Llanelli AFC are stepping out of the shadow of their rugby-playing neighbours as a rapid rise to prominence has led to a first crack at European competition.
Having finished 14th in the 2004/05 League of Wales, their first campaign following promotion, the club went full-time and came runners-up last season. Their maiden UEFA Cup entry will provide a wider stage on which to show that the world-renowned Llanelli Scarlets are not the region's only sporting success story. The town is a rugby heartland, but football will finally take centre stage when the Reds meet fellow European debutants Gefle IF of Sweden, starting with tonight's first qualifying round away leg before the return in a fortnight.
"We are both playing in Europe for the first time and it will be a great experience for everyone," Llanelli manager Peter Nicholas told uefa.com. Nicholas has a fine pedigree, having been capped 73 times by Wales and played in this competition eight times with Aberdeen FC and Arsenal FC. "It is a big reward for the players and all the people working at the club, who have put in so much effort. We are really looking forward to it. We have a good blend of experience and youngsters. We have risen from nothing really and can't wait."
Gefle's emergence is similar to Llanelli's, who date back to 1896. They are in only their sixth term in the Swedish top flight, despite being founded in 1882 by English visitors to the town of Gavle who began with rowing before branching out into athletics and football. The sporting spirit which Gefle displayed last season earned them a deserved European entry as Sweden's representatives in the UEFA Fair Play draw. The team are mid-table after nine rounds of the 2006 Allsvenskan and Nicholas believes fitness levels will be high.
"They have the advantage of being in a summer league and Swedish teams are always strong," he said. "We will try our best and we have done as much preparation as we can. I know they have some good players, including a couple from the Congo and the Estonian striker Kristen Viikmäe. They are not a bad side." That duo from DR Congo are Ngabu Bapupa and René Makondele, and the attack-minded 24-year-olds will be a threat along with the promptings of playmaker Matthias Woxlin.
Nicholas, who has blended Spanish talent into his lineup including 22-year-old midfield pair Efren Fernández and Jacob Mingorance, hoped his experience would help his men, especially as the first leg is being played in the daunting surroundings of the Råsunda in Stockholm, rather than Gefle's usual Strömvallen home. "My knowledge is going to help us. Having played and managed in Europe does help because I can prepare the guys for what they will come up against, the way teams play. We are going to go there and give a good account of ourselves."
While Llanelli have to deal with Sweden's national stadium, Gefle will also get a taste of a bigger venue when they make the return trip. The decisive leg is being staged at Stradey Park, home to rugby's Scarlets, rather than Llanelli's Stebonheath Park base. The stadium has hosted major rugby internationals and Llanelli will hope fans supply the passionate support normally associated with the oval-ball game. If Llanelli can kick the ball through the posts one or two times, rather than over, they will surely have plenty to cheer.
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