.
By Pat McColgan @patmccolgan