The beautiful Estonian capital of Tallinn will welcome representatives from Bala Town FC this week. A decade ago such a visit would have involved nothing more than sight-seeing and other tourist obligations, but now Bala Town arrive on serious business.
The Welsh Premier League side are looking to build on their remarkable 1-0 UEFA Europa League first qualifying round victory over FC Levadia Tallinn in last week's first leg. Striker Ian Sheridan scored the only goal at Rhyl inside four minutes, and at the final whistle his close-range strike became part of club folklore.
"Qualifying for Europe was the aim last season, but we are not just here to make up the numbers," team captain Mark Jones told UEFA.com ahead of Thursday's second leg. "We're not going to Estonia for a holiday, we want to do well and show that the Welsh Premier is a serious league with some very good teams and some very good players. We did fantastically well to get the result and our tactics were spot on. It will be a different challenge there, but we have experienced ex-professionals and their contribution will be crucial in supporting our talented young players in an unfamiliar atmosphere."
Jones, 28, joined the club in 2010 after falling out of love with the professional game. A goalscoring midfielder, he made his name in English league football with home-town side Wrexham FC and was rewarded with two senior Wales caps. But despite those accomplishments, Jones cannot speak highly enough about his current team. "Bala Town is a great club and I am enjoying the game again. Without doubt, these last three years with the club have been the most enjoyable of my career."
For Bala, a town with a population of just 2,000, whose football club were competing in the local Wrexham leagues ten years ago, European qualification – via seventh place and the end-of-term play-offs – was an incredible achievement. Yet the fairy tale may not be over yet. For chief executive Nigel Aykroyd, at the helm for 15 years and a former Town player, there is a clear catalyst to Bala's rise. "Ten years ago Colin Caton became our manager after a chance meeting, and we have enjoyed nothing but success since," Aykroyd told UEFA.com. "It was an incredible performance on Tuesday and I cannot praise the players and management enough for their effort and application."
But while Aykroyd and his small but committed band of volunteers bask in the glory of Tuesday's result, there have already been lucrative benefits from being in the national sporting spotlight. "Our game was up against news from the British Lions [rugby], Wimbledon and Formula 1, yet our 1-0 win was the sporting headline that night. The interest has been amazing and our sponsors are delighted. The commercial opportunities from this, our first European campaign, are huge. We must maximise the potential and continue to progress on and off the field. Hopefully, on the back of this success, we may be in a position to play our next European campaign at our own Maes Tegid ground."
Beating Levadia marked Bala Town's 14th consecutive competitive victory, a run that began against Newtown AFC in February. A draw in Tallinn would keep the European dream alive, though when Mark Jones leads his team out on Thursday, win No15 will be the aim. It is that drive, that ambition, which has taken Bala Town from local league obscurity to the international stage in just a decade.
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