Saturday 17th June 2017 ko 14.00
BALA TOWN 1 (Connolly 72)
LINFIELD 3 (Waterworth 22 Burns 39p C Stewart 86)
Bala Lake Steam Railway
return ticket from Llanuwchllyn to Bala £11
If there was one thought that I took home from the Swedish Hop it was the idea of adding value. Event organiser Kim Hedwall managed to do that with every single game we attended and that principle certainly influenced my approach to this game. It was a confluence of ideas, my girlfriend Robyn fancied a trip to a steam railway, and needless to say I fancied a football match! I looked at Bala, remembered my visit around 10 years previously, and quickly put “Steam railways Bala” into Google.
The Bala Lake Railway runs on a 4.5 mile section of the old Ruarbon to Barmouth line that was closed to passengers in 1965 under the Beeching Axe. The track was lifted 4 years later, which may have steered the new tourist line to be relaid at 2 ft narrow-gauge. In terms of getting to football by steam there were and are a couple of minor issues.
The first was that the obvious place to park up and start our journey was the “Other” end of the line at Llanuwchllyn, but all roads seem to lead to Bala! It was a little disconcerting, actually driving past Bala Penybont station, in effect then driving 4.5 miles away from our destination! The other issue to ponder was to remember this isn’t a normal rail service so it wasn’t a given that the kick off and final whistle times at Maes Tegid would allow us to get to and from the game, particular as the Bala terminus is on Penybont, about a mile from Bala town centre; the railway is trying to extend the line into town.
As it transpired I misread the timetable for the outbound journey- we got to Llanuwychllyn an hour early! That gave us the chance to have lunch in the excellent station cafe, and after the game many thanks to hopper John Main for the lift back to the station! It allowed us a quite wonderful trip beside Lake Tegid, and the views across to the foothills of Snowdonia are spectacular. My only surprise was that we were the only hoppers to try it!
We walked through Bala, and the tranquility worried me. I remember another pre-season friendly involving Linfield, at TNS in Llansantffraid in 2005, and the Northern Irish fans were friendly, drank a quite stupendous amount of beer, and produced a lively atmosphere! We turned the corner, and there was central Bala temporarily turned into a mini Belfast! Clearly the current Northern Irish champions’ fans hadn’t lost their touch!
Maes Tegid has changed a lot in the years. The most obvious is the new 3G pitch, but the ground has gone from a basic small town facility to a modern community stadium capable of staging European football, complete with the pale blue seats sourced from Coventry City‘s former home Highfield Road.
The club were surprised by the level of interest the tie got. The programme sold out, then sold out again, and so did the snack bar! There was a team sheet, then there wasn’t and then there was, but none of it really mattered. Everyone watching enjoyed themselves, and I trust the game was a good money-spinner for the Welshmen.
Of course European football is the reason for the earliest of pre-season friendlies. Bala won the Welsh Cup, rather surprisingly beating The New Saints in the final, and play in the Europa League qualifiers, while Linfield as IFA champions go into the Champions League qualifiers. The fact that the two countries’ league co-efficients are fairly similar (Wales are 50th best, Northern Ireland 47th) means you do see plenty of friendlies between Welsh and Northern Irish teams in June!
Ultimately the difference between the two sides was the two European competitions the sides are entering. You’d expect the side entering the Champions League to be stronger and that’s how is worked out here. The eye-catching player on show was Linfield keeper Roy Carroll, formerly of Manchester United, West Ham United, and Olympiacos. He’s overcome personal problems and was clearing enjoying his football marshalling the visitors’ defence and it seemed no cooincidence that Bala’s goal came when he’d departed the scene.
It was a good tie both to watch and I suspect to play in too. First pre-season friendlies tend to be more about fitness than tactics so tend to be dull. At the end, I regarded my time at Maes Tegid as being way above expectations, and there was the bonus of the train ride home!