I arrived in Forfar on a sunny autumn afternoon without any real idea about what I was doing there.
Facing the idea of a dull, Liverpool-less, international weekend, I decided to have a look and see what else was on. The Scottish Challenge Cup piqued my interest, especially the fixture between Forfar Athletic and The New Saints of the Welsh Premier League. The Scottish Challenge Cup, or as it is officially known, The Irn-Bru Cup, was revamped at the start of this season and extended to include the best two teams from the Welsh and Northern Irish top flights.
Forfar vs TNS would be one of four ‘international’ matches taking place across the weekend – elsewhere, Alloa Athletic were drawn against the other Welsh side Gala Town whilst Livingstone and Queen of the South faced Northern Irish opponents in Crusaders and Linfield respectively – but the battle between the side top of the Scottish fourth tier and the champions of Wales was the one that interested me, and for a few reasons. One, it’s relatively easy to for me to get to Forfar from Edinburgh. Two, TNS faced the longest journey out of all of the other teams – a round trip of over 700 miles – and three, because I’ve got history with TNS.
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It goes back to last summer when my mates and I were on holiday in Budapest. Unbeknown to us, TNS were also in the city at that time, playing the second-leg of a Champions League qualifier against Hungarian champions Videoton. We only found out later that night when we entered a nightclub only to find dozens of Welsh fans, all dressed in green and white, and all drinking. Even though their side had been knocked out on away goals, the TNS fans were all in high spirits. We chatted with them and Jaegerbombs were exchanged. Overall, they were a great laugh and it was great to be there, witnessing them enjoy a memorable European away day.
I’ve associated TNS with that night ever since, so when I heard that Forfar had drawn them in the cup I knew that I had to make an effort to get to the game. A cheap train to Dundee was swiftly booked and the date was pencilled into my diary. However, doubt lingered in the back of my mind. What if no one from Wales travelled to the game? My afternoon, my article, rested on the idea that there would be a travelling contingent but was I being unreasonable to expect one? Would the TNS supporters travel 350 miles to a small town in the Scottish countryside for a game of football against a semi-professional team in a cup that, presumably, they hadn’t even heard of before the start of the season? I personally doubt that I could muster up such levels of commitment and dedication in order to follow my team across the country.
So I arrived in Forfar without knowing what to expect. I’d never been to Forfar, until now I didn’t have any reason to, but I headed straight to the ground. Forfar Athletic play their home games at the wonderfully named Station Park, wonderfully named because Forfar doesn’t even have a station – the nearest one is over 14 miles away. The ground had a certain charm to it with a small stand of one side of the pitch, with three standing sections made up of concrete steps making up the rest of the perimeter.
With twenty minutes to go before kick-off I started to wander around the ground. Everyone I passed in the stands looked and sounded disappointingly Scottish, but only five minutes later a large group arrived that were definitely Welsh. From a distance they looked like a bouncing mob, decked in green and white and moving across the stand towards me. Three of four people were carrying a huge Welsh flag and the red dragon emblazoned on the green and white background was shining in the sun. As the TNS supporters positioned themselves behind the far goal, I moved towards them. I’d already spotted someone I recognised. Indeed, it was one of the boys who had bought us Jaegerbombs 15 months earlier. I couldn’t remember his name but I’d recognised his face and upon introducing myself he instantly remembered meeting me and my mates.
As we reacquainted ourselves, Euan told me that he had travelled up on the supporters’ bus that morning. He’d been up, and drinking, since 4am. Euan’s Dad Mike, who couldn’t make it to Forfar, is the owner and chairman of TNS. As a result, Euan follows the club wherever they go and had joined the team in the summer when they played Champions League qualifiers in San Marino and Cyprus. Today’s match in Forfar, for him, felt like another European adventure, and one that he had to go to.
Around 50 or so TNS supporters had travelled up to Forfar on the bus, and they now all stood behind the goal that their team would be attacking in the first half. The huge Welsh flag had been tied onto one of the railings behind the goal and a drum had emerged. It would be beaten for the entire game. The man behind the Forfar PA welcomed the visitors as the team’s emerged from the tunnel. He proudly announced that this was a historic fixture as in their entire history Forfar had never hosted a team from outside Scotland.
I wasn’t sure how the two sides would compare. Forfar were top of League Two winning six of their opening seven games while TNS were top of the Welsh Premier League and had won every league game they had played so far this season. This included a 10-0 drubbing of Rhyl back in August. But that didn’t tell me anything. Without anyway of directly comparing the two teams, it was impossible to tell who was better.
Within five minutes however, it was clear that TNS were the superior side. They moved the ball quicker and looked more dangerous. I asked Euan who TNS’ best player was and he pointed to the number 8, Ryan Brobbel. It was easy to see why. He always seemed to be a step ahead of his opponents. The number 9, Greg Draper, appeared to be the fans’ favourite though, and his name was the one chanted by the travelling fans.
After 24 minutes it was Draper who put his side in front, latching onto a ball over the top and brilliantly firing a low volley into the bottom left corner. The goal was celebrated wildly by the TNS fans but also, bizarrely, by a group of Brechin City supporters who had snuck alongside the away crowd. Brechin weren’t playing a match themselves that day so some fans, given that the two sides are local rivals, had turned up to cheer against Forfar. I certainly didn’t know that such animosity existed.
TNS were establishing themselves as the better team but only 15 minutes later, and against the run of play, Forfar equalised. From the opposite end of the ground it was difficult to tell whether Forfar defender Stuart Malcolm’s header had crossed the line and for a moment the game played on – only for the referee to halt play and award a goal. Forfar were back in the game.
As the second half kicked off I started chatting to the man beside me. As it turned out, and even though he was wearing TNS’ green and white hoops, he too was Scottish. He explained to me that he moved down to Wales twenty years ago and started supporting TNS whilst living there. He too had followed his adopted team abroad and now here he was, with them in his home nation.
Forfar looked stronger after the break and for the first time in the match TNS were under pressure. I was now standing at the other end of the ground, moving with the rest of the away fans during half-time. As I shielded my eyes from the low, late afternoon sun I watched as Forfar went closer and closer to taking the lead. A free-kick was curled just wide of the right post while TNS goalkeeper Paul Harrison saved well to deny a dipping effort from a Forfar player.
Having weathered the storm, TNS began to regain a foothold in the game thanks to a couple of positive substitutions. I had the feeling that it wouldn’t take much for TNS to open Forfar up, and as the clock approached 90 minutes the Welsh champions took the lead. It was substitute Robbie Parry who started the move, bursting into the box after receiving a pass. His shot was fired straight at the goalkeeper, but Draper was on hand to tap in his second of the game before booting the ball triumphantly into the sky in celebration.
Euan proudly told me during the game that Draper was a full New Zealand international and as the match drew to a close, the TNS man completed his hat-trick. Chasing down a long pass, Draper nicked the bouncing ball away from the onrushing Forfar goalkeeper before rolling his finish into the empty net.
3-1. Game over. Tie won. Time to go home. Well, for some, not quite yet. The TNS fans had planned to stay over in Dundee and they now had a victory to celebrate. Euan was understandably delighted and as we made our way out of the ground I asked him whether it was all worth it. I already knew what he would answer but I wanted to hear it from him. ‘Of course it was, 100%. This is what it’s all about!’
Every TNS supporter had a smile on their face. Man or woman, old or young, everyone had enjoyed a memorable afternoon. As the sun finally set behind the one of Station Park’s old, corrugated steel roofs, I had one, final look back at the TNS supporters boarding their bus. They would not get home until tomorrow afternoon but as I turned to begin my own, considerably shorter, journey home, it was hard not to envy them.
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Endnote: At the time of writing TNS have just been drawn away to Livingston in the quarter-finals of the cup. This story isn’t over yet…